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I noticed The Girl Who Rode the Wind while trolling the shelves of my local library. How could I ignore a book with a horse on the cover? When I read that the book features Italy’s Palio, the world’s oldest, most dangerous horse race, I had to check it out. I had just seen a video short about the race, and I’d read about it when I was a kid. I have always found the race interesting, so I couldn’t wait to read this.
I have to admit that I was not immediately caught up in the plot, and I thought about putting it down. But then Lola describes an altercation with a bully, and I was hooked. After the academic achiever is suspended from school, her grandmother proposes a trip to Italy for the summer. Her grandmother hasn’t been back to her homeland since just after WWII, and she’s finally ready to face her past. She rarely discussed her childhood in Siena, and instead focused on the present and the family business; training racehorses.
The story revolves around horses. Lola wants to work with them when she’s older, but her father won’t hear of it. With her grades, he expects her to be a doctor or a lawyer. The only time Lola is happy, however, is when she’s with the horses. She’s angry because her older brothers are working on the track, training to be jockeys. Her father was a jockey, and Lola wants to be one, too. She doesn’t particularly want to go to Italy with her grandmother, but her father is so disappointed with her behavior that he refuses to allow her to help out at track over the summer. Suddenly, a summer in Siena doesn’t sound so bad!
Lola meets a local boy whose father trains racers for the Palio. They become friends, and Lola is invited to help work the horses. As Lola learns about the race and makes friends with the other exercise riders, her grandmother slowly opens up about her own past, and her history with the Palio. Her family bred horses for the race, and her older brother was a winning jockey several times. Then the war came, along with unbelievable hardships. The race was canceled, and it was hard to feed themselves, let alone the horses in their care. Her father was forced to join the army, even though he didn’t believe in the war, and her brother joined the freedom fighters. By the end of the war, her nonna’s world was torn apart, and she fled Italy for America and the chance to start over.
I did have a few issues with believability. I found it so difficult to swallow that a 12 year old American girl would be allowed to excise the horses, let alone ride in a dangerous race like the Palio. Think of the bad press if she was injured, or worse, during the rough, no holds barred race. Another thing that irked me was that everyone spoke English, a huge convenience for Lola, since she didn’t speak Italian. This is the second book I’ve read this summer that the youthful protagonist was in another country, and everyone else spoke English. It wasn’t believable in the first book, and I didn’t like it here, either, but that is a pet peeve of mine.
Despite the highly unlikely premise, this was an enjoyable read. The horse races were exciting, and Nonna’s acceptance of the past, after so many years of guilt, was touching. Lola’s struggles with bullying rang true, and her father’s insistence that she become a doctor or a lawyer instead of a track rat gave Lola another conflict to solve. There were also great characters, including the horses.
Review copy borrowed from my local library
About the book:
An epic, emotional story of two girls and their bond with beloved horses, the action sweeping between Italy during the Second World War and present day.
When Lola’s grandmother Loretta takes her to Siena, Italy, for the summer, Lola learns about the town’s historic Palio races – a fast and furious event where riders whip around the Piazza del Campo, and are often thrown from their horses while making the treacherous turns. Lola is amazed to learn her grandmother used to take part in these races – and had the nickname ‘The Daredevil’!
Nonna Loretta tells Lola that she used to race in a rival team to the boy she loved – who was captured by the Nazis in 1941. Lola develops a bond with a beautiful racehorse. She jumps at the chance to enter the Palio – can she win, in honour of her grandmother? And can she uncover the mystery of the boy’s capture and fate all those years ago?
If your parents required care, would you or a family member provide care for them or would you look for outside help? If you required care in your old age would you expect a family member to provide care? Eldercare is becoming an important policy issue in advanced economies as a result of demographic and socio-economic changes. It is estimated that by 2030, one quarter of the population will be over 65 in both Europe and the USA.
Perhaps the most famous example of this for a certain generation are the Harry Potter novels; many a child (and a fair few adults) grew up in parallel with the Harry Potter books as they each came out over a 10 year period. Other series which I know have done something similar for kids more recently are the Clarice Bean (and Ruby Redfort) stories by Lauren Child, the Claude stories by Alex T. Smith, the Captain Flinn books Giles Andreae and Russell Ayto and also the Albie books created by Caryl Hart and Ed Eaves. For my kids the Findus and Pettson books by Sven Nordqvist and the Eddie books by Sarah Garland have done something similar.
Eddie’s Garden was first published in 2004, the year M (now 10) was born. I wish I remembered how we discovered it because it is one of those books which almost defines my early parenthood and time with my first child. The slightly chaotic home felt oh-so-recognisable. That Eddie’s messy but warm home was full of kindness and playfulness was something I aspired to as I tried to work out how to be a half-way ok parent. 2007 saw the arrival of Eddie’s Kitchen, followed by Eddie’s Toolbox in 2010, each book being greeted with glee by us all in the family.
Eddie and his family are off to the seaside for a short camping holiday. He has fun helping to set up their pitch, building a fire, tying guy ropes and making it homely. He even builds his own play tent out of branches and a blanket. As happens so often on family camping trips, the kids make friends with other children nearby, but when a pet dog goes missing, it looks like Eddie and his new friend Max could end up in trouble. Thanks, however, to Eddie’s ingenuity all ends well with new friendships formed and sausages eaten around the campfire.
Like all the Eddie stories, this one mixes very practical information – elements almost of non-fiction – with adventures any child could recognize from their own life. The mixture of fact (both in the illustrations and often in endnotes at the back of the book), with hugely reassuring and yet realistic family life experiences is a winning formula. Eddie’s Tent includes great advice on building campfires, cooking on them as well as how to tie useful knots. In many respects I think it pairs brilliantly with Mick Manning and Brita Granström’s (non-fiction title) Wild Adventures. What it offers, however, over and above anything any non-fiction book can do, is a cast of characters you care about, who make you smile, who you’re only too glad you know.
There’s lovable Lily, Eddie’s mischievous little sister, their Mum who hangs out in joggers and baggy jumpers and is immensely practical as well as kind (Hurrah for a fictional mum who can build and fix things as well as nurture and play with her kids.) By this fourth book, they’re joined by Eddie’s mum’s new partner Tom, and his lovely daughter Tilly (another Hurrah – for a mixed race family that’s just part of the mix). Down to earth, generous, relaxed and yet lively, they make a super family that’s a delight to read about.
Eddie’s Tent is a marvellous continuation of Eddie’s story, once again perfectly pitching learning hand-on skills with fun storytelling. Fingers crossed another Eddie story is in the pipeline – even if my kids are in their teens when it appears, I know we’ll be all reading it together!
Now, can you believe it – as a family we’ve barely ever camped. Our only time under canvas was a few years back in a rather luxurious yurt with futons and duvets and good coffee on tap nearby but with the arrival of Eddie’s Tent I was DETERMINED to give more traditional camping a go with the girls. They were extremely excited at the prospect, and with the wonderful support of their Grandparents we were able to spend a night camping last last month.
We pitched our tent where X marked the spot.
We did a bit of on location reading.
We made damper bread.
We baked cake in hollowed out orange skins (ready mix cake mixture poured into scooped out orange halves, re-assembled, wrapped in foil and then baked in the ashes for 20 minutes or so).
We had rather a lot of fun.
The three of us squeezed into the tent and our sleep was sweet (but short). Would we do it all again? Most definitely. Roll on the summer holidays I say!
Tent and camping themed music for a playlist could include:
With Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman out next month after a 55 year wait, gaps between (the publication of) sequels are the talk of the town. After all, we readers all love it when a great book has a sequel that we can dive into, sparing us the loss of having to leave a new world behind, allowing us to continue being part of a landscape we’ve fallen in love with.
But hang on – in each of these cases these sequels were written after the original author had died.
What about story arcs which have been returned to by the original author after a considerable period of time? 18 years went by between the publication of the third and forth volumes of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series (The Farthest Shore in 1972 and Tehanu in 1990). 23 years after Richard Adams penned Watership Down (1972), he returned with Tales from Watership Down (1996). Alan Garner finally completed his Weirdstone trilogy with Boneland almost 50 years after the second book in the series, The Moon of Gomrath (1963).
It’s not just novels which are sometimes returned to after a long gap. There are several cases where picture book sequels have appear a considerable time after a first book about a given character. There were 9 years between the debut Winnie the Witch (by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul) and Winnie in Winter (1996). Despite a slow start, there are now 15 books in the series!
There was an even longer passage of time between the first Elmer book by David McKee and the second outing for Elmer although they weren’t quite sequels; Elmer was first published in 1968 and 21 years later a re-written, re-illustrated version came out with a different publisher (Andersen), essentially as a new book. More easily identified as sequels, Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji and Zathura were also published 21 years apart.
But the longest gap I can find in the world of picture books, when it comes to time elapsed before a sequel appeared, is 47 years. Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins first appearing in 1968. It’s been 47 years in the coming, but this year finally saw its sequel hit bookshelves, in the form of Where, Oh Where, is Rosie’s chick?
When we first met Rosie the Chicken we delighted as she walked about her farm, managing to avoid being captured by a wiley fox. Was she really entirely oblivious to the vulpine threat as she strutted about? Was the fox simply so stupid he only had himself to blame for his downfall? Great fun is had by the two stories running in parallel and yet intricately entwined. It’s a super joke – the fox isn’t ever explicitly mentioned, and yet without the fox there would be no story.
Fast forward nearly half a century and we meet Rosie just as her chick is hatching. Just as the chick tries to leave the nest, Rosie loses her little one. She searches high and low whilst the little chick faces threats from cats and fish and… yes, foxes, each time being saved serendipitously, by the un-knowing actions of her mum. It’s a funny read, with elements of slapstick, rounded off with reassurance (even the foxes appear only to have been playing family hide and seek), faithfully echoing the original palette and style of artwork. A little bit of nostalgia helps carry the the visual and written stories; the sequel’s ending doesn’t have quite the wicked joy of the original, but can nevertheless be enjoyed both those new to Rosie, and by old friends.
Inspired by Hutchins distinctive art we tried our had at making landscapes through which Rosie and her chick could wander. First we painted swathes and patches of various shades of green and yellow. Once these patches were dry we use leaf and fruit shaped stamps made from modelling clay (plasticine) to created repeated motifs on top of our blocks of colour. Once leaves and fruit were dry we went round the contours with a black permanent pen.
Hutchins herself creates her art in quite a different way creating the line drawings first and adding colour afterwards, but even so, our end results mirrored her landscapes rather pleasingly.
One of the lovely things about returning to Rosie years after I first met her is in the opportunity the sequel gives to reflect on how my life has changed since I first read Rosie’s Walk as a child, and years later shared it as a parent myself. There’s something very comforting about now having the story of Rosie’s chick to giggle over together with my own children. It’s a treat I suspect many parents and children, or even grandparents and grandchildren will enjoy.
But what about you? What sequels have you eagerly waited for? And what sequels (real or only dreamed of) are you or your children still waiting for?
Every evening for the past couple of weeks I’ve had an appointment in the Kingdom of Silk.
