Tag Archives: Books

October, you beauty

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Hello.

Here I am, which is unusual enough, because whenever I have a spare hour and have to decide between Lying Still or Anything Else, the Lying Still tends to win. It’s frustrating having to slow down, especially now the sickness has gone (whee!). I like to get on. I keep having to remember not to define myself by things I can’t always do.

I feel quite anxious about this pregnancy, in a way I didn’t with the others. Oddly my visits to the midwife make this worse, not better. Most of the time I can assume (or tell myself to assume) that everything’s fine. When I go to the midwife, I have to wait the agonising three minutes before she finds the heartbeat, and get test results back where ‘this is a little unusual, but nothing to worry about’, I mean CLEARLY I WILL NOW WORRY ABOUT THAT THING, WHAT DO YOU TAKE ME FOR.

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Still, without the sickness, I am gathering myself together again, bit by bit. Folding some laundry. Taking the boys out for walks in the woods. Making proper dinners, and eating them. Meeting deadlines, cleaning the kitchen. Reducing my snack breaks from seventeen a day to an entirely reasonable eight. On Sunday I wore a dress that I loved, and pushed Tim off to bed while the boys and I went exploring and did not eat a single bag of beef crisps all day, and it felt like the best day of my life.

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Yesterday I baked a new kind of apple cake that turned out to smell (like apples) a great deal better than it tasted (mostly like baking powder). Still, the baking was therapeutic, and it was a much cheaper way to make the house smell nice than dropping £30 on a White Company candle.

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I feel like doing a Rocky air-punch on the rare occasions I get to hand out fat slices of homemade cake after school. It makes me feel like Mary Poppins. Although –

H: ‘What are these on top?’

Me: ‘They’re called almonds.’

H: ‘Urgh.’

Me: ‘They won’t taste of much by themselves. You’re supposed to eat them with the cake.’

[Five minutes pass]

Me: ‘H, haven’t you started yet?’

H: ‘No, I’m taking out all of the Normons, because they look awful.’

Take that, Normons. Sorry for the body-shaming.

We’ve got our back-to-school bugs and September Rages mostly out of the way now, I hope (T is feeling ‘asspalootely better’, if you ask him). Both boys have settled into their new routines. We cycle to school whenever the weather’s kind, and then after school H and I do a mad dash from one playground to the other, a mile and a half away. T comes bursting out of nursery, jumper sleeves rolled up to the elbows, usually filthy and clutching all his bags, which he hands over to me before they race their bikes home. H would always win, except that T cheats.

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See? Cheating.

See? Cheating.

It feels like autumn has been slow in coming, but now we have crunchy leaves, misty mornings, and reddening holly berries all over the place. There’s a whole colony of enterprising mushrooms growing out of the gigantic pile of horse poo down the road, and I feel compelled to point them out every time we pass, for educational reasons. While also holding my breath. Motherhood is weird.

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I’ve been reading a lot. There’s something about cold weather that gives me permission to retire with a blanket and a book – which is what I really want to be doing all the time anyway. I read a very unusual book (From A Clear Blue Sky) about grief and siblings by Timothy Knatchbull, who was on Lord Mountbatten’s sabotaged boat when it was bombed by the IRA in 1979 (Mountbatten was his grandfather, and Timothy was in his mid-teens). Timothy survived, and so did his parents – just – but his twin brother Nicholas died. Years later he wrote the book to come to terms with the griefs he’d buried at the time. It’s not political at all, very honest and completely fascinating. I thought it was wonderful.

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I’ve also reread The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver has never written a better), Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (because I watched the BBC adaptation, and missed it), an Agatha Christie every other week (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. FLAWLESS) and last week got hold of David Mitchell’s new-ish novel, The Bone Clocks. Which is as mad as David Mitchell ever is, and as delightful. And if poetry’s your jam, or you would like it to be, you must get hold of The Emergency Poet. It was compiled by a superhero woman who literally bought a discontinued ambulance and drove around in it, offering consoling poems to people who were struggling. What a life! It’s a gorgeous thing.

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Are you watching Poldark? It’s as beautiful as ever to look at, but I’ve been put off a bit this series by the fact that Ross Poldark is kind of a jerk. Look, screenwriters, if you want us to believe that everyone likes him, you have to give us some reason why. It can’t always be scything topless and glistening in golden fields. That combination of getting into debt, being surly and condescending to his wife and galloping worryingly near cliff edges is not calculated to set the heart afire.

Also Bake-Off. BAKE-OFF. Every episode brings us closer to the last one ever, and the fact that this series is so delicious is both helping and hurting. Like eating an entire plate of Tudor pies in one go (I would. Did you see them? I WOULD).

Who ate all the pies? (Me, probably.)

Who ate all the pies? (Me, probably.)

