Thursday 24 March 2016

Calder for Kids
Alexander Calder,
Antennae with Red and Blue Dots, c1953
Aluminium and steel wire © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

Since the Culturebabies have been around there's been a number of wonderfully bright, enagaging and immersive exhibitions at the Tate Modern that have been perfect to excite little minds and senses. This year's Spring retrospective is another goodie: showcasing the innovative art of Alexander Calder. He is most famous for his invention of that staple item of the nursery: the mobile (scuplture in motion) and so it is a particularly appropriate exhibition for young families.

I can imagine as babies that the girls would have loved the simple, giant, bright and floating works - so its an recommended trip for parents with babes in arms. This time we had a barrier-defying toddler and four year old Culturebaby and it was perhaps fortunate that the former passed out in the first room and I was able to focus on one child. The excellent exhibition begins with Calder's earlier work with wire (we even found a Gorgon!) and toys with moving parts. An engineer by training, Calder loved to work with all sorts of random objects - creating beauty from rubbish. His 1927 'Dog', using only a piece of wood, clothespeg and wire could not be anything other than a canine. There is genius in his work's simplicity, and it is therefore so accessible to children who could easily emulate these creations themselves. The sadness, of course, with some of these originally moving works is that they can no longer be operational and sit glumly, robbed by time and creaky parts, of their true glory. For a child they are consequently rather easy to miss. Less so, however, are his circus performers. Due to a couple of brilliant books we read on Calder before going to the exhibition, Culturebaby noticed these immediately. Calder loved the Circus so much that he created his own company from cork, wire, cloth, leather and other parts, bringing them to life with music and moving parts. We went on to create our own junk-modelled version at home later.

There is then a series of, frankly more exciting, rooms with some stabiles and a whole host of enormous mobiles. The largest room is the most awe-inspiring. Sensitive enough at times to respond to being blown, these kinetic sculptures quiver and spin in response to the movement in the rooms. Culturebaby, unpromped, lay and looked up at a number of them from below. Passers-by clearly looked on, wishing they were quite so brave as a child! Needing little explanation but prompting much observation and discussion about the materials used, the colours and why some moved more than others, this exhibition needed no additional activity than a game of spot the picture in the mini exhibition guide throughout the rooms and some sculpting with a chain (see Geis' book below).

However, when we went for coffee afterwards, Culturebaby immediately got out her (gorgeous and inventive) Meet the Artist: Alexander Calder by Patricia Geis, and began to set up the pop-up circus contained therein. This is one of the most interactive and clever art books I've seen and I highly recommend. It contains pop-ups, press-out play scenes, and even a chain to sculpt into profiles. It also covers some great facts about the artist's life. His friends called him Sandy and his favourite colour was red. He worked with it, and he wore it. He created toys, designed jewellery, painted and even decorated cars and planes. We can see some of his moving sculptures from the mere age of 11 and by the time he was in his 40s, he created stabile structures so large people could walk under them. His dynamic works brought to life the Parisisan avant-garde's fascination with movement. Calder said that: "When everything goes right, a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprise." So very true. One of my ensuring memories of a child was of a mobile my Dad created for my brother from Christmas baubles. We did the same for Culturebaby.

At home we followed on with some themed creative activities and, happily, this time I was able to be deeply lazy and use the inventiveness of others as insipration. On several occasions we made Calder-inspired sculptures using a gorgeous set of Shapescapes ("Sculpture in a Box") sent to us from the Tate shop to try out. As a child (and adult) I've always loved Galt's Octons, a great construction tool made up of various coloured 8 sided shapes. Shapescapes uses a similar principle - colourful pieces slotting together to create wonderful designs, but the range of pieces is fantastic and irregular - resulting in the youngest child being able to design their own easy-to-make colourful sculptures. This is the sort of open-ended and beautifully-made resource that stimulates truly independent and creative play and we will treasure and no doubt use it in many ways as the children grow. I've rarely seen Culturebaby so creative and imaginative as I did recently when she created an entire Sculpture Park for her miniature dolls to explore, climb, ride and discuss.

Then finally, using Ed Cheverton's clever book Meet the Circus, we set about our own junk-modeling and made our own troupe of Calder-inspired performers. This children's book, inspired by but not majoring on, Calder's work invites the reader to take inspiration from the ideas in the book to create extra characters, use their imagination to make sculptures with moving parts and set up a circus ring in their own living room with their creations. Aided by a vintage Duplo audience and a stash of arty and crafty bits, toilet rolls, clips, balls and even curtain rings, we constructed four rather cute characters and helped them perform. The circus even had to do a run of a few days. Success indeed!