The Kingdom of Silk is a small patch of ground on the outskirts of a small Australian town. It’s remarkable for the wealth of love and creativity, the depth of compassion and brightness of sincerity you can find there. It’s a place full of peals of laughter, although visiting it is also known to squeeze gentle tears from your heart.
This magical location may sound vaguely familiar to you: It’s the setting of a series of short novels by Glenda Millard, the first of which I reviewed earlier this year. It’s not often I return to the same book on my blog (indeed re-reading more generally is something I rarely do, knowing that time is always too short and the worlds to be explored between the pages of a book are ever expanding) but back in February when I first entreated you to find a copy of The Naming of Tishkin Silk, I had only shared one of the series with my children, and I was curious to witness how they would take to the honest, unpatronising, sometimes heartbreaking exploration of emotionally complex issues that continues across the entire series of Kingdom of Silk books. After all, fostering, dementia, refugees and world peace are not your everyday, run-of-the-mill themes for books for children.
These books (illustrated by Caroline Magerl and Stephen Michael King) have been our end-of-day bedtime delight for about a month now. I’ve been reading them to both M (10) and J (7) at the same time. We’re almost finished The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk, and September, when the last book in the series (Nell’s Festival of Crisp Winter Glories) is due to be published, now seems unbearably far away.
I’m sharing all this with you because these evening visits to the Kingdom of Silk have been so quietly beautiful as a shared family reading experience that I’d love for you to be able to experience them too. Sharing the stories of the Silk family and how they face up to the challenges family life throws at them and seeing how they respond generously and kindly to problems faced by people they love has brought so many “tender moments” to our own family. It’s brought magic into our lives as the stories have made us see creative, enchanted opportunities where we didn’t see any before. This magic is pin perfectly described in Plum Puddings and Paper Moons, the 5th book in the series:
‘We’re all born with magic in us,’ she said. ‘A child’s magic is so powerful it sometimes rubs off on grown-up people. When that happens, they rediscover their own leftover magic and all kinds of remarkable things happen. Their limpy legs grow stronger and they don’t need as many naps. The words of long-forgotten songs and stories come back into their heads. Sometimes they compose completely new tunes and whistle them on red buses in the mornings when they’re going to the library to borrow books about interesting topics like magic puddings or very hungry caterpillars. And on cold, dark, dismal days they see fired-breathing dragons and knights in shining armour, where once they saw only clouds. People like this laugh loudly and often, and they smile more, because they’ve discovered the marvellous secret that leftover magic is a cure for gloominess and loneliness[.]”
The Silk Family have a wonderful institution: The OCCASION Breakfast. Each Saturday morning, a member of the family prepares a themed breakfast over which everyone lingers. This weekend M and J insisted on our first OCCASION Breakfast, which they themed around the colours of orange, yellow and red, honouring the Silk children Amber, Scarlet and Saffron.
Breakfast isn’t the only time food brings people together causing outbreaks of smiles and laughter. Cakes feature in every volume of the Kingdom of Silk. There’s a lovely passage (also in Plum Puddings and Paper Moons) about how the gift of a cake can quietly speak volumes. Ever so keen to try out the recipe for Amber’s Armenian Love Cake which Millard supplies, we’ve been baking them, gobbling them and giving them to friends.
Amber’s Armenian Love Cakes – wonderfully nutmeg-y light cakes with a biscuity base
Whilst I love cakes, if I had to choose between them and books, I’d have to forgo the sweet treats. And why? This short passage, from the sixth book in the series, The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk, nails it:
On the bottom tier was a small cut-glass dish of sugar-coated aniseed rings, a plate of pink jelly cakes and a tattered copy of Anne of Green Gables.
It was Nell’s book. She’d had it since she was a young girl and had learnt a lot about being a better person by reading it, even though it was a mostly made-up story. From the moment her daughters were born, Nell read to them. it didn’t matter that they didn’t understand the words. books are many things: lullabies for the wary, ointment for the wounded, armour for the fearful and nests for those in need of a home.”
The Kingdom of Silk books are music to entrance and transport you, balm for bruised souls, practical tools for fostering empathy, and the most comforting, comfortable refuge at the ends of busy days. Lots of books come to life in our home but having seen how my daughters have taken these stories deep into their hearts and lives, their play and conversation, I wouldn’t be surprised if in forty years time it is these ones which my children remember most happily when asked to think of their favourite books of all time.
That’s all you really need to know. It’s that simple.
It’s the tale of a young child who plants some seeds and watches them grow. This in itself isn’t ground-breaking; there are plenty of other lovely books out there that have the same basic premise, but this one just does it so well, so delightfully, so cleverly it’s become my number one book for gardening with kids.
First up, there’s the fact that Lulu gets her inspiration for her garden from books.
Poetry is what kicks it all off, but then she uses non-fiction books to learn more. You can see how this matches Playing by the book’s ethos so perfectly – with ideas coming from books, sparking more reading of books, embedding stories and ideas into each of our lives. One example of this which I especially love is depicted in the endpages of this book, where first you get the original version of the nursery rhyme ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ but at the end of the book you get a re-written version, Lulu’s version. Lulu has taken the poem and really made it her own.
Next I love this book because it’s about something completely unrelated to diversity (it is not an “issues” book), and yet it does wonders for inclusion.
In a way it saddens me that simply depicting a non-white family doing something as ordinary as gardening is radical. But mostly I’m delighted to see a family (who just happen to be black) doing ordinary family things together.
And yes, I love this book because its about doing things together as a family; getting crafty, getting creative, Dad included! Going these projects isn’t difficult, and any effort involved is more than repaid through the joy of the time and experiences shared.
Beardshaw’s painting illustrations are full of colour without ever being garish. She’s got a real eye for clothing, and I just love how she’s captured Lulu’s curly hair. On one level that’s such a small thing, but on another I feel it really shows an authenticity in her illustrations.
I think the scene above is extra special. Last year the School Library Journal published a fascinating article about research showing How Cross-Racial Scenes in Picture Books Build Acceptance. Although the stats are based on the US picture book market, they still speak volumes elsewhere in the world:
Fewer than 10 percent of books published in 2013 featured children of color, according to statistics gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Books Center.
Even more rare are the picture books that depict children making positive connections across racial differences. This absence sends a subtle message to children, as if we were telling them, “It’s okay to only play with children who are like you” or that “children like you don’t play with children who are racially different from you.”
In a study investigating how kids respond to cross-racial depictions in picture books, Aronson and her colleagues randomly assigned children to two groups. The first group was read books that depicted children from different races playing together and having fun. The second group was read similar books, but with children from only one racial group.
After six weeks, they found that children in the first group reported greater comfort and interest in playing across difference than children in the second group. Perhaps even more importantly, the first group reported that these positive attitudes remained three months after the study was completed.
We NEED more books like Lulu Loves Flowers, not just so black kids can see themselves in picture books but also so that kids who aren’t black can see them too, and can see kids, people getting on whatever their skin colour. Lulu Loves Flowers is a book for everyone, and should not be shelved only with the “Diverse/inclusive books”.
Lulu Loves Flowers is the latest of several books Anna McQuinn has written about this family. All are joyous, full of smiles, reflecting everyday experiences of young children and highlighting things that really matter – not only but especially – with little ones: Spending time together, reading and sharing stories. If you’ve live or work with kids under 5 I think they should form an essential part of your library.
Although Lulu Loves Flowers may be mostly aimed at younger kids, my 10 year old wanted to make her own garden to go with the book, using bell charms (we got ours from this etsy seller) and a fabulous bookish planter we found in the local junk shop.
There’s nothing like making a miniature fairy garden!
We also thought about a crafty project which younger kids could easily do too and came up with the idea of making silver bells for our garden out of old yoghurt pots. Using acrylic paint we first coated our clean pots in silver and when dry we drizzled them with PVA glue and sprinkled glitter over them. (Acrylic is a good paint to use on yoghurt pots as it sticks better to the plastic. If you’ve access to lots of cardboard egg boxes you could also use them to make bells, and then poster paint would work fine.)
We hung our bells up in our cherry tree, in the hope that the movement and sparkle will keep the pigeons from eating our fruit (yes, we live optimistically!).
I wonder if we’ll end up keeping the pigeons away by attracting lots of magpies instead
Whilst making our silver bells we listened to:
Rolling in the Deep by Adele… but rearranged for handbells!
So when Made by Raffi written by Craig Pomranz, illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain (@madgiemadge) appeared in my hands for the first time I sat up and noticed; it’s about a boy who feels he doesn’t quite fit in, for instead of football, his passion is knitting and sewing.
Although he’s a curious and generous kid, he feels sidelined at school. Unlike most of his classmates, he doesn’t like noise and rough play. But thanks to a supportive teacher he discovers a new passion – making his own clothes. When it is time for the school play could this new skill help him gain the respect of his peers? Without giving the game away, the ending is upbeat, but also authentic. This isn’t a sugar-coated story. (For the really interesting background to the story, take a look at this article).
This book deserves to be in every school and read in every family for a whole plethora of reasons. It’s bold, tackling gender issues that many adults might skirt around: I love Pomranz daring to use the word “girly“, and it certainly helped us talk about how being a girl interested in ‘boys’ things’ is often more accepted by society than a boy interested in ‘girls’ things’. It’s big hearted; not just the warm, loving family Raffi is part of, but also his supportive school. It shows all sorts of children playing together, with different skin colours and different physical abilities, as well as different interests. It’s a joyously inclusive book, which tackles big themes gently and playfully.
Margaret Chamberlain’s illustrations are delightful. She uses colour very cleverly to portray moods and to mirror how much more interesting – indeed colourful – the world is for a diverse range of characters; wouldn’t the world be a dull grey place if we all liked only the same things?
A book about loneliness, respect, difference, and learning to trust your instincts even when it means you don’t follow the crowd, Made by Raffi is a vital, delightful and unusual book I urge you to share.
M and J were recently shown how to knit by their Grandma, and reading Made by Raffi offered the ideal opportunity to practice their recently acquired skills. (Here are some Youtube tutorials we found helpful to refresh our memories of what Granny had taught us: Casting on, knit stitch, casting off.
Having a ball of wool with lots of different colours on it was an effective tool in motivating the kids; each child would knit one or two colours and then hand the needles and ball over to the other. It gave them easy targets to aim for, and I’m sure this is partly why they completed a long scarf far more quickly than I was expecting.
Letting the kids embellish their own clothing. I found this the easiest/most satisfying way to let the kids have a go at making something themselves – they chose buttons they liked and sewed them onto a couple of pieces of clothing. Simple sewing but with a relatively big (and ‘real’) result.
Making a cloak as described in the story. Alternatively, if you can find a department store selling off curtain samples (eg in John Lewis or House of Fraser), you can pick up pretty much prepared cloaks – all you need to do is add something (eg a large hook and eye) so you can have the cloak safely stay on your shoulders as you zoom around wearing it.