T helped me watch the first Harry Potter film a few weeks ago. Some observations:

‘Dumbledore! He’s the master…head’. (‘Headmaster?’ ‘Yeah.’)

‘Look, it’s Yogrid!’

‘Harry is using a… a feather crayon.’

‘My-knee? Who’s My-knee?’

(Harry, onscreen: ‘And Snape wasn’t blinking.’) ‘I’m blinking. Look.’

[sigh] ‘I am weally not a-pwessed.’

I’ll win him over eventually.

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The week in stuff

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Hello, you lovely things! You may be out for dinner at a restaurant or clinking glasses together at a swanky bar, but we all know where the REAL action is: here on my sofa, still wearing workout gear from my appalling jog/walk earlier, sporting a fringe that looks like a small, dying patch of forehead bracken, talking about our WEEK IN STUFF.

Half-term week! We spent the first bit of it in the New Forest having a beautiful time (see above), then took the train to Reading Museum, still conquering everything with its collecting policy of ‘strange bits and bobs’, then spent the latter part of the week with grandparents and cousins.

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Today I took the boys to see Zootropolis, which you absolutely must see as soon as possible. It is clever, funny, sharp, poignant; features Idris Elba as a giant, brusque water buffalo (exactly the creature you suspect would be Idris Elba’s patronus, in a different life); and has a scrappy, feminist bunny cop as the main character. Imagine a young Peggy Carter, at the beginning of her career and confidence, with fuzzy ears. Jason Bateman also plays a criminal fox sidekick, and if you thought you only had room in your heartlands for ONE weirdly but unstoppably attractive animated fox, well, think again.

Imagine if this guy and Robin Hood were in the SAME FILM. *dead*

Imagine if this guy and Robin Hood were in the SAME FILM. *dead*

The excellence of this film just about made up for the fact that the boys had to emergency-wee SEVEN TIMES between the two of them, and that during one of these expulsions, I dropped a public toilet seat down too fast and splattered my face with my son’s waste. Let’s pretend that it was just my son’s urine, and not that of several mingled Basingstoke strangers. Let’s also pretend that some of it didn’t go in my mouth. Hashtag motherhood, you guys.

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Our rap name: the Pee-Eyed Peas.

Tim got to choose the film a couple of nights ago, and chose a classic Roger Moore Bond, A View to a Kill. Look. Maybe I just don’t GET Bond when it’s not Daniel Craig being craggy and beautiful. But watching Roger Moore flick random women into his bed every ten minutes, with only an eyebrow and an assumption that it was his due, made me want to flick him into a moving aeroplane propeller. Also Grace Jones wears an eyewatering leotard (google it). I hope they paid her extra for it.

Did you watch the BBC version of Midsummer Night’s Dream on Bank Holiday Monday? (It’s here on iPlayer if you missed it.) I love Maxine Peake with the fire of a thousand suns, but I…didn’t like this very much. The sort-of unwritten rule with Shakespeare is that you get to change the setting and time and costumes and anything else you like, really – except the WORDS AND PLOT. Russell T. Davies has been TARDISing too long. (Didn’t Matt Lucas make an unexpectedly wonderful Bottom, though?)

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I was totally delighted to find a Kate Atkinson book, When Will There Be Good News?, at the library last week, and got through it in a day. Whenever I do this I feel like writing a new serenity prayer: Grant me the strength to stop reading excellent books in one go after midnight, the courage to stop reading terrible books before that, and the wisdom to know the difference. Anyway, I was thrilled to find that one of my all-time favourite authors took a detour into crime fiction, and it was just, oh, completely worth staying up till 1am for. I wanted to give it a standing ovation, but I knew Ted would be waking up in five hours and didn’t want to push my luck.

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Speaking of books: did you go through a phase in your early teens where all you read was dystopian fiction set after nuclear disasters, where the main characters ate the limbs of their siblings and such? I did, and still remember the covers – all grey landscapes and orange hazmat suits – with a kind of chilly horror. BBC Radio are having a dystopian fiction moment at the minute, and have serialised Brave New World and Never Let Me Go. I’m listening to the latter while houseworking this week, and it’s great. 10/10, would dystope again.

I looked these up specifically for this post and NOW I WANT TO CRY.

I looked these up specifically for this post and NOW I WANT TO CRY. I’m pretty sure he eats that kid he’s holding.

On in our Sesame Street car this week: the CD letter is T, so The Beatles, The Feeling, The Killers, The Postal Service. The number is 72, i.e. the number of times the boys yelled Yellow Submarine all around Tesco *face palm*.

Our real soundtrack is constant, unstoppable chatter, of course.

T: I wanna tell you a story.

Me: Ok, great.

T: Once there was a little boy called Mummy…

Me: I might need to stop you there.

***

H: This car is made in China, right?

