Wednesday 28 November 2018

Christmas is Open - The Snowman Returns

Culturebaby has just reached seven, seemingly in the blink of an eye, and is keen to write her own reviews . So for the first time here's why she thinks you'll enjoy The Snowman, in her own words...
"On Saturday 24th November we went to the Snowman. It was magical because they fly to the North Pole and at the end snow falls on the stalls and you can catch it. Jack frost is naughty and cheeky. 

In the first Act it is the most magical because the Snowman comes to life. The second part Father Christmas comes and they have a boogie and a funny ending dance. My favourite parts are when the banana, a coconut and the pineapple come out of the fridge, and dance with the Snowman.
It meant to the boy so much because the Snowman was his best friend."

If you want to read my more detailed previous review of this wonderful show see here for their 20th Anniversary last year.

Over the years we've had so much fun with the Snowman that we've now accumulated a list of specifically themed activities to accompany the show and provide some creative inspiration. These work for a wide range of children's ages:

1. Snowman and Snowdog Christmas Cookies 
These simple Christmassy smelling and tasting biscuits are based on an extremely simple recipe. A golden syrup, ginger and cinnamon combination worked really well for the season.

Sift together 350g plain flour, 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Add 2tsp ground ginger and 1 tsp ground cinnamon

Add 125g butter and blend until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in 175g soft brown sugar.

Lightly beat an egg and 4tsp golden syrup together, add to mixture and blend until the mixture clumps together. Knead until smooth, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 15 minutes or so whilst you preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/Gas Mark 4 and line baking trays with greaseproof paper.
 Roll the dough out to around 0.5cm on a lightly floured surface. Create shapes using the cutters.
Place on baking tray and bake for 12-15 minutes. 
Leave to cool for 10 minutes. 

We then varied the recipe to suit tiny hands using roll-out icing to cover each biscuit (also using the cutters) and tubes of food colouring gel for decoration.  
2. Running a Snowman on the Shelf Advent

Lots 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 one year we decided that our large cuddly snowman might enjoy some elf-like antics. 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 was the perfect messenger from the North Pole for us: our very own Snowman on the Shelf.

3. Create a Snowman Themed Christmas Play Basket

Somewhere between two and four the girls particularly loved a series of small-world Montessori-inspired play baskets I made for them, though they still indulge daily in imaginative play. If you have a 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 alongside a tree for Culturebaby to dress with miniature decorations.The floor of the basket was scattered with items that can be collected, matched and counted such as wooden and felt snowflakes, stars, reindeer, small presents, miniature musical instruments and bells.

4. Explore the Story through Art and Modeling

Between 2 and 3, little ones are beginning to draw with clear intention and increasing ability. Using playdoh is another way to foster this interest, and three years ago we tried modelling the characters from the Snowman, and watching others do so - as well as 'melting' (squashing) the snowman afterwards. Creating the scene of the house from playdoh and acting out certain parts of the book was really effective.

5. Imaginative Play and Storytelling with Characters 

This activity was revived a couple of years on the run. The first year, we created a snowy landscape with a large white towel and, listening to the audio soundtrack, used one of Culturebaby's play cottages and characters, with her toy snowman, to act out parts of the story. The second year, we set up a sheet of faux snow material and included the scenes with the dance of the snowmen, when Father Christmas gives James the gift of the scarf and the final morning. The girls have reached the stage where they happily act out stories together. I may resurrect the materials to see how they use them.

6. First science experiments - Three years ago we took a few ice cubes and let them melt in a bowl at room temperature. We talked about what was happening and why - and of course why the Snowman had started to melt when he sat too close to the fireplace. Practical activities like this have also helped the girls understand and discuss differences in temperature.

The Snowman is currently on at The Peacock Theatre, WC2A 2HT until 6th January. You can book here.

Disclaimer: Many thanks to Sadler's Wells for press tickets to The Snowman and for media images, taken by Tristram Kenton.