If in a school or a library setting, making a display with images of clothes designed by men (Galliano, Versace, Gaultier for example, cut out from glossy magazines) and as the centre pieces place Made by Raffi and The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams. Whilst not for primary school kids, I’d also encourage you to read Boys Don’t Knit by T.S.Easton, a hilarious take on a teenage boy who loves to knit. Ben Fletcher and Raffi would definitely like to meet each other!
Other picture /illustrated books which feature knitting include:
Someone asked me at a recent book talk why I chose to write about hope and children in poverty. They asked whether it was frivolous to write about such a topic at a time when children are experiencing the challenges associated with poverty and economic disadvantage at high rates. As I thought about that question, I began to reflect on the stories of people I know and families I’ve worked with who, despite the challenges they experienced, were managing their lives successfully. I also reflected on popular figures who shared stories in the media about the ways in which they overcame early adversity in their lives.
As I reflected on these stories, it occurred to me that a common theme among these individuals was hope. I began to see the various ways in which hope is a highly influential and motivating force in their lives. This kind of hope is not passive—it is not merely wishing for a better life, but it is active. It involves thinking, planning, and acting on those thoughts and plans to achieve desired outcomes. It is the driving force that keeps us moving despite the adversity and allows us to adapt and to be resilient in the midst of these circumstances. In reflecting on these themes, I decided that I wanted to tell these stories and to link the stories with theoretical frameworks that help illuminate why I believe hope is so important. Most of the theories and ideas I discuss are well known to those of us who study children and families. However, it occurred to me that practitioners and policymakers may not be so familiar with these ideas and may find them useful in planning their work with children and families. My goal is to foster understandings of hope and resilience in practical terms so that together researchers, practitioners, and policymakers alike can help more children and families manage their circumstances and chart pathways toward well-being.
So when I think about a response to the question “Why focus on hope?” — I respond “Why not?” Why not focus on strengths rather than deficits? Why not focus our interventions, legislative activities, and funding priorities on processes that will motivate individuals to strive for the best outcomes for themselves and their children? In so doing, we can formulate an action agenda on behalf of children and families that first assumes they can and will succeed in rising above their circumstances.
As I learned from the families I interviewed, success means different things to different families. For some, success is being able to keep their family together—have dinner together, talk with each other, and support each other. For other families, success means being able to be a good parent– to go to bed at night realizing that you’ve provided for your child emotionally, spiritually as well as materially, and that by doing so, your child might have an even better opportunity than you did to achieve success. These individuals are truly courageous. They have overcome many obstacles and are striving to continue along that path. There are countless other courageous individuals who may never have the opportunity to tell their stories or to have their experiences validated with concepts and theories I discuss from the psychological literature. I hope this volume will represent their lives too. I challenge those of us who work with children and families and who advocate for or legislate on their behalf, to have the courage to “ hope” and to allow that hope to be a motivating and unrelenting force in our efforts to foster resilience and well-being in these families.
Dr. Valerie Maholmeshas devoted her career to studying factors that affect child developmental outcomes. Low-income minority children have been a particular focus of her research, practical, and civic work. She has been a faculty member at the Yale Child Study Center in the Yale School of Medicine where she held the Irving B. Harris Assistant Professorship of Child Psychiatry, an endowed professorial chair. She is the author of Fostering Resilience and Well-Being in Children and Families in Poverty.
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One of the best days of our school summer holiday this year was spent taking things apart and weaving other things together.
Two friends of mine are the driving force behind setting up an alternative, creative play space in my home town, and I was honoured to be a part of the team involved in testing a prototype of their PLAYLAB. The longer term project is all about taking play seriously, providing a wide range of fun opportunities to grow and develop, through engineering, digital, drama, art, and tinkering-based activities, and for one day during the summer we took over an empty shop in the local mall and turned it into a hive full of transformers and loom bandits.
Photo: Stuart Parker
We had a range of old machines to take apart with hand tools, to explore, rebuild and repurpose and a sweetie shop array of loom bands for weaving and creating.
Image: Joyjit Sarker
Image: Stuart Parker
There were also books! Books on the theory of play and practical books to inspire kids and families. One of my roles was setting up this mini tinkering/play-themed library and today I thought I’d share some of them with you. Whilst these aren’t kids’ books per se, they are definitely family books – books to share and inspire kids and their grown ups to be creative.
At first I baulked at a book that essentially seemed to be a collection of themed adverts covering everything from shoes to spirituality, Velcro to vagabonding, joinery to geology; each reviews has a product photo, details of where to buy the product and the typical price of the item, followed by a review of the “tool” at hand.
But as I browsed this book (although its size and format – larger than A4 and printed on thin glossy paper – make it slightly unwieldy, this is a great book for dipping in and out of) I got sucked in and ideas for all sorts of play and creativity started flowing.
And that’s what this book sis really all about: Showing you some interesting, practical tools (both physical and digital) to enable you to see possibilities where perhaps you saw none before. It’s sparked lots of “what if?” conversations in our family, and amazed us with the range of innovative ideas out there.
On the back cover of Cool Tools it states “This book was made with the young in mind. Give a copy to a kid you know.” M (at 9) has loved this books though some families may wish to know in advance that there is a small section on ‘Psychedelics’ including marijuana, and e-cigarettes. Given the format of this book, the page concerned can easily be removed and its presence should certainly not be a barrier to you opening this book up and exploring all the possibilities it offers you.
The Art of Tinkering by Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich has one of the best front covers I’ve ever seen. It embodies what the book is about int he most perfect way possible: It is printed with conductive ink, allowing you to play/tinker/hack the book before you’ve even opened it.
Where Cool Tools was about products to foster doing/playing/tinkering, The Art of Tinkering is about showcasing a wide range of artists mixing technology and art, taking apart and repurposing one thing to make something exciting and new. After each artist is introduced there’s a section on “how you can tinker” in a way similar to the artist in question. Some of the suggestions need rather more equipment than just a screwdriver, glue or paint, but the ideas are innovative and inspirational, ranging from time lapse art to playdoh circuits, animating stuffed toys to sculpting in cardboard, building your own stroboscope to making clothes out of unusual materials. Whilst the book doesn’t include step by step tutorials, it is packed with practical information, presented beautifully. Nearly every page turn has resulted in “Mum, can we try that?!”
Tinkerlab by Rachelle Doorley is a compendium of “55 playful experiments that encourage tinkering, curiosity and creative thinking”, born out of the US blog with the same name, Tinkerlab. Written specifically with the 0-6 year old crowd in mind, the projects in this book are simpler and easier to set up than in some of the other books mentioned here today, and many fall into the messy play category; you might not think of them as tinkering (for example collage painting and drawing games), and yet they do all involve experimenting, exploring, testing and playing, and in that sense they could be described as ‘tinkering’. “Design”, “Build”, “Concoct” and “Discover” form the main themes of each chapter packed with clear, recipe-like guidance for the themed activities. The book is beautifully produced with a coffee table book feel and the activities are contextualised with brief essays by various play and education professionals. It’s written very much with parents in mind; Doorley is keen to encourage us all at home to make space for mess and exploration, and this book helps make it feel possible, manageable and enjoyable.
Make: is a quarterly magazine made up of a mixture of opinion pieces, detailed tutorials and artist/project biographies and write-ups. I’d gift this mind-boggling magazine to teens (or adults) who love the idea of playing and creating with technology. The projects are aimed at those who embrace electronics and gadgets and range from the practical (eg a DIY blood pressure monitor or sleep timer) to the purely whimsical, (eg moving, fire breathing sculptures or coffee shop construction toys).
Even though most of the projects in Make: are too complex for the stage me and my girls are at, we’ve oohed and ahhed our way through several issues of Make: and will be looking out for new issues.
If tinkering/hacking is something that interests you, do look out for this year’s series of Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution. “Sparks will fly: How to hack your home” is the title for this year’s series of lectures aimed at curious kids and their families and in them Professor Danielle George will be exploring how the spark of your imagination and some twenty first century tinkering can change the world. They will be shown on BBC4 over the Christmas period, and in January 2015 on the Ri’s (free) science video channel: www.richannel.org.
Fascinating and reassuring, thoughtful and funny, Welcome to the Family by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Ros Asquith is a very special book about all sorts of different families and the ways children end up in them. If ever a book was cut and bound with love, this is it.
It’s the perfect book if you’re part of a family with step-parents, adopted siblings, or any sort of family which is not vanilla Mum, Dad and 2.4 kids, and you want your family to see families just like yours in between the pages of a book.
It’s also the perfect book if you are part of a family with Mum, Dad and 2.4 kids and you want to help your kids understand that there’s not just one way of being a family, even if all families do have one very important thing in common: Love.
All sorts of children (and parents) will find themselves in this book; they will see themselves and their family set-ups acknowledged and celebrated without judgement. And as is appropriate of any celebration there’s lots of joy, happiness and humour in both words and pictures. Reassurance that the child is loved and welcomed is the beating heart of this book.
A special cuddly teddy bear provides commentary at different points in the text, allowing children to feel ok if what they’re reading is new or surprising for them. Sibling rivalry, anxiety and the difficulties which can arise in any family are also mentioned; this remains a realistic, not a sugar-coated view of family life, and it’s all the more comforting for that.
Whilst I adore this book more than I have found easy to say (I’ve drafted this review many times trying to find just mix of exuberance and professionalism), I think it worth pointing out that although all sorts of families are included, they are all core, nuclear families ie parents and children. No explicit mention is made of aunts and uncles, grandparents or cousins, and yet these people too are very important parts of many families.
Sharing this book (or letting your child discover it for themselves) is an easy and enjoyable way to introduce your primary school aged kids to everything from IVF babies to the fact that some kids are brought up by two Dads. It’s honest, welcoming text is brilliantly brought to life by spirited illustrations. It’s unpatronising, unthreatening approach is a breath of fresh air. Simply put, this is an outstanding book, a book that fights evil and ignorance with joy, love and respect.
We started by taking a load of photos of each other, with our faces showing different sorts of expressions. I cropped our heads out and resized them so they were only 1.5-2 cm tall, before printing them out.
(Alternatively you could also go to a passport photo booth and get have fun there, coming home with strips of faces.)
Next we drew bodies and clothing. I gave the kids pieces of paper between 10 and 15 cm long and encouraged them to draw their bodies/clothes to fill the space; if your printed head is about 2 cm big, you’ll need the bodies to be between 10 and 15 cm long if you want them to be approximately in proportion to the heads. The kids found the scale issue a little difficult to begin with, but it definitely helped to give them rectangles of paper approximately the right size, rather than big sheets of paper.
We cut out the heads and bodies and stuck them onto wooden barbecue skewers using label stickers, but you could use tape.
Now we were ready to act out all sorts of family dramas!
Each year the Royal Society awards a prize to the best book that communicates science to young people with the aim of inspiring young people to read about science. In the run up to the announcement of the winner of The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize in the middle of November, I’ll be reviewing the books which have made the shortlist, and trying out science experiments and investigating the world with M and J in ways which stem from the books in question.
Have you ever thought how your genes could get you out of prison?
Or what the consequences might be if a company owned and could make money out of one of your own genes?
How would you know if you were a clone?
Why might knowing something about junk DNA be important if you’re running an exclusive restaurant with slightly dodgy practices?
