Wednesday, 18 February 2015

An Innocent Lent

Last year was the first Lent that I really had to think about how best to explain the story of Easter to Culturebaby. It's a tricky one. Given that we adults struggle to fathom the mystery of salvation, I'm not sure a two year old can be expected to either. Furthermore, Culturebaby is an innocent. The sight of Pooh Bear, Piglet and pals lined up on the naughty step just makes me love my little lady more, particularly when she explains that Pooh scratched Piglet and he has to do two minutes and there'll be no television for him. Even though we have a naughty step and a marble jar to help Culturebaby take time out when she's being frantic or difficult, and reward spontaneous loveliness, toddlers are ultimately still impulsive in their reactions and they are entirely beautiful and good. It is therefore much more helpful, I believe, to talk to them about kindness and how to treat people, and tell stories about the unconditional love of God - even when we make mistakes. 

I've found that a rather lovely and accessible way to introduce the crucial ideas around infinite love and care, sacrifice and salvation is the simple parable of The Lost Sheep. Culturebaby loves imaginary play and little models. She also seems to be developing rather a theatrical penchant for acting stories out. With this in mind last year I created a simple play landscape for the lost sheep to venture across on his own, complete with perils for his master to overcome in carrying out his recovery. This was so simple to create just from materials and objects we already owned, and was more successful than I could have imagined. After numerous "again!"s and two versions of the tale with slightly different props, Culturebaby began to recount the story herself. We filmed it and watched it back, and I even overheard her acting it out to her soft toys from the other room as she settled down for a nap. The two excellent versions of the parable we use are the lighthearted version from Stories Jesus Told by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This compilation is a current favourite with Culturebaby, who loves the simple moral tales re-told here in accessible form. We also really like the cut-out board book The Lost Sheep, which is slightly closer to the original and equally accessible.

Last year, towards the latter part of Lent, we also created a Resurrection Garden table centrepiece that I'd seen on another blog and loved. The model presents calvary and the tomb; complete with stone blocking the entrance, which can be rolled away to reveal the empty tomb and figurines. This was extremely simple to make and was a helpful way to act out the stages of Holy Week.

Start with a large plant pot base and a smaller ceramic plant pot or piece of pipe turned on its side. Build up earth around the pot into a mound with the top of the plant pot forming a cave-like entrance surrounded by sand or gravel. We created 3 small wooden crosses from branches bound together with thread and placed these on the top of the hill. We then added cress seeds (you can also use grass seed if you have longer) which grew over the course of the week and was a visible symbol of the resurrection. We also added figurines of Mary and a Roman soldier. It was such an effective model that I plan on making it again this year.

We have found two great books in particular to accompany the Easter story. Firstly Usborne's Book of Bible Stories compilation: this is a perennial fixture in our mass survival bag and has been the primary introduction for Culturebaby to some of the iconic characters from the Bible. She loves the format of these Usborne productions with their simple and engaging images and accessible text. We also received as a gift a gorgeous little Easter Bible Storybook board book featuring photographs of toy models acting out the excitement of Jesus' followers as they discover that he is alive. With the repeated phrase 'Jesus is alive', this one really stuck in Culturebaby's consciousness and she was able to take part in the telling of this story again and again.

Inevitably with children involved, imaginations take over and materials take on a life of their own. Culturebaby decided that as Jesus had vacated his tomb and no longer needed it, he wouldn't mind if she moved a homeless Makka Pakka in. It was indeed strikingly reminiscent of the little chap's Night Garden abode and, given Our Lord's general approach to the needy, I'm absolutely certain he would have had a little chuckle and endorsed the project wholeheartedly.

Disclaimer: A few months ago Usborne sent us their Bible Stories, which has been very well loved. It's a must have for mass bags everywhere... We also received the Roman soldier model from Safari Ltd. Their range of accurate figures have been brilliant for so much of our imaginative play over the last year. We highly recommend them. All other materials are our own. We will write shortly about our other Easter and spring activities - we had a lot of fun last year and failed to write much of it up at the time...

