Monday, 24 December 2012

Don't be Alone this Christmas

It's been hectic here this past week and I've not been able to keep up with work, family and the blog. This time of year can be overwhelming, so I'm joining a group of bloggers inspired by the Big Fashionista to donate a post dedicated to those who feel they have nowhere to go and no one to turn to.

If you are at a low this Christmas, please know that you are not alone. Pick up the phone, there is someone to talk to, that can help you find your way back.

0300 123 3393

08457 90 90 90

Alcoholics Anonymous
0845 769 7555

Info line 08000 50 20 20

London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard
0207 837 7324

0845 767 8000

Preventing young suicide

For people in Northern Ireland  
0808 808 8000

0800 1111


0808 2000 247

0808 800 4444

NHS Direct
0845 4647

If you are in Belfast and you find yourself with nobody to spend Christmas Day with and you'd like company, if you're new to Belfast and don't know anyone then you can pop along to Common Grounds, 12 - 24 University Avenue, Belfast where from
 12 - 3pm you will be very welcome to a free Christmas Dinner amongst people in a similar situation. Thanks to the Agoraphoric Fashionista for suggesting this become a tradition. 

Merry Christmas x

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

I was dreaming...

I was dreaming about setting up a toy store with no pink. Pipe dreams, I could never afford it. It turns out that I can set up an Amazon store though, so I spend some (or lots) of time virtual shopping and set one up. I've not worked out how to get it onto it's own page properly yet so it's not all in-your-face. In the mean time, you can visit it here. Or not.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Christmas Pinks and Blues

When I was a small thing, I really, really hated visiting DIY stores. Those hours and hours spent standing around while my parents looked at tiles, or wallpaper still fill me with dread to this day.  Magnolia  paint on woodchip. Shudders. Toy shops, for the obvious 'I'm a child' reason, were great. Big Barn Toy Shops weren't the order of the day back then, it was all Woolies and John Menzies with Cabbage Patch Dolls and Star Wars Toys. Then came warehouse size stores, cable TV and endless streams of advertising. Now, the sea of pink that appears when you round the corner to the girl's toys doesn't just offend me, it makes me feel dizzy and sick. Even thinking about it makes me feel sick.

I did think that I was safe in the Lego aisle, with their 'toys are for everyone' ethos but the whole Lego Friends thing? It's even appearing in the Duplo range. Why are we so obsessed with genderising our children? It's not so long since women were throwing themselves under horses so we could vote, yet we seem to be hell bent on disenfranchising a whole generation of girls by giving them toys that are all about housework and babies, and making them pink beyond belief. I have no problem with children having kitchens or Henry Hoovers, just so I'm clear. Kids should play these things, it's natural and good for them. But they don't have to be PINK. I am secretly very pleased that the Lego Friends advent calender (the city ones were sold out) has been visited by a Character Building Dr Who and a Cyberman on skis. I've had to spend a lot [read: far too much] time telling Abigail that toys are for whoever wants to play with them not for 'Girls' or 'Boys'.

It works the other way too. We're scared to let our boys do things that might be seen as 'girl' things, and it can be even worse for them. Boys should not be excluded from hairdryers or kitchens. After all, are some of the most successful chefs and hairdressers and fashion designers in the world men? And *whispers* they are no more likely to be homosexual or hen-pecked than the rest of the male population. You would hardly go up to Gordon Ramsey and accuse him of being effeminate or 'under the thumb' because he likes to cook, would you? That's because the world doesn't work that way. I was shocked to see some comments on Facebook yesterday when a mum suggested she might buy her son a toy kitchen for Christmas. Someone actually said 'if anyone asks you could always say it's his cousin's toy'. Why? What's the problem? Surely by encouraging him to lie about who his toys belong to you are making him ashamed of who he is.

If we want to work towards breaking down the last barriers to equality then we need to start as early as possible. It's only by growing up thinking that wearing a pink dress and being a scientist is just as normal as a man looking after a baby and letting them be who they want to be that we'll be giving our children what they deserve.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Princesses and Firefighters.