Answers to these and many other intriguing questions are to be found in this accessible introduction to genetics, pitched at the 9-11 crowd. Arbuthnott does a great job of showing how relevant a knowledge of genetics is, whether in helping us to understand issues in the news (e.g. ‘Cancer gene test ‘would save lives’‘) or understanding why we are partly but not entirely like our parents. What makes you YOU? covers key scientists in the past history of genetics and crucial stages in its development as a science, including the race to discover what DNA looked like, the Human Genome Project, and Dolly the Sheep.
Arbuthnott portrays the excitement and potential in genetic research very well, leaving young readers feeling that this is far from a dry science; there are many ethical issues which make the discussion of the facts seem more relevant and real to young readers. Whilst on the whole I felt the author did a good job of balancing concerns with opportunities, I was sorry that in the discussion about genetically modified plants no mention was made of businesses ability to control supply to food stock, by creating plants which don’t reproduce, leaving farmers dependent on buying new seed from the business.
A timeline of discoveries, a very helpful list of resources for further study, a glossary and an index all make this a really useful book. Importantly, not only does the book contain interesting and exciting information, it also looks attractive and engaging. Lots of full bleed brightly coloured pages, and the use of cartoony characters make the book immediately approachable and funny – a world away from a dry dull school textbook.
What makes you YOU? provides a clear and enjoyable introduction to understanding DNA and many of the issues surrounding genetic research, perfect not only for learning about this branch of science, but also for generating discussion.
Extracting DNA is what the kids wanted to try after sharing What makes you YOU?. In the interest of scientific exploration we tried two different techniques to see which one we found easier and which gave the best results.
Method 1: Extracting your own DNA
What you’ll need:
A measuring jug
A small bowl
A small clean cup
A tall and narrow jar (or a test tube)
Clingfilm or a stopper/lid
A stirrer eg a plastic straw
Rubbing alcohol (surgical spirit – in the UK you can buy this easily in a chemists such as Boots)
1. Dissolve 1 tablespoon of salt in 250ml of water to create a salt solution.
2. Dilute the washing-up liquid by mixing 1 tbsp of washing-up liquid with 3 tbsp of water in your small bowl. We’ll call this the soap solution.
3. Swish 1 teaspoon of tap water around in your mouth vigorously for at least 30 seconds. Spit this into the small cup. We’ll call this spit water.
4. Put 1/4 teaspoon of your salt solution into your tall jar/test tube.
5. Pour your spit water from the cub into the tall tar/test tube.
6. Add 1/4 teaspoon of your soap solution to the test tube.
7. Cover the top of your tall jar/test tube either with clingfilm/a stopper/a lid and gently turn the jar almost upside down several times to mix everything together. Avoid making any bubbles.
8. Take the covering off the jar and dribble 1 teaspoon of surgical spirit down the side of the tall jar/test tube. Watch for the surgical spirit forming a layer on top of the spitwater/salt solution/soap solution mix.
9. You should now see a white stringy layer forming between the two layers – this is your DNA (and a few proteins, but mostly it’s your DNA)
10. You can use the stirrer to pull out the white goop to get a closer look at your DNA.
This second method is detailed in What makes you YOU? and involves strawberries, fresh pineapple, warm water and ice as well as washing-up liquid and salt. It also calls for methylated spirits but we swapped this for surgical spirit, as that’s what we had to hand.
This method is a little more involved than the first method but is a all round sensory experience: There are lots of strong smells (from crushed strawberries and puréed pineapple, as well as the surgical spirit), colours make it visually very appealing (perhaps this is why methylated spirits are called for in the original recipe as the purple of the meths adds another dimension) and there is also lots to feel, from the strange sensation of squishing the strawberries by hand, through to the different temperatures of the warm water in which the DNA-extracting-mix gently cooks followed by the ice water in which it cools down.
Look! Strawberry DNA!
Both methods were fun to try. We liked the first method because the result was seeing globs of our very own DNA, but the second method was a much more stimulating process, appealing to all the senses. Indeed this DNA extraction recipe alone makes it worthwhile seeking out a copy of What makes you YOU?.
Whilst extracting DNA we listened to:
GENEticS, a rap by Oort Kuiper
The DNA song
The Galaxy DNA song By Eric Idle and John Du Prez (a re-worked Monty Python song)
Can you imagine a world without colour, where all you see is black, white or the shades of grey in between? As a self-confessed colour junkie such a world would sap my energies and leave my life (perhaps ironically), somewhat blue.
Thus when two new books came to my attention both titled ‘The Colour Thief’ I was very intrigued; not only did they look like their subject matter would appeal to me, it was funny and surprising to see two books, from different authors/illustrators/publishers with the same title.
In The Colour Thief by Gabriel Alborozo an alien looks longingly across space to planet earth, full of colours and brightness. He believes such a beautiful place must be full of joy, and so sets off to bring some of that happiness back to his home planet.
With just a few magic words the alien is able to suck up first all the reds, then the blues and the greens and before long planet earth is looking very grey and sad. But what of the alien? Can he really be happy when he sees the glumness he has caused?
Alborozo’s story about kindness, desire and what makes us joyous and content is full of appeal. There are lots of themes which can be explored; from the beauty around us which we might take for granted (requiring an outsider to alert us to us), to whether or not we can be happy if we’ve caused others distress, this book could be used to open up lots of discussion.
Click to see larger image
Although the alien’s actions could be frightening, this is mitigated by his cute appearance, just one of the book’s charms. I also think kids will love the apparent omnipotence of the alien: He wants something, and at his command he gets it, just like that, and this identification with the alien makes the story more interesting and unusual. The artwork is fun and energetic, seemingly filled with rainbow coloured confetti. I can easily imagine a wonderful animation of this story.
Father and son lead a comforting life “full of colour”, but when depression clouds the father’s mind he withdraws, and all the colours around the family seem to disappear. The child worries that he might somehow be the cause of this loss, but he is repeatedly reassured it is not his fault and gradually, with patience and love, colours start to seep back into the father’s life and he returns to his family.
Mental health is difficult to talk about when you’re 40, let alone when you are four, but this lyrical and moving book provides a thoughtful, gentle, and unsentimental way into introducing (and if desired, discussing) depression. If you were looking for “when a book might help” to reassure a child in a specific situation, I would wholeheartedly recommend this; it is honest, compassionate and soothing.
However, I definitely wouldn’t keep this book ONLY for those times when you find a child in a similar circumstances to those described in the book. It is far too lovely to be kept out of more general circulation. For a start, the language is very special; it’s perhaps no surprise when you discover that one of the author’s has more than 70 poetry books to his name. If you were looking for meaningful, tender use of figurative language, for example in a literacy lesson, this book provides some fabulous, examples.
Click to see larger image.
And then there are the illustrations. Karin Littlewood has long been one of my favourite illustrators for her use of colour, her graceful compositions, her quiet kindness in her images. And in The Colour Thief there are many examples of all these qualities. I particularly like her use of perspective first to embody the claustrophobia and fear one can feel with depression, with bare tree branches leaning in onto the page, or street lamps lowering overhead, and then finally the open, sky-facing view as parent and child reunite as they walk together again when colour returns.
Particularly inspired by the imagery in Alborozo’s The Colour Thief we made a trip to a DIY store to pick up a load of paint chips.
Wow. My kids went crazy in the paint section: Who knew paint chips could be just so much fun? They spent over an hour collecting to their hearts’ desire. A surprising, free and fun afternoon!
Once home we snipped up the paint chips to separate each colour. The colour names caused lots of merriment, and sparked lots of equally outlandish ideas for new colour names, such as Beetlejuice red, Patio grey, Spiderweb silver and Prawn Cocktail Pink.
We talked about shades and intensity of colours, and sorted our chips into three piles: Strong, bright colours, off-white colours, and middling colours. I then put a long strip of contact paper on the kitchen table, sticky side up, and the kids started making a mosaic with the chips, starting with the brightest colours in the middle, fading to the palest around the edge.
Apart for the soothing puzzle-like quality of this activity, the kids have loved using the end result as a computer keyboard, pressing the colours they want things to change to. I also think it makes for a rather lovely bit of art, now up in their bedroom.
Whilst making our colour mosaic we listened to:
My favourite ever, ever song about colours…. Kristin Andreassen – Crayola Doesn’t Make A Color For Your Eyes
Colors by Kira Willey. This song would go really well with ‘My Many Colored Days’ by Dr. Seuss.
Roy G Biv by They Might Be Giants
Other activities which might go well with either version of ‘The Colour Thief’ include:
Over the last couple of year’s I’ve read quite a lot about how children’s books with a very specific cultural setting are not favoured by publishers because it is hard to sell rights widely; publishers are keen for “universal” stories which translate (literally and figuratively) well across borders and languages.
Whilst I understand publishers’ drive to maximise sales, I think a great deal is lost if we ignore stories boldly and vividly set in specific and identifiable locations and cultures. Indeed, considering the current drive for increasing diversity in children’s books, I would argue that books which are culture specific have a vital role to play.
And of course, a great book will be “universal” whether or not it is set in a specific time, location or country; enduring stories speak to that which we share whatever our differences.
I have been a fan of Mairi Hedderwick’s books for as long as I can remember. She writes and illustrates rural Scottish island life in a magical way. She captures truths like poetry can in her watercolours of Hebridean life, whilst her stories are full of acute observations about family life that’s more or less the same wherever you are in the world, exploring issues such as sibling rivalry and intergenerational relationships.
The Katie Morag Treasury by Mairi Hedderwick is a glorious book, bringing together a mix of the most popular previously published Katie Morag books and new stories and illustrations first heard and seen on episodes of the highly acclaimed BBC Katie Morag TV show. It really is a treasury, with a range of witty and poignant stories, illustrated in ink and watercolour in a way that invisibly and movingly marries romance and realism.
For kids listening to these stories Katie Morag’s tales act as mirrors; yes she may live in a community vastly unlike the one the young reader or listener lives in, but that only makes it more interesting and reassuring to read that Katie Morag has the same sort of worries, plays the same sorts of games and quarrels with her parents just like they do. Thoughtfulness is a consistent thread in all these stories, and Katie Morag herself is a terrific role model; full of strength and imagination she is not afraid to explore, to try new things, or to be kind.
This is a keeper of a book, one which works well both as a read-aloud, or for children who can read themselves. Indeed the lovely hardback binding makes this ideal for older readers who might not want to be seen reading picture books any more.
I borrowed one of our large plastic boxes which we normally store lego in, lined it with white tissue paper, and then put a load of fairy lights inside it. With the fairy lights turned on, and all the other lights turned off and curtains drawn we entered something of a soothing world where the girls could then make patterns with the shells and sea glass, with soft light shining through.
If you don’t have any sea glass, you could do this activity with florists’ glass (vase) pebbles instead, making light imbued mosaics.
Music which goes really well with Katie Morag stories (though maybe not with the light box activity as much of it will get you up and dancing) includes:
My favourite radio programme – available worldwide online – Travelling Folk. This is BBC Radio Scotland’s flagship folk programme and it’s full of treats each week.