 I'd like to do one further follow-on activity in the coming weeks - actually create some mobiles with the girls with wire and sturdy cut out card. Here's an example of the sort of thing from Deceptively Educational. Given Culture-Grandad's excellent track record with making some (truly stunning) ones for us as children, I figure this might well call for a spot of targeted delegation...

Alexander Calder is open at the Tate Modern until 3rd April, and would be an excellent family Easter outing. Further information is available here. We were very grateful to receive a review copy of Meet the Circus and a set of Shapescapes from the Tate Shop (available here). We purchased a set of postcards for I-Spy and our own copy of Alexander Calder by Patricia Geis from Tate's shop. All come highly recommended as truly creativity-inspiring resources. Here is also a worksheet produced by Tate Create to make your own circus.

Thursday 3 March 2016

Books to change children's thinking...

To celebrate World Book Day today, I thought I'd share a selection of the recent books we've discovered that have genuinely made us stop and think, have a good discussion and perhaps even resolve to do something differently. As a child, I was rather taken by a series of classic books my parents owned; collectively entitled "Books that have Changed Man's Thinking". I'd like to think that the editors were enlightened enough to have me, a female, in mind with their sweeping '70s collective nouns and, whilst I agree with many of their choices from Homer to Huxley, I often believe that it is the simplest of books that can often be the most profound - and none more so than those designed for children. Many of these books have genuinely inspired wow moments for me as a parent, several - without fail - provoke tears, but all in some way have served to remind me to celebrate the joy in life, embrace difference, and serve as a catalyst for change; all crucial messages I want to pass on to my children.

1. Henry Tate by Bruce Ingman was my personal book of the year in 2015. Many of us visit the Tate and appreciate the enormity of the collection we are privileged to view (and for free) but perhaps fewer are aware of the passion and generosity of the man responsible for this astounding gift to the nation. With photographs of art encased in a cartoon world and a text so simple even my two year old adores it, Ingman presents an enchanting tale of Henry Tate. Henry was a boy who worked hard and built a business from the bottom up, fell in love with art, collected and collected and ultimately decided that it was not only for him to enjoy - he wanted to share it with the nation. Following a rejection of his offer to the National Gallery (ever wondered why the NG's art contains nothing modern?), he built his own gallery, filled it with his beautiful art and we can visit it (and 3 others) today. The girls adore this book with its amusing text and stunning artwork. It's a tale of philanthropy and enterprise and the impact of generosity in a tangible way on their own experience.

2. Pass it On is a new book from an author whose work we love: Sophy Henn. It's a children's version of the idea that good works and joy are there to be passed on to others. If we use what simple gifts of love we have to lighten the lives of others, we spread beauty and it always comes back to support us in the times we too need to be cheered. With an emphasis on finding delight in small things, this book is a joy for all readers - big and small.

3. Another lovely book with a similar message is Alisa Burrows' The Jar of Happiness. There once was a little girl called Meg, who invented her own kind of happiness, put it in a jar and carried it everywhere with her - sharing it with all who needed it. But then one day she couldn't find her jar and became sad. Happily her friends came to the rescue, teaching her their own unique ways to create happiness - from smiles and hugs to happy thoughts. Armed with an arsenal of joy, she no longer needed her jar alone.

4. The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde is one of my favourite childhood books and comes in a number of versions. With Wilde's beautiful prose and the message of Easter through the eyes of a child, I eternally fail to get through this classic without a hankie. A hard-hearted giant throws children, who have nowhere else to go, out of his garden; it is his garden and his alone. But without joy present the frost and snow and hail and wind move in, bringing with them a perpetual winter. Then one day the giant is awoken by birdsong; the children have broken into the garden and with them comes the spring - the trees bloom and flowers spring up. However, one corner of the garden remains in winter - a spot where a small child is unable to climb into the tree alongside his peers and reaches up to the trees to no avail. The giant's heart is melted and he goes to the garden and helps the child reach the trees, which immediately bloom. His kindness is rewarded with a kiss and the giant is healed; he knocks down the walls and the children make his garden their playground once more. The children return daily, except the little child he loved the most. The giant grows old and frail with the children all around him, but he is always hoping that the small one will return... and one day he does, but scarred with wounds on his hands and feet. The giant, enraged, asks who has dared to hurt his friend, but the child tells him that these are the wounds of love. Once he let the little child play in his garden, and so today the child explains that he will be taking the giant to his own garden - paradise. The version of this story we discovered beautifully illustrated and abridged by Alexis Deacon stops at the point the Giant bestows his garden upon the children and all find happiness. This in itself is a beautiful and profound tale for the very young. However, for 4 year old Culturebaby we also love the full version. I have a vintage version illustrated by Michael Foreman and Freire Wright from 1978, but there are others out there too.

