Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Blue Chameleon

By Emily Gravett

Emily Gravett is a big favourite. Her illustrations are witty and her text punchy and spare. The Blue Chameleon makes H laugh lots. He has a sort of music hall comedian persona, rocking up to various unlikely candidates for friendships, morphing into their shape and colour and attempting to charm them: ‘hello, hello, hello’, he says to the cockatoo; ‘howdy’, to the brown boot, ‘can I hang out with you?’ to the sock on the washing line.

H loves to be asked on each page whether it would be a good idea to have a boot or a snail or a sock for a friend, and then to shout ‘No!’ and collapse into giggles.  I am not sure whether he quite understands why another chameleon makes a good friend for the Blue Chameleon but a stripy sock does not, but maybe that deeper level of comprehension will come with time and assiduous cultivation of his intelligence.

Blue Chameleon also contains a cockatoo. If any of you reading are also parenting a child in a country not your own, you will understand the wild anxiety I feel that my child will grow up an ignoramus of things Australian. I envisage relatives sighing as an older H asks ‘what is that sandy expanse with water lapping at its base?’ or ‘who are those men standing on the brightly decorated planks?’ or ‘what’s with all this driving everywhere? Don’t you guys have an underground and an extensive network of buses for me to memorise?’

So a cockatoo is a godsend. And it’s no common or garden sulphur-crested number, it’s a pink cockatoo, also known as the Major Mitchell’s cockatoo. I can breathe easy, imagining H spotting one out bush and saying ‘no, foolish relatives, although that bird looks almost indistinguishable from a galah, in fact it is a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo, and nor is he any friend to the chameleon'.

Others we have loved by Emily Gravett include Dogs, which H adored almost from birth, and Monkey and Me.  As with Blue Chameleon, these are brilliant for bedtimes after long and frustrating days when you are dreaming of a glass of wine and some alone time. They are meaty and clever, but very short, so you can sprint through bedtime without suffering from the guilt associated with fobbing your child off with Fireman Sam Touch and Feel, which takes about five seconds to read but leaves you feeling dirty.

H comment: ‘Blue Lameley-len!’

Saturday, 10 August 2013

We Love the Library

I have been unimpressed with recent reads.  I have little to offer in the way of recommendations this week, but have been thinking about the centrality of the library to the toddler life. It is a close, almost free, mutually fairly enjoyable outing. And like everything H does, it has been rigidly routinised. Our library outing is as follows:

  • Stop on the way at the old Town Hall square with the empty fountain and the patch of grass. Do about thirty laps of the fountain with scooter. Hopefully make friends with a small boy with a better truck or train than ours. If there is a homeless individual with a can of lager enjoying a peaceful moment to himself, go over and loudly describe to him how a fire engine works.
  •  Move on to the fountain immediately outside the library with the strange angular mermaid with pert breasts. H: ‘hello, beautiful lady!’ Then a long discussion of the fact that we definitely do not want to go swimming in the bright green rubbish-filled slime that surrounds her. 'Oh no, we would not swim in there, would we mummy? No. It’s disgusting. DIS-GUSTING!'
  • Scoot into library at 100 miles per hour with me shouting ‘H! We don’t scoot in the library!’
  • Upstairs café to be avoided at all costs. Things that have happened there:
o   H wet floor, himself and me in an awesome flood of toddler wee. I made joke. No-one laughed.
o    I complimented man in pirate costume on his pirate costume. He said, ‘it’s not a costume’. He is a ‘period dresser’.
  • Proceed into children’s section, whereupon we separate. H goes to stand in front of the DVD shelf, where he devises clever means to knock the ones he can’t reach off the top shelf, and then shouts the names of the ones he likes repeatedly: ‘Thomas! Bob! Fireman Sam! Peppa!’. It is very much as though he is praying to television.
  • If the librarian offers us the coloured pencils and a picture, H colours for about twenty seconds and then hits a baby.
  • H takes library cards and DVD money to the counter. If I forget and do this myself, he hurls himself on the floor and screams like I have put acid in his nappy. 
  • Outside in the fresh air, happily back on scooter, H quietly congratulates himself on having stuck to the golden rule of library going: do not at any stage look at a book or allow librarians or other parents to suspect that you have ever read one.
  • Bedtime: read all books with angelic countenance and intelligent questioning never to be demonstrated in public. Select one book to be read thirty-five times per day for the next four days; following which we will never, ever read it again.

The consummate toddler outing: surreal, loud, inconvenient to the childless, full of learning, full of rebellion. Libraries can accommodate all of this quite well. Only rarely is there a feud with a stranger. We need them. I really hope they don’t all disappear as the budget for everything and anything goes down the toilet.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

I Want My Hat Back

by Jon Klassen

Does your toddler have a coffee table? If so, this is the book you need. It is all in tasteful autumnal hues. The pictures have a very of the moment Scandinavian feel to them. The endorsement on the back cover is from The Guardian. When the photographers arrive for your Vogue Living shoot, you can shove Peppa Pig’s Fire Engine and Thomas the Tank Engine’s Big Lift and Look Book under the cot, seat your child on an appropriate piece of Ercol and give him I Want My Hat Back.