Monday, 9 February 2015

Food for the Soul: Our 5 a Day Literary Diet

A new year, new resolutions, and my biggest aim for Culturetot is to read more with her alone. It's trickier with a second child to find quality time to sit down peacefully together, have a snuggle, and wade through baskets of books like Culturebaby and I had the luxury of doing. Establishing a routine around storytime before bed has really helped. At 14 months Culturetot expects it, understands what I'm saying when I ask her to choose a story, and has begun to say 'there' and point at her books when a certain title she requires is out of reach. I've noticed that this has a knock-on effect on her general awareness of reading material and we've begun to retreat to her cosy little room, sit on her rug and steal a story moment or two in the quieter parts of our days together.

I no longer set myself up to fail by resolving to change the world fifteen tasks at a time every January. This year I only had a couple of resolutions, and one was to ensure that we read at least five books a day with each of the girls. As Adrienne Rich noted so sagely “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it”. Culturebaby at three is just embarking on her reading journey; stringing together letter sounds, recognising the odd word, retiring to her bed to peruse a pile of Ladybird fairytales. I'm so excited for her. Daily she is discovering new worlds for the first time. She's already besotted with the technicolour wonder of Oz and entranced by the magic of Potter's imagination, but somewhere just out of sight wait Narnia, Middle Earth, Wonderland, Brisingamen; Aslan, Gandalf, five friends in search of mystery, friendly giants, a box of delights... For me, their literary diet is just as crucial as their physical one, with words like vitamins stimulating the brain and bringing with their consumption a fullness of life. For Culturetot this is all just beginning. As she lifts flaps in hot pursuit of Spot, presses buttons to hear lions roar and paws at pages embedded with varied textures, the path ahead seems long but laden with treasures.

I've recently been thoroughly inspired by the stunning writing of the late Kate Gross. Her blog and book Late Fragments, which chart her courageous and dignified battle with terminal cancer, are far from gloomy. Rather they speak into the heart of things: dwelling on what is ultimately important and the beauty of coming full circle to that which first inspired us as children. When all began to fall away; her glittering career, her health and her dreams of the future, Kate writes that she returned to the root of all meaning for her in her final months - her family, her friends, her children and her books. Her love of words, returning to the landscapes of her inner self and regaining her 'enduring melody' through her first love - her ten year old's clarity that literature made her tick - brought her solace and peace. And she has left her sons a treasure map to what truly defined her - her book, and also a bookcase, banded in age brackets, of the works that have been important to her throughout her life. This 'library for life', which she was encouraged by her university Dons to build sits true with me. I'm always more content and more alive when I'm surrounded with my shelves of books. For me they reach across wall-space like a painting depicting my history; a catalogue of my innermost desires and inspiration and where I can return to unlock a host of memories within each binding. Even a glance at their spines has the capacity to ground me and remind me of who I am, and importantly where I ultimately want to be. A Kindle simply won't do. As Kate notes: "Reading is an experience by which we connect ourselves to what we are, to this magnificent, awful life, in which the same grooves are being scored over and over again in different tongues. It is about how you experience humanity." It is one of the most important doors I will ever unlock for my little ladies.

I've been thinking about my tips for instilling a love of books in our little ones right from the start, and without a doubt, for both girls, but Culturetot in particular, the means by which their stories are offered and displayed is extremely significant. For Culturebaby we had a couple of bigger bookshelves, which, if left to their own devices, were either unceremoniously emptied or ignored; and then a scattering of baskets containing a smaller selection of books throughout the house. These generally get better use as they are accessible and good for browsing. For a while, however, I'd been drooling over the ingenius kids' bookcases created by Tidy Books owned by a number of my friends. The concept is simple but brilliant. Toddlers cannot read; they struggle with large bookshelves with books stacked where only the spine can be seen. Aesthetics matter. How the reading material is offered affects young children's choice, suggestion can help their selection, and they most certainly judge a book by its cover. Tidy Book cases are shallow and unlike normal book shelves display a selection of up to 90 books with their front covers facing outwards. A few months ago we were sent one to review for the nursery and I couldn't praise its concept and design more highly. Since Culturetot and I started a quiet reading routine, cuddled on a rug in front of her Tidy Books case - which is a beautiful and central fixture in her bedroom - I have seen her interest in books truly begin. Now when I ask her where her stories are, she points and says 'there'. She toddles over, and selects one after another, browsing with her eyes and chubby little toddler paws. Inevitably such interest and means of display ensures I no longer leave board books festering forgotten in the bottom of a basket. This bookcase requires that I keep an appropriate selection in steady circulation and I can respond better to my baby's interest as she displays clear preferences for certain types of book, or returns to the same cover again and again.

