Saturday 20 December 2014

A Literary Advent

Advent is one of our favourite times of the year and we've been enjoying creating some of our own special family traditions since Culturebaby arrived, some inspired by our own childhood, and others entirely new. This year she's been really getting into creating the Jesse Tree (read about this here) and learning about the rich tapestry of Old Testament heroes and villains. We've also been doing some Snowman themed imaginative play (see here) and seeing as much live music and theatre as we can.

I've also produced a couple of seasonal sorting and posting games for the girls to enjoy together. The Paperchase sale is often a sensory play goldmine and last year's booty consisted of neon sets of Christmas Tree-shaped decorations. These have been played with over and over in the last few days. For Culturetot they have made a great posting activity - plus some early colour-matching awareness - whilst Culturebaby has been developing her fine motor skills by hanging them from small hooks. The girls have also loved playing with miniature present boxes, non-breakable baubles and spangly pine cones. I've noticed they have been playing really collaboratively with these materials too, which has been lovely to watch after a year of crowd management.

We also have a couple of basic card nativity play sets that Culturebaby has been enjoying and are easy to pop into the Mass survival kit. Rod Campbell's My First Nativity Set is simple and gorgeous, and with additional Christmas story with pop out shapes Roger Priddy's Nativity Play Set is even more versatile.

One of our favourite new traditions this advent, and given its success it will no doubt become an annual thing, is our literary advent calendar. I can't take credit for this inspired idea, which I've seen done numerous times across the web, but it has been an absolute winner for the girls and I'd highly recommend it. It is such a simple idea - select and wrap 25 Christmas books (which can include those already in your own collection), pile them up in a Christmas tree shape, and each day unwrap and read one together as a family. It has been a wonderful way to explore the many facets of the magic of advent and Culturebaby has been thoroughly excited by her breakfast unwrapping ritual.

We've been really lucky this year to receive a haul of fabulous books to review and I've done a spot of charity shop foraging so we had a great selection to choose from. Given the ages of the girls I ensured that we had a mix of board books, touchy-feely and noisy titles, activity and sticker books for Culturebaby, stories and poems. I also made sure that we had a number of titles exploring the nativity story as well as tales of joy and goodwill of the season, Father Christmas, books featuring much loved characters and a few classics thrown in.  Here's our selection this year:

For one year old Culturetot I included two versions of the Christmas Story - a lovely little cloth book and The Christmas Cat by Su Box, which narrates the nativity from the perspective of a cat from Bethlehem. This cute ginger pet is removable and slots into each of the scenes as a simple jigsaw. It is a beautifully accessible introduction to Christmas for tots. I also added a couple of gorgeous finger puppet books Spot's Snowy Fun by Eric Hill and The Snowman and the Snowdog by Raymond Briggs. Both girls have enjoyed animating these well-known friends and it has been lovely to watch Culturebaby narrate the simple stories to her sister. Other titles that are great for both girls to enjoy together have been Dear Santa - Rod Campbell's Christmas version of the classic Dear Zoo, and the rhyming The Christmas Star by Sam Childs. Culturetot also adores noisy books with buttons and can regularly be witnessed toddling over to books such as Usborne's gorgeous The Nutcracker, pressing one of the buttons and spinning in circles to the music. This great introduction to the story within the famous ballet was already a firm favourite with Culturebaby and when I found this noisy version I couldn't leave it in the shop. I've also popped in a musical copy I bought of Usborne's 12 Days of Christmas for the girls to unwrap on Christmas day.

For Culturebaby I included a few great activity books in addition to stories. Sticker books, as many the parent of a two or three year old will attest, are the saving grace of many a necessarily quiet or patient situation and Usborne produce some of the very best. I wrapped up a winter-themed set and we were also sent a Christmas Market First Sticker book. This series is simple to use and allows little people the chance to use their imagination and also exercise some artistic control over their own work. If I detach the appropriate sheet of stickers Culturebaby can manage these herself now; or they provide great opportunities for detailed conversation and a cuddle when we complete the scenes together. I was also delighted to receive a Christmas with Miffy activity book for her which is due for discovery shortly. This series is great. The activities involving stickers, simple counting and colouring and matching are perfect for a three year old and accompanies the classic Miffy books brilliantly.

