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.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Waiting for Baby (and bringing your toddler along for the ride)

I've been meaning to write for a while about the spectrum of wonderful picture books available that helped us to prepare Culturebaby for the arrival of her baby sister a year ago, and which have enabled us to talk about and deal with the rollercoaster of her toddler emotions ever since. Prompted by the publication of two new gems to add to the parental toolkit, I thought I'd offer our top titles on the theme in the hope that other parents will find them as useful and upbuilding as we did. In addition to this I'd highly recommend five simple activities to help involve an older sibling in the experience, reduce resentment, give them ownership of the relationship and hopefully help them to be gentle and loving to the new arrival.

Of course this is always easier said than done and there have been many days when I've felt like all I'm achieving (at best) is crowd control and I've been surprised and grateful to emerge with two unscathed children. Sometimes it seems a toddler has too much tough love to give; but it does get easier, and some days you look and see you no longer have a toddler but a little girl capable of immense love and gentleness, and a sibling who simply adores her. That first year is soon over, you have had a few nights' sleep and your baby is almost a toddler. The balance of power is changing...

Five useful tricks:

1. I invited Culturebaby to talk and sing to the bump with me, cuddle it, feel kicks and we talked about what she was looking forward to doing with the baby;

2. A couple of months before Culturetot arrived we bought Culturebaby her own baby doll to care for. This worked really well as we were able to talk about how to handle a baby, positions that are safe, and Culturebaby was able to have her own dependant to consider. This poor doll did at times end up face down in a pram or on the lawn, but at least it became a learning experience!

3. When we saw babies we discussed why they might be crying, laughing or feeding. Culturebaby became fascinated with these fresh little people and a number of tolerant parents (to whom we were very grateful) allowed her some practice cuddles;

4. We suggested that Culturebaby select a teddy bear to give as her gift to her little sister. This was extremely successful. Culturebaby has a favourite teddy which she named Bobo. She chose another for her sister declaring that this was to be Culturetot's 'Bobo'. I was so impressed with her and I know she felt this pride;

5. We bought a present for Culturetot to give to Culturebaby when she arrived from the hospital. It was a high chair for her doll, which all tied in well. I've heard the wisdom of this process from others and think it does help to involve the older child in the flurry of attention in the first few days and help them to feel like the baby cares about them too.

In the run up to Culturetot's arrival we read five great books. The absolute winner for much of the time was Topsy and Tim and the New Baby by Jean and Gareth Adamson and it was read and re-read to near extinction. Culturebaby loves little ladybird books and could really relate to the characters. She loved how the book followed the anticipation of pregnancy and the excitement of a new arrival and all the practicalities of the twins helping out. We were also given copies by friends of The New Baby by Anne Civardi and There's a House Inside My Mummy. These were the first two books we read and were very useful. The first is very matter-of-fact and practical; following the simple tale of a family preparing for a baby and what happens around the time of arrival. Usborne publishing has a real talent for producing simple and readable books with illustrations that manage to grip little ones with their cute and familiar characters. This was the book of choice of my friend's practically-minded three year old son. The later is more poetic and is a longer read. It is a beautifully written book and works well for slightly older children. The idea of a house for a baby inside a mother's tummy is a lovely one and perhaps a simpler concept for a child to grasp than the biological reality. This book was also immensely useful as it touches on the illness mummy experiences during pregnancy. As a hyperemesis sufferer this was all too real for us.

Consequently, we also discovered the bold, rhyming and amusing What's in Your Tummy Mummy? by Sam Lloyd. From a flea to a dinosaur sized inhabitant a child guesses what might be inside as he sees his mummy's tummy stretch and stretch. With pop- ups and a catchy text, this is great for even the smallest of expectant siblings. Finally we used the new Let's Talk About My New Baby by Stella Gurney. Toddlers love photographs of themselves and other children and this board book is great as it serves as a diary of a little boy as he waits for a baby brother. Using photographs of scans, babies, and the little boy himself, this was an original introduction to the topic.