Arrangements of songs like you’ve never heard before from Billy McIntyre and his All Star Ceilidh Band, who I’d love to hear live because they are just WAY out there…. Pop! goes the Ceilidh is a hysterical album with covers of lots of pop classics (eg Living on a Prayer, Robbie William’s Angels, Billy Idol’s White Wedding) redone with fiddle, accordion and more. It will put a crazy smile on your face.
Anything by Skippinish but especially Land below the Waves that always gives me goosebumps:
In part 1 of this post, I spoke about my experience teaching in a nonverbal autistic classroom and its most meaningful takeaways. Part 2 explores respectful, useful resources for people on the autism spectrum, their family members, and educators.
Autism Now: a dynamic and interactive, highly visible and effective central point of quality resources and information for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, their families, and other targeted key stakeholders.
Do you have any recommend resources, organizations, or websites that you would like to share with us? Let us know in the comments!
Veronicahas a degree from Mount Saint Mary College and joined LEE & LOW in the fall of 2014. She has a background in education and holds a New York State childhood education (1-6) and students with disabilities (1-6) certification. When she’s not wandering around New York City, you can find her hiking with her dog Milo in her hometown in the Hudson Valley, NY.
“Griffin came into the Silk family after Scarlet, Indigo, Violet, Amber and Saffron. He came early in the morning on that uncommon day, the twenty-ninth of February. His father’s prediction, considering the date of Griffin’s birth, was that he would be an uncommon sort of boy.
Perhaps he was, thought Griffin ruefully. For the first time in his life, he wished he’d been born on the twenty-eighth day of February or even the first of March. Maybe then he would have been an ordinary boy instead. If he were an ordinary boy, maybe Mama wouldn’t have gone away. Maybe his secret thoughts wouldn’t have changed everything.
Griffin is a member of the somewhat unusual and perhaps slightly bohemian Silk family, who live on the outskirts of a small Australian town. Griffin carries a secret deep inside him, a huge worry that he finds hard to share until he meets Layla, instantly recognisable to him as a princess because she is wearing a daisy-chain crown. Thanks to the thoughtfulness shown by his new friend, Griffin’s courage grows and together they do something that heals the sorrow which all the family has felt after a terrible event no-one has been able to talk about for months.
Just like Griffin, this is a truly “uncommon” short novel, the first in a seven part series. From unexpected characters to profoundly moving themes threaded together with sometimes astonishingly lyrical writing, this book is something utterly different and incredibly beautiful. I have never before come across such delicate and yet powerful writing in a novel for children. Unique, breathtaking and full of fierce love and deep sorrow, The Naming of Tishkin Silk is the sort of book that changes you forever, the sort of book you are just so glad to have inside you, to enrich even the happiest of days and to sustain you on dark nights.
The dual aspect of this novel – intense sadness and intense happiness – reminded me of a passage in The Prophet by Khalil Gibran about joy and sorrow; “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.“. Whilst this book deals with some of the most difficult themes you’re likely to come across in books for its target age range (approximately 8-12), Millard does it with such quiet tenderness that it doesn’t overwhelm. Indeed, like the adult characters inside the book, Millard enters the world children inhabit without patronising them, but rather with immense respect, sincerity and creativity.
The stories we tell ourselves in an attempt to make sense of the world around us, adjusting to different family setups when new babies are born, sibling jealousy, and the value of having space and taking time to think form some of the varied threads woven throughout this precious book. Never once soppy or sentimental, Millard writes with honesty and integrity about deep and loving emotions. This is a tremendous book for exploring kindness and empathy.
It’s Australian setting is lightly but evocatively worn, grounding the somewhat enchanted story in a very real time and place. Yes, my praise for this book goes on and on! And yet, when this book first arrived in my home, I shelved it in a dusty corner. I judged the book by its cover, and the cover did not work for me at all (Caroline Magerl illustrated this first book in the series, but subsequent volumes have been illustrated by Stephen Michael King). It looked airy-fairy, hippy-dippy, saccharine and syrupy and not like something I would enjoy. Someone whose judgement I trust, however, kept telling me I should read the book. Pig-headedly, I kept ignoring this advice. But what a fool I was! Tishkin could have been part of me for two whole extra years if I had listened and not let my prejudices sway me.
For once I had read the book, I was utterly smitten. I could not get hold of the rest of the series quickly enough.
If, however, I still had a niggling doubt, it was about how children would respond to these books. Subtle and yet emotionally complex, featuring an unusual family, and dealing with issues as varied as death, illness, fostering, immigration and dementia over the course of the books now available in the UK (the 6th title in the series, The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk, is published next week on World Book Day, and the final will be available in September this year), I was very curious as to how young people, rather than adults would respond to these books.
I only have one child’s response to call upon, but M, my ten year old, has taken these stories to her heart as much as I have. She’s read each one in a single sitting, and whilst she agrees they are indeed full of sadness, they are also “really funny and playful”, “just the sort of family I want ours to be like”. She has SO many plans for implementing aspects of these stories into our lives, from making the recipes which feature throughout the series, to adopting the special breakfast rituals the Silk Family has into our own home, from making our own paper to consecrating an apple tree for tea parties, from collecting shiny foil to painting special poems on walls and doors. I think I shall be posting our activities, our Kingdom of silk playing by the book for a long time to come on the blog!
As it is, we’ve already got our own green rubber gloves with red nail polish…
…we’ve painted our toes like Layla…
… and we’ve started having hummingbird nectar and fairy bread when we come in from school.
Layla and Griffin and all the Kingdom of Silk clan are now part of our lives: We are all the richer for them. These books are alive with wonder and warmth and they’re some of the best I think my family has ever shared.
In the closing pages of The Naming of Tishkin Silk , this gently heart wrenching, heart-soaring short novel, Millard writes, “There are some days when heaven seems much closer to earth than others, and Friday the twenty-seventh of February was one of them.” By introducing you to this book today, also a Friday the twenty-seventh of February, I’ve tried to offer you a slice of such beauty, kindness and wonder as will indeed make today (or at least the day you start reading your own copy of The Naming of Tishkin Silk ) one of those days where heaven really does seem a little nearer by.
Ever wanted to be a little more adventurous with your family? To take on the role of intrepid outdoor explorers? To feel inspired to leave the cosy comforts and instantly gratifying screens indoors for the wind in your hair and the sun on your face?
Both books offer up a banquet of ideas for family activities and explorations outdoors ranging from building dens with branches and leaves to sleeping outdoors without a tent, from fishing for your supper to foraging for food from hedgerows, from flying kites to learning to kayak.
The Meek Family have taken a year off from their regular jobs and schools to spend 12 months adventuring around the UK in a camper van (you can follow their journey on their blog). 100 Family Adventures is their first book and draws upon their experience of making a conscious effort to spend more time outdoors as a family. As well as 100 activities, there are jokes, tips and facts contributed by the entire family, including the children.
In Wild Adventures, Mick Manning and Brita Granström also draw upon the outdoor play and activities they enjoy with their four children, and whilst there is some overlap in the projects suggested in the two books, the approach taken in each is quite different.
Making and sleeping in a homemade shelter: 100 Family Adventures
Shelters: Wild Adventures
100 Family Adventures is full of photos of the Meek family and their friends doing the activities suggested, whilst Wild Adventures is richly hand illustrated in pencil and watercolour, giving it a hand-made feel rather than something rather sleek and glossy. Whilst photos are “evidence” that the activities suggested can genuinely be done by children and families, Granström’s illustrations show a different truth; that the great outdoors can be enjoyed by any child, not just white able-bodied children.
Sometimes when I read activity or craft books my reading is aspirational; it’s about daydreaming a life in different circumstances. Sometimes, however, I want something with the messiness that is more familiar from my family life. For me, 100 Family Adventures falls into the former category. The adventures they suggest are all amazing, but quite a lot of them require expensive equipment, relatively long distance travel and some serious planning (for example skiing, sailing, kayaking and even some of the camping adventures they suggest e.g. winter camping). Wild Adventures, on the other hand, is much more “domestic” in scale. Although the projects are designed for engaging with a wilder outdoors than that simply found in your back garden, they are not about extreme adventuring. Having said that, 100 Family Adventures is partly about going out of your comfort zone and extending yourself and your family and so it’s not surprising that some of the ideas require more money, time and preparation.
Tracking and casting animal footprints: 100 Family Adventures
Making plaster casts of animal tracks: Wild Adventures
Whilst Wild Adventures is perhaps the book I would choose for my own family, I really like the physical properties of 100 Family Adventures. It has been produced in a chunky format with a flexi-hardcover, making it easy to bung in a rucksack and take on adventures outdoors. Manning and Granström’s lovely book on the other hand is currently only available in hardback with a dust jacket, making it more suitable for reading indoors.
Having listened with interest to what translator and editor Daniel Hahn had to say recently about the value of opinion alongside fact in a day an age of easily found information, I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few days about my reviews and the balance between fact and opinion. These two books, both from the same publisher, on essentially the same topic have reminded me that different styles of books suit different people and that I should remain aware of this when reviewing books. Something I read may be just the sort of thing my family will love, but I shouldn’t forget that other families may like different things. So whilst Wild Adventures is my book of choice today, do look out both and see which suits you and your family… and then let me know which of the two YOU prefer!
Inspired by Wild Adventures we took to the seaside last month and made faces out of objects we found along the shoreline.
There really is nothing like having your own family adventure outdoors.
Sharing something beautiful which means a great deal to you can be an awkward, even embarrassing thing to do. It can feel like going out on a limb. You take the risk of appearing sentimental and perhaps even slightly loopy.
Quite why this should be the case, I don’t know. After all, in trying to offer a special moment or experience, all the giver wants is for you to feel something of the same joy, calm, delight and warmth. But it’s a vulnerable moment, full of potential for dreams to be trampled on.
As a parent I’ve sometimes found myself in the situation where, just for a moment , I want my kids to take me seriously , to meet me as a friend and to fall in love with what I’ve fallen in love with. Don’t get me wrong, of course I want them to have their own opinions and discover their own places and times of magic. But I also want to gift them moments of golden glow inside them, serve up nuggets of warmth that will stay with them always, through bad times and good when remembering times and places that are somehow beautiful.
It happens a lot with books of course – I’ll start books I loved as a child with bated breath: What will the kids make of them? Sometimes it happens with music, and also locations with views or spaces that take my breath away or inspire excitement or awe.
A father decides that his child is old enough to be shown the universe, and takes him on a night-time walk through the town and out into an open space far from street lights where they can watch the stars together and marvel in the sparkle and space and silence. But what does the child make of all this?
The bright intensity of beauty is made bearable with bucket loads of dead pan humour. An extra pair of socks is needed because – it turns out – the universe is pretty cold (‘“Minus 263 degrees,” Dad said‘). The universe turns out to be fairly easy to find; with echoes of Neverland “the way there was straight ahead and then to the left.” And when they finally arrive at the destination picked out by Dad, “I had a feeling I’d been here before, that this was the place where people walked their dogs.”
