Friday, 30 August 2013


Ah Romans.
Romans, Romans, Romans.

For an empire that fell a pretty long time ago now they don't half exert a lot of influence over the Primary School curriculum.

Bill 'did' them last term. We made a mosaic together and I bought and got out of the library various Improving Books about Roman culture. The most popular of these from Bill's point of view was obviously the least outwardly 'improving': 'Diary of Dorkius Maximus' by Tim Collins and Andrew Pinder, an unashamed homage to Wimpy Kid which does a nice line in incorporating Horrible History-type Roman factoids into an enjoyable tale of the tribulations of ancient middle school. There's a sequel just come out and a third due next year and Bill will want to seek them out.

He'll especially want to seek out the third- 'Dorkius Maximus in Pompeii'. Romans are good and all, but Romans combined with explosions, death, destruction and metres of raining hot ash are SO much better. As soon as Bill heard that there was an exhibition all about Pompeii featuring REAL bodies (well real body cavities technically but who's fussing) he was very keen to go.

So off to the British Museum we went last week to explore 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum'. It was great, but from Bill's point of view undoubtedly heavy on the Life-side rather than the Death. He hadn't quite taken the point that most people were interested in what the eruption had managed to preserve rather than what it had destroyed. However we were all affected by the sight of the charred baby's crib and the small domestic details like a blackened loaf of bread or pile of figs. The dormouse fattening jar was pretty good too...

We also spent a long time looking at the items found with the bodies at Herculaneum- an insight into what people had chosen as their most precious possessions to run with. The melted, twisted keys were poignant. I asked the boys' what they'd have picked up. Bill went for the cat and his money and "Probably my sticks Mum. They're pretty special to me."

In the gift shop afterwards we bought Usborne's Young Reading 'Pompeii' by Karen Bell, illustrated by Emmanuel Cerisier. This takes the approach of fictionalising the stories of the different inhabitants of Pompeii as imagined from the artefacts they left behind. Bill enjoyed reading about Terentius Neo, the baker and his wife whose fresco we'd seen in the exhibition.

But by FAR the best book on the eruption- and actually one of the first non-fiction books that has really, properly engrossed Bill is an out of print volume we got out of the library called 'The Secrets of Vesuvius' by Sara Bisel. Sara Bisel is the archaeologist specialising in bones who was the first to examine the skeletons discovered at Herculaneum in the 1980s. The book is a beautiful balance of the painstaking science of excavation and the imaginative insights into real lives that excavation can reveal. Archaeology is COOL! It's written in a very accessible style- almost like a murder mystery, again with fictionalised sections-but with plenty of good science and good history within. Plus it has a lot of full colour photos of skeletons. Worth seeking out in your own library.

Because you're going to be doing the Romans too.
a trio of Roman recommendations

Absolutely regulation mosaic. You don't want to mess with our lantern-jawed Caesar
'The Secrets of Vesuvius' by Sara C. Bisel (OOP) pub. Hodder Headway, isbn 0-340-54352-3
'Pompeii' by Karen Ball, illus. Emmanuel Cerisier, pub. Usborne, isbn 978074606832-8
'Diary of Dorkius Maximus' by Tim Collins, pub. Buster books, isbn 978-1-78055-027-5

Friday, 23 August 2013

Dixie O' Day

'Dixie O'Day: In the Fast Lane' written by Shirley Hughes and illustrated by Clara Vulliamy.

Honestly, if you have any interest in children's books at all, I shouldn't need to write any more than that in this review. You should've already turned away from the screen, grabbed your wallet and keys and headed out the door to your nearest bookshop. In your pyjamas is fine in this case. Scoot.

Because a new book by Shirley Hughes AND Clara Vulliamy? Their first mother/daughter collaboration? Their first early chapter book? Come ON you can't tell me that's not jiggle-up-and-down-smiley, wave-small-flags, do-special-happy-dance-while-juggling-chocolate-muffins-in-the-sunshine kind of news?

I'm not alone in being excited. Dapper driver dog Dixie and his best pal Percy's first adventure has already been selected as Children's Book of the Week by the Sunday Times and (ooo escalation) Book of the Month by Waterstones. There's a bit of a buzz there is. I was practically camped by my letterbox whilst I waited for my copy to arrive.