This week was a bumper crop for books, having gone *slightly* overboard last week on ordering books. I'd read an interview with Dashka Slater about her book Dangerously Ever After and had to have it. I have a real disliking to 'Princesses' and all the Pink Passiveness that comes along with them (because all your problems will be solved waiting for your Prince to come, right?) so a book that could knock that idea on the head had to be in our library. The turnaround time was quite long on these from Amazon, so I got in touch with Dashka through her website. It turns out that only only one of her books has a UK publisher, and sadly for me, it wasn't the one I was looking for. Not prepared to wait for weeks, I worked some google magic and less than a week later there's not one, but two Dashka Slater books on our bookshelf.

Dangerously Ever After is the story of Princess Amanita, who loves dangerous things, especially the dangerous plants that she grows in her garden. They are all spikes and stings, wonderfully illustrated by Valeria Docampo, who balances so well her drawings of the Princess - being a fan of dangerous stuff doesn't mean she has to be boyish, you can still wear dresses and have a pet cat you know. This Princess is just herself. I like that. Abigail decided to ask me at this point why the Princess liked dangerous stuff, 'it's just like you like zombies and Jack [the Pumpkin King]' I told her. To which she replied, 'but I don't like zombies, they're scareeeey!'. This from the girl who keeps asking if there is a My Little Pony 'Zombies' episode...
We got back to the book, and enjoyed following Amanita meeting Prince Florian, who was more than a little confused by Amanita's 'nice sword' reply to his complimenting her flowers. A misunderstanding folllows, and Amanita sets off to find the young Prince. She gets lost and scared, as Princesses often do, but she uses her instinct and finds her way to her neighbour's castle. Amanita and Florian form a friendship where they both appreciate their differences. No-one has to change who they are to be friends, and that is a great lesson.

The second book we read was Firefighters in the Dark, this time illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli. Abigail's Granda Dave is a firefighter, so I think she was sucked in from there. A little girl lives opposite a fire station and tells us all about the firefighters do and the fires they fight. Any grown-up who is a fan of magic realism (I'm have to declare I'm a card-carrying Angela Carter Fan) will enjoy the fantasy of the girl's dreams mixed with the visits she has had to the fire station in real life. Kids will enjoy the fantastical dreams and the wild imagination of the illustrations. There are fires started by dragons and little boys who have jumped so high they have to be rescued from space, all told with a dash of humour. Dashka integrates this with the real bravery and seriousness of a firefighter's job in an informative but not frightening manner. She also has male and female, black and white firefighters, done in the best way you can, by just presenting it as normal. Abigail really loved this book it's a definite keeper for her. And me? I loved it too because it lets a little girl dream of being whatever she wants to be.

It's a real shame that these don't have a publisher in the UK. It's our loss.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Picture is for Life.

I came across this little book this morning when I was trying to make the girl's books look at least a bit tidy. I have no clue where it came from (sent home from nursery perhaps) but as soon as I opened the cover, I was transported back in time by the illustratiions of Stephen Cartwright to these two books:

I was sent back to the time when these books both filled me with delight and terror when I read them (underneath the covers with a torch for more thrills of course!). I have no real recollection of the stories, but of the pictures which carried warmth, comedy and terror to my little self. And most strangely of all, I could almost taste them.  Does that make me a little odd? I don't know. But I do know that an illustration is more powerful than you might think.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

If You Have a Hat (Kindle Edition)