Around the time of Culturetot's birth we added a few more titles to our arsenal. There's Going to Be a Baby by John Burningham and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury is a uniquely stunning book with its amazing retro illustrations that could grace any wall, and beautiful prose. It follows a sibling waiting for his brother or sister and dreaming about who they might be and what they might excel at. At times, as is so natural with little ones, he wants the baby not to come, he doesn't want a brother. Books dealing with this inevitable jealousy and difficulty toddlers experience with a rival for attention are so useful and important. I've found that the story element allows the child to relate, but also provides a certain distance and therefore greater opportunity for objective discussion. For my ballet-mad Culturebaby, Angelina's Baby Sister by Katharine Holabird was another perfect illustration of this, as was Sophie and the New Baby by well known Catherine and Lawrence Anholt. In these, and in the initially heartbreaking Za Za's Baby Brother by Lucy Cousins (creator of Maisy), the elder child and the hero of the piece, comes to love the baby and find their place as a crucial part of the family. Za Za's Baby Brother, one of our favourites, is wonderful for a younger reader and our version comes with an animated DVD. Za Za wonders why the baby gets so much attention. No-one is there to play with her, listen to her, cuddle her. She has to learn to wait. Ultimately of course she not only gets her hugs and stories but finds the joy of a playmate, who really isn't so bad after all; in fact he is rather fun. The process of discovery that at times a sibling can be both enjoyable and also occasionally annoying is picked up in one of our best loved series of books with Spot's Baby Sister by Eric Hill. We were also bought a very welcome book by our wise friend anticipating Culturebaby's first few weeks at nursery. My Busy Being Bella Day by Rebecca Patterson is all about an older sister who starts nursery but at times wants to be at home. Nursery is ultimately so much fun that Bella forgets all this, though little sibling Bob misses his wonderful older sister. It is heartwarming and certainly made Culturebaby feel like the big girl, who is both much loved and in need of her own time to do big girl things.

Two great new books have been published in the last couple of months along the theme and we are still enjoying them in our bedtime reading. Creative author of the hyperbolically verbose Lola and her long suffering brother Charlie, Lauren Child, introduces Elmore Green and his shock at the arrival of The New Small Person in his home. He is proud of his room, his toys, his sense of order, and he loves his stash of jelly beans. He can't understand the fuss about this new brother or why people seem to like him more. The small thing is noisy, it knocks over his toys, licks his jelly beans and (horror) sleeps in his room. Elmore wants it to go back where it came from; but it doesn't. It gets bigger. It follows him. But then one night everything changed. Elmore has a nightmare and for the first time Elmore sees he has a friend and a comforter. Things are more fun when there is someone to share it with. With Lauren's distinctive illustrations and her trademark insight into the psyche and humour of small children, this new story is a wonderful introduction to the emotions an older child may be managing with an invasion in their home - and of course it presents a heartwarming happy ending.

And then there is our old pal Miffy, spruced up and reworked for the modern child with Tony Mitton's modernised text and Dick Bruna's original illustrations. Miffy and the New Baby is a simple rhyming tale revealing how Miffy begins to feel so grown up when she has a little baby to make gifts for and to celebrate with her friends. As always, Bruna's endearing creation is traditional and positive. Culturebaby returns to these books again and again. She's even taken to 'reading' them to Culturetot.With timeless, bold and colourful illustrations, combined with a story for every possible toddler quandry and adventure, Miffy is a childhood friend that every little one should have the chance to make.

Disclaimer: We received review copies of The New Small Person and Miffy and The New Baby for review purposes. All other books are our own, as are all views.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Crash, Bang, Wallop!

A couple of weekends ago, Culturebaby and I embarked on a big girls' day in London, just the two of us, footloose and pram-free. We had been invited along to one of the City of London Sinfonia's family concerts at Cadogan Hall, and given Culturebaby's nascent Suzuki violin lessons and her new-found love of live orchestras, we jumped at the chance for some quality cultural time together.