Me: Yes.

H: Then why does it have shiny wheels?

Me: What do you mean, why? Toy factories in China can make anything.

H: No, but China just has horses and carriages and things.

Me: *wondering if this is going somewhere problematic* What? No, it doesn’t.

H: That’s all they’ve got in Mulan.

Now try explaining the sixth century and contemporary Chinese politics to a four-year-old. You have thirty seconds before the next toilet trip. Good luck.

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Harry Potter and my teenaged life

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‘No story lives unless someone wants to listen. The stories we love best do live in us forever. So whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.’

J.K. Rowling

What makes a story?

I am thirteen, and stuck on youth camp for the first time. I hate everything from the endless dreary rain to the mandatory team-building to the foot-smelling canvas tents. My aunt, knowing me perhaps better than I realise, has sent me away with a new book. It’s a paperback I’ve never seen before, unremarkable, with a young, brown-bearded man on the back wearing an outlandish outfit.

One evening when I am especially homesick, I sit in the tent (breathing shallowly) and open it. ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of Number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much‘. And I am gone, from all of it: the tent, the smell, the damp pants. Gone until I’ve finished it, when I peel myself reluctantly out of that world and back into mine. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am fourteen, and on holiday on the Scottish border. I am walking through Berwick-Upon-Tweed when I see it in a bookshop window, purple and silver: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I want it immediately, but my parents are not given to buying expensive hardback books on a whim. They tell me I must wait for the paperback. The longing for it, for the continuation of the story I know is in there, makes me sick. I have lived and breathed in books for as long as I can remember, but it’s the first time I’ve wanted a book enough for it to hurt.

Not the last, though. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am sixteen, and the film of Philosopher’s Stone is about to be released. My friends and I are dizzily obsessed with it, marinating in it: devouring every trailer and press photo, making complex Potter jokes, speaking mostly in quotes. The fourth book is out by now, and it’s big enough for the midnight openings, for me to buy the hardback immediately and read it in one gulp, expense be damned.

I know these characters like family. I sit in my classes, frizzy-haired, hyper-competent and horribly uncool, and console myself with Hermione Granger. She is not cool at all. She is unfashionable and earnest, fierce and grounded, unable to drop her point long after she should’ve done, driven by book-love and doing the right thing and absolute loyalty. I might never be that wonderful, but I love her. So I lift up my head and answer another question. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am eighteen, and have my pre-ordered copy of Order of the Phoenix in my hands. There’s a sense of gathering darkness in these books now: the cheery end-of-term feasts that close the early books are long gone, and any of these beloved characters might be in for the chop. At the end of Phoenix, of course, someone is.

I am eighteen, and by now I know real heartbreak, real betrayal, real end-of-the-world, can’t-get-out-of-bed despair. And so I get it, forcefully and finally. I lie in bed and I cry tears for Sirius Black that are also for me. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am twenty-two, and Deathly Hallows is finally here. Potter-mania is at fever-pitch, and I feel like one of the sage elder members of a giant, excitable family. I pick up my copy at midnight and stay up all night and all the next day reading it. It’s a war book, Hallows, and it’s as grim and hopeless as a war book should be. Characters are killed off left and right, with horrible suddenness, until I am numb from it. The eleven-year-olds I met in a canvas tent have been written into desperate, brave, traumatised seventeen-year-olds fighting an almost-impossible battle. There’s heroism and love, self-sacrifice and secrets.

I pull myself out of the final pages, as I’ve done all those times before, and feel like I’ve been battered with a stick. And also that this is it, the end, and I can’t bear to lose them. That most of all. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am twenty-six, and hugely, unbearably pregnant with our first child. And we waddle to the cinema for the last Harry Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part 2. I am swirling with feelings about impending motherhood, so close now – will I be adequate, will we be alright, what kind of childhood will I give this unknown baby in my belly – and watching the final struggles of these characters I’ve loved since I was a child myself is an emotional counterweight that feels right. I am not ready to say goodbye to them or to the person I’ve been all this time. But it’s about to happen, all the same.

The camera pulls back from Harry, Ron and Hermione standing on a broken bridge, holding hands, sunlight on their bloodied faces. I shift heavily in my seat, put a hand on the boy kicking my ribs and think ‘I will read this to you, one day‘.

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He’s not old enough yet, but I will.

That’s a story, isn’t it? What a story. It hasn’t left me since.

Five books…to help your kids love words

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I’m trying hard to be casually enthusiastic about numbers with H at the moment. I am naturally a words person, and numbers both bore and frighten me. Which isn’t so bad for me, because my days of mental maths tests are over. But I do not want to pass it on to them, and my coverage of Things You Need To Know tends to be a tad one-sided without me realising it. I am always up for a discussion of Magic E or cat poems, but keep forgetting that at some point he’ll need to be able to count to twenty without missing out fifteen. My bad, my bad.