A long time ago, when I was growing up, books came mostly on paper. Sometimes you got them read out loud on a cassette or LP (or a CD if you're a little less ancient than I am) and if they had a book with them there would be a 'bing' when you had to turn the page. It was really exciting. Zip forward *coughs* years and there are 18 year olds that don't know what a cassette is and technology has zoomed from Speak and Spell to ipods and kindles. The result is that technology is just the norm to young children today. It's intuitive to use and they can't be fobbed off with imitations. Emily has been able to spot a toy phone from 20 paces since she was tiny, far preferring to use the ipod or phone. She made it quite clear from an early age that she'd far rather be solving tangrams or using Spanish flashcards than play with a plastic phone.
When I got a kindle for my birthday this year, I was a little hesitant about getting picture books on it. I just wasn't sure that illustrations would translate from page to e-reader, especially as they would be going from colour to black and white. I bought Emily If You Have a Hat by Gerald Hawksley just as an experiment really. She didn't come to it with any of my prejudices and enjoyed it for what it was, pointing to anything she recognised while announcing what it was. It was difficult to stop her from flicking onto the next page too early by touching the pictures (only a problem if your kindle is a touchscreen version) but I'm sure it won't be long before she understands. Big sister enjoys it too, she's got it nearly all  the rhymes commited to memory so will read it out to Emily with me, which is nice. We also discovered if you use the kindle app on the ipod the book is in colour, which keeps me and my preconceptions happy. However, as I've not bought any more kindle books I think I'm yet to be a hundred percent convinced.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Plucky Young Duck

The Highway Rat, by Julia Donaldson

The Highway Rat is everything we love about Julia Donaldson:  the rhymes, the Axel Scheffler illustrations, the cameo from the Gruffalo (as a cake, nom). Based on the Alfred Noyes Poem, The Highwayman, the Highway Rat is a ruthless thief, stealing from the creatures of the forest, even stealing the hay from his own horse.
The hero of the day is a little duck, who having nothing to steal, is faced with being eaten by the by now rather portly Highway Rat. She uses his greed to lure him away and tricks him into getting lost in a cave. He ends up on the other side of the hill, where he has to reform his ways and get himself a job, and the duck returns all the stolen food to the hungry forest animals
What I thought was particularly positive about this book is that it shows children how to deal with conflict without resorting to punishments or humiliation, and teaches them that they can solve problems by themselves. It's a lesson in natural consequences for the Rat, who is so overcome by his own greed that he loses everything, including his bad attitude and his ever-growing waistline, while gaining some humility. This Julia Davidson is worth its weight in gold.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


Elliott, by Tobin Sprout.

Elliott is a carnival rabbit, the magic rabbit in a hat. He loves his life, and is loved by a little girl called April who comes to watch him every day at the carnival. Then one day, everything changes. Walter Wiggins, who owns the carnival decides it is time to retire. He has taught Elliott to be strong and brave, and because real magic is inside, Elliott will know what to do to cope with the change that is coming. Elliott is heartbroken, and sinks into a depression. He imagines what life would be like if he could escape and travel the world like a fish, or be brave like a champion boxer; but instead of setting out into the world, he sinks into a depression where his hat becomes his world. Not even April, the little orphan girl, can get him to leave his hat. She tries to help him, even to shake him out of his hat (how often do we hear people being told to 'snap out of it'? Such a true to life moment) but leaves defeated. Then Elliott hits rock bottom in a gut-wrenching moment: he felt as if he were shrinking inside the only world he had known. The sides of the hat were growing taller, making it harder for Elliott to see beyond them. It's hard not to well up at this point with the little rabbit sitting in the dark, his little ears flopped down and his sad, sad little face. Thankfully all is not lost. Elliott finally finds something he finds some meaning in and sets out to find April. They find the strength together to move on from the loss of the carnival and start a new life together; Elliott has finally found the magic inside.

I was really struck by the depth of the themes in this book: change, loss, depression; all in a book for kids. And for small children. As a sufferer for depression, I have really struggled to explain this to Abigail (who is 4), so this book really struck a chord with me. We were able to talk about how Elliott was feeling, how his world had shrunk down. The illustrations go a long way to show just how empty someone can feel which Abigail really related to when I talked about it with her. It also reinforces a positive message that things can get better, and just how important the support of a good friend is. There are many different circumstances which could be approached with this book - a parent leaving, the death of a family member, or just moving far, far away from where a child knows as home. Abigail loved it equally and was able to relate to some very  difficult subjects with ease and has asked for it several times at bed time. Which is, of course, the mark of a wonderful book.

