Sunday 19 June 2016

Top Ten Picture Book Dads (and a giveaway)

This is a quick post to celebrate and honour all the fabulous Dads out there on Fathers' Day. I never could have realised until I became a parent quite how generous my own father has been with his time and energy throughout my life. So nappies were never his bag, but I have wonderful memories of walks, camping and boats, old houses and nature; learning to paint with watercolours on a beach; and painstakingly handcrafted wooden puzzles that have been passed to the next generation. Living on the outskirts of Manchester, Dad supported my friendships by ferrying friends to and fro from our house to the other side of the city, he manned the lights at am-dram rehearsals, and (though I was immensely cross at the time) he came to collect me from club nights and escort me safely home. I'm grateful for his amazing selflessness and love him very much. My little Culturebabies are also blessed with a wonderful father who is so full of life and love for them. Here's a little selection of, what I think are some of the best depictions of fathers or father figures and their relationships with their children in our picture book collection.
Firstly we'd like to introduce a new book for 2016 from Sean Taylor and illustrated by Emily Hughes, whose stunning work Culturebaby was fortunate enough to peruse in its developmental phase last summer. A Brave Bear is a beautiful portrait of a father and child who set out together on a simple adventure. Full of joy and fun, the story also charts the progression of little bear's growing bravery with such a solid support to guide him, pick him up when he falls, comfort him, carry him and give him the self confidence to conquer challenges himself. The writing is beautiful and uplifting and the illustrations are exquisite. At bedtime on a recent holiday, two year old Culturetot begged Daddy to take her on an adventure (round the surrounding site), and, no matter the time, he did. This gorgeous book encapsulates that excitement in simple discoveries, the joy of quality time alone with a parent and the optimism such devotion can bring: "On the way home, the sun was glowing. The air was glowing... Even tomorrow was glowing".

This theme of the importance of quality time and passing on the awe and wonder of life from generation to generation continues with When Dad Showed Me the Universe by Ulf Stark and illustrated by Eva Eriksson. It was originally a popular Swedish classic and this English volume from Gecko press (which specialises in English versions of curiously good books they discover from around the world) is a really original read about a father who really wants to show his son the Universe. Keen to make it a special occasion and daring adventure, the surprise is kept as such until all streetlights are left behind and in the wilderness the Dad lifts up his child to reveal to true magnificence of the night sky. Peppered with scientific facts which betray the passion of the father for science, and humorous interludes, this story is rather unusual. On the face of it, it is a great adventure with a father and a comic ending. But it is also rather more interesting for older readers too. The father with his head in the clouds fails to see the mess on the ground he wades into; he worries that a great adventure has been ruined because it contains such a moment. The delight and message, of course, is that even if the best made plans are imperfect for the child, both the intimacy and wonder of sharing a parent's passions are utterly unforgettable. 

A humorous caricature, and one of Culturedad's all time favourite picture books, is the ingenious Anthony Browne's irreverent and distinctively illustrated My Dad. The book begins "He's all right my Dad..." and goes on to list a cocktail of attributes from the normal to the fantastical. The book oozes pride in a father figure, who no doubt inspired this author we know and love. It is catchy, quirky and memorable. We've bought it several times as a present for the men in our lives.  
There's always space on our picturebook shelves for the simple and heartwarming. There are numerous Dad portraits like this around, but one of the cutest is Walsh and Abbot's I Love Dad, which depicts a day in the life of a toddler dragon, hanging out with his Dad. Nobody compares; no one can provide so much fun and entertainment "...make a bedtime story so fantastic, a lion's roar so drastic, a plastic man's kung-fu kick so slick". Its a lovely reminder that little people find joy in the simplest of things. It's about being present.
Culturebaby's current laugh-out-loud favourite is Mabbitt and Blunt's new This is NOT a Bedtime Story. Disatisfied with a repetition of the usual and rather mundane pink kitten tale, Sophie surprises her father with a dramatic revision of the bedtime story inspired by items around her room and featuring lions, helicopters and robot dinosaurs. Recovering from his shock, Dad gets rather into the swing of things. This delightfully subversive depiction of the importance of story time with a parent, the need for space for imagination and creativity and a challenge about what a girl might like to read, is really fun. Culturebaby has demanded this one at least five times in the last couple of days. I even found Grandad perched on the bottom stair reading it, with both girls chuckling beside him.