Thursday 9 August 2018

A Cat For All Seasons

Today was international cat day, and it’s been rather a fun exercise to meander through the many shelves to pull out some of our brilliant picture book odes to the feline. Here's a miaow to our favourite classic cats, with new cats on the block and some marvellously arty cats to follow. We'd love to know your favourites too.

Some of my favourite illustrators of all time seem to harbour a penchant for the fabulous feline. My collection of Nicola Bayley's tales have been a treasured possession since childhood. The Patchwork Cat, by Nicola Bailey and William Mayne is a gloriously illustrated and lyrically written tale of a cat whose beloved blanket is disposed of for a newer version. But she loves her old rag and sets off in pursuit, finding herself lost and consigned to a dump... will she ever see her home again? Bayley also teamed up with Richard Adams (of Watership Down fame) to produce another catty classic - the poetic The Tyger Voyage about two adventurous feline brothers who set off to explore the world. Think Jules Verne for Tigers... Finally she worked with Antonia Barber on the classic Cornish tale of Mousehole fame about Mowzer the cat and her owner Tom who brave the Great Storm Cat to save their village and bring in some fish.

In a similar vein Richard Adams has also written a beautiful volume The Ship's Cat with Alan Aldridge which follows the swashbuckling adventures of another adventurous moggy - a thoroughly English cat, risking perils of the seas for Queen Elizabeth I against the Spanish threat; and Helen Cooper's The House Cat is a sumptuously illustrated and warmtale about a cat who is moved away from the place he really considers his home with owners who do not really appreciate him. We follow his harrowing journey home, all the way back to his little girl from the flat upstairs and the place he really belongs.

Another little beauty is A Dark Dark Tale by Ruth Brown "Once upon a time there was a dark, dark moor. On the moor there was a dark, dark wood. In the wood there was a dark, dark house..." A black cat creeps her way through the night following a trail through a mysterious old house. I used to love the creepiness of her journey, the suspense and the surprising coda.
Other treasured classic tales need little introduction , The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter, Judith Kerr's Mog, Dr Seuss's The Cat in the Hat, and various Ladybird classic versions of Puss In Boots and Dick Whittington.

Next, we have an appropriate marriage of two recently published celebrations of Edward Lear's most famous couple The Owl and The Pussy-Cat. Firstly a stunningly illustrated gift version of the original, then a sequel from the wonderful Julia Donaldson, herself a devotee of Lear and his talent for nonsense poetry. Lear originally wrote the illustrated poem for the poorly three year old daughter of a friend, and I've found it is one of the best first poems to introduce to a child. The girls particularly love the poem set to music as part of the fantastic Funkey Rhymes CD. Charlotte Voake's illustrations are simple yet dynamic. They convey movement, lightheartedness and a splash of childhood joy. I love how they look like watercolours and you can see some of the brushstrokes - a great inspiration for budding artists to emulate. Donaldson's sequel The Further Adventures of the Owl and The Pussy-Cat is also illustrated by Voake, and with Donaldson's seemingly effortless genius with rhyme, the tale continues in seamless form with the honeymoon of the unlikely couple. Following the loss of their wedding ring, the two are thrust on new adventures where they meet many others of Lear's colourful creations - The Pobble who has no toes, the Chankly Bore, even the Jumblies. It's brilliant. A wonderful Christmas gift for any child (the sequel even comes with a CD of Donaldson narrating the poem).

Finally, a couple of new offerings from classic authors.  Last year Quentin Blake was invited to illustrate an unpublished story by Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Kitty in Boots, rediscovered after 100 years. Potter said in letters that she had wanted to finish the story but "interruptions began", including the First World War, her marriage and illness. Her tale as she describes it is about "a well-behaved prime black Kitty cat, who leads rather a double life". Beloved classic characters also make cameo appearances, but Blake's illustrations give the book a more modern feel.  

Meg and Mog by Jan Pienkowski and Helen Nicholl were also solid childhood friends. In 2016 Jan brought out a third title in a collaboration with David Walser. The illustrations are iconic - bold blocks of colour and distinctive soundbubbles. My edition of Meg and Mog is just about still in one piece...