The concert series is a fabulous idea. For an hour before, the children were invited to take part in arts and crafts, meet the musicians, handle a selection of instruments, and try their hands at percussion. Our attempts to arrive in time to do much of this were thwarted by TfL's tube improvement schedule *shakes fist at district line closures and limited bus service to Chelsea*, but we just about dove through the area to mourn our loss and grab a quick DIY wand ready for the concert. Then brandishing decorated masks and wands the rabble of miniature concert-goers were treated to an interactive hour of music along the theme of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, led by a combat-trouser-clad Puck and a Sinfonia decked with flowers and foliage.

Featuring distinctive pieces such as Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz and Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and woven through with the broad theme of spells which just don't seem to go right, the event was a triumph for my little lady. Initially she watched in awe as Puck introduced the sounds of each section of the orchestra and captured them in containers - later to be released, swirled around and mixed together at will (this really was rather a stroke of genius). She hid when mispaced spells culminated in the attachment of various instruments to the heads of unsuspecting orchestra members (I suspect genuinely fearing she may end up with a permanent flute for hair), and she adored the slapstick moment when Puck slept and a wolf (or a rather sinister donkey?) arrived on stage to investigate the instruments. We were treated to a great selection of music (many featuring animal sounds), joined in with actions, and laughed at the fairy mischief. Several members of the audience were also invited to join in with the percussion by tapping a large frog instrument and we all had many opportunities for participation - so important to keep the little ones attentive and engaged.

At the time, as Culturebaby ducked to avoid the spells and bounced in delight at other pieces, I wasn't sure how this experience would affect her, but as the days have passed and she has talked and talked about it - scanning my camera for pictures of the event and listening to our story book of the Sorcerer's Apprentice - I can see that the concert affected her rather profoundly. I will certainly be taking her again to a future event.

The other wonderful element to the whole experience was the change to mooch around Chelsea at the weekend, treat ourselves to ice cream, peruse the scrummy Taschen bookshop and explore the fascinating (and free) Saatchi Gallery. Particular highlights included a room populated with giant ants scaling the walls, and a dark room lit by Ultraviolet light and lined with glowing colourful flowers in jars.

Since returning home from our trip, we've been reading a couple of relevant books and we've been re-visiting a number of the pieces we heard at the concert. We unearthed from our bookshelves a copy of The Sorcerer's Apprentice from Usborne's brilliant Young Reading Series and listened to the music as we read. I also introduced Culturebaby to some of the pictures from Marcia Williams' re-telling of A Midsummer Night's Dream in her quirky cartoon-style versions of Shakespeare's plays. The two volumes: Mr William Shakespeare's Plays and Bravo Mr William Shakespeare, are published by the wonderful Walker Books and are a funny, engaging and fabulously illustrated introduction to the works of the Bard for older children and adults alike. Whilst these tales are complex and beyond Culturebaby's comprehension at present, the illustrations aided a simple explanation of Puck's fairy mischief at the concert, and the cartoon summaries served as a perfect reminder of these important literary references for my squishy mummy-brain too. I'll be treasuring these volumes for the future.

You can find out more about the Crash Bang Wallop Concerts for Families here at the Cadogan Hall's website here. Their Christmas Concert will be on 13th December.

Disclaimer: We received complimentary tickets to the concert in exchange for a review. Walker Books also kindly sent the Marcia Williams Shakespeare volumes to us at our request. As always, all views are very much my own.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Loveliness of Local Lit

This weekend was the first St Albans Literary festival, run by fabulous volunteers who worked their socks off for months. For four days a number of big names and local authors joined forces to catapult our conversations into new realms as they shared with us the fantastical worlds of their imagination, or conveyed with humour and authority new angles on fascinating areas of research. I came away wanting to write several books, and with a stack of fresh reading material. Culturebaby emerged waving, amongst other things, her signed copy of current favourite Bumpus Jumpus Dinosaurumpus and revealing with delight that T-Rex now roared her name inside the front cover.

