Friday 28 November 2014

The Snowman on the Shelf: 12 Days of Christmas Snowman and The SnowdogBlog 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.

Tuesday 25 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.

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