Some of Culturetot's bedtime selection this evening
Recently I read an interesting discussion in a librarian's magazine about the sorts of books that were borrowed most frequently. Suggested reads in forward facing display shelves, books at hand and eye height in the most accessible shelves seemed to play a large influence in patterns. I'd also say that for toddlers the front cover design is rather crucial - something the Tidy Books philosophy recognises. I took the opportunity to ask a few of our favourite children's authors and publishers what they thought about this and they offered some interesting insights. Tamsyn Murray talked about the important balance of capturing a flavour of the book in an eye catching way and doing something a little different; whilst Birgitta Sif shared that for herself as a child it was the intriguing details of front covers balanced with good graphics that drew her to a title. James Mayhew talked about the attraction for young children of specific subject matter, and noted that he prefers the newer unfussy Katie covers with their clear character and theme. Likewise others pointed out that anything with a duck or animal was guaranteed to be a winner with their little ones. The wonderful publisher Child's Play also shared a helpful insight into their front cover design process: "...we always make the covers of our baby books fun and dynamic. We have found that simple designs and contrasting elements are popular. The emotion of the cover is another important factor that mustn’t be overlooked. It’s crucial that the design on the cover accurately conveys what the book is about to the reader, before they’ve even read the title.” Or of course if they are too dinky to do so themselves...

Culturebaby's bedtime selection today
Through observation of Culturetot's preferences as she's been browsing her favourite lit, I'd also recommend that parents have available on their bookshelves for this age a selection of the following: touchy-feely books with textures; books with flaps to open; noisy titles with a range of buttons; books containing photographs of other children and images of animals; high contrasts and bold art; titles containing repetition, rhyming or musical text; books with elements to manipulate (such as parts to slide and move); word books containing photographs of items a baby needs to learn; and tiny books for little hands to handle with ease. Combined with an attractive and accessible means of display there is little more my little Culturetot needs in her nursery. Her bookcase has been the best gift we've given her to date.

Disclaimer: Our TidyBooks bookcase was sent to us by this fab eco friendly and responsible business, to test in advance of an honest review. We love it and as always all views are very much my own.
If you fancy following some of our 5 a day selections, like our page on Facebook, where we post more regular updates.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Walking in the Air and Capturing the Wolf: A Musical Christmas

There is little in life to surpass the child-like anticipation of Christmas, a feeling I hope I will never lose; but this year with a three year old truly immersed in the wonder of it all, I deliberately minimised time spent shopping and majored on the music, the magic and the mystery. We carolled, read stories, made decorations, learned about the history of advent and indulged in a lot of festive play. And whilst Christmases come and go and the ribbon-clad material remains have long outlived their useful purpose, I believe and hope that it is the experiences, the feeling of awe and joy, that will stay with my little ones as they did for me.

There were periods when I was a child when my parents couldn't afford to take me to the ballet, and I will never forget nor cease to be grateful for the generosity of friends of theirs who, realising the enduring value of such things took me to see both the Kirov and the Bolshoi. I can still remember our position, the seats, the atmosphere, can almost see the tutus swirling in my mind's eye. These kind people gave me enduring gifts that are still coming to fruition and it is a legacy I take seriously for my babies too. Likewise, my parents sought out and brought to life an inspiring selection of classical music that has stayed with me ever since. They chose pieces that painted pictures with sounds, compositions aimed at children, ones that told stories or could be acted out and taught me about the orchestra. Favourites included Peter and the Wolf, John and the Magic Music Man, The Snowman, The Anvil Chorus, Troika, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Hall of the Mountain King and The Nutcracker.

Christmas for me, more than any other season, is the time for memories, for dreaming and re-gaining the wonder in life and I was delighted to have the opportunity this advent to take Culturebaby to see her first ballet, The Snowman, and then to go as a whole family to see a festive concert at Cadogan Hall with a programme so perfect that it could have been designed for her.

Culturebaby like many her age, adores Raymond Briggs' inspired classic The Snowman. It formed the soundtrack to last Christmas and it has a score by Howard Blake so beautifully composed and enduringly memorable that she can narrate the story from the music alone. Pieces like this matter, they train a child's ear, stretch the imagination and instil a life-long love of music.