5. Isaac and his Amazing Asperger Superpowers by Melanie Walsh dropped through our letterbox last week and is an extremely refreshing and positive exploration of life from the perspective of a child with Asperger's. Isaac explains that "You might think I look just like everyone else, but I've got special superpowers that make me slightly different to my brother and the other kids at school. However, some children don't understand this and call me names." He goes on explain that his brain works a little differently - why he loves to give facts, has so much energy, forgets to say hello and sometimes says things that people find rude. The book focusses on the amazing strengths children with autism can display and why they also struggle with certain environments. This book should be essential reading for all children.

6. Cat's Colours by Airlie Anderson is one of the most stunning books we have discovered in a long time, with a coda that never fails (after many many "again!"s) to make Culturebaby sigh with delight. Cat is surrounded by grey and is consequently having rather a grey day; but she decides to snap out of it, look for the colour in life and as she notices the vivid hues all around her, she begins to take something of each of them into herself. At the end of the day, dappled with rainbow markings, she settles down to rest. She delivers a litter of technicolour kittens; gifting the beauty she received from the world back into it again several times over. A simple and stunning message with exquisite illustrations, this is my favourite new book of 2016.

7. Where's the Elephant? by Barroux is a brilliant graphic exploration of the effects of deforestation. Illustrating the concept perfectly through almost entirely wordless pages, the impact of a simple search for three animals in a rapidly reducing habitat is immense. The child is invited to find the elephant, parrot and snake, who initially are tricky to find. Then their habitat is decreased and decreased until there is nothing left to hide them. And they leave. This is a deep and prophetic tale of the importance of saving our world before it is too late.

8. Little Home Bird by one of our favourite authors Jo Empson (of Rabbityness) is a well-timed new tale for our little, recently moved, household. Little Bird loved his home, his favourite branch, his nest and his beautiful collection of things... but then the wind blew cold and it was time to fly south. He tried to take all this things with him, but they weighed him down and gradually he shed them - blessing a range of grateful creatures who had a great need for them along the way. Eventually he reached a land where the wind blew warm and he could rest and establish his new life with his family. He no longer had his favourite things, but he found new ones and a host of new friends. A beautiful meditation on the necessity of leaving things behind and the real meaning of home, this book has other layers and would be excellent reading both for children moving house or those who must live between two homes.

9. Continuing this theme of memory and value, The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb is perhaps Donaldson's most moving work. A loving mother helps her little girl make a chain of paper dolls, which become the child's most beloved play things. They accompany her on adventures, they face perils and experience wonders with her and all the time laughing and singing "You can't get us. Oh no no no! We're holding hands and we won't let go. We're Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow!". Then sadly one day a little boy snips and destroys them, believing they are gone forever; but of course they aren't - they fly singing into the girl's memory. They join her most treasured things and as she grows into a girl and a mother they remain in her memory and she too helps her own little girl make some paper dolls. This stunning book shows the real value of legacy, and how our acts of love and creativity with our children (and those of my own mother with me) will always live on.

10. Another, perhaps lesser known, Donaldson and Sharratt collaboration is the ingenious What the Jackdaw Saw, a  picture book about the importance of understanding each other. Dedicated to all deaf children and their families, this story follows a journey of a jackdaw who flies along inviting animals to his party. He is perplexed that they do not reply but in each case they continually touch their head. Eventually he flies headlong into a stormcloud and, failing to see the hazard, a tree. He exclaims "Why didn't they warn me?" and in turn he is told that each animal was indeed trying to tell him of the danger - why didn't he see them touching their head? Danger! Danger! The jackdaw understood the problem and learned how to sign.

11. Already big fans of Iggy Peck Architect, I was delighted to discover the Mighty Girl masterpiece Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Rosie loves making things; gadgets and gizmos and machines for doing wonderful things. She hides them under her bed where noone can see. She was once unabashed but, after she created a wonderful gift for a favourite relative who laughed at her offering, she lost her confidence to share her inventions. Then one day she heard the dream of her great great aunt (herself once an engineer) to finally fly and set herself the task to create a flying machine and propel the old lady into flight. With the wisdom and support of this wonderful old lady Rosie discovers that true failure can come only if you quit. With a wonderful canter through some of the feminine aeronautical successes of the last few centuries, this quirky book exhorts children to stand and cheer at each perfect failure, get up and try again.