Finally a huge success is Judith Kerr's latest feline picture book. 47 years ago Kerr wrote about her cat Mog, mentioned above as a true classic selling over 3 million copies. Mog has long since passed away - controversially perhaps Kerr even wrote about this in a lovely book about the loss of a pet. Last year Kerr, at 93 and having had 9 cats through her lifetime, brought out a stunning book with a new feline character (her latest cat Katinka) entitled Katinka's Tail - described by the author as "a white cat with a tabby's tail that doesn't belong". When people point out the incongruent markings, we are told she is a perfectly ordinary pussy cat... except for her (rather magical) tail. Culturetot immediately fell in love with this beautiful book, and so did my mum. At 93 Kerr's work is still exquisite, long may she continue to create. (For more on her background and inspiration see this post on The Tiger who Came to Tea).

Disclaimer: Most of the books discussed we own and several copies are being passed down the generations, but thanks go to Harper Collins, Warne and Puffin for review copies of recent editions.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

The Everywhere Bear

One of the more adorable shows we've seen this year is the warm-hearted, tear-inducing tale of a class bear, much loved and lost, sought and found. Each of Julia Donaldson's illsutrators bring a different flavour to her books and the combination of Julia Donaldson's storytelling and Rebecca Cobb's illustrations seem to produce tales uniquely brimming with emotion. Their first joint endeavour was the stunning Paper Dolls (probably my favourite of Donaldson's books). 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. 

The more recent The Everywhere Bear has a similar flavour and skipping rhyming text. "With her blue pointy shoes and her hair in a bun, Mrs McAllister teaches Class One...." Just like many reception children (and Culturebaby as no exception) their classroom has a much loved pet that the children covet and wait in earnest to take home for the weekend. Ours was Charles. I must confess I have mixed feelings about Charles. Every Friday, Culturebaby would emerge from the classroom crestfallen: it wasn't her week. She hadn't done that special thing to earn her time with the picky penguin. But then her moment arrived, the look on her face, the excitement.... and the consequent memories. Perhaps it was worth the wait after all, and the pressure to show Charles a good time after his litany of weekend jollies to a range of exotic locations. Culturebaby took Charles on a boatride, to  Hampton Court, to the lido, he even did violin practice. Both girls still look back on it as a particularly happy weekend. 
Donaldson's Charles is the Everywhere Bear and he enjoys a range of activities with his Bijoux class of 19. Matt is new, so it is decided that he will take the bear home for the weekend. However, on the way to school the bear is misplaced and he finds himself disppearing down a drain, washed out to sea, caught in a net, displayed in a fish shop, thrown in a skip, and finally reeking of seafood he is picked up by a seagull and fortuitously dropped back near his school to be saved by the local librarian. 

The book is sweet, with adorable illustrations and Stickman-like it is an adventure with a happy ending. However, it is Peter Glenville's stage show that really brings this book alive, adding emotive episodes in spades and turning a cute book into a moving classic. In the show we meet Matt, not just a new boy but a nervous new boy with no friends yet. He is delighted to have the bear for the weekend and develops a close bond with him - spending quality time and growing very attached to him in the absence of real children to spend time with... it's hard being new. Matt is therefore completely devastated when, distracted by a cat in the rain, he misplaces the much-loved bear on his way to school. Wracked with worry he is unable to stop thinking about the lost toy. Meanwhile, nervous and alone, the bear is washed out to sea, destined for a series of challenging adventures as he journeys further and further from home - finally ending up in a tip alongside a Barbie with a broken heart. His care to an injured seagull finally leads to his happy return to the librarian that sees him home. The use of emotive music, humour, clever puppetry and additional scenes really add to the original tale, enhancing it and pitching it so beautifully as a tender tale of friendship and perserverance.