Still. Just because you’re talking happily about numbers, doesn’t mean you can’t stealthily push your words agenda in other ways. Like, for example, picture books. There are some books, even for quite young children, that are so giddy, so nerdily joyful about wordsmithery, that I feel like it can’t help but sink in.

More importantly, I think if your child is finding reading a chore, these word-obsessed little stories might help put some of the fun back into it.

These are five of the best. MWA HA HA.

This Is My Book, by Mick Inkpen

This is my bookBefore anyone could stop him, the Snapdragon bit off the K, and part of the B of Book. 

“This is my Poo!”

It was a very naughty thing to do.

This was one of the first books – years ago – that we got from the library and loved so much we bought our own. It’s an imaginative riff on storytelling, in terms a two-year-old can understand: the Snapdragon keeps eating the letters on the page, and it’s up to the Bookmouse to find a new, scary word to stop him. It’s clever and it’s funny, and it’s delicious to read out loud. Even better than Kipper, Inkpen.

 

Oi, Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field

oi frog‘What about a chair?’ said the frog.

‘I wouldn’t mind sitting on a chair.’

Hares sit on chairs‘, said the cat.

This gloriously colourful, caustically funny little story sees a cat educating a frog about all the things he can’t sit on. No, he can’t sit on a mat, because only cats sit on mats. Only foxes sit on boxes. Only pumas sit on satsumas. You get the idea – and so will your small people, as they’ll take in the rhyming patterns and start guessing as you go along. The illustrations are fantastic and there’s a great twist at the end. Can’t recommend this one enough.

 

Grill Pan Eddy, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

grill pan eddyWe fetched a trap with a snare – Snap! Snap!

Which we baited with brown bready. 

But he tripped the latch with a safety match

Oh, we couldn’t catch Grill Pan Eddy!

Speaking of rhymes! If you like your poems to come with pure joy, this is the book you want. It tells the story of a family trying to get rid of a crafty mouse, in hilarious bouncy rhyme. Like Tadpole’s Promise, another book by this husband-and-wife team, it goes somewhere a little darker than you’d expect, but it’s all the better for that. So much fun to read aloud and clap along to. The boys adore it.

PS, we searched for a copy of this for months a few years ago and ended up with a ex-library copy – but it looks like it’s back in print via Amazon. I don’t usually recommend buying books from Amazon, but in this case go go goooooooo.

 

On Sudden Hill, by Linda Sarah and Benji Davies

on sudden hillSometimes they’re dragon-slayers,

side-by-side house dwellers

and skyscraper dancers. 

But Birt feels strange.

You know, now that I think about it, it’s very rare to find a picture book for young children that is truly, lyrically beautiful. I suppose the urge to simplify and make the story accessible is (rightly) the priority. This book is that rare thing: the illustrations are sensitive and lovely, the story is heartfelt, and the language is gorgeous. ‘One Monday (it’s cramping cold)’: I think of that description every time I come out into a frosty morning. The story – about two best friends who become three, making one feel pushed out – is something real and important for this age group. I think basically everyone should have it on their shelves.

 

The Book With No Pictures, by B. J. Novak

book with no picturesHere is how books work. 

Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say. 

No matter what. 

You might have seen the video of the author reading this to a group of children laughing so hard they can’t sit up properly. I can tell you it’s not an act: one of my boys has actually thrown up from laughing at this. Which might not sound like much of a recommendation, but it is. The concept is a clever one: no pictures, just silly words and sentences the grown-up reading the book has to say, even when they don’t want to. Words can be mischievous! Words can create character! Words can make you laugh so much you throw up onto your mother’s jumper! What better lesson is there?

Happy reading, nerds-in-training. Much love.

Five books…with jaw-dropping illustrations

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I always think books for preschoolers have an extremely sensible ratio of words to pictures. And the pictures are everything to the under-five crowd. Have a look at their faces the next time you’re reading one with striking, colourful illustrations. Their jaw drops. They can’t resist touching the page with their fingers, like they want to jump inside (confession: I do this too). Lovely artwork can make up for a lacklustre story, but when the words are good and the pictures transporting, the whole thing comes alive.

I make a habit of hunting out books with gorgeous pictures. I can’t help it. They’re a thing of beauty, and I like having beautiful things on our shelves.

Here are five books with jaw-dropping illustrations we love extra-hard:

Lion and Mouse, by Catalina Echeverri

Lion and Mouse

Lion thought he was much better than Mouse in every way. 

And he said so. 

All day. Every day.’