With this in mind I cannot think of a more perfect performance to introduce a three year old to the theatre than Sadlers Wells' annual ballet production of the classic The Snowman from Birmingham Repertory Theatre. This is the 17th season of this perennial favourite.
 I was a little nervous about taking such a young child to a proper theatrical production but I needn't have worried. The theatre was full of young children gripped in wonder as they remained pinned to their seats, barely able to breathe, let alone misbehave. Propped up by her special Snowman booster seat (very considerate of the Peacock Theatre) Culturebaby transformed into a mini-adult, appeciating a much loved classic for the beautiful, creative masterpiece that it is. It is a testament to the production that the children adored it, but such scenarios are also an act of trust in our little mischief-makers. Culturebaby, no stranger to energetic episodes, seems to sense what it expected of her in such an environment and she never fails to impress me. I think that in general the children sensed the utter magic of the whole event and the only moment they ran from their seats was to dance in the snow falling from the ceiling at the end, with its optimistic implication that our eponymous hero could return.

The production was beautiful, peppered with humour (and dancing fruit) with stunning set, great choreography, instruments on stage and, to Culturebaby's delight, a 'real ballerina' complete with tutu. There were a number of moments of audible delight for my little lady, and no less when the Snowman and James took to the air on strings, but I think one of the wonderful elements of this performance is that it contains a small boy only a few years older than herself. I can see that she senses, when she sees older children take part in productions such as this, that these things are also within her grasp. What wonderful inspiration for my tiny ballerina. As well as talking about the experience, and with a new found fascination for the rather unnerving Jack Frost, I've regularly found Culturebaby pawing through the programme over the Christmas period and looking at the pictures. She was rather sad that we couldn't go back and watch it again. Next year for certain...

 A few days later we were very lucky to continue our Snowman themed advent with a perfectly pitched annual family concert performed by The Mozart Symphony Orchestra at Cadogan Hall. Culturebaby had been anticipating this festive treat for a good while as it conveniently comprised not one, but her two most loved orchestral works in one sitting. Firstly we were treated to a live performance of the essential children's classic: Prokofiev's Peter and The Wolf, narrated by Jack Dee and featuring musicians dressed as their corresponding character. This piece is, without a doubt, the best classical piece I've found to introduce to young children without the aid of film. It is brilliant for car journeys and Culturebaby never seems to tire of the simple tale. At present the girls listen to the Maestro Classics version daily, as we follow the story in our simple Ladybird book.

Rather inconveniently, one of Culturebaby's only Christmas requests was a Peter and the Wolf play set. Despite my scouring the internet, it transpires that toy manufacturers have largely failed us in this regard, and I set to work pulling together a DIY version with felt, playmobil and a selection of other models. Happily it has been a roaring success and Culturebaby doesn't seem to mind that the duck, cat and wolf belong in Brobdingnag. I was relieved that she immediately clocked the theme on opening and both girls have been playing with it daily. Today we did a spot of instrument-matching with our Safari models and, despite the current lack of an oboe and bassoon, I was surprised that when my leaky mummy brain failed me, Culturebaby was able, unprompted, to identify our stand-in pencil beside Grandad as a bassoon. This set was easy to pull together and gives a great opportunity for both imaginative play and visual illustration of the story and the instruments. I'd highly recommend the effort of making one.
Back to the concert... As expected, Culturebaby was enthrawled throughout, snuggled in excited horror as as the french horns heralded the arrival of the wolf, and both girls bounced away to the catchy string theme of our cheeky main character Peter. Then following the celebratory interval ice cream, and with a finally sleepy Culturetot, we were treated to a rare opportunity. Not only was this Culturebaby's first cinematic experience as a toddler, but she sat enthralled as we watched the full film of the Snowman accompanied by a live orchestra and, a beautiful surprise, the 11 year old Choirboy Jack Topping performing Walking in the Air.

This magical pairing of musical experiences made our advent such a memorable one that it would be hard to beat. Happily both concert and ballet will be returning next year. And like so; fresh Christmas traditions are born...

Bookings for the Snowman at the Peacock Theatre for next year will be available here.

You can find information on performances at Cadogan Hall here. Next year promises a repeat of this year's brilliantly festive concert and you can already book here. They also promise an exciting concert featuring Paddington Bear's First Concert and Roald Dahl's take on the classic Jack and The Beanstalk here. If you can't wait that long. Try one of their brilliant Crash Bang Wallop Family concerts that we reviewed here.