Indeed, there is a final twist to the story which brings everyone back from interstellar dreams to everyday reality with quite a bump, brilliantly adding a layer of laughter to a moment of intimacy and affection; Father and child do get to create a special shared memory that will stay with them all their lives, but it may not be quite that which the Dad had anticipated!
Pitch-perfect words deserve exceptional illustrations, and Eva Eriksson’s soft and dreamy pencil work only enriches Stark’s text. Muted tones predominate, with the exception of an intense blue for the night time sky, giving those spreads extra impact. The story is told as a first person narrative – the child retelling the entire experience, and the illustrations also emphasise the child’s view of the world; (s)he is often looking in a different direction to his/her father, picking up on other things of interest, whether that’s the liquorice on sale in the shop or the abandoned trike in the park, I couldn’t help smiling broadly at the different facial expressions in father and child when first they gaze at the vastness of the stars above them.
[I think it is worth noting that although some may assume the child is a boy, the text does not assert this. Indeed, given the first person narrative, there’s no need for gendered pronouns when referring to the child, who could in fact be a girl. This possibility is one of the great things about this story and translation.]
When Dad Showed Me the Universe is a very clever, moving and extremely funny book about parental love. In fact, in sharing it with you here on the blog, I feel a little like the father in this beautiful book. I so want you too to gasp in delight, smile brightly and feel that sense of magic settling on you when you read this. I can’t give you starlight, but I can wholeheartedly recommend you find a copy of When Dad Showed Me the Universe without delay.
The hilarity in When Dad Showed Me the Universe has ensured that it is a book my kids have wanted to share multiple times. But already after the first reading they could see my thinking: Were they going to get to see the universe too?
First I prepared…
A perfect universe-gazing pack
A tarpaulin (to put on the ground in case it is damp)
A camping mat for each person
A sleeping bag for each person
A red torch – we used a back bike light, but you could use a normal torch with red acetate taped over or held in place using an elastic band. By using red light, your eyes will adjust more quickly to the darkness.
Hot water bottles and hats for extra cosiness
This pack was left in the garden shed whilst I kept an eye on the weather forecast for a few days, looking out for a clear night. When one came along, I was all ready to go into slightly crazy mode and tell my kids that even though they had their pyjamas on, we were going into the garden in the dark.
I didn’t take many photos as the idea was to disconnect from all the buzz we normally have going on in our lives, and just to relax watching the stars twinkling.
We were super snug and spent about 40 minutes just gazing, sometimes chatting, sometimes just being quiet.
I’m no good at night-time photography (see above). What we saw wasn’t quite like this…
Photo: Scott Wylie on Fiickr Creative Commons
…but we did all feel a sense of awe and peace in a way that took me by surprise.
We didn’t listen to any music whilst we were outside, but here is a marvellously celestial playlist:
Asking your friends and neighbours for their tips on the most beautiful place they know nearby, and then committing to visiting it. Maybe you’ll discover new places and make new memories. I found even just asking myself (and the kids) what’s the most beautiful place near where I live got us thinking hard and engaged in quite lively and at times suprising conversation.
What’s your happiest memory from going somewhere special with a parent or a child?
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.
Many of the best books take us into ourselves and outside into the world, facilitating journeys we might not otherwise have taken either in thought or reality. This sense of adventure and possibility is one of the reason’s why I’m so passionate about books in translation and why I was delighted to hear about the bestselling Chinese children’s novel Bronze and Sunflower (青铜葵花) by Cao Wenxuan hitting English-language bookshelves for the first time this year, thanks to its translation by Helen Wang.
Cover art by Meilo So
Sunflower and Bronze, two children who are isolated and lonely for different reasons befriend each other. Following the death of Sunflower’s father, Bronze’s family unofficially adopt Sunflower and the story then follows the two children’s friendship, adventures, and experiences living in a very poor but very happy and generous family. Although not without times of grief and real hardship, Bronze and Sunflower’s lives are full of so much loveliness, happiness and kindness that this book, this story came as a welcome breath of fresh air, full of hope and a reminder that warmth and generosity can make for powerful storytelling just as much as angst and dystopia.
Although set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution Bronze and Sunflower has a timeless quality about it; yes, there are references to Cadre schools (a feature of the Cultural Revolution) but nevertheless it felt as if this story could have been set in almost any time period. It has a folktale-like quality in its focus on simple everyday events and challenges. The ingenuity of Bronze, the determination of his entire family to provide the best they can for Sunflower, and the fierce love between adoptive brother and sister are moving and enchanting.
This exploration of aspects of every day simple life reminded me at times of the Laura Ingalls books in the best possible sense and thus I believe Bronze and Sunflower would make a great read aloud from around 6+, as well as being enjoyed by older independent readers. This quiet and gentle story woven through with thoughtfulness and bright love will stay with me for a long time.
Captivated as I was by this Chinese novel, I took the opportunity to interview its translator, Helen Wang, about her work and – more broadly – Chinese children’s literature. First I asked about the process Helen goes through when translating a book, where she starts and what “tricks” or routines she makes use of.
Helen Wang: This is only the second book I’ve translated, so I don’t really have any “tricks” or routines. It takes a few months to translate a novel, and it seems to take between one to two years for a translated book to appear in print. It’s quite a commitment for everyone involved. So I like to take some time at the beginning to read the book and play with it, and work out whether we’ll get along – a bit like browsing in a bookshop or a library. One publisher was very keen for me to translate a particular book, and was so anxious when I turned it down. She wanted to know what was wrong with the book! There was nothing with the book, it was just that I didn’t feel I was the right person to translate it. Actually, the experience reminded me a bit of Daniel Pennac’s book “The Rights of the Reader” (translated by Sarah Ardizzone).
Playing by the book: Yes, translators have rights too! How interesting that you felt your style or approach didn’t somehow match a given book. That makes me wonder…what were the most challenging aspects of translating Bronze and Sunflower?
Helen Wang: When the editor at Walker Books sent me the Chinese edition of Bronze and Sunflower, I was staying with my mother and sister, and I would read a chapter at a time and then tell them what had happened. At first it seemed as though I was telling them about one brutal disaster or trauma after another, and it was not easy to show how the story would work in English. As the written translation progressed, it was lovely to see the human story coming to the fore.
We often think about language and culture when translating, but the story-telling is just as important. Things like timing, tension, suspense, length, rhythm, humour and dialogue are crucial elements of a story. We learn these when we are very young, and we all know how little children will complain if you don’t tell the story properly. Chinese stories often provide more information, and more repetition, than the English reader is used to. It doesn’t mean that one style is better than another, but rather that we have different expectations and tolerances. For example, when Sherlock Holmes’ stories were first translated into Chinese, they were given spoiler-titles like “The Case of the Sapphire in the Belly of the Goose”. Part of the challenge of translating is working out the storytelling!
Two Chinese language editions of Bronze and Sunflower
Playing by the book: I find it really interesting that you talk about the impact of the disasters when you were first reading Bronze and Sunflower. Whilst there’s definitely hardship and trauma I didn’t find them overwhelming. What shone through was the compassion and thoughtful human relationships. There were whole stretches I wanted to underline! So tell me, what is your favourite passage in Bronze and Sunflower – your favourite bit of narrative?
Helen Wang: I think one of my favourite lines in the whole book has to be in the last chapter, when the authorities come to talk to the head of the village about moving Sunflower back to the city. We’ve followed the family through all the hardships, and like the family and the villagers, we can’t bear the thought of the authorities taking her away. The head of the village, playing for time, sums up the situation so succinctly: “It’s difficult”. It’s perfect!
Playing by the book: Ah yes, that’s a great scene. My personal favourite (without giving too much away) is the one which involves fireflies…. But now perhaps a much harder question: In what way is Bronze and Sunflower typical (or atypical) of 21st century Chinese children’s literature? I read recently that Chinese children’s literature tends to have what Westerners might call a strong Famous Five flavour, and that lots of what gets written would be considered a bit old fashioned for success in Western markets.
Helen Wang: Well I’ve already mentioned the fact that in Chinese stories there can be a different tempo, tension or tolerance of certain linguistic devices such as repetition.
I’ve heard English people say that Chinese children’s books can be overly moral or too didactic. And I’ve heard Chinese people complain that English stories lack firm morals and instruction! But these were adults talking, and it would useful to have some feedback from younger readers too!
A Monster Magic title by Leon Image
One way to get an idea of what’s popular in China now is to look at the list of the 30 bestselling children’s books. The last available list is for February 2015.
By far the most popular children’s author at the moment is Leon Image (a pseudonym), who has ten books in the Top 30, and is one of the richest authors in China. Leon Image is the creator of the phenomenally successful Charlie IX series. Charlie IX is a dog with royal pedigree and superpowers, who, together with his schoolboy owner DoDoMo, goes on amazing fantasy adventures that involve working out clues along the way. The books come together with a magnifier, stickers and puzzles. The latest book is the series is no. 24: Charlie IX, Empty City at the End of the World, and there are currently eight books of this series in the top 30!
Leon Image has also produced the very popular Monster Magic series, and two of these (nos 13 and 14) are in the top 30. I don’t think any of the Leon Image books have been translated into English. However, there are four authors on the list whose work has been translated into English fairly recently.
The first in the Mo’s Mischief series by Yang Hongying
Yang Hongying is the creator of several very successful series. She started writing children’s books as a young primary school teacher in the 1980s, and after a few years left teaching to concentrate on writing. Her ‘Mo’s Mischief’ series is about a lively little boy, Mo, who keeps getting into trouble (some of these are available in English: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mo’s_Mischief). ‘The Diary of a Smiling Cat’ series follows the adventures of Mo’s cousin’s talking pet cat. ‘Girl’s Diary’ is about a girl in her last year at primary school.
Shen Shixi is China’s “King of Animal Stories” and he has written lots of them! His current bestseller in China is ‘Wolf King Dream’. His book Jackal and Wolf is available in English (translated by me) – it’s about a jackal who raises an orphaned wolf cub and the hair-raising adventures they have hunting, surviving, finding mates, having cubs – with the added complications that wolves and jackals don’t get on, and that they have a mother-daughter relationship.
Wu Meizhen is well-known for her Sunshine Sister series. She also wrote An Unusual Princess, which is available in English, translated by Petula Parris-Huang, and has a few twists in the tail.
Cao Wenxuan is Professor of Chinese Literature at Peking University, and writes for both adults and children. He currently has two books in the top 30: Bronze and Sunflower, first published in 2005 and still one of the bestselling children’s books in China; and Straw Houses (tr Sylvia Yu et al). Both of these are available in English now, and I hear a third – Dawang Tome: The Amber Tiles (translated by Nicholas Richards, Better Chinese, California, 2015. ISBN 978-1-60603-707-2) – will be launched at Book Expo America 2015, in May, where China is the guest of honour this year.
There are several commercial titles tied in with TV series, such as the Happy Lamb, Little Pig and Carrot Fantasy series. And there are six well-known translated titles on the list too: Totto-chan, Little Girl at the Window (Tetsuko Kuroyanagi), Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White), Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren), Fantastic Mr Fox (Roald Dahl), The Cricket in Times Square (George Selden) and Guess How Much I Love You? (Sam McBratney, Anita Jeram).