This is a funny, wise story about an impressive Lion who can’t stop going on about himself, until he needs help from his small friend Mouse. But the pictures! The animals are drawn in a quirky, humorous style, with tons of pattern and colour. The back page is the best, trust me. I always say ‘ooohhhh’. I haven’t seen this book out and about much; we brought it back for H from Paris a couple of years ago. The first-time author-illustrator deserves to be better known.

 

The Heart and the Bottle, by Oliver Jeffers

Heart in the Bottle ‘Once there was a girl, much like any other,

whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world.’

I couldn’t write a list of illustration books without including one from the mighty Jeffers. His ‘Once there was a boy’ series (How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, Up and Down, The Way Back Home) is probably the best place to start for younger listeners, and those illustrations are out of this world. But The Heart and the Bottle is just stunning. It tells the story of a little girl interested in everything, until she experiences a deep loss and shuts herself away. The way Jeffers draws what’s happening in her head is touching and lovely. I dare you not to cry. Double dare you.

 

London ABC, by Ben Hawkes

London ABC

We love London. Our boys love going there too, so this is a delight. Fantastic for very young readers, it’s the illustrations that make it. You can follow the penguin as he escapes from the Zoo and tours the city, trying his hand at a bit of Shakespeare (G is for Globe!) and waving a flag at the Olympics (S is for Stadium!) as well as hitting the usual tourist spots like B-is-for-Big-Ben and N-is-for-Nelson’s-Column. On each page there are other things beginning with the same letter, and at the end there’s a long list of London landmarks to visit.

 

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The Dark

‘You might be afraid of the dark,

but the dark is not afraid of you.’

If you were a teenage Lemony Snicket fan like I was, the discovery that he’s moved into picture books might make you a bit dizzy with happiness. This is a cracker: poetic, unusual, and totally unlike anything else I’ve seen on preschooler shelves. Lazlo is afraid of the dark, and one night it comes to find him. The illustrations convey dark and light – angular torch light, the particular orange light at sunset – perfectly. Honestly, the boys can’t keep their eyes off it. GET IT. GET IT NOW.

 

Augustus and His Smile, by Catherine Rayner

Augustus and His Smile

‘He swam to the bottom of the deepest oceans

And splished and splashed with shoals of tiny fish.’

This book won Best New Illustrator in the Booktrust Early Years awards, and you can see why: it’s beautiful. Oh, just so beautiful. Augustus the tiger wakes up and has lost his smile, so he goes exploring all over the world to find it again. Seas, jungles, deserts and rainstorms are depicted in vivid colour, and Augustus himself is a whiskery orange marvel. I can’t really do justice to how lovely this is, but you can put it into Google Images and see for yourself.

 

Go forth and read, book-hunters!

Previous ‘Five Books…’ posts are here.

Five books to…make your preschoolers happier

Five books to make your preschoolers happier

One of the best things about having kids is being able to hang out in the children’s section of Waterstones, oohing and ahhing at the picture books, without looking like an idiot. Assuming you’ve remembered to bring your kids with you, which I don’t always.

To parents that are reading the same five-page horror seventeen times a day, fist bumps to you, my friend. I’ve been there. Some children’s books are boring. Some are badly written, and you’d better hope your little loves don’t get attached to a book that’s both.

But just occasionally we find one that’s not only exciting and well plotted, but actively happy-making. A book that shows your preschooler things that will make them a better, more well-adjusted person. Whenever we find one of these I make a note, and buy them in for birthdays and Christmas.

Here are five of the best.

My Many Coloured Days, by Dr Seuss

many coloured days

‘You’d be surprised how many ways I change
on different coloured days’.

The best of the Seusses, the very best. It’s a gorgeously-illustrated ramble about how different days come with different feelings…which feel like animals and colours too. So on green days you feel cool and quiet like a fish, purple days are like a sad and lonely dinosaur, and on black days you howl and scream like an angry wolf.

Why it’s great:

Is there a better message for the volatile, volcano-ish under-fives than ‘hey, emotions are ok’? They’re like that kid from Mean Girls who ‘just has a lot of feelings‘. I think a lot about raising emotionally literate boys in particular. This book makes them feel like it’s not the end of the world to have a wolf day.

 

Ish, by Peter H. Reynolds

ish

‘And Ramon lived ish-fully ever after’.

Ramon has a problem: he’s an artist, but he’s so worried about drawing everything perfectly that he can no longer draw at all. It takes a word from his little sister to make him realise that drawing ‘something – ish’ is more than good enough…and all of his ideas come flying out again.

Why it’s great: 

This is a beautifully relatable story about creativity and sibling support…with an extra message about imperfect, messy things being the best of all. The illustrations are lovely, too.

 

Picasso’s Trousers, by Nicholas Allan

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‘He liked BLUE so he decided to paint pictures all blue. “You can’t paint ALL BLUE pictures”, they said’.

