Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Cookbook diversion

There are ways in which I think I've succeeded as a mother to date; specifically really that my children are still alive and about the size they're supposed to be. That's considerably better than I've managed with any house plant over the years.
There are a few other ways in which my 7 year maternity report might read 'could do better'. One of these is in the feeding of my children. As well as North London being packed with 4 year olds apparently reading Tolkien it is also packed with toddlers apparently enthusiastically choosing between the 'moules' and the rabbit in restaurants. Not my children.
Mine aren't as bad as some. The things-they-will-eat list definitely runs into double figures. It's a shame that the Venn diagram intersection between their two lists of things-they-will-eat is so small but there you go. It gets even more complicated when they have friends round to play who also have lists. I sometimes think I should just open a canteen with hot plates as I prepare 4 different vegetable and protein options for four different people.

The thing that makes feeding your children fraught these days is this new fangled notion of a healthy and varied diet full of fruit and veg. It really complicates the business. Time was there only were about four things to eat anyway and eat them you did on a rotation. Everywhere was also freezing all the time so you could eat huge quantities of delicious fat and get away with it because you had to break the ice in the basin each morning just to brush your teeth.

I have some insight into the diet of my dad as a child in the 20s and 30s as my granny kept a little notebook where she wrote down all of the weights of her children (until they were 16! the shame!) and also notes on their baby diet. All of her babies were given dripping on a spoon as a first weaning food, and then progressed on to beef soup and bread. As far as I can tell there was no hint of a vegetable for months. Aged about 5 my father had a nasty bout of pneumonia which I guess he was lucky to survive in those pre-antibiotic days. The prescription to build him up thereafter was a pint of cream daily. Those were the days my friends, those were the days.

My 70s childhood was during the heady days of the beginnings of convenience food. I remember my mother's huge excitement when she learned a new Bejams (forerunner of Iceland) was opening round the corner and she would be able to stock the chest freezer with Findus crispy pancakes anytime she wanted. It was a strangely schizophrenic diet in that era I think- lots of old school 'proper' roasts, pies, liver casserole and hot puddings mixed with fancy new stuff like Heinz toast toppers, butterscotch Angel Delight and primula cheese spread in a tube. Pasta was spaghetti and rice an exotic treat from the Chinese take away (although occasionally we had 'riced' potatoes...)

And so to the cookbooks. One of my favourite novelty salvages from my childhood is 'The Busy Mother's Cookbook' by Patsy Kumm. Published in 1972, with chapter titles like 'Jiffy ways with food', 'Emergency action' and 'Meals from Mince', it's blissfully of its time. When I saw that the Book People were offering rather a nice discount on some new upstart cookbook called 'The Busy Mum's Cookbook' by Mary Gwynn I couldn't resist investing for comparison. Plus frankly I needed the help.

Here are the two together:
Both have their list of storecupboard essentials. Times have changed. Where Patsy places her faith in packet soup, crisps and evaporated milk, Mary goes for chorizo and butternut squash. But both are packed with similar quantities of sage advice:
Patsy: 'Over the years, I've hunted for a book like this, and not found it. I've discovered cookery books on preparing quick meals that seem to assume..that you want to live on eggs or salads...I've read books on feeding children...that are packed with ways of making rice pudding rainbow coloured or concocting Hansel and Gretel out of sponge cakes. Which wasn't what I needed to know at all.'
Mary: 'All mums work by definition- and that's before you even begin to consider taking on paid employment...what many of us lack is time and increasingly skill and confidence in the kitchen. But we share a common goal; the desire to feed our families food that is good for them and, even more important, that they will eat.'
Cookbooks have also changed, full colour spread photos are now essential where once we only got instructions. Mary Gwynn's version definitely wins the coffee table vote.
And one has to say, reading some of Patsy's 'jiffy' recipes it's probably just as well that there aren't photos...
I really like the Mary Gwynn cookbook and I can see that it will be useful to me as she cooks in a similar way to me; her recipes are both 'do-able';often one pan and a few ingredients, and tasty. The only problem will be to get my children to actually eat them. They were weaned on butternut squash (not dripping) but they'll fall to the floor and roll around as if poisoned if offered it now and they look with great suspicion on anything that has all its ingredients mixed together: What have I hidden in there? This stage will pass I know. In the meantime I think both Bill and Eddie would love to move back to the seventies and be fed this:
(minus the green pepper and with the mushrooms fished out for Bill but with broccoli on the side, no broccoli for Eddie but he'll eat Bill's mushrooms.)
but tonight perhaps we can see if they'll eat this 2012 version-
(with green beans instead of beansprouts, pepper on the side for Eddie only and NOBODY TELL Bill about the peanut butter...)sigh. 
Must do better.
'The Busy Mum's Cookbook' by Mary Gwynn, pub. Simon and Schuster, isbn 978-0--85720-353-3 a current bargain on thebookpeople.co.uk. 
Recommended for those with expandable 'lists'.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

smallish rant

Just smallish mind. I don't like ranting.

but honestly.