One of the first story parcels Culturebaby unwrapped was the gorgeous newly reworked edition of the classic Miffy in the Snow. These lovely new versions, released bit by bit over the last few months, contain Bruna's original illustrations and a text re-worked by poet Tony Mitton for today's generation of children. Culturebaby adores them and regularly looks through her collection herself. She loves the size and shape of the books as well as their contents. Miffy in the Snow is one of the lovelier tales too, where Miffy helps a little bird to find a snug home to protect it from the cold. This theme of goodwill and community care was also reflected amongst much-loved characters in a number of the other gorgeous new titles we received to review. Angelina's Christmas features our favourite little ballerina bringing Christmas cheer to a lonely old mouse who in turn delights hoardes of little mice with his Father Christmas costume. The message is an extremely positive one - that if a child thinks about others at Christmas and includes the lonely or poor, everyone will be all the more joyful for this kindness, including the giver. Snow Day by Richard Curtis also features a heartwarming tale about a lonely boy who turns up to school unaware that it is closed. He is met by his least favourite teacher and both are trapped together for the day. However, misery is turned to joy as the two realise that, in fact, they enjoy each other's company and work as a great snow-sculpting team. It changes their relationship for the better and rather than dreading another such day, the two plan ahead in anticipation of the following year's snow day.

Culturebaby was also delighted to receive a couple of simple tales about the excitement of gift-giving and preparation for Christmas Day. Happy Christmas Peter Rabbit, a sturdy board book featuring some of her favourite friends from the animation inspired by Potter's wonderful characters was an instant hit, as was Usborne's Lift the Flap Christmas from their farmyard tales series, which Culturebaby really likes. The latter as also really attractive to Culturetot, who is just coming into the stage where she enjoys books with flaps and hidden pictures to uncover.

I also can't wait for Culturebaby to discover, hidden amongst the pile, one of her favourite books, Katie's London Christmas, which was begrudgingly returned to the library last week. James Mayhew's thoroughly inspired series of Katie books feature a little girl who jumps into art or witnesses scultptures springing to life and embarks on wonderful adventures in these new and vibrant worlds. When asked about her favourite book, at the moment Culturebaby will invariably say Katie, and she loves this Christmas tale where Katie and her little brother stumble across Father Christmas in need of help, and they join him on a dash across a number of famous London locations. Mayhew's illustrations are detailed and beautiful and his stories have inspired my little lady with a love of figurative art, for which I'm immensely grateful.

Finally I threw in a few classic tales and versions of the nativity story for Culturebaby. Dick Bruna's The Christmas book combines his iconic illustrative style with the classic tale of Christmas; whilst Christmas Story by Roger Priddy has always been a favourite with Culturebaby as it features a nativity play with photographs of real children acting the roles. Mortimer's Christmas Manger by Karma Wilson is a new find - the nativity story told through the eyes of a little mouse who finds a comfy place to sleep in the manger of a family's nativity scene. He keeps turfing the host of statues and baby Jesus out of his new cosy home, until he hears the tale of Christmas and the story of there being no room at the inn for the Christ child... We were also delighted to have inherited from Culturedad's childhood a beautiful story about Fr Christmas who is discovered taking a snooze by a group of animals who fear that Christmas may no longer happen. Father Christmas goes on to explain to them the true meaning of Christmas - that it would go on without Santa, and his presents. The animals listen in awe to Santa's Favourite Story and their Christmas will never be quite the same again. I also couldn't leave out my original copy of childhood classic and brilliantly inventive creation from the Ahlberg's - The Jolly Christmas Postman. Featuring a mammoth delivery task for the Postman across the whole of fairy tale land and starring a host of colourful well-known characters, this ingenious book encloses real letters and presents. Its one of those books I buy for others; an absolute classic. And then finally of course for Christmas Eve, what better than a copy of the famous poem Twas The Night Before Christmas? We'd love to hear about your favourite Christmas reads and wish you a lovely literary Christmas...