There was something wonderful about the spectrum of offerings, the affordable tickets and the fact that many of the authors were local. For the children there was a packed programme of possible events - and for the schools there was even more on offer. We went to two great sessions with the little ones. The first was a bedtime story at Waterstones with Tamsyn Murray where excited children were invited to arrive in their pyjamas and snuggle up to listen to the author read her gorgeous picture book Snug as a Bug. There were crafts, hot chocolate and marshmallows to sip and even little woodland toys to adopt. The childen loved it; and I suspect, would jump at the chance again any day to legitimately stroll through town in dressing gowns when they should really have been in bed. There was also a great opportunity to hear Tony Mitton perform some of his wonderful poetry for children. Culturebaby has recently been well and truly stricken with the dinosaur bug and Tony's catchy Bumpus Jumpus Dinosaurumpus is a bedtime favourite. Old and young alike chuckled away at the Red Riding Hood rap and joined in as we were invited to fill in the missing rhymes in a host of Tony's poems.

And, with thanks to Culturedad I was able to escape for a few hours of delightful literary boffinry where I masqueraded, albeit briefly, as a proper adult. First a murder mystery dinner with three award-winning local authors where I had the privilege of discussing with James Carol over pie (that Northern nectar of the gods) the origin of his novel Broken Dolls (soon to be brought to screen by Stephen Fry), witnessed a delighted couple discover that their house featured in one of the novels, and realise that I daily trot by the window behind which Victorian heroine Kitty Peck's future exploits are being created by a fellow heritage buff. I've emerged wanting to read all the novels, and will perhaps chuckle every time I cross Verulamium Park in the knowledge that it served as the literary landscape for the discovery of a lobotomised female. Then I was treated to a double whammy of archaeological lectures. The first with the thoroughly amusing, and himself rather reminiscent of Noah, Irving Finkel who relayed his exploits in turning the spectacular discovery of an ancient Babylonian tablet with instructions for how an ark should be created, into a circular floating reality complete with army of ants. This was swiftly followed by a fascinating and in-depth presentation of some of the latest research about Stonehenge by archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson. Finally our book club sipped wine in the atmospheric surroundings of the Lady Chapel of the ancient Abbey and listened to a successful double act of historian Leanda de Lisle and historical fiction-writer Conn Iggulden as they unpacked that most fascinating of families - The Tudors.

It was delightful to have such a wealth of knowledge and creativity celebrated and shared practically on our doorsteps, and priceless to see the excited Culturebabies prance around bookshops in pyjamas and meet the authors of much loved books. I very much hope that this will be the first of many such festivals, and perhaps in the future St Albans can wave the Lit Fest programme in the face of the Manchester Evening News when it next attempts to declare ours an uncultured city.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Treats without the tricks: our alternative to Halloween

It's that time of year again when supermarkets festoon their entrances with ghouls, and toddlers dressed as axe murderers career around the neighbourhood begging for chocolate. I'm no puddleglum and I love dressing up with the best of them but prompted by the fact that Culturebaby is now three and we have to decide whether she'll be part of it all, we've decided that it isn't for us. We can't really get away from it entirely. I won't be the sort of parent who excludes my little ones from events to their own detriment, and, perhaps surprisingly, even nursery has been singing themed songs, but we won't be trick or treating.

As an anthropologist I find celebrations fascinating, and the history of Halloween is equally so. I won't rehearse the background to the original pagan and consequent Catholic traditions here. Essentially any original meaning from these is now, for the majority of revellers, entirely lost in jollity and a glut of Americanised extravagance. Most people just see it as a fun and harmless activity for children and in many cases that is very much so, but for others it is an excuse for anti-social behaviour; and whilst some of the traditions really do help to build community in some areas, in the round I don't believe celebrating Halloween represents a healthy message for my little ones. For me it just doesn't sit well with my faith or the general message I hope they hear the rest of the year about the nature of goodness and inner beauty. I'm not a fan of the newspaper that carries it, but this article by J John encapsulates most of my views on the topic.