The plot centres on a dopey bear who questions a series of animals about his lost hat, including a wily rabbit who is actually, unnoticed by dopey bear, wearing the hat in question. Lying on his back feeling sorry for himself, dopey bear flashes back to the rabbit interview, races back to recover the hat, and then, it is darkly suggested, eats the rabbit.

There is no narrator, only staccato bits of dialogue between the animals. I defy even the most reluctant reader- aloud not to do funny voices for this one. The text demands it. H found it completely hysterical the first few times, and the bear / rabbit face-off still gets a lot of laughs.

It works for the toddler but will also work for older children, who will get the jokes at a different level, and will likely greatly enjoy the bear’s cycle of blinding self-pity, sudden realisation and towering rage.


Friday, 5 July 2013

Owl Babies

Written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson

Welcome to a two-year-old’s emotional landscape. It is not a nuanced, complex watercolour type of affair. Oh no, it is STARK. Emotions are strong or not at all. And Martin Waddell is their Jackie Collins, taking them on a rollercoaster ride through the most dramatic events they can imagine:

  1. Wake up and Mummy isn’t there.
  2. Cry for Mummy and feel very scared of the dark
  3. Mummy returns!
H wanted to read this at least 15 times per day, and also insisted on sharing Sarah, Percy and Bill’s horrific plight with everyone we met for a week. Yes, Crouch End Budgens lady, the owl babies’ mummy went away, but SHE CAME BACK.

By the end of Owl Babies week, I was in tears of joy when Mummy returned and Sarah, Percy and Bill flapped, danced and bounced up and down on their branch. Their soft, feathery owl baby faces melted me into a useless human mummy puddle. I had become addicted to Owl Babies and its cathartic force.

This was the point at which H decided no more Owl Babies. Not sure why, perhaps he felt ashamed of having wallowed in this emotional quagmire for so long. More likely, just over-read, again. I miss those owl babies quite badly.

You should get this one, even if it lasts but a week: it is a wonderful experience. And the illustrations are magnificent, capturing the very essence of baby owl-ness.

My only quibble: H’s dad is a trivia night champion. He has won a £6 bottle of rosé at the Winchester in Highgate on at least three or four occasions. He does not need a son publicly referring to ‘owl babies’. Owlet. Owlet is the correct term, H.

H comment: I no like dis one ANY MORE! Mummy, we NO READ DIS ONE! [Back to Tell the Time with Thomas for us tonight, sigh. That one never grows old]

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Top Ten for Baby A

This one is for my old friend Brad. Eschewing my gentle one book per week blogging approach, he has demanded a list straight up. Brad is a man of immense talents, and is also the only person I know of who has cooked a kidney and broccoli pizza and claimed to enjoy it. I am pretty sure his Baby A will be a demanding, discerning and esoteric reader, so I hope this helps feed her need to read.

Baby A is 16 months, so the list is a little skewed towards the younger ones, and I have avoided books already covered in the blog. I apologise for having no Australian ones. The ones I remember loving as a child are all for older children (guess I’ve forgotten the ones I read when I was two!). Suggestions welcome.

This list for slightly younger ones functioned as a bit of a farewell for us. I’m not allowed to read Peepo any more, The Baby’s Catalogue is a distant memory, Brown Bear sits sadly on the shelf and Maisy Tidies Up only gets rare outings.

Here is our top ten for littler ones, anyway:

Peepo by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
The gentle rhythms of Peepo are in my opinion wonderful for supporting language development. The pictures are intricate and full of little details for children to explore. It is also one of those book families that you wish you belonged to. Baby A needs to be bought all books by these two authors, they are completely wonderful. The Baby’s Catalogue is another must-have. Baby H wanted to look at the pictures of highchairs all day.

When We Went to The Park by Shirley Hughes
This is the one I’ve chosen to represent Hughes’ nursery collection, which is all great. This one is particularly special to us because it contains ice-cream. Again, Shirley Hughes books should be bought and stashed for later whenever seen (I have found lots in charity shops).

Maisy Tidies Up by Lucy Cousins
Again, a representative tome. I love the Maisy books because they read like documentaries; observing Maisy’s strange life in which she is seemingly a child-mouse but lives alone and is totally self-governing. Something about the way they are written makes me feel like David Attenborough. We can recite this one in its entirety, and it also seems to have made H rather keen on window-cleaning, which can be no bad thing.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrations by Clement Hurd
Will put them to sleep. Enough said.

Anno’s Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno
This comes with an ironclad guarantee that the young reader will blossom into a Nobel-prize winning theoretical physicist (this being one of Brad’s specifications for the Baby A reading list). There is no text, only illustrations that evolve through the book, demonstrating mathematical concepts in real life and showing how much maths youngsters have already unknowingly mastered. Apparently you can teach trigonometry from it, should you be so minded and so able.