Thanks to the wonderful No Alibis for having this book for me to find. It really made my day x

Sunday, 25 November 2012

No Alibis

I was walking past  No Alibis bookstore on Botanic last week with the tiddler, when she spotted a book in the window and dragged me over to have a look. I'm not a big crime fiction fan, so I'd always assumed that I had no reason to pop in. Not so. Emily had spotted the cover of a new children's book, Lemon Baked Cookies, and wanted to go in. Being a two year old, she immediately headed for the (breakable) Tiger Who Came to Tea tea-set and made me a cuppa. I was a bit on edge in case she broke it and eventually consigned it to 'the kitchen' (otherwise known as a really high shelf) to get washed and we got on with exploring the books.
Emily was delighted to find herself a Justin Fletcher joke book while I was pleased to spot a huge stack of Liz Weir's When Dad Went Away, some books on evolution, lots of Oliver Jeffers and a Julia Donaldson book I'd not come across yet. Liz and Justin went in the basket and I gave a wildcard to Elliott by Tobin Sprout because I liked the pictures... I'm a sucker for nice pictures. We were kindly given a small discount and Emily a by-ball for picking up a book and trying to leg it out the shop hoping she wouldn't be spotted. The books have really hit the spot and will be spending quite a few hours in here in time to come.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Plenty story, hardly any words.

Alphabet books, on the whole are quite dull -  'A is for apple, B is for ball', illustrated by a generic picture of said item. Dull, and really just learning by rote with very little interaction with the child. Alison Jay's Alphabet is something quite different, with the 2 year old regularly bashing me about the head with it in a demand to have it read to her. Why? Because it's not just an alphabet, it's an exploration of the alphabet and an exercise in observation and memory for children.
Alison Jay's illustrations are never just of  'A is for apple, B is for ball'. Yes, there's an apple, but there's an aeroplane, an ant and an artist painting an apple. There's also a clue in each picture as to what's in the next; a key next to the Jack-in-the-box waiting to unlock K's keyhole. Images recur as well - through the keyhole you can see G's giraffe as well as H's horse rider and L's lion. Emily loves flicking back and forward through the pages finding new links, and it's really helping her vocabulary too.
Jay's illustrations have a really calming tone to them with their crackled glaze and muted tones and are a bit like a warm snuggle under a blanket (which is where I like to read them best). Her world is reassuringly the carried through all her work, with instantly recogniseable landscapes, and always packed with so much more than the words will ever tell you.

I can't go without sharing some of her other books, because she's just so talented it would be a crime not to!
I Took the Moon for a Walk

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Oscar and the Cricket...

Oscar and the Cricket: a Book about Moving and Rolling by Geoff Waring, Walker Books

Kids ask questions that are difficult to answer. It's not too long since Abigail asked me what electricity was and I found myself stumped on how to explain this to a 3 year old. On a trip to the library I came across Oscar and the Bird: a Book about Electricity and discovered that you can do science for small children. Crisis averted. I was going to review Oscar and the Bird, but it was out helping someone else when we went to the library, so we picked this one up instead.
Oscar and the cricket have found a red ball on the hill which rolls, and stops. It bounces off things, and changes direction. The leaves in the tree move in the breeze. Oscar has a lot of questions to ask about all of this. The cricket is there with explanations and encouragement to try different things, like rolling the ball on a smooth surface to make it go further. This is all told as part of a story arc which held Abigail's interest well - too many facts and no characters wouldn't have held her interest.
The illustrations are simple and effective in carrying the story, and there is a helpful  two page summary at the end of the book to summarise the concept of moving and rolling. There's even an index so you can go back and find anything you want to look over again. I owe you, Geoff Waring. Thank you.