Culturebaby as her 1/8 Polish ancestry
That said, we love dressing up and celebrating and I've been thinking for a while about an appropriate alternative tradition we can create ourselves around this time of year that the Culturebabies can look forward to and hopefully ensure that they don't mourn the loss of trick or treating too badly... If you too are looking for an alternative hopefully this might also provide you with some ideas. We'd love to hear about yours.

I'm planning a celebration around a night of light. We will be dressing up as angels and having a little heavenly picnic of yummy treats whilst we take the time each year to learn more about our ancestors. After all, Halloween is All Hallows' Eve, and what better time of year for the girls to start to hear about and celebrate the wonderful stories around their Great-grandparents, hear about the sacrifices that ultimately led to them being born, see old photographs and say some prayers for them. I'm also planning that when they wake up in the morning they will find a small item as an inheritance each year - perhaps a photograph or small token to help them learn more about and value their heritage.

I also want them to start to learn about helping others, not fearing those who are different or old, and taking the time to think about what sainthood or goodness really is. This week has been a difficult one. We are about to lose one of our beautiful little cats to kidney failure and we've all been sad and struggling. It's consequently been rather hard this year to get on with organising something, but from next year we plan to spend an hour or so visiting someone old who might really like a visit from a couple of children, helping to do something to support aid for the poor or donating some food to those in need. It's essentially the opposite of trick or treating, but I suspect they may get more out of it in the long run.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Baby Book Club: All Creatures Great and Small

Autumn is definitely here with its fiery shades, crunchy paths and changeable weather. At its best, the golden light streaming sideways through the leaves is unpassable in its beauty, at its worst it is wet and windy and only the brave and welly-clad dare venture out with a pram. Culturebaby is currently refusing to wear anything other than summer dresses, and combined with her rejection of anything resembling a coat she's sporting themal vests, pink wellies and floral prints. Even she (almost) admitted defeat mid-week as she complained about the cold and went to bed clutching a hot water bottle. Last Sunday, however, was one of the golden glorious ones and we took a break from the DIY-a-thon to dabble in a spot of Gruffalo hunting over at Wendover Woods.

 I'm not sure anyone reading this blog needs an introduction to the most famous of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's lovable rogues. With her genius for storytelling and wizardry with words, Julia is a Titan of children's literature; her rhymes the chorus of toddlers everywhere, and her creatures the stuff of modern legend. We had a wonderful hour or so creeping around the woods in the footsteps of many toddlers before us, unearthing images of foxes, snakes and owls, and finally being rewarded with a rather unexpected and beautifully carved sculpture of our eponymous thug who celebrates his 15th birthday this year. I gather there's a number of such trails around and we'd highly recommend it for an autumnal family ramble.

We also, finally, and begrudgingly, packed up our summer imaginative play landscape with its flowers and picnics and created a new autumn wild wood scene. Following our summer escapades, Culturebaby is still very much taken with The Wind in the Willows and Peter Rabbit and friends. Ratty and Co. have taken up residence in the wood, and Mr Todd is already causing havoc amongst the rabbits.

I used a number of foraged autumn cones, conkers and leaves, twigs and stones we have collected in recent weeks alongside some cute wooden hedgehogs, owls and leaves I bought in a craft shop, skeleton leaves in autumnal colours and a selection of woodland animals and pets from Safari's fantastic Pets Megatoob.

However, one of the joys of the nights drawing in, nursery-spread snivels and cold weather, is the chance for lots of cosy snuggles and reading together. In the last few months we've been sent lots of gorgeous new picture book titles themed around that favoured of pre-school topics - animals and their antics. Given that Culturebaby would frankly rather eat books than dinner (in fact today - perhaps inspired by Oliver Jeffers' The Amazing Book Eating Boy - she declared she would like to eat stories), I'm always on the look out for great new titles for her to devour. Here's a selection of fab new offerings - some creative and fresh titles, reworked classics, new stories about old friends and even tales to help with phonics.

