Saturday, 23 November 2013

How Cars Work

Anyone who gets talking to Eddie is soon going to get talking to Eddie about buses. As regular readers of this blog will know, buses are just a little bit important to Eddie right now.
(entire route of the 210 in both directions is tomorrow's treat for us...)
So inevitably kindly adults caught in a route interrogation conversation will ask the question, "Are you going to be a bus driver when you grow up then Eddie?"
Which sends him into a bit of spiral of panic and denial; "No. That would be too hard. I don't know how to drive. I'm just a child."
The idea that it is a skill he could be taught one day seems to be Dreaming the Impossible Dream.

I knew it was formenting in his brain though when I started finding him craning over the dashboard and crawling in the footwell of the driver's seat of the car on a regular basis, examining pedals and buttons and grilling me on their purposes. I am really not the person to grill on this subject beyond the basics. Eventually he admitted, "I need to learn to drive soon because when me and Ella M fly to Australia together I've said I'll drive the hire car." It was news to me that he was planning an imminent return trip to Oz with his 6 year old fiancee but I understood the pressure of responsibility he was feeling.

Enter 'How Cars Work; the interactive guide to mechanisms that make a car work' by Nick Arnold and Allan Sanders, part book, part cardboard meccano; a properly unpatronising primer in car engineering which is also a little bit tasty-looking.

The book has a removable peg board at the front and a back pocket full of numbered coloured cogs, levers and screws. Each page looks (in detail- this will really properly satisfy any budding engineer who wants to look under a bonnet) at a different aspect of a car's mechanics and then provides a plan to build a working example on the peg board. You get therefore to make and see how a piston moves, or the motion of a windscreen wiper or the principle of an accelerator in action amongst others. It's really very nicely done.

The making is reasonably technical, requiring the following of a plan and grid references and appropriate selection of parts. Eddie is not of the mindset to do it yet, Bill had a good play around. But Eddie does pore over the technical descriptions with a bright and beady eye. Hoovering up the knowledge he needs for a golden future on the buses.

I've started keeping the car keys hidden.

nice bit of suspension

Incidently in a week where there has been much discussion about the pros/cons of the Goldiebox range of toys to encourage girls into engineering, after their rather fun ad went viral, I think this book does a reasonable job of gender neutrality. The illustrations are just about evenly split between male and female drivers and the colour palette is not agressively 'blokey'. All you DO need to enjoy a read/play is an interest in how cars work.
Here's the Goldiebox ad if you've happened to miss it-
'How Cars Work' by Nick Arnold and Allan Sanders, published by Templar, isbn 978-1-84877-737-8

Saturday, 16 November 2013


There are a lot of maps in this house.

For a start there's a magnetic map of the world in our hall with name magnets that we push around as friends and family go on travels like military planners. We really value friends who disappear to interesting destinations for months at a time for their magnet value. The small matter of not having them around to chat to matters not a jot in comparison. P and L who have spent the last five years in first Pakistan, then Zambia and now Burma get the gold star in this respect. We sponsor a child in South America solely for the benefit of that map really.

Then there are Eddie's beloved bus maps which wallpaper his room and are spread over his floor, doubling as Total Wipeout course obstacles when he's not studying their intricate poetry. As I type this I am readying myself for today's treat of travelling the entirety of the 102 whilst his brother is at a party. "I'm so excited!" says Eddie.

There is a substantial collection of books of maps too; both of the entirely practical variety- Pah I say to your Satellite Navigation Devices; I LIKE driving with an open book on my lap giving frantic glances down to where I should be going- and of the ancient and decorative. Basically, whenever I can't think of a present to buy the husband, which happens increasingly frequently as the years pass and I have given him everything, I buy him a mappy-type book. And it never fails to make him happy. He is happy with the mappy.

But best of all is this one which he has painted and is a work in progress on Bill's wall. It was supposed to be covered in 'things' by now. Alas an RSI-type collapse put a dramatic halt to is completion in the last few years but the husband's caterpillar slow recovery is marked by the new addition of St Basil's cathedral last week. The big red balls of the Total Wipeout course are set to adorn Argentina next...
Which brings me to 'Maps', a book of simply astonishing loveliness by Polish author/artists Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski and which formed part of Eddie's birthday book haul last month.

It's like Bill's wall but turned up to 11. Each double spread is devoted to a different country and crammed with illustrations incorporating not only the sights, but also the people, stories, food, animals and history of the place. All hand drawn with dizzying gorgeousness. It's LUSH this book is. Lush. Not a word I've used for a a good few years that but exactly what's required here. It's also big and thick papered and Proper. A coffee table book or rather in Eddie's case; a hot chocolate table book.