A Chinese Life by Philippe Otie and Li Kunwu. This graphic novel is set in 1940s onwards, under Mao Zedong.
Playing by the book: It’s interesting to see what’s been translated and sells – both in terms of being translated from and into Chinese. What other Chinese children’s literature would you like to see available for English language audiences?
Helen Wang:I’d like to see a wider range of titles that show us different aspects of the Chinese experience from a child’s point of view. How about a Chinese version of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”? Something that tells us what it’s like being a child in China today?
The Ventriloquist’s Daughter by Man-chiu Lin
From the list of bestsellers, you can see that there are school stories, animal stories, naughty boy stories, and stories about children having adventures, just like there are here in the UK. I’d like to see some more stories that are about what it’s like to be a young person growing up in China or in the Chinese diaspora. I recently read The Ventriloquist’s Daughter by Man-chiu Lin, which is a wonderful story of a young girl’s struggle to establish her own identity as she grows up – I think this would work very well in English. You can read a sample of this (translated by me) in the new Found in Translation Anthology here on pages 57-71.
Playing by the book: Thank you so much Helen. My reading list has grown exponentially! I’m very grateful that you’ve shared your knowledge of Chinese children’s literature today, and I especially want to thank you for enabling – with your translation – the story Bronze and Sunflower to to find another fan, another home inside me and no doubt many other English language speakers and readers.
From the author of Virtuosity, a novel about two sisters and the secrets they tell, the secrets they keep—and the secret that could tear them apart.
Amelia is used to being upstaged by her charismatic younger sister, Charly. She doesn’t mind, mostly, that it always falls to her to cover for Charly’s crazy, impulsive antics. But one night, Charly’s thoughtlessness goes way too far, and she lands both sisters in serious trouble.
Amelia’s not sure she can forgive Charly this time, and not sure she wants to . . . but forgiveness is beside the point. Because Charly is also hiding a terrible secret, and the truth just might tear them apart forever.
Oh. My. GOD! That is the only way I know how to express myself after reading The Space Between Us. The book was not what I was expecting. At all. From the first page, I couldn’t put it down. I kept hoping the puppies would go to sleep so I could read without all of their little distractions (like trying to chew on my rugs, dragging boots around the house, and wrestling over the millions of toys they have to play with!). This is an emotional read, and the drama is built up entirely around Amelia’s feelings for her youngest sister Charly. There were plenty of times when I didn’t like Amelia, but I always understood her. She is enraged that Charly has completely derailed her carefully planned out life, and she can’t find it in herself to forgive her. But even as she can’t forgive her, she wishes that life would go back to normal, that she and Charly could once again share that easy relationship that they once had. Her resentment keeps getting in the way, though, and just keeps pushing them further apart.
Amelia has one goal in life – to go to Columbia. Her entire school life so far has been dedicated to this goal. She has exceled in her classes, studied her heart out, and always been the good girl. Charly, on the other hand, is her exact opposite. Fun loving, bubbly, outgoing, Charly thinks that life’s a game to be played all out. Everyone loves her, and though she gets into a ton of trouble, her antics have been harmless. Amelia is resigned that she will be bailing her out of one scrape after another, but with Charly’s unpredictable streak, at least life is never boring. Until she starts hanging out with a bunch of losers, and she winds up pregnant.
Now, not being overly religious and not living in a small town, I didn’t sympathize with Amelia and her grandmother’s reaction to Charly’s condition. Not even having a pastor father, who is a distracted and distant caregiver at best, could excuse their behavior and how they treated Charly like a tramp. She’s pregnant, not a criminal! She’s scared, suddenly alienated from her own family, and has no one to confide in. The girls’ stern grandmother has decided that they will keep Charly’s pregnancy a secret from everyone, including their father. They will both be shipped of to their aunt’s house in Canada, where Charly will take online courses for the rest of the year, and Amelia will be enrolled in the local high school. Really?! Sending them off to a relative they don’t know and have only met once, at their mother’s funeral when they were babies, is the answer to Charly’s problem? I hated their grandmother, I hated their clueless father, and I even hated Amelia for part of the book. Everyone in her immediate family turned their back on her when Charly needed them the most, and I had a hard time forgiving them.
Amelia is infuriated that she is being shipped off to the frozen north. She wants nothing more than to finish out her senior year at her Florida high school, and then she’ll be free! It’s off to Columbia for her! Freedom from Charly and her shenanigans, freedom from gossip, freedom from always having to be the good girl. Argh! Amelia does not make a good impression on anyone once she gets to her aunt’s house, and she sees nothing wrong with her rotten behavior. She takes her rage out on everyone. I could understand how devastated she felt after her dreams shattered one by one, but come on! You are supposed to be the mature one! There were times that I was so frustrated with her that I did not like her. But even then, I could still sympathize with her. It is so hard to have your entire life shaken up like snow globe, so while I didn’t condone her actions, at least I understood them.
There is a lot of emotion packed into this book. While it’s told from Amelia’s POV, Charly’s terror and unhappiness are painfully evident. She’s a sixteen year old kid who, after one careless decision, ends up ostracized by her family. The only caring adult in her life is the aunt she doesn’t even know. Bree immediately tries to make both girls feel at home, but Amelia is so resentful and suspicious of her motives that she can only give her a hard time. Ugh! I kept waiting for her to attain some measure of maturity, and it was a long time in coming. Almost too late, really. Amelia made me so angry! I haven’t been this worked up reading a book in a long time!
When forgiveness does finally come, there is still an awkward strain between the sisters. Amelia has fallen into a pattern of thinking that constantly blames her sister for everything, and dismisses her unfairly. I think my only disappointment with the story is that I felt that some of the issues that had pushed them so far apart weren’t settled enough for my satisfaction. That space that developed between Amelia and Charly, and even between Amelia and her father and grandmother, had grown so great that I am not convinced it could ever be bridged.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] Good morning, Lisa! Describe yourself in five words or less.
[Lisa Ann Scott] Loyal, creative, introvert, risk-taker, responsible.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] Can you tell us a little about School of Charm?
[Lisa Ann Scott] It’s a universal story about the challenge of fitting in while still being yourself. 11-year-old tomboy, Chip, was her Daddy’s girl, but after he dies, she doesn’t know whose girl she is. When her family moves south to live with the grandma they’ve never met, they distract themselves from their grief by entering an upcoming beauty pageant. Only, Chip’s not a pageant girl. But she finds an unusual school where she secretly trains for the pageant, hoping to show her family she belongs, too. It’s a tale filled with heart, hope, and wisps of real life magic.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] Can you share your favorite scene?
[Lisa Ann Scott] I love the scene where the girls at the charm school find the beginnings of a friendship while playing in the mucky pond. It always feels like summer when I re-read that scene.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] What gave you the most trouble with the story?
[Lisa Ann Scott] Making Grandma less mean. (Which is hard to believe because even now, she’s still a challenging character to like.)
[Manga Maniac Cafe] What’s one thing you won’t leave home without?
[Lisa Ann Scott] My smartphone (Mostly so I always have a book handy to read. Love the kindle app!)
[Manga Maniac Cafe] Name three things on your desk right now.
[Lisa Ann Scott] A glass of Teavana strawberry cream iced tea, a hair clip (that I annoyingly take in and out all day,) a betta fish in a small tank (my cat stares at him constantly.)
[Manga Maniac Cafe] If you could trade places with anyone for just one day, who would you be?
[Lisa Ann Scott] My ten-year-old daughter (so I could possibly discover a way to understand and diffuse the constant drama.)
[Manga Maniac Cafe] What are some books that you enjoyed recently?
[Lisa Ann Scott] I’ve been reading and loving ARCs from fellow Class of 2k14 debut children’s authors: Alienated by Melissa Landers, The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holzcer, Bird by Crystal Chan. All of them are wonderful.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] How can readers connect with you?
[Lisa Ann Scott] LisaAnnScott.com or Lisa Ann Scott, children’s author on facebook, LisaAnnScottMG on Twitter
About the book
At the School of Charm, everyone has a wish to whisper. With an enchanting small-town setting, lively storytelling, and a hint of magic, this debut novel is perfect for fans of Ingrid Law, Clare Vanderpool, and Rebecca Stead.
Eleven-year-old Chip has always been her daddy’s girl, so when he dies she pins her hopes on winning a beauty pageant to show her family of southern belles that she still belongs. But she’d rather be covered in mud than makeup! Can a rough-and-tumble girl ever become a beauty queen? A universal story about finding your place in the world, School of Charm explores themes of loss, family, and friendship.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] Good morning, Varsha! Describe yourself in five words or less.
[Varsha Barjaj] I am hard working, idealistic, optimistic, loyal and driven!
[Manga Maniac Cafe] Can you tell us a little about Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood?
[Varsha Barjaj] What thirteen-year-old Abby wants most is to meet her father. She just never imagined he would be a huge film star–in Bollywood! Now she’s traveling to Mumbai to get to know her famous father. Abby is overwhelmed by the culture clash, the pressures of being the daughter of India’s most famous celebrity, and the burden of keeping her identity a secret. But as she learns to navigate her new surroundings, she just might discover where she really belongs.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] Can you share your favorite scene?
[Varsha Barjaj] My favorite scene is the one in which Abby and Shaan take a rickshaw ride to the beach in Mumbai. I loved writing the details of the rickshaw ride.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] What gave you the most trouble with the story?
[Varsha Barjaj] Striking the balance between the fun, playful aspect of the story and the deeper issues of cultural identity, belonging within a family and being in a city with vast disparities between the rich and the poor.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] What’s one thing you won’t leave home without?
[Varsha Barjaj] My comb
[Manga Maniac Cafe] Name three things on your desk right now.
[Varsha Barjaj] A picture of my family, A Don Quixote card holder, and a sunshine yellow “I Love Mom” mug made by my daughter.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] If you could trade places with anyone for just one day, who would you be?
[Varsha Barjaj] Michelle Obama. I love her charm, her look and her intelligence.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] What are some books that you enjoyed recently?
[Varsha Barjaj] I just finished re-reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and it blew me away. I also read the ARC for School of Charm by Lisa Ann Scott and was charmed.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] How can readers connect with you?
[Varsha Barjaj] Readers can connect through my website or on twitter (@varshabajaj
Thank you for this opportunity to “talk” to you and your readers.
[Manga Maniac Cafe] Thank you!
About the book:
What thirteen-year-old Abby wants most is to meet her father. She just never imagined he would be a huge film star—in Bollywood! Now she’s traveling to Mumbai to get to know her famous father. Abby is overwhelmed by the culture clash, the pressures of being the daughter of India’s most famous celebrity, and the burden of keeping her identity a secret. But as she learns to navigate her new surroundings, she just might discover where she really belongs.
Pottytime for Chickies and Bedtime for Chickies, both by Janee Trasler, are part of a new series of padded board books focused on issues of interest to toddlers and early preschoolers (upcoming titles discuss the arrival of a new chick, and the development of table manners). Both books feature three little round chicks, apparently parented by three farm animals (Pig, Cow, and Sheep). The parent figures all look male to me, though this isn't completely, which makes for a nice, subtle message about varied types of families.