If you fancy some inspiration for Snowman Themed Play see here and here for some ideas and see Deb Chitwood's goldmine of a site for some further ideas for Peter and the Wolf Play.

Our essential kit, in addition to our easy to make Peter and the Wolf Playset, has been this simple and easy to follow version from Ladybird of Peter and the Wolf and The Maestro Classics version of Peter and the Wolf.
For the Snowman we have a selection of Snowman and The Snowman and The Snowdog books (we love the original Raymond Briggs picture book as well as a Ladybird version which follows the (different) film storyline and our latest hand puppet book of the Snowman and the Snowdog. We also own copies of both the beautiful films and soundtracks. The old-school amongst us may be delighted to hear that the Soundtrack of the Snowman and The Snowdog has just been released on a special white vinyl.

Disclaimer: we received tickets to each of the performances for the purposes of review. We also received over recent months a few items of Snowman and Snowdog merchandise for review. We owned most of the books, DVDs and soundtracks ourselves already. All views are, as always, entirely our own. All but two of the images of the theatrical performance of The Snowman were supplied courtesy of Sadler's Wells.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Literary Advent

Advent is one of our favourite times of the year and we've been enjoying creating some of our own special family traditions since Culturebaby arrived, some inspired by our own childhood, and others entirely new. This year she's been really getting into creating the Jesse Tree (read about this here) and learning about the rich tapestry of Old Testament heroes and villains. We've also been doing some Snowman themed imaginative play (see here) and seeing as much live music and theatre as we can.

I've also produced a couple of seasonal sorting and posting games for the girls to enjoy together. The Paperchase sale is often a sensory play goldmine and last year's booty consisted of neon sets of Christmas Tree-shaped decorations. These have been played with over and over in the last few days. For Culturetot they have made a great posting activity - plus some early colour-matching awareness - whilst Culturebaby has been developing her fine motor skills by hanging them from small hooks. The girls have also loved playing with miniature present boxes, non-breakable baubles and spangly pine cones. I've noticed they have been playing really collaboratively with these materials too, which has been lovely to watch after a year of crowd management.

We also have a couple of basic card nativity play sets that Culturebaby has been enjoying and are easy to pop into the Mass survival kit. Rod Campbell's My First Nativity Set is simple and gorgeous, and with additional Christmas story with pop out shapes Roger Priddy's Nativity Play Set is even more versatile.

One of our favourite new traditions this advent, and given its success it will no doubt become an annual thing, is our literary advent calendar. I can't take credit for this inspired idea, which I've seen done numerous times across the web, but it has been an absolute winner for the girls and I'd highly recommend it. It is such a simple idea - select and wrap 25 Christmas books (which can include those already in your own collection), pile them up in a Christmas tree shape, and each day unwrap and read one together as a family. It has been a wonderful way to explore the many facets of the magic of advent and Culturebaby has been thoroughly excited by her breakfast unwrapping ritual.

We've been really lucky this year to receive a haul of fabulous books to review and I've done a spot of charity shop foraging so we had a great selection to choose from. Given the ages of the girls I ensured that we had a mix of board books, touchy-feely and noisy titles, activity and sticker books for Culturebaby, stories and poems. I also made sure that we had a number of titles exploring the nativity story as well as tales of joy and goodwill of the season, Father Christmas, books featuring much loved characters and a few classics thrown in.  Here's our selection this year:

For one year old Culturetot I included two versions of the Christmas Story - a lovely little cloth book and The Christmas Cat by Su Box, which narrates the nativity from the perspective of a cat from Bethlehem. This cute ginger pet is removable and slots into each of the scenes as a simple jigsaw. It is a beautifully accessible introduction to Christmas for tots. I also added a couple of gorgeous finger puppet books Spot's Snowy Fun by Eric Hill and The Snowman and the Snowdog by Raymond Briggs. Both girls have enjoyed animating these well-known friends and it has been lovely to watch Culturebaby narrate the simple stories to her sister. Other titles that are great for both girls to enjoy together have been Dear Santa - Rod Campbell's Christmas version of the classic Dear Zoo, and the rhyming The Christmas Star by Sam Childs. Culturetot also adores noisy books with buttons and can regularly be witnessed toddling over to books such as Usborne's gorgeous The Nutcracker, pressing one of the buttons and spinning in circles to the music. This great introduction to the story within the famous ballet was already a firm favourite with Culturebaby and when I found this noisy version I couldn't leave it in the shop. I've also popped in a musical copy I bought of Usborne's 12 Days of Christmas for the girls to unwrap on Christmas day.