You Choose by Nick Sharratt and Pippa Goodheart
I loathe this book. I really, really loathe it, and its sister Just Imagine. There is only a certain number of times you can read any book before the loathing sets in. But H is passionate about it still and I cannot in all honesty leave it off our top ten. It is good value, too, as it is the sort of book that ages with them, and about which you can have increasingly complex discussions (if you haven’t secretly set fire to it after the nine hundred thousandth iteration).

Husherbye by John Burningham
Again, this is here to represent a completely brilliant author, who is again one you should compulsively seek out and acquire at jumble sales. I am really dazzled by the complexity, the darkness, the range of moods and the humour that he can get into books for such young children. And, once your child has gazed upon the poor single mother cat with nowhere for her kittens to sleep, you can guarantee that he or she will not grow into a nasty ruthless Tory.

The Tiger Who Came for Tea by Judith Kerr
Complete classic. Baby A will be humiliated at playdates if she doesn’t read it. I like thinking about what the tiger represented to the author. I also really love the 60s clothes and furniture. And the Dad’s a bit of a good sort, I reckon.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See by Bill Martin Jr
The perfect book for learning colours. I never tire of looking at the Purple Cat with the green eyes. A wonderful singsong rhythm too, great for speech development.

Doing the Washing by Sarah Garland
Sarah Garland is brilliant. H at just under Baby A’s age was fundamentally and unswervingly focused on washing-machines, so this was a dream come true for him. The family are lovely and happy and they have great times together. When you look at the washing machine, though, it is either broken or an antique piece that I don’t understand. Its relationship with the bath is unnerving.

H comment: I have chosen his favourite bit of Tiger Who Came for Tea, when they go out to the cafe:  ‘What they have Mummy? They have sausages! And chips! And ICE-CREAM!’.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

We’re Going On a Bear Hunt

Written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.

H and I and some of our friends saw a production of this using puppetry at the Little Angels Theatre in Islington this weekend. For me, it was bittersweet. H was utterly awe-struck by the whole theatre experience. He shouted in breathless fear at the actors, begged them to stop the bear hunt, warned his friend (little girl about half his size, at least twice as brave), and marvelled at the gloved hands doing the puppetry. I felt that here was the exact point at which I no longer had anything left of my baby. He is now a proper little boy with an imagination that will lead him on his own path into the world.

It is a beautiful book, too. Most of all I love the watercolours of the river and mud and forest scenes, which are done in a palette of streaky, milky greys and browns that exactly evoke the gentle light and the cool skies of an English walk.

Michael Rosen has written that the story is based on a folk song. The plot is simple: repeated obstacles in the landscape, family forges through, finds bear, bear chases them all the way home, where they take shelter under a lovely pink duvet. The story can be recited in its entirety after two or three readings, and H and I often tell it to each other on the bus (we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ll have to go through it!).

Apparently, the book is also really properly scary. I don’t quite get it, because I have no imagination and nothing ever scared me much as a child. H, however, actually visibly quivers in fear as the family race home and forget to shut the door on the bear and have to sprint back down to slam it just in time.

Definitely a classic, and forever enhanced for us by the wonderful puppet show.

H comment: We not go on bear hunt, Mummy. No, we aren’t. No. Go another day. Bit scared.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Doing the Garden

By Sarah Garland

The mother in Doing the Garden is not me. She is super relaxed and they all fall asleep on the kitchen floor at the end. I, in contrast, am mainly tense and have to admit that sleeping on the floor might not always be advisable under health and safety regulations over at ours. Also, I go to quite impressive lengths (tickling, embarrassing singing, provision of unsuitable snacks) to ensure that H stays awake until I have him ensconced in his cot and can drink tea alone in silence during that most sacred of all times, nap time. I have a feeling that if the Doing the Garden mother and I met, she might go on a lot about baby-wearing, baby-led weaning and cloth nappies. All worthy topics, none interesting (to me).

Yet H and I love this book and the others we have read by Sarah Garland. Garland is great at depicting that feeling of being in a lovely mother-child bubble, in which mundane experiences like going to the garden centre are full of joy, and in which you are usually a public spectacle due to various messes, impractical amounts of equipment and loudly surreal toddlerish conversations. I love that at the checkout the baby is wielding an enormous stone garden gnome, the mother is whacking a bystander with a large tree, and the shop assistant is scowling with that older-woman disapproval we mothers know so well.

The illustrations are brilliant: they tell most of the story, with just a few sentences of text. I still haven’t tired of looking at the kitchen on the last page. A beautiful big Aga, a toy helicopter, wellie boots, cat and dog, dying plant. It speaks of a cosy existence in which the reading child can imagine complete safety and happy day after happy day.

H comment: ‘that lady doin’ the numbers, Mummy’ (yes he has located the only machine in the entire book, the till at the garden centre, and we have analysed its function extensively).