First; two titles from Tate Publishing. Before I had children I didn't know that Tate published their own range of children's books. They do, and they are (as expected) quirky, stunningly illustrated and inventive. They sport quality binding, beautiful paper and lovely writing. First Little Big Boubo, by award winning Italian Illustrator Beatrice Alemagna, introduces a tiny hedgehog who is quite clear that he is no longer a toddler. He declares that he is a big boy with his big eyes and nose and four teeth. He can ride a bicycle and can climb all the way to the top! In an endearing coda we discover that this little chap with his toddler-like sense of humour does not really get his joyful sense of self and accomplishment from a misplaced view of the world. Rather, he is told by his mother, and believes entirely, that he is big because he is his mother's biggest love. This affirming message is perfect for all our little big babies.

Second, there's another clever commentary on the lot of the toddler; A Dog Day by Emily Rand. With eye catching monochrome images and a simple storyline, Culturebaby chuckled away at this rhyming tale, narrated by a dog who is desperate to get to the park. Unable to understand all the procrastination and chatting, he is dragged round the shops, PAST the park gate; catching tantalising glimpses between the railings. He meets a kindred soul in a baby strapped into a pushchair; equally below the line of conversation. Finally, numerous shops and a cafe later, the moment of joy arrives, he reaches the park and bounds away with his myriad of friends. Freedom. we have another new doggy tale, mirroring what toddlers do best this time of year - relishing any opportunity to splash in muddy puddles. Puddle Pug by American author Kim Norman and illustrated with an interesting and distinctly Japanese flavour, is a lovely tale about the tempestuous and troubling course of toddler passions, with all their difficulties with sharing and reciprocation. Percy the Pug loves puddles of every sort - so much so he maps them to help him find them all again. Unfortunately, however, one day he finds the perfect puddle but it is already occupied by a family of pigs. And just like the playgroup's only yellow and red Little Tykes Car, no other item will do. Much loved wallowing places were rejected as no longer acceptable. The Pug is singleminded in his quest. He tries to invade, blend in unnoticed, he even resorts to bribery but to no avail. Happily, the tale ends well. Puddle pug saves the day and finally makes friends and all learn to share. Its rather a happy little lesson for two and three year olds everywhere, for whom this is often an elusive virtue.

jacket image for The Owl and the Pussy-cat by Edward Lear - large version
Next, we have an appropriate marriage of two newly published celebrations of Edward Lear's most famous couple The Owl and The Pussy-Cat. First comes a stunningly illustrated gift version of the original, then a sequel from the wonderful Julia Donaldson, herself a devotee of Lear and his talent for nonsense poetry. Lear originally wrote the illustrated poem for the poorly three year old daughter of a friend, and I've discovered that my three year old loves it too. I've found it is one of the best first poems to introduce to a child, and when I sing the tune from the composition on our Funkey Rhymes CD, it also grips Culturetot, so it is a great one to share together. Charlotte Voake's illustrations are simple yet dynamic. They convey movement, lightheartedness and a splash of childhood joy. I love how they look like watercolours and you can see some of the brushstrokes - a great inspiration for budding artists to emulate. Donaldson's sequel The Further Adventures of the Owl and The Pussy-Cat is also illustrated by Voake, and with Donaldson's seemingly effortless genius with rhyme, the tale continues in seamless form with the honeymoon of the unlikely couple. Following the loss of their wedding ring, the two are thrust on new adventures where they meet many others of Lear's colourful creations - The Pobble who has no toes, the Chankly Bore, even the Jumblies. It's brilliant. A wonderful Christmas gift for any child (the sequel even comes with a CD of Donaldson narrating the poem).

Sixth, a scrummy compilation of six sweet tales about animals and friendship. I adore Usborne books and due to their size and shape, bold and engaging illustrations and simple writing, Culturebaby is drawn to their early reader books again and again. She always heads for them in the library, loves the little comprehension puzzles in the back, and we've just bought this set to start her off on her reading journey. Cow takes a bow and other tales, illustrated by Fred Blunt, majors on the introduction of phonics through emphasising the sounds of letters or combinations of letters which form words. Schools use this method these days and so I'm hoping to learn more about it myself in advance and start to practice with Culturebaby. For now we'll read the endearing, rhyming stories together and practice some of the sounds and see what they look like, and I imagine this book will then have a second life when she starts to read for herself. With its clear text and economic use of words, it will be a perfect early choice.