For Culturebaby I included a few great activity books in addition to stories. Sticker books, as many the parent of a two or three year old will attest, are the saving grace of many a necessarily quiet or patient situation and Usborne produce some of the very best. I wrapped up a winter-themed set and we were also sent a Christmas Market First Sticker book. This series is simple to use and allows little people the chance to use their imagination and also exercise some artistic control over their own work. If I detach the appropriate sheet of stickers Culturebaby can manage these herself now; or they provide great opportunities for detailed conversation and a cuddle when we complete the scenes together. I was also delighted to receive a Christmas with Miffy activity book for her which is due for discovery shortly. This series is great. The activities involving stickers, simple counting and colouring and matching are perfect for a three year old and accompanies the classic Miffy books brilliantly.

One of the first story parcels Culturebaby unwrapped was the gorgeous newly reworked edition of the classic Miffy in the Snow. These lovely new versions, released bit by bit over the last few months, contain Bruna's original illustrations and a text re-worked by poet Tony Mitton for today's generation of children. Culturebaby adores them and regularly looks through her collection herself. She loves the size and shape of the books as well as their contents. Miffy in the Snow is one of the lovelier tales too, where Miffy helps a little bird to find a snug home to protect it from the cold. This theme of goodwill and community care was also reflected amongst much-loved characters in a number of the other gorgeous new titles we received to review. Angelina's Christmas features our favourite little ballerina bringing Christmas cheer to a lonely old mouse who in turn delights hoardes of little mice with his Father Christmas costume. The message is an extremely positive one - that if a child thinks about others at Christmas and includes the lonely or poor, everyone will be all the more joyful for this kindness, including the giver. Snow Day by Richard Curtis also features a heartwarming tale about a lonely boy who turns up to school unaware that it is closed. He is met by his least favourite teacher and both are trapped together for the day. However, misery is turned to joy as the two realise that, in fact, they enjoy each other's company and work as a great snow-sculpting team. It changes their relationship for the better and rather than dreading another such day, the two plan ahead in anticipation of the following year's snow day.

Culturebaby was also delighted to receive a couple of simple tales about the excitement of gift-giving and preparation for Christmas Day. Happy Christmas Peter Rabbit, a sturdy board book featuring some of her favourite friends from the animation inspired by Potter's wonderful characters was an instant hit, as was Usborne's Lift the Flap Christmas from their farmyard tales series, which Culturebaby really likes. The latter as also really attractive to Culturetot, who is just coming into the stage where she enjoys books with flaps and hidden pictures to uncover.

I also can't wait for Culturebaby to discover, hidden amongst the pile, one of her favourite books, Katie's London Christmas, which was begrudgingly returned to the library last week. James Mayhew's thoroughly inspired series of Katie books feature a little girl who jumps into art or witnesses scultptures springing to life and embarks on wonderful adventures in these new and vibrant worlds. When asked about her favourite book, at the moment Culturebaby will invariably say Katie, and she loves this Christmas tale where Katie and her little brother stumble across Father Christmas in need of help, and they join him on a dash across a number of famous London locations. Mayhew's illustrations are detailed and beautiful and his stories have inspired my little lady with a love of figurative art, for which I'm immensely grateful.

Finally I threw in a few classic tales and versions of the nativity story for Culturebaby. Dick Bruna's The Christmas book combines his iconic illustrative style with the classic tale of Christmas; whilst Christmas Story by Roger Priddy has always been a favourite with Culturebaby as it features a nativity play with photographs of real children acting the roles. Mortimer's Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson is a new find - the nativity story told through the eyes of a little mouse who finds a comfy place to sleep in the manger of a family's nativity scene. He keeps turfing the host of statues and baby Jesus out of his new cosy home, until he hears the tale of Christmas and the story of there being no room at the inn for the Christ child... We were also delighted to have inherited from Culturedad's childhood a beautiful story about Fr Christmas who is discovered taking a snooze by a group of animals who fear that Christmas may no longer happen. Father Christmas goes on to explain to them the true meaning of Christmas - that it would go on without Santa, and his presents. The animals listen in awe to Santa's Favourite Story and their Christmas will never be quite the same again. I also couldn't leave out my original copy of childhood classic and brilliantly inventive creation from the Ahlberg's - The Jolly Christmas Postman. Featuring a mammoth delivery task for the Postman across the whole of fairy tale land and starring a host of colourful well-known characters, this ingenious book encloses real letters and presents. Its one of those books I buy for others; an absolute classic. And then finally of course for Christmas Eve, what better than a copy of the famous poem Twas The Night Before Christmas? We'd love to hear about your favourite Christmas reads and wish you a lovely literary Christmas...

