There is little more crucial for one's sanity whilst juggling an adventurous nine month old near-walker and a recalcitrant toilet trainer than a likeminded set of friends. I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by some brilliant and creative mummies who humour even our maddest moments and accompany us regularly on our escapades down the cultural rabbit hole. One type of activity we love, now swiftly becoming a tradition, are our holiday 'baby' book clubs. These little parties have been rather a revelation. This year, between stories and surrounded by balloons, we sat sipping coffee as our rabble of 7 to 0 year olds played happily together or at the very least side by side. As we surveyed the lack of carnage, it dawned on us that we were in fact sitting and sipping coffee and had been for several minutes. No policing, separating, negotiating; and meanwhile the naughty step withered away with neglect. It seems there is something about a book-themed party, peppered with sit-down moments for stories and the consumption of yummy themed treats, that brings a real sense of calm. In short, the children seemed to play better together. Perhaps all play dates should have a story in the middle?
Given that we were heading off on holiday a day after our exciting literary parcel arrived, our prep for the party had to be pretty quick. We unwrapped our scrumptious box and pulled out book after beautiful book, balloons, tasty snacks and activity sheets. We kept our party simple. We read, we ate, we played, we danced, we read some more. By the end we had covered all the books and everyone had a favourite. Since then this fabulous illustrated quintet has toured the Lake District and Scotland with us and has been read and re-read.
We began our party by reading Bob Graham's Vanilla Ice Cream and indulging in a little ourselves. Endorsed by Amnesty International for its message that everyone should be able to enjoy life, freedom and safety, this inventive book of few words works best when the illustrations are discussed in depth with a child. It has really grown on us with a few readings. The message is both simple and huge. A small sparrow, looking up from the crumbs in the dirt in an Indian truck stop is rewarded with an adventure. Taking a risk for a taste of rice, he is whisked away by a lorry and ends up on a voyage across stormy seas and, in turn, through a series of such fleeting moments he gifts one unsuspecting toddler her first taste of ice cream.
We then opened Birgitta Sif's Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance and the children were completely gripped by this stunning tale. It was as if this beautifully illustrated book was written for Culturebaby; who loves to dance... anywhere, with anyone. It's a book I hope will get a crucial message across long before I'll ever need it. Frances Dean has a passion. She adores dancing. Inspired by nature and with the wind in her hair, she dances with the birds when no-one is around. However, when she's in public she's shy, she struggles to dance and eventually she forgets how. Then one day she comes across a younger girl with a gift of song and is so moved by the beautiful music that she struggles to sleep. If only she too could share her dance with others. With the help of her friends in nature she rediscovers her courage and movement; and in turn sets a multitude of toes tapping...
Next, two gorgeous tales of friendship. Firstly The Zebra Who Ran Too Fast by Jenni Desmond; a heartwarming book about the turbulence of friendship amongst a group of animals in Africa - the attraction of likemindedness, the trickiness as well as the ultimate importance of difference and how we need each other in all our differing shapes, sizes and skills. We are already fans of Jenni Desmond's work - Red Cat Blue Cat is another great celebration of friendship, emulation and variety.
Then, the adorable tale of Bruno and Titch by Sheena Dempsey. Titch, the bargain basement guinea pig is waiting and waiting for his forever home until Bruno, his very own big person, comes along at last. Bruno is a little intense at first and Titch prefers a simple life, but he becomes afraid when Bruno seems to be rather too engaged elsewhere. Does he still want Titch? Will he be sent back? Of course Bruno is busy pouring his love and creativity into producing something truly wonderful for his best friend.
Finally, we finished with Herve Tullet's extremely clever and whimsical book about authorship and creativity Help We Need A Title. The older children loved this book with its quirky illustrations and humorous concept, but I was surprised to find that 2 year old Culturebaby also finds its content hillarious. A number of colourful characters, as yet unprepared with a story for us, are surprised by the appearance of a reader. They peer out of the pages and attempt to entertain us, but find that what they really require is the author. We are then introduced to Herve, who shows us how a story can be created. A catalyst for any child to begin to create their own tales, and understand the role of the author, Help We Need a Title is just brilliant.