12. Finally, a wonderful book we discovered last year and is on my 'to buy' list, is the inspiring The Man With the Violin by Cathy Stinson and illustrated by Dusan Petricic. The book is based on a true story about the famous musician Joshua Bell who dressed in normal clothes and played in a subway station in Washington D.C. in 2007. Over the course of an hour's experiment, thousands passed but only seven people stopped to properly listen. However, the musician noticed that it was the children who often wanted to stop - but were hurried on by their parents. This book imagines the experience from the perspective of a child. I've discovered since I've had the children that I'm often in a hurry but I'm slowed down by their natural curiosity and infectious joy in the smallest and simplest of things and I'm often delighted to see what they see - whether we are in museums, concerts or in nature. It's a continual lesson for us all to stop and listen and look at the wonder in life around us and never to let genius and beauty pass us by.

"You give a little love and it all comes back to you...You know you're gonna be remembered for the things that you say and you do..."
Bugsy Malone

Disclaimer: We received some of these books for review purposes, others are from the library or owned by us. All views are entirely my own.

Five Minutes Peace Blog Tour: An Audience with Mrs Large

We are delighted to be taking part in a blog tour to celebrate both Mother's Day and the 30th anniversary of our friends the Large family. Household names, and loved by children and chuckling parents alike, we love reading together and relating to this adorable family of elephants.

Five Minutes Peace, the story we are celebrating in particular, documents one mother's quest for a moment of peace in a busy day. Many of us know the sadness of continual lukewarm cuppas, the silence that speaks volumes (of mischief) if a toddler slips away, and the unparalleled delight upon returning to work of a trip to the toilet alone, but Mrs Large is having a trying day alone with her brood of three and is determined to have a child-free break. Granted it is perhaps a bizarre decision to opt for a bath, but we can support her optiminsm and sympathise with the utter failure of the exercise. Well, almost failure... she does achieve a heroic three minutes and fourty five seconds.

We leapt at the opportunity for this blog tour to ask the author Jill Murphy a few questions about herself and her books, some of which came from Culturebaby and her little friends. We hope you enjoy her thoughtful replies as much as we did.

From the Minis:

1.What was the first story you made up as a child about?

 My first story was ‘The Lonely House’ which I wrote and illustrated when I was six. It was about a dilapidated old house which desperately wanted a family to come and live in it. I stapled it together so that it would look as much like a real book as possible.

2. Did you always want to write stories? 
 It was the only thing I really enjoyed doing. Sometimes I lined up my three best toys and tried out my stories on them.

3. Was the Large family like your own? 
 The Large family was based on some friends of mine who had lots of children.

4. Could we see you draw live one day? 
 I will hopefully be at some literary festivals later this year and I will show how to draw illustrations.

5. What day of the week was Five Minutes’ Peace based on? Was it a Saturday?
 It was a Monday which was the day we always went shopping together.

From the Mummies:

6. What was your most inspirational children’s book you read as a child?
 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (illustrations by Pauline Baynes) and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I also loved the Rupert the Bear Annuals at Christmas.

7. Which artists inspired you in your illustrations?
 I especially loved Pauline Baynes’ illustrations and spent hours copying them and sticking them on my wall. Imagine my delight when, many years later, Pauline Baynes wrote a fan letter to ME, saying that she loved my illustrations and had bought lots of copies my book ‘My Last Noo-noo’ for her great nephews and nieces! If I had known that my illustration-heroine would pay me such an amazing compliment all those years later, I would have been a very happy little girl!

8. If you had five minutes of peace what would you choose to do with it above all else?
 I love to walk on the beach with my dog.

9. The gender roles are quite traditional, is that something you deliberately set out to do and if you were writing the stories now would it be different?
 I never set out to make a point or instruct. I just write whichever story comes out of my head and then hope that my readers will like it.

10. What characteristic or wisdom are you most proud of learning from or inheriting from your own mother? 
 To be true to yourself and not to give up at the first fence.

To celebrate 30 years of 5 Minutes Peace, Walker Books are giving one lucky winner the chance to win a Five Minutes' Peace pampering kit, including £100 Treatwell vouchers to spend on spa treatments of your choice, plus a signed edition of Five Minutes' Peace, relaxing tea, bath salts, candles, and chocolates! Five runners up will receive a signed copy of Five Minutes' Peace.

To enter, just email with 'Pamper' in the subject line and let them know how YOU would spend five minutes' peace!  The competition closes on 18th March. Head over to the Picture Book Party website here for further details.

Join some of our great fellow bloggers over at their blog sites too and get some free activity sheets to occupy your own boistrous brood here.

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