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
 As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

A Visit From St Nicholas By Clement Clarke Moore 
 Source: The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House Inc., 1983) 

Disclaimer: We received copies of 10 of the 25 books we list for review purposes from Usborne, Orchard Books, Penguin and Simon and Schuster to whom we are very grateful. As always all views are my own.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Loss for Little People

A week ago we lost one of our beautiful cats at only 8 years old to kidney failure. The vets had called her a miracle. She'd survived extreme toxic poisoning for over a month after she was sent home to say goodbye to us. We'd been hopeful that she might recover, but in the end her little kidneys just couldn't keep going. We had to resign ourselves to saying goodbye. It seemed the miraculous recovery wasn't going to happen a second time. But then I realised that really she herself was the miracle. Pets often are; and they are one of the most wonderful gifts we can give to our children. They teach us how to love, how to care, how to mourn. They teach us about loyalty, belonging and devotion; how creation is precious and we must treat it with respect.

I was wondering why she had that extra month, why we were able to hope but then ultimately have to say goodbye and looking back it seems clear to me. She was already the best cat we could have ever hoped for. She was empathic and cuddled me when I was alone, followed me round to protect me when I was pregnant and even came babysitting with me at neighbours houses. Everyone loved her. She owned the street; she was loyal, gentle and loved company and was so cool that a neighbour once tried to steal her. She couldn't catch a mouse but took great delight in delivering leaves to us. She was funny. She converted my husband to cats. But for the children, in that last month of her being frail and constantly by our side, Culturebaby really learned to love and care for her; how to be gentle; how to talk to her and feed her. They built up a gorgeous relationship. Then for Culturetot; amazingly one of her first four words was the cat's name. That time really mattered and I'm grateful for that gift.

Culturebaby is young but happily our faith allows us to talk about heaven and a place beyond this earth where people and animals are sick and suffer no longer. Where they wait for us until the day we join them. She seems to understand this and that Sugar's body is where we buried it but her soul is happily cuddled up on Great Grandad's knee. This process is both challenging and important for a little one and I'm grateful for a couple of beautiful children's resources that helped her to understand how to mourn.

Firstly, we are already well acquinted with the stunning films of The Snowman and The Snowman and The Snowdog. Both address complex themes of childhood innocence, friendship and loss. It was Culturebaby herself who started to talk about the boy burying his beloved old dog in the garden at the beginning of the film after we had our own little funeral where we did the same, placed a couple of symbolic items in the grave and talked about what we loved about our beautiful furry friend. Having a ritual and a concrete place she could visualise saying goodbye seemed important for her. In a similar way since, she has also drawn pictures for and of Sugar like the little boy did to remember his dog. Secondly I had discovered a unique and beautiful children's book a few months ago and it seemed a perfect way to talk in a positive way about the legacy of those we love and who change our lives for the better. Rabbityness by Jo Empson is one of those rare picture books that make you stop (have a little cry) and think. It combines a beautiful story with an important message about being the best that we can be and continuing in the footsteps of the inspirational people who have gone before us. Rabbit is in many ways normal - he likes to do rabbity things. But then he is also rather unique and likes to do un-rabbity things too. He paints the forest in beautiful colours, he makes wonderful music and he inspires all those around him and everyone is filled with joy. Then one day rabbit disappears. The other rabbits are sad and mourn the loss of their friend and the vibrant world he provided. They go in search of him; and though he is nowhere to be found, they find his burrow. He has left them his instruments, his paints and materials. They begin to find courage and use these great gifts he has passed on to them. Soon the whole world is alive with colour and sound again. It is a beautiful message and has been a great way to talk about the wonderful things we will remember about our beloved moggy; and perhaps what inspiration we can take from her little but massively love-filled life.

From C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce: 
“First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

“Is it? it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be...well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”...

...“And how...but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat-two cats-dozens of cats. And all those dogs...why, I can't count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
“They are her beasts.”
“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end?"