I am used to the Pushy Parents of North London pushing inappropriate amounts of text on their children inappropriately young. I am plenty guilty of this myself, although I am trying to put myself through a 12 step recovery programme.

I am used to skulking in bookshops/libraries and hear parents tell their 4/5/6 year olds that they are not allowed to choose any more picture books 'because we have plenty of those, they're for very little children and you're reading chapter books now aren't you?'

But this week I was soaking up the thoroughly sophisticated and rarified atmosphere of Daunt books in chichi Marylebone High street when I eavesdropped on the following conversation between a mother and her pre-verbal, nappy wearing approximately 15 month old. They were both on the floor rifling through the board book section together.

"Now darling, we need some more lovely storybooks for you don't we? Which ones do you like? Let's have a look"
Child happily starts pulling out books and bringing them to his mother.
"Oh no! not those ones, those ones are for babies not big boys like you. Not those ones with touchy feely pages. We don't want books to play with- we want books to read! What about this one?"
(she pulled out the lovely 'Welcome to the Zoo' by Alison Jay and flicked through it)
"Oh no. It's got no words in it. That's no good is it? Although I suppose you do like pointing things out. But no. What else is there?"
Child again pulls out another book and brings it to her.
"No. I told you. Those are baby books. We don't want baby books any more. Choose something else."
He brings her another one.
"No. We are not getting any more baby books. We want proper stories don't we? Proper stories with lots of words. That one only has a few words see?"

and so it continued.

aaaaaargh (that's the rant part).

Not that I am anti reading stories of complexity to your very small toddler- but accept that you're doing it as much for you as for them! What upset me was the way he was showing her so very clearly what he was excited by and wanted to engage with and it was falling on deaf ears as she pursued her own agenda about 'advancing' him. Not to start on the huge list of incredibly profound books that have few or no words in them; this one for example.

I shouldn't judge, I'm sure I could have been observed making similar mistakes in the past. I'll stand up and say "My name is Polly Faber and I don't always listen to my children."

Still. It's reassuring to know that Central/West London mothers may be even pushier than the North London tribe.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Hello Baby

After last week's post came with a warning that it might contain the word vagina this week's post comes with a warning that it features Vaginas In Action.
Goodness me.
Don't panic, everything will be neatly zipped away in sturdy trousers and big knickers after this. That'll be enough of that sort of talk thank you very much.

But first.

Although I had conurbations about how to explain the input of a baby to my children, the output of the infant  never presented the same problems. Bill's enchanting 'butt' confusion aside I'd say the fellow reviewers have had a reasonably secure knowledge of that end of events from a fairly tender age: 'Hello Baby' by Jenni Overend, illustrated by Julie Vivas has always been on their bookshelf, and a more straightforward, beautiful exposition of a birth for children it would be hard to find. In fact it would make a pretty good starter for plenty of expectant fathers too I reckon.
I write this with a slightly guilty conscience however for it is currently OOP in this country at least. Libraries people. Save our libraries and go and borrow it if you can.

Jenni Overend is an Australian author and the book tells the story of a family home birth in a rural location from the point of view of the about-to-be big brother Jack, the youngest of three siblings. It's explicit, (the likes of heads emerging and placentas in dishes) straightforward and also reassuring. Birth is presented as exciting, a little scary and occasionally overwhelming but a normal family event. 

'Just then the phone rings. I answer it, but I can't hear who it is because Mum is still yelling. I yell. "Mum's having a baby!" as loudly as I can, and I feel much better. The person hangs up. I would too, if I heard that noise on the other end of the phone.'

Home birth is a subject that can become unhelpfully emotive and political between mothering 'tribes'. But although this book is undoubtedly a lovely read for the children of anyone planning the same sort of delivery I think it works equally well for those who's new sibling will/has arrived at hospital. Jack's joy in his brother is tempered with a tinge of displacement, but through Julie Vivas's soft, warm illustrations the continuing bond and love within the family unit is reinforced.

'Slowly we all stop talking. I can see the baby's head on Mum's shoulder. He's between Mum and Dad which is where I'd like to be.
I sneak out of my bag and hop in next to Dad. It's warm. He cuddles me in. I bet the baby's warm too.
"Good night baby," I say. "This is your first night in the world. Good night."'