The Littlest Dinosaur and the Naughty Rock

The Littlest Dinosaur and the Naughty Rock by Michael Foreman & Camilla Reid, Bloomsbury Paperbacks

The littlest dinosaur is in a bad mood, and doesn't know why. He does knows that his dad can cheer him up, so goes to find him. Dad is asleep, and doesn't want to talk to an angry little dinosaur: 'well, if that's the way you're going to behave, I'm not going to talk to you at all.' In fact, no-one in the family can be bothered helping the littlest dinosaur understand his bad mood, or express how he is feeling. The story is at best a valuable lesson in how troublesome emotions in a toddler can quickly escalate from a bit of a grump to a full blown tantrum (throwing his lunch in a puddle), and at worst a lesson in how to make a child feel confused, humiliated and alone: ' the other dinosaurs could see him up there, all by himself. He felt terribly ashamed.'
The 'reveal' that the naughty rock is actually a wise old tortoise offers a small glimmer of hope to the deflated littlest dinosaur, by explaining  to him that everyone sometimes has bad days, but if you are polite then people will be kind to you. His gentle guidance may be a highlight in the story, but the small dinosaur is still the one that has to go back and beg forgiveness from his family. No lessons in sensitivity for them, then.
I was disappointed that our local library has several copies of this book, in the main because I don't believe that it is appropriate to normalize a punishment where the child is shamed and feels labels themselves 'naughty'. Early years are a time to guide a child and build self esteem not destroy it, even for dinosaurs.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

A Dragon on the Doorstep

A Dragon on the Doorstep by Stella Blackstone and Debbie Harter, Barefoot Books

This was a book gifted to us in our Bookstrust Bag, and is a favourite of both girls. It definitely fits into the more-pictures-than-words category of book, telling a a simple rhyme about two children who find an assortment of scary creatures round the house in a giant game of hide and seek.
As with all the best picture books, there is more to be told in the narrative contained in the pictures than in the words. The animals the children find are taken with them from room to room and hidden  for little readers to find; there's also a clue on each page as to what's hiding on the next one, building a sense of anticipation. The spider is a real favourite here, from the clue of a cobweb in the attic to its journey on a toy train and on to hide in the washing machine.There's plenty opportunity in the brightly-coloured illustrations to introduce children to spacial concepts, by asking them to find or describe if things on, in or behind. The children's faces only really show happiness and surprise throughout the book, but I think that's fine as there would be too much going on otherwise. Barefoot books prides itself on diversity, having both a boy and a girl and a black and white child as the human element in the story. They also don't confine the story, taking it from room to room until all the animals are outside and playing a new game.
I can't say that I have anything negative to say about this book, and it left me wondering why I'd never heard of Barefoot Books. Thankfully our local library had, and had just invested in a good amount of Barefoot titles  to explore, and more than one has become a permanent fixture since. The current edition also contains a dvd version, or you can find it on You Tube.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Adventures in Books for Little People

I was once little and read books. Rather a lot of them, at least three a week, taken out on little paper tickets from the local library until I were old enough to get - wait for it - six books. Every week. Six books. That was on top of the monthly visit to Macpherson's in Dunfermline (after we'd stocked up on chicken noodle soup and tinned peaches in Asda), where I was allowed to get a book to keep. I admit there was a lot of Enid Blyton and Asterix packed into crinkly paper bags to take home and treasure for many years, and that I was heartbroken when it closed, taking with it booksellers in tabards and the excitement of rushing down the stairs to the children's department to grab the next Famous Five or Secret Seven book. I still feel a pang when I pass where Macpherson's used to be.
I grew up, and never thought any more about books for children. Being a grown-up, grown up books were far more important and it was not until one day many, many years later when I found myself with children of my own, who were demanding stories and being given books of their own, that children's literature blipped back onto my radar.. Some of these books have become house favourites, read cover to cover until they fall apart; some are out of date, boring or just don't hit the mark; and some have been put in the bin because that's where they belong. If we're just not keen on a book it will go to a book swap or charity shop, but books that label children as 'bad' or 'naughty', or set up gender stereotypes just go to be turned into something more useful via the paper bank. My kids deserve better than that. All kids deserve better than that.