Given that we already count Gorilla and My Dad amongst our favourites, Culturebaby found a copy of Anthony Browne's classic tale of Willy the Wimp at the library a few weeks ago and promptly fell in love with it. Following numerous renewals and readings in the last couple of weeks Culturebaby still laughs out loud with every reading and was ecstatic when, with impeccable timing when we could renew the book no longer, the 30th Anniversary edition dropped on our doormat. Willy is a sweet chimp who is fed up with the neighbourhood bullies and wants to learn to stand up for himself. He sets himself a punishing regime and becomes larger and stronger. Appearances are deceptive of course because behind it all, he's still the apologetic and kind chap he always was, but now at least he can look after his friends. We were also delighted to find that there are further titles available about the lovable chimp. To celebrate his 30th birthday, Willy takes us on new adventures through some of his favourite doors in Willy's Stories. As he steps weekly into his local library, he is catapulted into a host of exciting books. We are treated to tit-bits of a range of classics as Willy comes face to face with a mutinous crew, Captain Hook and Friar Tuck. He flies over the rainbow, falls down the rabbit hole and even ends up in the belly of a whale. Culturebaby loved hearing about Willy's forays into tales she recognised and this clever book served as an incentive for us to ensure we read the others. Anthony Browne talks in the video below about how in many ways over the years he has realised Willy is rather like him, or indeed like all of us, and in this particular book he includes many of the books which inspired him to become an author and illustrator. The library of course was a place of dreams. His sumptuous pictures are painted in gouache and are completely gorgeous.

 Mouse House Tales Page 01Peek A Boo CvrIts A Firefly Night CvrNext a selection of three lovely titles from American Publisher Blue Apple. First a cute little board book Peek-A-Boo Who? By Simms Tabak is a really colourful and vibrant little introduction to a host of animals. Toddlers are invited to view a cut out silhouette of a creature's shape through which they can see part of their markings. They can then lift the flap and uncover the illustration below. It is simple and effective. Then the stunningly illustrated It's a Firefly Night by Dianne Ochiltree and Betsy Snyder. We don't really experience fireflies where we live but it is still wonderful for Culturebaby to learn about them. The book had a great rhyming tale about the importance of being gentle with creatures and (if we examine them) to always put them back carefully. They are not ours; they are free. There are fascinating facts at the back of the book and the illustrations are both sweet and have a really unusual depth and luminosity to them. Culturebaby really loved this little book. Finally, another surprise hit was the chapter book meets picture book Mouse House Tales by Susan Pearson and Amanda Shepherd. Culturebaby has requested this book again and again. I can see why; the illustrations are adorable, the pages feel of high quality and the stories are simple tales of friendship - first of a set of woodland friends who help mouse to build a new home, and then a tale of kindness in return where mouse takes in a homeless rodent and shares what she has with him. Amongst all the helpfulness there is a continuous humorous interlude provided by a cheese-obsessed goat, which makes Culturebaby chuckle every time. My only bug-bear is the erratic vascilation between rhyming and non-rhyming text but the stories certainly make up for it.
Finally, we were sent a quirky and creative little book from Madeleine Rogers. Her Jungle Crew contains both a story and five paper animals and scenery to make. The dust cover comes off to double up on the inside as a jungle backdrop. It's so stunning I'm wrapping this one for Culturebaby for Christmas. The illustrations feel like an eye catching melting pot of cartoon illustration, african textile design and a dash of inspiration from Rousseau. The rhyming text is catchy and introduces five jungle animals with a few facts about them. It's a beautifully made book and would make a quality gift.

Disclaimer: We were sent the final selection of books I mentioned for review purposes. I only review books I like and all opinions are as always my own. Many thanks also to Asobi Toys UK who provided the wonderful Pets Megatoob for our autumn basket. All other materials are our own.
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