One of the select band of books that makes my voice go a bit squeaky and my eyes a bit watery when I read it, much to my children's bemusement.

and now I've set myself off, sniff, cos it seems like yesterday, sniff, our own 'Hello Baby' day.
'Hello Baby' by Jenni Overend, illustrated Julie Vivas, pub. ABC books isbn 0-7333-0685-3

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Where Willy Went

* Warning this post will probably contain words like vagina. Don't read it if you don't want to read words like that*

So. ahem. The making of babies. The facts of life. The birds and the bees. And the discussion of the same with your children. What approach to take?

When I had my boys I understood that current thinking suggests the way forward is to answer questions when they arise as straightforwardly as possible.
I was up for that in principle.
And so I waited for those questions.
and I waited.
Last year, when Bill hit 7 and had still not asked any questions on the subject at all, I started to wonder whether it was time to start prodding around this subject area with a muddy stick as it were, to see if any questions came bubbling to the surface.
The need was brought to the fore by the experiences of a friend who, knowing that sex education lessons were looming on the horizon for her similarly unquestioning 9 year old finally bought him a proper book on the subject which managed to reduce him to hysterical tears of repulsion: '...but I can't do that! How will I ever have children now?' He was only comforted when they reached the chapter on IVF.

Now I have to admit I didn't want to rumble the Pool of Knowledge with my big stick very vigorously. I am British. I wanted understanding to settle in layers on my children with minimal effort or potential for embarrassment on my own part. (I was also chilled by the cautionary tale of another friend whose up front explanation of the process to her own daughters got the response; 'Cool! Can we watch next time you and Dad do it?')
I remembered the soothing book we had on the subject when I was growing up, which had nice 70's felt collage pictures on gentle lavender coloured pages showing first a flower making seeds, then a chicken laying eggs, then some puppies being born and finally a slightly oblique picture of a man and a woman under the covers of a double bed. Quite a lot of inference was required. That was fine. In my own time I inferred. I thought we'd start with something like that and looked around for books to skirt around the subject in a comfortingly veiled whilst definitely informative way.

It proved (unsurprisingly given my brief) difficult. There is Babette Cole's in theory marvellous 'Mummy Laid an Egg', but to my shame at my shame, although I loved the book when my children were merely abstract, I just couldn't envisage reading the 'these are some of the ways mummies and daddies fit together' page to them now they were real. It is a great book though if you can.

In the end I bought a copy of 'Where Willy Went' by Nicholas Allan which comes with a slightly lukewarm endorsement from the Daily Mail on its cover- "The best story of its sort".

It's not often that I find myself in agreement with the Daily Mail but I will also shower this book with qualified praise. "it's okay sort of if not exactly what I was after" Polly Faber, The Little Wooden Horse.

Little Willy is a sperm who must win the great swimming race to win the prize of a beautiful egg inside Mrs. Browne. There's some rather nice visualisation of life inside a testicle which includes, you'll be glad to discover school, cinema and sports club for sperm entertainment and Willy is an appealing sperm as sperm go. My problems with it are firstly the simple fact that he is called Willy- rather confusing for those that also have a willy and secondly that I think it could be a leetle more technical whilst still retaining its undoubted breezy charm. There are pictures of male and female anatomy presented as a treasure map and to be honest you could be forgiven for thinking that Willy swam into Mrs. Browne's tummy button looking at them. There's also no labelling and I'd be happy if we could call a testicle a testicle. Or indeed a spectacle or a tentacle if you're Eddie- close enough I reckon.

But the million pound question is did it work? Did the questions come? In short. No. It got read once and then never asked for again. Maybe we're just going to have to up the ante and stir a bit more deeply next time and risk the tears or show and tell demands, or we could just leave it to the school (comforting if irresponsible thought).

You'll enjoy this exchange with my oldest though.
Bill: "So Mum, Did I come out of your butt?
Me: "Don't say butt dear that's American, say bum. No. You came out of my vagina."
Bill:"Wow Mum! You must have an enormous vagina!"

He's just jealous.
Any other book suggestions in this area?

'Where Willy Went' by Nicholas Allan, pub. Red Fox, isbn 978-0-099-45648-3

Monday, 10 September 2012

I'm Here

I watched the final explosions of Paralympics fireworks in the distance from my bedroom window last night with a sad lump in my throat like the rest of the nation. What a fortnight that was then. I was lucky enough to be in the stadium the night Jonnie, Hannah and the extraordinary David Weir-wolf won their golds and I still cannot speak much above a growly whisper from the yelling.
There have been many stories in the papers about the long lasting change in attitude and respect towards the disabled that we all hope will be these Games real legacy. The Fellow Reviewers show the right mettle:
'The Paralympic athletes are WAY cooler then the ordinary ones Mum.' pronounces Bill whilst Eddie explained to me yesterday morning, 'There's this man and he can go really, really fast because he's got no legs and he pushes like this and I would like to have no legs and go as fast as him. Can I one day? Can I, can I please?'

