Friday 22 April 2016

Earth Day Green Reads for Children

What better way to celebrate world Earth Day than to head over to Kew Gardens in the height of its spring bloom, and furthermore to experience an incredible (and rather pungent) giant flower which only blossoms once every twenty years for 48 hours? With its plethora of environments housed in vast greenhouses, outdoor wildernesses, and arranged gardens; and sporting playgrounds, aquariums and discovery zones to explore, Kew is simply an amazing place to take children.We've been twice in the last couple of weeks, and barely covered a portion of its vast acreage.

For Earth Day I've selected a few great recent picture books for children to help them to think about their environment and particularly the host of precious animals sharing our planet. We'd love to hear about others you've found too. 

1. 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.

2. The Tree by Neal Layton, which will be published on 5th May, is an extremely simple and beautifully illustrated story about a pine, which hosts families of rabbits, birds, and squirrels. Happy together in their miniature ecosystem, their world is thrown into chaos when a couple of humans turn up with grand plans to build a mansion, requiring the removal of the grand old tree. However, as they start to chop, and nests tumble, rabbits scurry and their tears begin to flow, the couple realise that all can live together if they perhaps adapt their plans...

 3. Simon James' environmental classic Dear Greenpeace is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It is an adorable tale about a little girl Emily who writes to the organisation, seeking help for the whale who lives in her pond. Despite their continued responses that this phenomenon is impossible, and entreaties not to add salt to provide a saline environment, undeterred she continues to seek the best solutions for him before finally setting him free. It is an extremely cute, amusing and informative tale for little people.

4. Footpath Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith is another exquisite wordless book for children, conveying with simple images and colours, the importance of noticing the beauty in everyday unlikely places. Like the Man with the Violin (reviewed here), it is an ode to the wonder of childhood and the importance of seeing beauty in places others may not. On a walk with her father, a little girl gathers flowers that might otherwise be trampled as weeds (I'll just about forgive the authors for this gathering of wild flowers given their locations...) and with small acts of kindness, she transforms her surroundings and adds colour to everyone she meets. A grey world is metamorphosed into a floral paradise, all through the joy of a child.

5. I've been meaning to write about J. Roussen and E. Walkers' Beautiful Birds for a while. It is a simply stunning book on so many levels - it is a work of art in itself and a piece de resistance when it comes to original illustration and use of striking colour. It is also a clever ABC book (something Culturegrandma cannot resist), and an encyclopedia of the bird kingdom for enthusiasts of all ages. It is lyrical and rhyming and an original introduction for even the youngest child to a range of birds and some of their characteristics.

6. I adored the film Born Free as a child, and was delighted to discover that the actress Virginia McKenna was so moved by the whole experience that she and her husband Bill set up their own charity, Born Free, which aims to protect animals in the wild and rescue those in dangerous captivity. Chimp Rescue, a true story peppered with photographs, is one of a series of books produced by the charity to tell the stories of animals who have been saved and highlight the plight of others round the world. Chinoise is a young chimpanzee who was captured, sold and kept in a restaurant in a small cage - thirsty, sick and afraid. This challenging story, a read for older children, documents her tale and ultimate rescue, and also includes some great facts about that most intriguing of animals; the chimpanzee.

7. Tiny: The Invisible World of Microbes, by Nichola Davies and illustrated by Emily Sutton is a brilliant book on science. Introducing the complicated and seemingly incomprehensible world of microbes in a remarkably simple and elegant way, the genius of this book is that through explorations of scale, purpose and presenting the good, the bad and the ugly, children as young as four are able to understand the complexities of these powerful and tiny creatures. Children, very like the reader, discover that microbes help us to digest our food as well as (at times) making us sick. They turn food into compost, milk into yogurt, wear down cliffs and make snowflakes grow. With beautiful illustrations and gripping text, this was very much an "again" book from Culturebaby.

8. Finally, and with impeccable timing, a quirky book Pattern Play, dropped through the letterbox this week. It immediately gripped Culturebaby who is dying to cut out, fold and create the miniature models of a range of patterned animals. With sheets of beautiful marking designs and ideas around a range of methods from decoupage to papier mache, we've promised this will be tomorrow's activity for the little ladies.

Disclaimer: We received copies of these books from a number of publishers for review purposes. I only write about ones I really like - and all opinions are my own. As a family we recently bought annual membership to Kew Gardens are we are delighted with it so far!