In Pottytime for Chickies, the chicks are, as you might suspect, learning how to use the toilet. They have their own ideas about what the potty is for, however, and when left to their own devices they do things like swim in the potty (ick!), and use the toilet paper like a trapeze. Each time, one of the parents returns, passes out hugs or kisses, and tries to get them onto the right track. So, for example, we have:
Just two things.
First wipe your tail feathers,
then wash your wings.
Shut the door.
We know what the potty's for."
Followed by jumping off the back of the potty onto a pile of towels, followed by hugs and gentle redirection from Sheep. And in the space of a few short pages, the chicks figure out what to do. So, no, not the most realistic potty training book that parents can add to their arsenals. But it is pretty fun! My already potty-trained daughter pealed with laughter over the chicks in the potty.
Bedtime for Chickies tackles another common issue - the ways that kids will delay going to bed. Even as the adults are settling into their own beds, the chick are thirsty, have to go potty, and need a story, to the increasing chagrin of the three tired adults. Eventually, each chick ends up falling asleep in the lap of a similarly sleeping grown up animal (a more realistic ending than the first book).
One thing I liked about Bedtime for Chickies was the way the author teased kids, by making them think that a rhyme was coming when it wasn't. Like this:
It's bedtime for chickies.
It's bedtime for sheep.
It's bedtime for pig and cow.
Let's all go to ..."
My four-year-old immediately chimed in with "sleep." But in face, on the next page the text is:
"cheep, cheep, cheep.
We can't sleep.
We have to go potty."
The disruption in the text mirrors that disruption in the actual bedtime process. Nice.
Trasler's illustrations aren't realistic, of course, but the three round chicks are cute and kid-friendly, and the adult animals are quirky (and wear clothes). The adults come across as more nurturing in the potty book, vs. just exhausted in the bedtime book (both of which seem appropriate to me). The colors are soothing - not to bright, and the energy of the chicks is apparent on nearly every page.
I think this is a nice addition to the ranks of toddler-focused board books. These take a very light tone, and focus more on the universal humor of things kids do than on "teaching" a certain behavior. And I do love that the adult caregivers are apparently male and of different species than the kids. Not only does this make the book more visually interesting, it quietly tosses stereotypes aside (an usual thing in the board book world). Recommended new baby gifts or first through third birthdays. I look forward to seeing the other books in this fun new series.
Publisher: Harper (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copies from the publisher
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Shannon Bowers’ son Alex loves Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go.
Shannon gets teary-eyed when they read it together. Someday Alex will grow up, go to college and live out his dreams. Alex gets teary-eyed when Shannon reads too many of the pages. He’s five now. That’s his job.
Recently, Alex and his classmates, students from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, all picked out brand-new books from First Book to take home. They chose stories about history, princesses and sharks. Their excitement was overflowing; many of them had no books at home.
Books have always been an important part of Shannon’s life. Her parents read to her as a child, and she and her husband Paul entered parenthood sharing the belief that education creates opportunities. They have always made an effort to fill their home with books.
Since Alex was born, Shannon and Paul have made reading as a family part of their nightly routine. Alex picks out a book; they all pile into his bed and share the story together. These days, Alex really likes to read to one-year-old Michael. He gets frustrated if mom or dad interrupts.
Shannon hopes reading will help take Alex and Michael all the places they want to go – in their imaginations and in life. She hopes financial issues won’t stand in their way. She hopes the same can be true for all kids.
“Our kids, they’re five years old,” she said. “None of them are thinking about [the future] right now. But we are. We think about that kind of thing… I want all of these kids to know if they make good enough grades, and they do what they need to do, then it’s there. They can do whatever they want.”
This is the third novel of Gwen Heasley’s that I’ve read. I enjoyed it, too, with just a few caveats. The first being that I felt Don’t Call Me Baby is written for a younger a audience than her previous works, but then again, maybe that’s because Imogen isn’t from the same privileged background that Corinne is from. Imogen doesn’t have Corinne’s sense of entitlement, or her abrasive personality. Definitely a plus! The other reservation, and this is by no means negative – I am a blogger, so I could see both sides of Imogen’s conundrum, as well as her mother’s. This made it easier for me to sympathize with both of them, but if you have no interest in blogging, some aspects of the story might bore you.
Imogen is excited to start 9th grade, and at 15, she is determined to finally take back her privacy. Her mom is a popular mommy blogger, and Imogen, AKA Babylicious, is the star of the blog. Ever since she was born, she has been the featured topic of the blog. Her mom shares every aspect of her life with her readers, and Imogen is tired of it. She’s teased at school, she has no secrets, and she doesn’t appreciate the way her mom spins every coming of age moment for the entertainment of her blog fans. Her mother’s happiness is measured in website clicks, and Imogen wants it to end. Pronto. Because her mom is so caught up in her blogging and growing her stats, there is an ever growing distance between them. Is her mom genuinely interested in her troubles, or is she going to make them the topic of her next blog post?
At least she has her BFF to lean on. Sage’s mom is also a blogger. Her blog is about healthy lifestyles and begin vegan, so Sage isn’t allowed to eat foods the rest of us take for granted. Her mom constantly tries out new recipes, feeds them to Sage, and blogs about the experience. Sage hates it. If it wasn’t for her beloved piano, she would go nuts. Instead, she’s forced to sneak off to the mall for binges in the food court.
When the girls are given an assignment in English class to write a blog, they are resistant at first. Then they realize that it’s the perfect way to get back at their moms. They will tell them how they really feel about having their privacy stolen from them, in a public place, and hope to shame their moms into immediately stop posting about them. What they didn’t count on was the backlash from their moms, which threatens both their friendship and their relationships with their mothers.
Don’t Call Me Baby is really about a young woman trying to take back her voice. Her mom is very enthusiastic about her blog and about engaging with her readers, and she doesn’t stop to think that she’s invading her daughter’s privacy. Because of the popularity of the blog, Imogen just wants to fade into the background. She doesn’t like being the center of attention. She hates it. That’s what she’s trying to put a stop to. She just wants to be a normal teenager, with normal teenage problems, without her mom’s blog subscribers being involved in every major life decision involving her upbringing. I would have balked at that, too!
There are times when Imogen’s protest goes a little too far. I was seriously concerned that she was going to make a major, major mistake near the end of the book. Because both Imogen and her mom have become deaf to each other’s words, she does make a few missteps in an attempt to make her mom understand her feelings. She has lost the ability to have a meaningful conversation with her mom, and it takes a touching moment in a public place for her to finally understand that her mom has reasons for acting the way she does. Imogen grew up so much after her mother’s revelation, and I liked her so much better for it.
I enjoyed the secondary characters, too, especially Imogen’s grandmother. I also liked Imogen’s resolve to disconnect for a while, so she can regain her perspective on life. In today’s connected world, everyone seems more interested in doing anything other than talking, which led to most of her conflict. She also had a major falling out with Sage, because Imogen realized that their tactics were not working, and she didn’t want to aggravate her mom just for the sake of aggravating her. She knew when to call it quits and launch another plan of attack. Sage was just so angry at her mother, and by extension, at Imogen, that she keep getting more and more stubborn with her protest.
Don’t Call Me Baby is an enjoyable read. Though it’s character based, it moves along at a fast clip, and I had a hard time putting it down. I kept worrying about what Imogen was going to do to get her mother’s attention, and it was nerve-wracking at times! If you liked Gwen’s previous books, you’ll like this one, and if you enjoy books about conflict resolution, this will work for you, too.
Review copy provided by publisher
Perfect for fans of Jennifer E. Smith and Huntley Fitzpatrick, Don’t Call Me Baby is a sharply observed and charming story about mothers and daughters, best friends and first crushes, and our online selves and the truth you can only see in real life.
All her life, Imogene has been known as the girl on that blog.
Imogene’s mother has been writing an incredibly embarrassing, and incredibly popular, blog about her since before she was born. The thing is, Imogene is fifteen now, and her mother is still blogging about her. In gruesome detail. When a mandatory school project compels Imogene to start her own blog, Imogene is reluctant to expose even more of her life online . . . until she realizes that the project is the opportunity she’s been waiting for to define herself for the first time.
There are lots of recipes for great picture books but Rebecca Patterson has certainly worked out one of the best set of ingredients. She takes a good dose of humour, a non-patronising, reassuring, sincere child’s-eye view of the world and adds in highly observant illustrations and a sprinkling of drama. She did it with the Roald Dahl Funny Prize winning My Big Shouting Day!, the brilliantly perceptive My Busy Being Bella Day, and has pulled it off once more with her latest book, Nightbear.
An old bear has arrived at a new home; the book opens with us following him from the factory where he was made, to his first (and unappreciative) home, to a charity shop where he is eventually bought by a young girl out shopping with her mum. The bear is thrilled to have been chosen, but how will he fit in, when he discovers that the girl already has lots of teddy bears with very important roles in her life?
A heartwarming, delightful story not just about having a great teddy bear to hug, but also about the importance of having someone listen to your stories, and the reassurance that comes from being ‘picked’, about the everyday, real worries a young child can have (from nightmares, to being ill in the night), and most of all about the enormous fun to be had with imaginative play, Nightbear is a perfect picture book.
Starting with the gorgeous, dark sparkly cover, this book is so much fun to look at as well as to listen to. Patterson draws with a delightful, fluid simplicity; lots of smooth curves abound – as if echoing the cuddliness of the bears, and the warmth of the family. Some of the tiny details in the illustrations are like poems; they ring true in an uncluttered, authentic way that makes you see them anew, for example the way the mother holds the hand of the child when they’re browsing in the charity shop, or the manner in which the father holds the hair of the child whilst she is being sick.
A book every nursery and infant school should have, a book every charity shop should use to make a brilliant, eye catching window display, a book every family with young children will enjoy, Nightbear is an ideal book to cuddle up with.
Feeling sad at the thought of all those unloved teddy bears leading lonely lives on charity shop shelves we armed ourselves with 50ps and went off with a mission to each rescue and bring one home.
This one (above) looked pretty comfy.
This one looked rather resigned to its fate.
These two had fallen over and were asleep when we saw them.
This one was too expensive.
But eventually we each found a teddy that we loved, came home, and celebrated by dressing them up (as happens in Nightbear). I’m rather jealous of the bustle and headgear newly named ‘Treacle’ got to wear:
Little ‘Buttercup’ got a pretty nifty hat:
But ‘Candy’ stole the show with her badges and slides…
Other fun activities to get up to alongside reading Nightbear include:
Making a patchwork blanket. Even the youngest kids can have fun making a paper collage out of coloured squares, whilst older kids could paint fabric in blocks of colour (thinned down acrylic paint is great for this if you don’t want to get dedicated fabric paint).
Having a Teddy Bears’ Picnic! A blanket, some bears, some biscuits… oh and a good book or two and you’re all set!
Ready Baggy Brown by Mick Inkpen for another great view of a teddy bear factory line