I flipping love this book. We just got it from the library, and I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to give it back. A story about Picasso, who did all sorts of brilliant things, because when everyone said ‘no, no, NO, Picasso!’ he said ‘yes!’ and did them anyway. Even when it came to his fashion choices.

Why it’s great:

A hilarious introduction to Picasso, Cubism and painting, plus some good stuff about following your bonkers dreams? Where do I sign up? H laughs all the way through, and he can now pick a Picasso painting out of a line up (‘look, Mummy, they are facing front and side at the same time!’).

 

Tadpole’s Promise, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

tadpoles promise

‘Where the willow meets the water, a tadpole met a caterpillar’.

At the beginning of this dark and hysterically funny book, a tadpole falls in love with a caterpillar. The caterpillar makes him promise never to change…but, being a tadpole, that’s not so easy. An unusual love story with a jaw-dropping twist at the end. Tony Ross and Jeanne Willis are husband and wife, I hear, and they must have had many a belly laugh cooking this one up late at night.

Why it’s great: 

Seems a bit odd, perhaps, to include a black humour book on a list to make kids happier. Maybe it’s not for the very young or sensitive, but I think it’s great for them to hear stories occasionally where not everything works out at the end. And watching them find out that stories can take them to genuinely surprising places is a delight.

Aside: this couple also wrote ‘Grill Pan Eddy’, which was our best find of last year. Amazing rhymes. 

 

The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water, by Gemma Merino

the-crocodile-who-didnt-like-water-978144721471702

‘What he really liked was climbing trees! But nobody else did’. 

This one is a joy from start to finish. A little crocodile tries desperately to fit in with his swim-club-loving siblings, even saving up his money to buy himself a rubber ring, but he just doesn’t like water. Then comes the day when he finds out who he really is. The illustrations work as well as the words: the whole thing is funny and beautiful.

Why it’s great:

I’m about to out myself as a big loser, but when I get to the line ‘And this little crocodile wasn’t born to SWIM…’, and put all the discovery and wonder in my voice I want them to hear, I get a little tear. How many times might they feel like their talents don’t match everyone else’s? What kind of incredible thing might they be born to do instead? Gemma Merino is the writer and illustrator, and it’s her first book – on this evidence I’ll be looking for her second. She dedicates the book to ‘all those who still haven’t found their hidden talents’. AND THE TEAR IS BACK.

I’m planning to make ‘Five books…’ into a new series this year. Hope you like it, and look out for the next one! 

Also, if you liked this (or you just want me to stop going on about it), I’d be mega thrilled if you’d vote for me in the BiB awards Writer category! Click below and look for Make a Long Story Short!

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The best game in the world: Friday night edition

What did you think was the nicest thing about being in your late twenties? I’ll tell you mine: no longer having to pretend that I liked being out late on a Friday night. I never enjoyed it, and felt like everyone else did, thus making me a loser all the way through high school and university.

Here is the Friday night of my dreams: I’ve finished work, have shut the door on two sleeping boys (I’m still ludicrously charmed by the fact that they sleep in the same room now), and have a well of quiet in which to drink this hot chocolate and make a start on a fat book. I have a blanket and a footstool. My socks are thicker than my feet. Tim is not here this evening, alas, so it’s not perfect. But everything else is pretty damn good.

If you’re reading this from under a blanket rather than while jumping in a dark, loud room, you may just be the sort of person who enjoys a stack of new books. Want to see? Here’s what I got from the library today, and why:

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First, The Search for Richard III: The King’s Grave. Last year I decided to try to broaden my historical fascinations beyond the Reformation, so reached all the way back to…the Plantagenets, one dynasty earlier. I know – at this rate, I’ll only just have reached the Stone Age by the time I’m in my fifties. I have a soft spot for poor, maligned Richard, mythical hunchback and all, so was delighted when it was announced he’d been uncovered in a car park last February. This book alternates the story of his life, by a historian, and the story of his discovery, by the woman who instigated the search. And I CANNOT WAIT.

Then hurrah, the fantasy section yielded Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch – another in the Peter Grant series that started with Rivers of London. I enjoyed the first one the most – where a down-to-earth London copper got himself accidentally inducted into the wizarding branch of the Metropolitan Police – but Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground were both excellent too. Aaronovitch writes about London so well that your bogies turn black when you read it.

Then Zadie Smith’s newest offering, NW. I so want to love Zadie Smith, but have given up on both her previous novels about halfway through. Her writing – vivid and bloody – hooks me in, and then the plot and/or prickly characters spit me back out. Third one’s the charm, right?

The last is actually mine, rather than the library’s – and I’m delighted about it: Life After Life just won the Costa prize, but I’ve also had several people recommend it to me. And I had a £10 gift voucher for Waterstones, so those seemed like two things just made to make me happy. I’m only 30 pages in, but it’s about a girl who gets the chance to be born over and over again to alter her destiny and that of the world at large. Och, I tell you what: it’s good. I’m reading it with my breath held.