We've also been enjoying a new read from Michelle Robinson and Nick East. Goodnight Spaceman features two little boys who dream of joining their dad on his adventures in space. In his introductory letter to readers, Tim Peake the astronaut, says "I see my two young sons looking up at those same stars and I remember experiencing the early feelings of wonder and excitement that I now see on their faces... I hope it may inspire a new generation of boys and girls to look up at the stars and not just ask questions, but to go and seek answers of their own." This cute picture book is both informative and smacks of pride at the career of a much loved father. But perhaps it is also useful for children whose father is at times or always rather more distant than they might like.
Next is a much loved classic The Railway Children, retold in the simplest of forms by the wonderful Usborne and their picture book collection. With beautiful illustrations from Alan Marks, E. Nesbit's tale of a family struggling at the arrest of their father, the resilience and optimism of children and the way in which they help to save him, is made accessible to the very young. It's also an important tale to include in a selection of stories about fathers. There will be times in every child's life when their father might feel weak or vulnerable, suffer shocks and familes may experience hardship. It's a good message that children can play a part in the recovery - and save others through their own strength and love.
Finally, I've selected a trio of wonderful books about grandfathers. For many of us, these important  paternal figures will feature strongly in our young lives, and navigating this relationship and the process of eventual loss is a lifechanging one. In the tale of Peter and the Wolf  (a favourite is Ian Beck's edition), the grandfather is the father figure in Peter's life. In a dangerous environment he tries to protect his cheeky and disobedient charge from a wolf who gobbles up the household duck and is eventually captured by Peter. Thundering out his necessary discipline in the serious tones of the bassoon, this role of parent as protector is an crucial depiction. We adore the narrated musical version of this tale, and we've been particularly loving the Royal Ballet's dvd of their production as part of a set of four ballets for children.

A recent discovery in our local library is the tear-jerking My Grandpa by Marta Altes. Depicting the process of aging and how a child might deal with the changes they encounter in a much loved relative, this little and expressively illustrated book stays with the reader. At times Grandad behaves like an old man, sometimes like a child; he loses things and at times the child must be his eyes. But then there are the times for adventure, cuddles and the passing on of history. The book oozes with emotion and would prepare any child in a similar situation to continue to love unconditionally - just as they themselves are loved.
Finally, one of my absolute favourite books of the last year is the beautiful Grandad's Island. It is hard to read - I haven't seen many adults make it through without tears - but it is also one of the most uplifting depictions of handling the loss of a loved one that I've ever encountered. Syd loves his Grandad and spends a lot of time with him, but then one day Grandad takes Syd on a journey to a wonderful island. Here Grandad no longer needs his stick, renovates a little house, and participates in a range of wonderful adventures. Eventually Grandad breaks the news that he will be staying on the Island and Syd must return. Along with the brilliant book Rabbityness, this is a must read for any child dealing with the loss of a loved one - or needing a reminder that even when distant, our loved ones always remain near to us.

With apologies to international readers, we can only offer this prize as a hard copy to entrants from the UK. 

Thursday 16 June 2016

Feel Brave: Stories to help children deal with big feelings

With Culturebaby off to school in September, the arrival of a series of books designed to help children to deal with big feelings and challenges was very welcome indeed. Culturebaby has been blessed with the wonderful children she's grown up alongside. Both girls have been adopted into urban-families of my friends' children from ages nine down to one, who look out for each other and where age doesn't matter. But I know that this won't always be the case, children can be mean and problems can seem insuperable to a little person in a big school. I'm aware that helping her to deal with fears and challenges herself and with the help of others will be hugely important.

The Feel Brave series by Avril McDonald and published today, is a collection of five picture books designed to help children explore positive psychology and emotional intelligence in a safe and non-threatening way, through the art of storytelling. Each tale contains strategy in which to overcome a negative emotion, with the help of a lovable wolf called Wolfgang and his friends. (And I might add so refreshing to see a wolf depicted in a positive light. The poor chaps get such a bad press in fairyland). 

Each of the five books tackles a difficult issue a child may be experiencing at home or at school, with their friends or alone, and provides them with the tools to feel better. This includes low self-esteem; change, loss and grief; anxiety and fears; and bullying. We've been working through them and Culturebaby has been particularly attracted to The Wolf Is Not Invited. At four, children are clearly beginning to decide who they are really drawn to. This partiality can create fantastic friendships, but it can also lead to exclusion and sadness. It's something children have to navigate, and we cannot fully protect them from the inevitable heartbreak this can cause throughout their early years - but this sort of story can help.

Wolfgang also learns to face fear of the dark in The Wolf and the Shadow Monsterbeing bullied in The Wolf’s Colourful Coat and overwhelmed by worry in The Wolf and the Baby Dragon and finally, sadness losing someone close to him in The Grand Wolf. A golden thread through each of the stories is also the power of friendship. Spider is close by to offer another perspective, support and helpful words. 

Avril McDonald had her first panic attack at 8 years old. That attack marked the beginning of Avril learning to live with anxiety disorders and it gave her an insatiable curiosity about the mind/body connection and desire to help children to learn to handle their emotions. “I want to try and equip children with the tools they need to do this and I’m putting all of my faith in a little brave wolf with a big heart to make it happen”. 

Here's a guest post from her with ten great ideas to help children build emotional intelligence:

10 fresh ideas to bring into your home to help children build emotional intelligence and thrive
We now live in an incredibly distracted and fast paced world where we are seeing whole new levels of stress in children.  How can we help children adapt to this world?  Here are ten tips to bring into your home to help children build emotional intelligence and thrive.  