Disclaimer: At my request Child's Play International kindly sent a review copy of Rabbityness for us as we had originally discovered this gorgeous book at the library and I knew it would be perfect for handling a sad time such as this.

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Snowman on the Shelf: 12 Days of Christmas Snowman and The Snowdog Blog Tour

Given that The Snowman was the soundtrack to Culturebaby's last Christmas, and it was the first film to profoundly affect her, we were delighted to be invited to join the Snowman and The Snowdog Blog Tour this year. The ritual of watching the Snowman, and later The Snowman and the Snowdog, became an intimate and emotional daily occurrence throughout the winter months. She knew the score inside out. Having a two year old at Christmas brought back the magic of our own childhood and Culturebaby fell in love with it all. As I hugged my vibrant little lady whilst she pretended to fly I too felt energised and privy to the innocence of belief in Briggs' snow-clad guardian angel.

The Snowman is such an important story for a child. It teaches the transience of perfection, dignity in loss, and the importance of friendship. As an adult it still affects me, and happily Culturebaby perceived less of the sadness and more of the joy that fresh snow can bring new life to the eponymous hero and allow him to return. This dream of every fan of the original book, 30 years on, was vindicated perhaps by the beautiful sequel The Snowman and the Snowdog in which our original friend is re-created by a new child, and this time he brings a timely addition to fill the gap of the child's recent loss of his own pet.

We did so many activities around the theme last year from primitive science (melting), imaginative play (from playdoh to Happyland) to Snowman hunting that we will no doubt unearth some of these ideas again this year (you can see all these at this link if you'd like some inspiration). We are also extremely excited to be going to Sadlers Wells' production of the Snowman and a special seasonal concert at Cadogan Hall of Culturebaby's two favourite classical pieces - Peter and the Wolf, followed by a live orchestral performance of the Snowman score in front of a projection of the film. We will be reporting back on these later in December.

However, to celebrate the beginning of advent in a matter of days and the arrival of two themed packages in the post, we've been doing some special Snowman-themed play. For this blog tour, we were delighted to receive a parcel containing a gorgeous boxed set of the DVD of The Snowman and The Snowdog, complete with beautifully made soft toy of the Snowdog. This was a perfect surprise gift for my (just) 3 year old who adores playing with miniature characters. We're planning a special screening of the film to get us in the Christmas spirit in the next few days and already the Snowdog has been transported everywhere. Imaginative play is one of Culturebaby's favourite activities and over the last two days she has spent ages playing with her new Christmas-themed small-world play basket. I have been producing one of these for each season over the last year and this is definitely my favourite to date. If you have an imaginative child who loves sensory play and small objects I'd highly recommend making these simple dreamscapes for them to explore. The Snowdog joined our already much-loved little Snowman in the basket and they have been happily observing as Culturebaby has dressed her own small Christmas tree with miniature decorations; collected, matched and counted wooden and felt snowflakes, stars, reindeer, bells, and other items; tried out some fine-motor practice with themed clips and played with her characters as they played tiny musical instruments, received presents and helped to decorate.

We were also delighted to receive separately from the wonderful Puffin Books, a finger puppet book of the Snowman and the Snowdog (shortly to feature in our literary advent calendar) and a large cuddly Snowman. I've heard a lot of parents arrange an advent activity called  Elf on The Shelf, where a cheeky little helper is sent by Santa to keep an eye on the household and consequently gets into mishaps along the way. This isn't something we have ever done, but with Culturebaby's devotion in mind we are going to celebrate our teddybear-sized Snowman's arrival with style. Given that he is the ideal companion for a child throughout this festive season, and he already loves exploring the house (and gets into a few scrapes along the way), he's the perfect messenger from the North Pole for us. Culturebaby has already learned with much excitement that he'll be arriving shortly. So there we have it. Our very own Snowman on the Shelf. I'm really looking forward to it.

This blog post is part of the 12 days of Christmas with the Snowman and the Snowdog blog tour - follow the hash tag #SnowmanSnowdog. The next stop is tomorrow at

We were sent The Snowman and The Snowdog DVD & Toy Set, (which is available from 17th November RRP: £24.99) as part of this tour for the purposes of review, and separately the Snowman cuddly toy from Penguin Enterprises, along with a copy of The Snowman and The Snowdog Finger Puppet Book. RRP: £14.99 and £7.99 respectively. All opinions, as always, are my own.
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