Now Tim is home with the ingredients for Oreo milkshake, so Friday night just got catapulted into FABULOUS.

Here’s to staying in.

watch-listen-read: three reasons to stay out of the snow this weekend

‘You know’, said Timothy this morning, as we were driving in a blizzard towards his cancelled half-marathon, ‘I wouldn’t mind living in a place where it snowed more’.

‘You know’, I said, ‘I flipping would’.

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Now we’re at the end of March, I am totally, unbelievably, inexpressibly done with snow. I do not want to go sledging. I do not want to make a snowman. I do not want to be cold, at all, ever again. So we’ve given up on outdoor things, and we’re officially hibernating. You know what you need when you hibernate? A big blanket. A big wedge of chocolate brownie. And something to watch-listen-read.

As it happens, I’ve been totally blown away by the following this week.

watch: There Will Be Blood

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We caught this a few evenings ago. We’re only six years late. It’s the story of an unscrupulous oil prospector (Daniel Day Lewis) at the turn of the century, his takeover of a small town and his feud with a frighteningly devout local preacher (Paul Dano). There’s greed, there’s madness, there’s fire, there’s a fortune to be made. The main players are excellent, the landscape is bleak, and it gripped us right to the end.

It’s also a bit depressing, so afterwards you need to watch (or rewatch) Mean Girls, like we did. DANNY DEVITO, I LOVE YOUR WORK.

listen: Neverwhere

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Oh, but this is the best radio drama the BBC have done in years. Years. Neverwhere started as a 90’s TV series written by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry, of all people – a riot of chewy overacting and fabulous wigs – and then Gaiman wrote it up as a novel. The radio adaptation is in six parts and lousy with famous people: James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Head, Sophie Okenedo. And the story is brilliant: Everyman Richard Mayhew helps a mysterious, injured girl on the streets on London and accidentally falls through to London Below: a seething, subterranean world populated with barons, beasts and cut-throats, where Earl’s Court is an actual medieval court presided over by Christopher Lee, and people get horribly abducted on Night’s Bridge. We were in and singing the theme tune from the first episode. You should be too. 

All the episodes are on iPlayer, here. For heaven’s sake, grab ’em while you can.  If you can’t access iPlayer, hopefully they’ll be releasing it digitally at some point; if not, the novel is my next stop. 

UPDATED TO SAY: my esteemed overseas correspondent informs me that you can, in fact, get some podcasts from the BBC from abroad, and Neverwhere is currently the Drama of the Week. Go go go!

read: Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch

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A friend recommended this to me ages ago, and it’s taken me this long to get hold of a copy (thanks, Mum!). It’s one of those novels where I had to stop after the first chapter just to bask in how wonderful it is. It follows a rookie young policeman who gets caught up in a bizarre murder and ends up being taken under the wing of Detective Inspector Nightingale, the Met’s sole remaining wizard-in-uniform. What I loved most about it was the absolute grimy reality of the London it depicts: this isn’t a fantasy novel, per se, more like a police drama where some of them happen to practice magic. And it’s funny. AND – oh, glory be – it’s the first in a series.

You can find it here – though I would heartily recommend getting it from a proper bookshop, of course. And the US edition is called Midnight Riot.

Who needs outside when you have stuff like this?

The best game in the world: truth-telling edition

I am supposed to be working today. But then, you know, baby colds are no respecter of persons, or work days. Since Henry has given up sleep in favour of dribbling and crossness, I have embraced not showering and The Count of Monte Cristo. Sometimes you have to cut your losses.

So let’s talk about books, shall we? Last week we went to the library and something odd happened: I didn’t want to read a thing in there. I know, it felt like I suddenly didn’t like gravy or Colin Firth. What I wanted was non-fiction. No elaborations. No flights of fancy. No cheffing vampires.

In case you’re also feeling anti-vampire, here are the non-fiction books I love best on my shelves – or, in other words, here’s what I’ve previously got from the bookshop, and why:

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1. Diana Athill: Somewhere Towards the End

A memoir about the advantages and indignities of ageing might not seem like a snappy read, but this little book is wonderful: clever, clear-sighted and funny. This is what I’m aiming for at eighty, and if I get anywhere near it, I’ll be pleased.

2. Nigel Slater: Toast

Part autobiography, part love letter to food, discovery and childhood memory. Don’t read it when you’re hungry. He writes so vividly I had to close my eyes to taste it better. Warning: this is also a very frank story of a boy in the dreadful extremities of puberty. Which may put you off.