The children loved it and we were also privileged to attend a performance alongside Rebecca Cobb, who was clearly visibly moved to see the production for the first time. We asked her afterwards how it felt so see her work translated across to the theatre:
"It usually takes me about 6 months to illustrate a picture book and during this time I get very close to a story and feel very attached to the characters I am drawing. When I heard that The Everywhere Bear was going to be adapted for the theatre I was so excited but also nervous because I was worried about how I would feel when I watched the performance and I wasn’t sure if I would be happy with the way my drawings had been interpreted. But I really didn’t need to worry because as soon as I saw the puppets and the set I was overwhelmed with how brilliantly they had been created. I found it quite emotional to see all the work that had gone into transforming something that I had drawn on paper into 3D characters on a stage. The whole show was completely amazing and really true to the book and the rest of the audience clearly enjoyed it as much as my family and I did."


 The Everywhere Bear is on at the fantastic children's theatre, The Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, until 26th August. You can book tickets here.

Following the Polka, the show will tour to:

Thu, 13th September 2018 to Sun, 11th November 2018 - Little Angle Theatre, London

Thu, 29th November 2018 to Sun, 6th January 2019 - Royal and Derndale Northampton.

Disclaimer: We were invited to a press performance with a view to a review. As always all opinions are very much our own. With thanks to Amy Bramman at Kate Morley PR for arranging tickets and for press photographs, the Polka theatre for hosting us and Rebecca Cobb for sharing her thoughts.

Monday 16 July 2018

Toddler Utopia: Dream Worlds, the Night Garden and Chaucer.

Last year I wrote about the simple and arresting joy of a trip to see In the Night Garden Live in Richmond and as we passed the inflatable snow dome this year (with children finally emerged from the target age category of this show) already they found themselves gripped with a nostalgia for these toddler household friends. I have re-posted a section from our previous review here to give you a taster for the show:

"In the Night Garden is an adorable production for the very young and rarely have I witnessed such unparallelled delight in little people as at the arrival of these household names in larger than life form before their eyes. In The Night Garden is one of those utterly bizarre, and probably genius, Cbeebies programmes that have captured the heart of a nation. At the slightest whisper of threat to children's programming, parents declare war in defence of Upsy Daisy the pacifier and Iggle Piggle the entertainer of their miniature brood. I'm not sure a few years ago that I could have imagined I'd be writing an article about this surreal toddler wonderland, but there too leapt I into the giant showdome, pre-schoolers in tow, and found myself surrounded by the Richmond parenthood chanting along in one voice to the unintelligible but gripping choruses of Makka Pakka, Akka Wakka, Mikka Makka moo! and Igglepiggle, wiggle, niggle, woo!  
I wonder what a future anthropologist falling upon some ancient footage might deduce from such scenes: who are these furry deities depicted on materials from dining equipment to painted bedroom walls, treasured in effigy and emitting strange and otherwordly chanting? But to the 2 year old, who sees true friends and companions in these colourful puppets, the whole phenomenon makes total sense.

There are again two shows available this summer, each covering a simple tale. Let's be honest these are not (for the adult observer) complex and gripping tales of adventure. In one Makka Pakka travels around the garden, introducing a range of his buddies and washing their faces. At one point he loses a sponge. The sponge is consequently r
ecovered. There are bubbles. There is dancing. In the Ninky Nonk show, which we saw last year, Igglepiggle loses his blanket and all his friends help him find it. But the joy created in this showdome is utterly infectious. It was a thoroughly happy event, with audible expressions of delight throughout from young and old alike. It isn't cheap and inevitably is rather commercialised, but it is a great child-friendly performance and good option for a first experience of theatre designed entirely for and on a perfect wavelength for the very young.

My (then) four year old, who in hindsight didn't consider herself too mature for the whole experience, was particularly taken with the sense of scale and use of various sized puppets to bring the Night Garden alive. A larger Makka Pakka emerged alongside the Pontipines, whilst a smaller puppet was used beside the enormous Iggle Piggle. There were glorious moments when Iggle Piggle's boat appears amongst the waves, when Upsy Daisy finally danced onto stage, and when projections of stars onto the ceiling made the whole experience multi-dimensional.