Monday 11 April 2016

My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty

On Good Friday the Culturebabies and I headed over to the Peacock Theatre to see the latest in English National Ballet School's inspired series of child-friendly ballets. My First Ballet, now in its 5th year, features a shortened version of the full ballet, with additional narration, intended to introduce the youngest of children to the classics. We'd been really excited to see Swan Lake last year but, due to a fire in Holborn, the London leg had been cancelled. So with a year's worth of anticipation, the girls donned their tutus and we made a great day of it. 

This unique collaboration between English National Ballet and English National Ballet School was particularly exciting for four year old Culturebaby as we are lucky enough to be able to attend one of the ENB's Junior ballet classes (currently in Chelsea, Richmond and Putney). These fabulous classes, run by highly trained professionals and featuring a real pianist, are also part of the ENBS so this term Culturebaby has been studying the Sleeping Beauty to tie in with what the older students are performing. It's amazing for a four year old to feel like they are part of a much bigger endeavour and see what their hard work could achieve. My First Ballet isn't danced by ENB professionals, it is created by English National Ballet’s Associate Artist George Williamson and performed by second year students from English National Ballet School. This means there is the odd wobble, but what an inspiration for a mini-ballerina starting out!

The production has so many elements that are perfect to capture the imagination of even the youngest child (two year old Culturetot was just as captivated as the older children). The costumes are stunning and the tutus, so important to little people, are spectacular - with just the right level of sticky-outiness for any toddler to covet every one. The set was also beautifully designed. There's no dumbing down here; this is no pantomime. Whilst there is humour, the young audience is treated with a significant level of trust and respect. Whilst the ballet is shortened and a narrator is added, this served to bring out the best in the performance and highlight elements even adults might not normally notice. Cleverly, the narrator is Aurora herself, looking back over the fairy tale of her youth. I was particularly impressed by the way that the narration pointed out the unique sign-language of the ballet (perhaps lost on many of us). Move by move, certain signs were highlighted as part of the tale, introducing the youngest viewer to the lexicon of the dance.
Culturebaby is rather old-school in her tastes. Whilst other children are single-minded in their devotion to Frozen, she prefers the older classic tales and Sleeping Beauty is amongst her favourites. It is such a simple story to follow and is so well known, that it works extremely well as a child-friendly ballet. Though it has a princess and an adventure, it fortunately features strong female characters in the roles of the fairies, and a malevolent character who must be overcome in the form of the evil fairy Carabosse (not Disney's Maleficent of course). There's even cameo appearances from Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf and Puss in Boots. The Peacock Theatre is large enough for the ballet to feel authentic and a real treat. The only downside was that the ENB school's budget doesn't seem to extend to a live orchestra - the music is recorded (but still of high quality).

The material that the ENB has produced to accompany the production was also great (the programme contained the story as well as a version using symbols, games and ballet positions to learn. Their website also includes some great resources including these fantastic free printable ballet position flash cards

We also prepared in advance with some selected reading. In particular I'd recommend James Mayhew's Ella Bella and Sleeping Beauty, which is part of a series about a little ballerina who, aided by a magical musical box, becomes part of the ballets she is dancing; aiding the heros and heroines of the pieces and helping to save the day. The brilliance of these books, other than their gorgeous illustrations and the fact that they feature a kindred soul for our little ballerinas, is that they also stick to the non-Disneyfied plot of the original ballet. I'd also recommend Usborne's Ballet Stories for Bedtime, containing a selection of well known and less well known ballet tales. 

We've also found that one of the best ways to prepare for a ballet (so evident with our trips to see ENB's exquisite Nutcracker with the girls at Christmas) is to play the full ballets in the background at home. They are easy on the ear, full of distinctive tunes and the children seem to absorb the scores without realising it - evident in the theatre as they hum along.

I'd thoroughly recommend My First Ballet for children as young as two and suspect we will be going for a good few years as they serve as such effective introductions to so many aspects of each classic production. It's also great news that they tour round the country and are accessible to tiny ballerinas nationwide. Dates and further information can be found here.

Disclaimer: We received out tickets in exchange for a review. As always all views are very much our own. All photographs of the ballet are featured courtesy of the English National Ballet School.

Thursday 7 April 2016

Can I Eat That?

We are really excited to be part of a blog tour to introduce an innovative and engaging new book from American journalist and food critic Joshua David Stein and illustrator of scrumptious design Julia Rothman. Can I Eat That? uses a series of whimsical questions and unusual foods to challenge children about tastes they know and foods they have never thought of and to introduce the idea that concepts of what we can eat are different in different countries. It has proved a perennial mealtime favourite in the last couple of weeks and has been requested continually.