Just look at it-

See? SEE? Loveliness. (and excuse the photography which is extra specially poor today)

I like the 'facts' on the UK page which include 'The British are famous for their luxury cars' and 'Afternoon tea is a British tradition'. One rings truer to me than the other.

Have to admit it's the husband that has been appreciating this book even more than Eddie since it arrived; if in a slightly wistful I-would-like-to-be-fit-to-paint that way, poor lamb. But Eddie will get round to it. He's just rather hung up on another birthday book at the moment- his absolute best present that he would recommend to you ALL. It's the 2013 edition of 'The London Bus Guide- the routes, the buses, the garages, the companies' by Ken Carr.

I am fairly confident that it's 'Maps' you should be putting on your Christmas list though. Unless you prefer buses.

'Maps' by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski, published by Big Picture Press, isbn 978-1-84877-301-1

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The little boy/girl who lost his/her name

Snappy title for this post eh?

Personalised things were few and far between in the 1970s. One of the main frustrations of my childhood was the sheer absence of 'Polly' mugs/magnets/lollipops/bedroom door signs available in Motorway Service Station's named-thing racks. Ah The Curse of the middle class labelled child. How we suffer.

I don't think personalised books existed at all. I seem to remember coming across the concept in late teenagerdom and feeling a sense of burning injustice at the fortunes now bestowed on an ungrateful younger generation. All I had to make do with was a napkin ring engraved with the number 6; my position as youngest in the family.

Of course now all your possessions can be personalised in any way you want. But it's true that adding a name to something is not an end in itself. In fact if something has your name on it you want it to be even better than the average to mirror your own very particular brilliance. And personalised books may have suffered particularly from being a bit ho and a bit hum in the past.

So along has come www.lostmyname; a group of friends with a self funded, self published project to produce individual books that are a bit more ooh and aah than ho and hum. And I think they've just about pulled it off.

We were sent three samples for Bill, Eddie and (AT LAST!) me. The books follow the story of a child who has lost their name and must be reunited with its letters. He or she goes on a magical adventure meeting characters who have their own dilemmas and part with their own letter in exchange for advice; a lion needs somebody to play with for instance, an Inuit needs warm holiday ideas. Each story is thus genuinely unique and it depends on your own letters as to who you'll meet.

The boys thought this an amazing magic trick. "But HOW did they know? HOW is it done?" Bill really enjoyed unpicking them and comparing the stories. Because his name is short he ends up with an extra linking 'story' page in the middle. Duplicate letters are dealt with my means of a few generic letter generating characters- although Eddie did get both eagle and elephant, suggesting the commonest offenders get extra characters. I did wonder whether you'd lose the will to live reading it out if you'd called your child Guinevere or Jeremiah or something. But then you reap what you sow...

There's a lot of craft and thought gone into these books; particularly the number and quality of the illustrations I think. I'm less of a fan of the rhyming prose. (I think people coming fresh to writing children's books often make the mistake of thinking they'll work best in rhyme. The answer to that, unless you're very skilled, is generally No.) But the stories are warm and funny and Eddie and Bill enjoyed them. The production values are faultless and these books would make interesting and original christening/naming/new baby presents. They're not cheap but you wouldn't expect them to be given the up front investment that's been made. Have a look at the website and see what you think.

Incidently, and for free, Persil has produced some online personalisable adventure stories here. Written by Adam Perrot and illustrated by Clare Elsom I thought they were surprisingly good quality. The stories are funny and unexpected and pleasingly un-gendered in their approach to fun. There may be a debate to have about mixing major corporations marketing budgets with children's books but I'll applaud anyone prepared to generate free access to quality words. Even Mcdonalds have been at it with Michael Morpurgo after all.

As a final note, both 'Lost my Name' and Persil run into difficulties when it comes to personalising the illustrations of their lead characters. Some generic decisions have obviously been made about the 'Lost my name' children. The boy and girl both have black hair and white-with a very faint hint of coffee skin. They don't look like  my children. They're fairly likely not to look like yours. The Persil characters are customisable but only to a very limited degree which may end up being even more frustrating. "But I have glasses!" "But I have long hair even though I'm a boy" etc. etc. These things bothered me more than my children though so perhaps I'm just Mrs. Finickerty Pants. (you'd definitely get fed up reading your name through THAT one.)

With thanks to the Lost My Name team for providing us with lovely free samples. Our decision to review and our opinions are our own. They also kindly provided me with some 15% off coupons- just chuck me a comment/tweet if you'd like one.
Persil did offer me a FREE no-strings-attached  sample of their washing tablets when they told me about their books. I turned them down folks. My integrity in that respect is clean (even if my clothes are grubby...)