The children interspersed these story sessions with some serious playing and eating. The summer favourite, the 'pretend picnic' was set up and attended by a range of ages, and the older children made duplo constructions to rival Bruno's Guinea Pig palace. We found we didn't even need the activity sheets we were sent, the play was spontaneous, peaceful and creative. We love our baby book club and would highly recommend it as a great way to spend a couple of hours with friends of all ages.
Play By the Book, so head over there for some great activities to bring these stories alive at home. I particularly love their patio door picture book idea and will be trying out the freezer-less ice-cream. As we are currently on holiday and as parents with toddlers will know, holidays require some well planned, small and portable activities to keep our little people content at various points in the day. If you are as insane as us and part of this involves three days of 'glamping' (and sleep deprivation) in the Scottish Highlands with no electricity, you too might be be glad of a few first-aid busy bags along with your selection of holiday books. I thought we'd share a few activities inspired by the themes of our summer picture books that you can create easily for younger children on the go.
Safariology life-cycle models of bugs, a little metal bucket to collect items, a few characters and other summery garden things. She loved this so much that she's played with it every day, so we packed up the picnic basket with a selection of the items and brought them with us.
Another great trick is to utilise what you find in your accommodation to make your own cafe or kitchen (or indeed treasure basket for your baby). Declaring that today I was to be poorly in bed, and using a set of small blocks we brought with us as makeshift food and a plethera of pots, pans and wooden utensils, Culturebaby and Culturetot served up a lovely (fortunately) imaginary breakfast of pasta and milk with fruit.
2. There are so many ways to celebrate Tullet's Help We Need a Title and inspire simple storytelling and illustration. I try to take paper and crayons wherever we go, but I've found that one of our top toys for both Culturetot and Culturebaby this holiday is none other than the humble pastry brush. This poor little chap doesn't get to see much baking, but he is out and out the favourite item in Culturetot's treasure basket so he had to come with us. He's been rather in demand by both little ladies. When I enquired what Culturebaby was doing using the brush on the wall of our chalet, she declared, swirling away, that she was painting Van Gogh's Starry Night. We also packed one of our latest star charity shop finds - a flat-pack magnetic theatre. Pop on The Lonely Goatherd and away she goes. This is a great way for Culturebaby to act out her imagination when she is still developing how to draw figuratively.
We've also been playing in castles a lot this holiday. Wray Castle on the shores of Lake Windermere has been set up as a toddler's wonderland of tower building and dressing up. With children rampaging around the place dressed as knights and maidens, this is an essential visit for any family going to the Lake District. Culturebaby, ever the modern woman, donned the best dress she could find, quickly took control of the play castle and declared that no knights were allowed, only princesses. Clearly an unsuspecting seven year old, who marched in declaring that he was coming to rescue her, hadn't quite anticipated this toddler brand of feminism. Indeed she was not Rapunzel and did not require saving thank you.
3. To accompany The Zebra Who Ran Too Fast, one of our great finds for Culturebaby's first year was our pack of DK's touchy-feely flash cards. These are brilliant for popping in the bag and are just as useful for a 2-3 year old learning to read as a baby learning to speak. They are wonderfully tactile and both girls love handling them. You could also try using these alongside Saint-Saën's Carnival of the Animals, or more simply listen along to the tracks and act out the different animals for your children to guess, or alternatively all become the parading animals. This is just as exciting for Culturetot and is a really accessible introduction to one of the most wonderful pieces of classical music for children.
4. Finally, I've found that the most important piece of portable paraphernalia is our pocket ballet kit. One tutu, several coloured juggling scarves, an optional wand and ballet slippers and a Spotify playlist. Hours of entertainment for Culturebaby; the girl who loves to dance and dance and dance...
Discaimer: All the books featured were sent to me as review copies by Walker Books, as part of the Picture Book Party blog tour. The Safariology models were kindly provided by Asobi Toys.