 1. Teach children about their brains with the Cheeky Monkey and the Wise Owl 

At a very simple level, we have two brains; the ‘old brain’ (responsible for basic physical desires, motives and emotions such as the fight, flight or freeze responses) and the ‘new brain’ that sets us apart from animals. This part of the brain enables us to think, imagine and reason and gives us our sense of self.  Our new brain capabilities can easily be hijacked by our old brain feelings, emotions or desires. Like a dog, the old brain is most useful to us if we can train it using our rational new brain.  
Young children can be introduced to this concept by imagining that one part of their brain is a bit like a ‘Cheeky Monkey’ and that another part is like a ‘Wise Owl’. Sometimes the ‘Cheeky Monkey can get a bit too excited or if it feels scared or angry, it might want to scream and run away or do things that might hurt other people like hit or say unkind words. The ‘Wise Owl’ can train (or talk to) the ‘Cheeky Monkey so that when feelings come up, the ‘Cheeky Monkey can stop for a minute while the ‘Wise Owl helps it to do something really good with those feelings (even if the feelings are bad).  
You can make this learning part of a child’s everyday by just talking about their ‘Cheeky Monkey’ and their ‘Wise Owl’ as if they are little invisible friends. Talking like this can start the imagery and fun conversations flowing until they are old enough to take on the bigger concepts e.g. ‘Was that your Cheeky Monkey that just did that?’ or ‘What would ‘Wise Owl tell Cheeky Monkey’ to do?’ You could make puppets or use toys to play out scenarios of what ‘Cheeky Monkey’ did with a situation and what he/she might have done better by listening to what Wise Owl had to say.     
Other great ideas on how to explain a child’s brain to them can be found on the internet such as this one by Dr Hazel Harrison

2. Mindful breathing 
Mindful exercises have been proven to reduce stress and promote wellbeing.  Slow and deep breathing makes us feel better.  It releases happy hormones (e.g. dopamine) and reduces stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) and can help children move in to a positive mental state where they are ready to learnMindfulness exercisescan be easily accessed on the internet and are a great way to calm down and ‘self-regulate’ our emotions.  

3. Calm down box 
Make a calm down box for children to use at times when they feel restless, over stimulated, angry or upset.  Include things like Lavender scented play doughstress ballsMandala colouring in templatesmind jarssome nice calming music, favourite books, art equipment to draw out feelings etc.

4. Practise empathy by looking for kindness 
The ability to empathise builds social tolerance and helps to develop our support networks which in turn increases resilience. Empathy plays a vital role in preventing bullying. Ask children every day to tell you what they did that was kind or made someone feel good?  Or ask them if they saw someone else do something kind or made someone else feel good today. 

5. Random acts of kindness
Random acts of kindness can help to build a sense of empathy and compassion which is key to developing social competence.  The more we practise empathy and compassion, the more likely we are to recognise situations when others are in need.  Random acts of kindness also strengthen the neural pathways necessary for detecting emotions and releasing our happy hormones (e.g. dopamine). Ask children to secretly plan little ‘acts of kindness’.  Get them to report back each day on any ‘RAK’s’ they did or saw someone else do.  

6. Draw your feelings 
Give children plenty of opportunities to draw or paint.  If they are feeling angry or upset, ask them if they would like to ‘draw’ their feelings to some of their favourite music.  Drawing and painting can help children express and process feelings that they may not even have words for yet.  Drawing can also help open up conversations about any feelings or things that might be bothering them.  

7. Daily stretches
If children can be introduced to a little fun stretching routine each day, it can help them get a taste of just how enjoyable and beneficial a short exercise break can be and how good it can make their bodies and minds feel. There are some fun little stretching routines that can be found on the internet.  

8. Make up new stories about things that worry them
If a child is worried about nightmares or certain situations and scenarios, try creating new stories together and make their scary things become funny or small and cute.  This is a very simple Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called ‘re-framing’.  

9. Role play difficult situations 
Children love nothing more than role playing a tough situation they are facing when you play the part of them or you share a similar story from your childhood.  Role playing gives them a safe environment to try out different scenarios and see situations from a different perspective and to try and process their feelings.  Role play can also be done using a child’s favourite toys or by making a puppet show.  

10. Practise gratitude
Gratitude exercises have been proven to increase happy hormones (e.g. dopamine) and help us change how we view things.  They encourage us to focus on the positive which helps our overall well-being.  Ask children every night what the ‘best thing of the day’ was and get them to think about all of the people they love and mix them in a bowl and drink them like a hot chocolate so that they feel warm inside their hearts.  

About the Author
Avril McDonald is the author of the Feel Brave Series of books (little stories about big feelings for 4-7 year olds) and founder of   She set up the charitable arm with the vision to give all children access to tools to help them manage tough emotions and reach their potential. 

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