3. Rick Gekoski: Tolkien’s Gown 

Gekoski is a rare book dealer, and has enough stories about his dealings with authors and their first editions that you’d pay him to sit next to you at dinner. There are chapters on his entanglements with The Picture of Dorian Gray, Animal Farm, Peter Rabbit, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and, of course, The Hobbit. An absolute delight for a bibliophile.

4. Alison Weir: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Oh, joy. I’m a tiny bit obsessed with this book. Detailed and fascinating and vividly coloured. (All the others in her Tudor series are good, but this is my favourite.)

5. Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth

The story of the First World War and its aftermath, from the lost generation who lived it. Highly personal and affecting. And long (but it’s worth spending the time).

6. Bill Bryson: The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid

Any old Bryson will pick you up from the floor if you need it, but this is my favourite. I made the mistake of reading it for the first time on an aeroplane, and laughed so loudly and so often that Tim threatened to throw me out of the window.

7. Kate Fox: Watching the English

I’ve extolled this before, but suffice to say I now know all sorts about my instinct for queueing, apologising and saying goodbye a dozen times – and the chapters about class indicators were fascinating.

And now that Henry’s snoring precariously on my lap and work is still off the agenda, the only question is which one to re-read first…

Any non-fiction recommendations you love? Tell me!

Bringing up Bebe, with no food on the floor

It’s been a spotty week for blogging, I’m sorry. It’s been a spotty week for most things except three-day-old pyjamas, nose-blowing, drug-taking, and charging through more work than you can shake a hanky at. It’s been one of those long, sad weeks that exist to remind you how nice your normal life is, using a compare and contrast method. The universe is nothing if not methodical.

However! It’s all over now, and here we are victorious, etc. And in between – well, can you believe it? – I read a book.

Actually, I read one and a half books. One was J.K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, but I gave up halfway through when I realised she’d managed to write a doorstopper without a single likeable character in it. But the other one, I suspect, will be a game-changer. It was this.

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(It’s called Bringing Up Bebe in the US edition.)

I’m coming very late to the party here: this book was released early this year, I think, so all the controversy has been and gone. The premise of the book is simple: couple move to Paris (she’s American, he’s British), then have a baby. It’s while they’re on holiday and eating in a restaurant, their eighteen-month-old leaving a trail of napkin devastation as per, that she notices the French children sitting down quietly. Eating everything put in front of them. Looking like they’re actually enjoying themselves. And so she embarks on a study of French parenting. The more she looks, the more she finds that French babies sleep through the night between two and three months, eat widely and enthusiastically, and aren’t a nightmare to control in public. Their parents don’t seem to be stressed by parenting, they don’t constantly witter on about how ‘gifted’ their babes are, and they don’t, either, seem to let it transform them out of their pre-baby fabulousness. Sacré bleu.

Well, I am sceptical of miracle children. And her observation pool was almost entirely middle-class Parisians. But despite that, I was more than predisposed to listen, because that scene in the restaurant is my life in miniature. I always said that Henry was going to give me a run for my money as soon as he could actually run, and so it’s proved. He’s just got a lot of things to look at, and he can’t reach any of them from a high chair, so could that be fixed, please? And, probably, I don’t know, everyone in the library wanted to hear that top-of-voice quacking noise, so he was doing them all a favour. And if you didn’t want him to climb up onto that precarious high ledge from the table, then what is it there for?

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According to the book, French parents educate their children from a very young age to learn how to wait, to control their emotions, to realise that they’re not the centre of the universe, and to know, always, who is in charge. Then within that strict framework, they receive a lot of little freedoms, to make them feel independent. There was a lot in it, and I’m not going to recap it or we’ll be here all night. But let’s just say that:

1. I’m saying ‘it’s me who decides’ much more often and with more authority;

2. I ask Henry to ‘please wait’ when I’m not ready to pick him up or do exactly what he wants. It won’t kill him. And it might save my biceps.

3. I’ve started serving his lunch in three courses, in the French vegetables-protein-dessert order, and sticking mostly to starchy stuff like pasta and rice at dinner. It works like a dream (grated carrot, he ate. Two days in a row. GRATED CARROT. Glory be).

4. I will definitely, definitely be using that sleep technique with our future babies. We were lucky with Henry, which means next time we’re due an insomniac.

5. SO HELP ME, we are going away for our anniversary next year, even if I have to hire a nanny. It’s not too much to ask to go away as a couple once a year. It’s good for all of us.

There was a lot in it that I didn’t agree with – I don’t want to be pressured to give up breastfeeding after a couple of weeks, or have to get back my figure within a month or two, or feel completely worthless as a person if I’m just a stay-at-home mother. And there’s something rather lovely about getting down on the floor and making Lego villages, thank you very much. You should try it, Frenchies. See how excited they get.

But I would give rather a lot for him to eat his dinner and stop climbing onto that ledge. So let’s try this thing, shall we?

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