But y'know buzz shmuzz, Sunday Times Shmunday Shtimes, Waterstones Shmaterstones...there's only one opinion that counts in this house and many are the mighty who have supplicated before him and been spurned.
I speak of course of the exacting standards of Fellow Reviewer Eddie, who like a Roman Emperor, will thumb up or thumb down a book with scant regard for reputation or social nicety.

My review of 'In the Fast Lane' is that is a little gem. A gorgeous, small but chunky hardback; just the right size for the new independent readers it's designed for. Vintage vehicles, plentiful biscuits and ice cream sundaes, a Proper baddy (never trust a woman who has a specially designed motoring hat) and a race of twists, turns and escaped sheep make for pages that demand to be turned. This book will make you smile; it bubbles with the joy and warmth of its makers. Never have the words 'made with love' seemed more appropriate.

And Eddie's opinion? Well, when Eddie likes a book there's only one thing he's going to do. Read it, and read it continuously. Out loud from start to finish with voices and brooking no interruptions. On about his third go round, I put the camera on and filmed him surreptitiously and I want to give you a little snippet of his pleasure in the book here. He's mid flow when he turns the page and finds some illustrations that bring him up short and demand his attention. It's a nice little vignette of how beautifully text and pictures can weave together a complete, immersive reading experience. Author, illustrator and reader are ALL in perfect harmony.

Look! A cow in a motorcycle sidecar! Ain't life grand?
'Dixie O'Day, In the Fast Lane' written by Shirley Hughes, illustrated by Clara Vulliamy, pub. The Bodley Head, isbn 978-1-782-30012-0

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Holiday Vital Statistics

Back from a rather lovely two weeks in the Austrian Tyrol where I came over a bit Julie Andrews-

Some Holiday Statistics: 
1. Different ways we took ourselves up hills: funicular railway, cable car, chair lift, or even (with Haribo help) on foot.
2. Different ways we hurtled down hills: slide, waterslide, waterslide on a rubber tube, waterslide with whirlpool rapids, grass toboggan, chair lift, cable car, paraglider, zipwire, rolling on our tummies, on foot.
Bill demonstrates hurtling
3. Different schnitzels eaten: pork, chicken, turkey, with added cheese, with added ham, with added mushrooms.
4. Different cakes eaten: sachertorte, grape sponge, pineapple sponge, apple and almond sponge, strawberry mousse sponge, apple strudel, nut strudel, pear strudel, apple and nut strudel, pear and nut strudel, unidentifiable but still delicious strudel.
5. Number of Traditional Tyrol Parades of random motor vehicles, traditional crafts, sundry animals, and marching lederhosen-clad Brass Bands seen: 3
a goat with impressively long horns
6. Number of Traditional Tyrol Parades which did not also throw sweets and therefore were too many for Bill: 2

7. Conversational Topics which preoccupied my children: Electric fences. Electric Shocks. Electric Chairs. Cannibalism. Foreign Crisps. German Spongebob. The possible Housing Arrangements of the Singer Gary Numan. The order of all Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson songs and the life, times and changing skin colour of Mr. Jackson generally. Foreign Haribo. Foreign Sausages. Foreign Ice cream.
8. Number of sticks that Bill wanted to bring home: 8
9. Number of sticks actually brought home: 4
10. Number of stones that Bill wanted to bring home: 15
11. Number of stones actually brought home: 4
12. Souvenirs chosen: Bill- an authentic bearded and uniformed nutcracker named 'Colonel Nut', Eddie- a snowglobe featuring mountain, climber, alpine chalet, goat, cow, bell and marmosets with 'Wildschonau' written on in black felt tip a bit bunched up at the end.
13. Books read: Some. Mainly more Percy Jackson for Bill, David Sedaris for me and Alice in Wonderland for Eddie.
14. Games played: More. endless Uno. Top Trumps and the best discoveries of this holiday- Forbidden Island and Dweebies. These games made by Gamewright are as close to a review as this post is going to get. They were a nightly treat. Forbidden Island is a co-operative game where you either all win together or lose together. It takes some mastering but I highly recommend it. Eddie won't play any game where he might lose- he's not a bad loser- he's a total game refusenik who generally just chooses to spectate. He was persuaded to play some Forbidden Island and got quite into it. It has mini plastic trophies with mystical powers to collect which always helps. 

The only other review of this post is obvious I hope: Austria is an excellent place to have a holiday if you like schnitzel, strudel, goats, hills and Haribo. And WHO doesn't like those things? Back to the books next post. I have a cracker for you...