With impeccable timing the theme of Playing by the Book's monthly carnival today is books about or featuring disability. It's a tricky old area that one; books that are inclusive without being tokenistic or patronising, books that can enlighten without 'staring'.

I have a cracker today though; a US book that I owe a debt of thanks to somebody online for drawing my attention to but just who that was I cannot remember; apologies! 'I'm here' by Peter H. Reynolds is a light-as-a- feather (or paper aeroplane) picture book dance for those for whom playtime is the most problematic part of their school day. On the dust jacket of the book in tiny print at the back it mentions that the book was published to support children and families living with autism but this book has a wider song to sing and it's not just those diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum who will want to listen to it.

My youngest is one such; whether you call him 'gifted' or call him 'on the spectrum', or just (as is my preference) call him Eddie he follows his own path through life with humour, love and passion but without compromise to others. The social negotiations of the playground baffle him and undoubtedly he would enjoy school more without the unstructured free-for-all hour in the middle (having said which, given the intensity he applied to the Summer's wrestling match with his brother he may yet be getting up to speed).

In Peter H. Reynolds spare and beautiful book a boy sits apart from his noisy and overwhelming class until a piece of paper blows over to find and befriend him. The boy turns his paper into an aeroplane which first takes him on an imaginary adventure of connection into his classmates and then brings a real connection as the aeroplane is returned by a girl who wants to play.

It's a hard book to do justice to because, like all the best picture books, it's simplicity hides profundities about how we all find the balance in squaring a sense of belonging and a sense of self. Difference is wonderful but also universal, any book that can help remind parent, child, sibling or contemporary of that is to be welcomed.

The back of the book, I am proud to say, bears an endorsement from an old (swank, namedrop, swank) friend of mine; Lucy Hawking, author and daughter of the rather well known Stephen and mother of the less well known but equally inspiring William. She posted something on Facebook at the weekend which made us all blub. I hope she won't mind me reposting it here. I love to make people cry. you know that.

'Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the experience of being a single parent to a teenager with autism. Today started out as one of those days. And then we went to the Paralympics. It was a wonderful day, not just because of the phenomenal sportsmanship. William and I were treated so kindly and helpfully by so many random people on our journey - we didn't have VIP passes or any reason to be singled out for special treatment. But London was good to us and people behaved towards William with great courtesy, respect and compassion. Thank you 2012. I don't suppose you thought you would change the attitude of random people on the tube towards autistic passengers (just one example of many) but it seems you have. Surely that's a gold medal in itself.'

 Having 'I'm Here' published in the UK and available in every school library is exactly the sort of 2012 legacy that could keep those tube passengers of the future reset to understanding. I (as you gather) highly recommend it; Amazon has its uses...

'I'm Here' by Peter H. Reynolds, pub. Simon and Schuster isbn 978-1-4169-9649-1

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Summer Holiday Themes 10: The Last Day

6 and a half weeks are coming to an end. Our school seems to be one of the last stragglers back given the amount of pictures of children in smart new uniforms I'm picking up on Facebook this week. I have to say (and hats off to all you homeschooler/Radical Unschoolers out there) I am quite ready.

and so I believe are the fellow reviewers. Eddie's reached the point where he spent a morning systematically snipping a ball of wool into tiny pieces, or 'knitting' as he liked to call it (very radical unschool I reckon).
Bill has made and eaten four cakes which is frankly more than enough for his own good. And where they started out rather good if you favour your cakes Excessively Chocolatey (and I do)...
he's now gone a bit experimental with his eye on a future Great British Bake off appearance and I'm less convinced.

And so today is officially The Last Day of the Holidays, which should have been spent in the Traditional Shoe Queue Nightmare but instead was spent enjoying the freshly arrived British Summer on the South Bank fulfilling a few last requests from the condemned men.
'Can we go to a cafe and have chips?'
'...sausages for me!'

'and ice-creams for all'
There was also time for the last points of the Summer-long wrestling match to be awarded and the final result to be declared...

... a draw of course!

and to take in the delights of 'The Hairy Maclary Show' which had us all scratching each others ears and panting in unison, and not because of either nits or stomach punching contests for once.

But that's all over now. Time for some serious contemplation of the challenges of the year ahead. Goal setting and steady intellectual application are called for.
That's the spirit my sons! Off you go now. There are quiet cups of tea to be drunk, windows to be stared out of  with only the birdsong to be heard and the odd book to be blogged about. See you Monday.