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
 As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

A Visit From St Nicholas By Clement Clarke Moore 
 Source: The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House Inc., 1983) 

Disclaimer: We received copies of 10 of the 25 books we list for review purposes from Usborne, Orchard Books, Penguin and Simon and Schuster to whom we are very grateful. As always all views are my own.

Sunday 14 December 2014

Loss for Little People

A week ago we lost one of our beautiful cats at only 8 years old to kidney failure. The vets had called her a miracle. She'd survived extreme toxic poisoning for over a month after she was sent home to say goodbye to us. We'd been hopeful that she might recover, but in the end her little kidneys just couldn't keep going. We had to resign ourselves to saying goodbye. It seemed the miraculous recovery wasn't going to happen a second time. But then I realised that really she herself was the miracle. Pets often are; and they are one of the most wonderful gifts we can give to our children. They teach us how to love, how to care, how to mourn. They teach us about loyalty, belonging and devotion; how creation is precious and we must treat it with respect.

I was wondering why she had that extra month, why we were able to hope but then ultimately have to say goodbye and looking back it seems clear to me. She was already the best cat we could have ever hoped for. She was empathic and cuddled me when I was alone, followed me round to protect me when I was pregnant and even came babysitting with me at neighbours houses. Everyone loved her. She owned the street; she was loyal, gentle and loved company and was so cool that a neighbour once tried to steal her. She couldn't catch a mouse but took great delight in delivering leaves to us. She was funny. She converted my husband to cats. But for the children, in that last month of her being frail and constantly by our side, Culturebaby really learned to love and care for her; how to be gentle; how to talk to her and feed her. They built up a gorgeous relationship. Then for Culturetot; amazingly one of her first four words was the cat's name. That time really mattered and I'm grateful for that gift.

Culturebaby is young but happily our faith allows us to talk about heaven and a place beyond this earth where people and animals are sick and suffer no longer. Where they wait for us until the day we join them. She seems to understand this and that Sugar's body is where we buried it but her soul is happily cuddled up on Great Grandad's knee. This process is both challenging and important for a little one and I'm grateful for a couple of beautiful children's resources that helped her to understand how to mourn.

Firstly, we are already well acquinted with the stunning films of The Snowman and The Snowman and The Snowdog. Both address complex themes of childhood innocence, friendship and loss. It was Culturebaby herself who started to talk about the boy burying his beloved old dog in the garden at the beginning of the film after we had our own little funeral where we did the same, placed a couple of symbolic items in the grave and talked about what we loved about our beautiful furry friend. Having a ritual and a concrete place she could visualise saying goodbye seemed important for her. In a similar way since, she has also drawn pictures for and of Sugar like the little boy did to remember his dog. Secondly I had discovered a unique and beautiful children's book a few months ago and it seemed a perfect way to talk in a positive way about the legacy of those we love and who change our lives for the better. Rabbityness by Jo Empson is one of those rare picture books that make you stop (have a little cry) and think. It combines a beautiful story with an important message about being the best that we can be and continuing in the footsteps of the inspirational people who have gone before us. Rabbit is in many ways normal - he likes to do rabbity things. But then he is also rather unique and likes to do un-rabbity things too. He paints the forest in beautiful colours, he makes wonderful music and he inspires all those around him and everyone is filled with joy. Then one day rabbit disappears. The other rabbits are sad and mourn the loss of their friend and the vibrant world he provided. They go in search of him; and though he is nowhere to be found, they find his burrow. He has left them his instruments, his paints and materials. They begin to find courage and use these great gifts he has passed on to them. Soon the whole world is alive with colour and sound again. It is a beautiful message and has been a great way to talk about the wonderful things we will remember about our beloved moggy; and perhaps what inspiration we can take from her little but massively love-filled life.

From C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce: 
“First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

“Is it? it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be...well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”...

...“And how...but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat-two cats-dozens of cats. And all those dogs...why, I can't count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
“They are her beasts.”
“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end?"

Disclaimer: At my request Child's Play International kindly sent a review copy of Rabbityness for us as we had originally discovered this gorgeous book at the library and I knew it would be perfect for handling a sad time such as this.
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