It has also led to a little experimentation of our own. We decided to use the page about pickles as a prompt to try something new and also to learn about various types of taste.

With a simple activity we selected a food from each category, tried it, and learned the name for that particular sensation:

Sweet - sugar, honey, mango;

Salty - salt, crisps;

Bitter - olives, citrus peel;

Sour - Pickles, citrus fruits;

Umami (Savouriness) - Tomato, soy sauce, mushrooms.

We also had a great time yesterday at Hampton Court Palace smelling, selecting and mixing herbs used to season Tudor food, wrapping them up and taking them home to try cooking with. We ended up with a selection of mustard seeds, cloves, pepper corns, bay leaves, parsley, thyme and rosemary.

We took the opportunity of the blog tour to ask Joshua a few questions, and he's also written us his own guide to the top places for families to eat in his own stomping ground, the wonderful New York City.

We said that we were very interested to know about the process of working with an illustrator. We love the pictures in this book - how much creative input did you get as an author?

Well, one of the things I loved so much about working with Julia is she brought so much I had never thought of. I had mocked up some watercolors originally. I was almost good enough but not quite. But Julia took these ideas added dimensionality and a level of skill and imagination that was just beyond.  

As a food critic and writer, we asked Joshua his views of English food & favourite spots in London. We enjoyed talking about egg plant (US) vs. aubergine in his book and wondered whether there are things we eat here and names we have that Americans find odd?

Yeah, actually if you look at the US v. UK edition there are a couple of changes. Besides eggplant v. aubergine, there you call what we call chicken fingers, chicken sticks, and what we call fish sticks, fish fingers, so that spread was changed. In general, about English food and London spots, my thoughts are, yippee! A full English breakfast remains one of my favorite experiences as well as what you call, I believe, a ploughman's lunch. Generally, the English are strong on sausage and beans. And I too love sausage and beans. Finally, my all-time favorite meal in my life can only be found in London, at Borough Market, at the Kappacasein stand. There's something so intensely satisfying watching someone scrape melted cheese from a wheel. 

Have you eaten all the the things in the book? Did you like sea urchin and jellyfish? 

I have eaten all the edible things, yes. I personally love the richness of uni, which also happens to be quite a popular ingredient here. Jelly fish I'm okay with but rarely seek out.  

What made you write this particular book. The kids love it - it is so original. We are interested to hear a bit more about its genesis.

The book really came out of dinner conversations I had with my eldest son, Achilles. He's an extremely picky eater so dinner became a battleground. I wanted to find a way to talk about food without it becoming a fight. So making it playful and, I suppose you could say, neutral, was a wonderful way to bond with him about something that is a big part of my life too.


Restaurants, like space in general, in New York City is short. And as any parent knows, tiny restaurants and small children do not mix well. That’s doesn’t mean a family can’t eat well together. Simply that one must think strategically about where one goes.

Dinosaur BBQ -- This massive restaurant on the far west side of Harlem -- and there’s a Brooklyn location too -- has some of the best BBQ in the city and a laid-back environment where hootin’ and hollerin’ may not even be noticed.

Hudson Eats -- A food court like Hudson Eats happens to have tremendous stalls for adult palates and plenty of wide-open space for child restlessness. Another plus of this one in particular is that it abuts the Hudson River and has plenty of outdoor space to frolic.

Dimsum A Go Go -- This dim sum place in the heart of Chinatown isn’t too large but it’s been a long-time favourite in my house. Chaos, to some extent, is expected here and no one seems to mind the mess children inevitably create. Plus the dumplings are beyond excellent.

Roberta’s -- I wouldn’t recommend Roberta’s during dinner rush, when the waits stretch to bureaucratic levels but this famous pizzeria has a large outdoor space with picnic tables where one often finds families of Brooklyn hipsters on weekends, enjoying pizzas like the Cheesus Christ and Lil’ Stinker.

Picnic -- One of our favourite things to do, weather permitting, is to spread a blanket out in one of the city’s many sprawling parks for a picnic. Food + running around, what could be better? Besides the well-known parks like Central and Prospect Parks, Riverside Park, especially the Promenade, is among the most relaxing (and close to Dinosaur BBQ too!)

Disclaimer: We received a copy of Can I Eat That? for the purposes of review. All opinions are very much my own. Go and check out some of the other posts that are part of this blog tour too. In Magpie That we hear about what inspired Joshua to write this book, and from Read it Daddy, some tips for aspiring food critics.
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