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.

http://www.sterlingpublishing.com/images/covers/Large/9781454904366L.jpgThird 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.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Mini Mondrian

I was disappointed that we didn't make it up to Liverpool to see the Tate's Mondrian exhibition this summer, but my friend and I decided nevertheless that Piet Mondrian's art was a great subject to explore with our little ones with its bold primary colours, clear form and ease of emulation. We all spent a happy couple of hours after school last week playing with coloured insulation tape, duplo and play doh.

We began by reading the (extremely clever) story book for children Coppernickel Goes Mondrian by Wouter Van Reek. Inevitably with such distinguished little productions, the story works on a number of levels. Mr Quickstep (who is Mondrian) sets out to look for the future. He and his little pooch Quickstep run into Coppernickel and his dog Tungsten who are berry picking. Coppernickel declares that if they wait long enough the future will arrive anyway, but Mr Quickstep remains unsatisfied; he craves the new and sets off. For days Mr Coppernickel cannot shake from his mind Mr Quickstep's quest, and eventually he and Tungsten set out in pursuit of the future too. The further they go, the stranger their surroundings become. They see they are accompanied by many others heading in the same direction. They pass handcarts and bicycles and reach an underground train which takes them to a busy, primary coloured city. Following a couple of mishaps involving a missing Tungsten, they eventually arrive at Mr Quickstep's studio (decked out in art reminiscent of their new world) where the artist exclaims that he feels he is on the edge of a completely new future. Coppernickel begins to experiment with coloured tape he finds lying around, and whilst the dogs discover new swinging sounds on the record player Mr Quickstep, inspired, has his Eureka moment; he has found his new style.

For the younger children, inevitably the book serves as a stunningly illustrated tale about a character who sets off on a journey for something new, leaves the country and reaches a crowded city - temporarily losing his dog along the way - and gaining a joyful new life. For older children (for whom this book is really designed) there is of course so much more going on. The seven year old was very taken with the fact that, although these characters were searching for their future, this was now indeed our past. He followed the clever change in style as Quickstep moved from country to city, from past to progress and from Mondrian's earlier work (which we showed alongside the story) to his later more abstract and simple forms. He was fascinated with the artist's choice of palette (no green) and how the brilliant illustrations were each so reminiscent of certain of Mondrian's styles or works. All, however, became excited as they clocked that as Quickstep and Coppernickel began to experiment with coloured tape, we too would shortly be doing the same...

 Whilst the children, armed with coloured tape and pens, worked on their own versions of Broadway Boogie-Woogie and some of Mondrian's other late works, we listened to the sounds of Satie and Milhaud, (composers Mondrian knew and was inspired by in Paris) and a selection of jazz and Boogie Woogie.

When Jazz was introduced to Paris in the 1920s Mondrian fell in love with the swinging rhythms of the new sound. He thought dances such as the Charleston and Foxtrot represented a newer and freer future. He wanted to do with colour what jazz was doing with sound. Instead of copying reality, he tried to capture the inner truth of images and used solid blocks of primary colours and lines to express concepts of movement and change.

Then in the 1930's, fleeing from Hitler, Mondrian found himself in New York. He loved the city, its architecture, vibrant atmosphere, and dance halls. He was inspired by the new music he heard - The Boogie Woogie - and he developed and changed his style further. He began to create his compositions with tape and loved the method so much that he included this material in some of his finished works.

Creating their own tape art certainly proved enjoyable but a little challenging for Culturebaby, who still needs help with cutting but inevitably wants to work independently. Nevertheless, both she and her 4 year old friend clearly understood the concept and process and, with help, produced some recognisable versions. The seven year absolutely old loved this activity and created more complex and accurate pieces. We then introduced the children to a few other Mondrian-inspired materials. We had researched and discovered a number of simple and brilliant ideas out there in the blogosphere.

We printed off a selection of Mama Miss' Duplo Printable Cards and provided a basket of duplo blocks for exploration:

We also made a set of Coloured Lolly Sticks, inspired by this post by LalyMom so that the children could create their own version of Broadway Boogie Woogie (see original piece here):

Finally, we provided homemade coloured playdoh in each of red, blue and yellow.

As with all the most successful childhood art appreciation projects, the younger children then took these three materials and used them to create their own unplanned sculptures that were clearly inspired by the architecture of the city illustrated in their story. They used a combination of playdoh, duplo blocks and the lolly sticks to produce some inventive (and beautiful) little works of art of their own. They were really proud of these, concentrated for ages on their construction, and (always a sign of success) Culturebaby requested and played with these materials for the following few days over and over again.

Even 10 month old Culturetot had fun - trying to eat the playdoh, handling duplo and posting the Mondrian lollysticks into a homemade posting box. This was such a simple project to prepare, and worked for a full range of ages. One for any rainy day.

Disclaimer: On request, Enchanted Lion Books, through their UK distributor The Perseus Books Group UK, kindly provided a copy of Coppernickel Goes Mondrian for review purposes. As noted above, where ideas have been gathered from other blogs, these have been linked to the appropriate source, with many thanks.

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