As I circled my toddler's palm with my finger as the show began and witnessed her childish awe at the familiar spectacle unfolding before her, the emotion associated with the brevity of this tiring but wonderful phase rather bowled me over. I found myself wanting Oliver-like to bottle the whole experience. For In the Night Garden - for better or for worse - seems to be a right of passage for today's toddler and now, as then, I recall the immortal words of Evelyn Waugh: "I should like to bury something precious in every place that I have been happy, so that when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up, and remember." "

Yet, what did I know back then as I noted the simple tales lacking complexity? This year I stumbled across a fascinating article in the New Statesman by Medieval and Early Tudor historian, Amy Licence. In her in-depth analysis of the plotlines and characters of this world between waking and sleep, with its utopian vision and eternal temperate summer, she unpacks its Chaucerian roots, including the strict literary conventions it follows from structure to setting and characters: "Parents can be reassured by the BBC’s admission that the “tone of the programme is deliberately literary” although it is perhaps more literary than they realise. What these tots are actually getting is a dose of the conventions of medieval poetry. Specifically, Chaucer’s dream visions."

"The programme begins with a sleepy-eyed toddler, lying in bed, having the palm of their hand stroked soothingly. “The night is black and the stars are bright and the sea is dark and deep” begins the song, almost hypnotically. Just as the toddler drifts off, so dream poetry often begin with the narrator lying down restlessly and hoping for the onset of sleep. As “the day began to fail and the dark night” arrives, as in The Parliament of Fowls, the boundaries blur between the conscious and waking worlds. Here, Chaucer’s narrator often meets a guide, who helps him navigate through this dream world. For CBeebies’ sleepy toddlers, there is the blue, fluffy figure of Iggle Piggle... Presented like a toddler’s drawing of a man, with his little shock of red hair and matching blanket, he is the “everyman” bridge between the worlds."

Upsy Daisy looks like, and is, a child’s doll. The heroines of Chaucer’s dreams are also similarly mannequinesque, with “golden hair and wide bright eyes.” One is even strangely boneless and unreal; her neck is “smooth and flat without hollow or collarbone” and “every limb rounded, fleshy and not over-thin,” while another is “a feminine creature, that never formed by nature, was such another seen.” They are as animate as the toys that people the Night Garden. Iggle Piggle’s little fabric heart, however, has been won. Quick to swoon in situations of intense emotion, such as a sneeze, he recalls the guide of The Book of the Duchess, eager “to worship her and serve as best I then could,” who declares his love but “she never gave a straw for all my tale.” The toys play with the ball, symbolic of the to and fro of romance. They are the lovers of medieval legend, forever enclosed within their perfect garden but childlike, safe and innocent. And, just as in The Parliament of Fowls, they have their own Cupid, the dumpy brown Makka Pakka, reminiscent of a little Renaissance putto." 

It's a fascinating piece - I recommend a full read here.

The magic of our last visit was also completed by a chance to meet the characters. Culturetot's little buddy found the experience a little too daunting (they are huge), but this year Culturetot really threw herself into the experience, chatting to the characters who were really excellent with the children. The joy was palpable. We also trialed a goody-bag. Often these sorts of themed packs can be poorly made, but the one we received had really high quality items - a soft toy, books and a breakfast set that is still a favourite a year on.

In the Night Garden Live runs annually and tickets can be booked at this site, though the website notes that this may be the last year in the showdome. The next two legs of the 2018 tour are at:

Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham
7 July - 22 July 2018

intu Trafford Centre, Manchester
28 July - 19 August 2018

There are 4 shows a day at 10am, 12 noon, 2pm and 4pm. There are no shows on Tuesdays. Each show lasts just under one hour.

We received a family ticket last year in exchange for an honest review of the performance. As always all views are very much my own. Photographs courtesy of In the Night Garden Live or our own.
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