Children’s book reviews – Christmas cheer and wizard’s whispers

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love books – especially children’s books and I really believe reading to our children is one of the most important things we an do as parents (aside from keeping them alive, feeding them, that sort of thing!).

So, I was so pleased to be asked to review two lovely children’s books published by Egmont. The first is the wonderfully titled: Sir Charlie Stinky Socks and the Tale of the Wizard’s Whisper by Kristina Stephenson. Currently Arthur is a little in awe of all things wizard so this was a great book to review.

STINKYSOCKS

What I love most about reading children’s books is the immediacy. An adult fiction can often meander along several literary paths – often for good reason. But to capture the imagination and concentration of a two and a half year old it has to be instant.

This book didn’t disappoint. The tale starts with a wizard making his way from a tall, tall tower to a castle on top of a hill. A mysterious whisper had told him that in the castle was a legendary knight who had helped dragons, monsters and kings.

Who could this perfect knight possibly be? Why, Sir Charlie Stinky Socks of course! And he’s looking for adventure.

With his cat Envelope and his good grey mare, he journeys along a treacherous track, through a spooky wooky wood and into a deep, dark cave where a mysterious black sack lies. But ogres, scallywags and pirates are lying in wait, ready to thwart Sir Charlie at every turn! Finally he returns and discovers what’s inside the black sack.

It’s wonderfully written with a sense of rhythm quite advanced for many children’s books but it kept Arthur’s attention all the way to the end. The name Charlie Stinky Socks has also given him hours of giggling time! The illustrations are wonderful, very detailed but still with a child’s eye in mind -  managing to capture the magic of wizards and knights perfectly.

We loved it and it’s found it’s way into the well-read section of his reading corner. I think we’ll be searching out a few more of the Charlie Stinky Socks books – I like the sound of him so far!

 Next up was a wonderful Christmas book, Little Robin’s Christmas, by Jan Fearnley. It’s a week before Christmas and Little Robin has a warm vest for each frosty day. But he meets seven chilly friends and soon has no vests left for himself. Poor Robin huddles on a roof …until Father Christmas comes to the rescue and, as a reward for his kindness, gives Little Robin a red vest to keep forever.ROBIN

This is a lovely, innocent and completely traditional book which touches on the importance of kindness to others and the idea you will be rewarded if you do good to others. It’s about friendship and not giving to receive and I thought it was a joy to read.

The illustrations are very traditional but it was very easy to read with my son and we managed to talk around the subjects of sharing and being kind in their simplest forms. I love the fact the little robin gave away his vests too – just so cute! It worked for Arthur because it was so simple and he was able to follow the cause and effect of the story and so the message wasn’t lost on someone so young.

 Both books leant themselves to a lovely afternoon of reading, drinking hot chocolate and deciding not to venture out at all!

Books. What are they good for? Absolutey everything,

Reading is more than the words on a page, more than an exercise in linguistics. Grasping at the page corners waiting to turn to the next adventure; silly voices and watching your child really believe in something. Contact, interaction – reading is, without question, one of the most important things to do with your child.

This week my sister in law gave Arthur a fantastic signed copy of ’We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen. How wonderful. We sat down, snuggled up and read it twice, pointing out the pictures, making funny voices and enjoying the moment. The connotations of being a bookworm are of someone quiet, withdrawn and nerdy, yet books are full of adventure, moments of amazing enlightenment and the chance to use imagination in ways few other activities allow.

Levels and rates of reading among children are falling , I suspect, mainly because parents don’t read to them. A whole generation of children not knowing how amazing it can be…. – it’s sad. But more than that, it’s a dying art. Reading a book aloud requires imagination and  with children’s books, often abandoning your inhibitions and putting a little bit of you into making something real.

I’m not naïve, computers are not the devil, PSDs haven’t stolen a childhood. But they’ve given parents a lazy alternative, one that doesn’t require them to be involved but gives hours of child-free time. Oh god, I hope they realise they will have so much of that when their children have grown and gone.

Books influenced my life, Wuthering Heights made me cry, To Kill A Mocking Bird showed me the brilliance of the human condition and The Great Gatsby the utter wastefulness of an unfulfilled life.  As I said, it’s more than words.

I want Arthur to have confidence in his ability to read; quietly to himself, immersed in a story, and loudly and proudly to his children and grandchildren. It’s a confidence that permeates beyond the pages to offices, meetings, report writing, soulful evenings spent debating world issues with friends and family. It is a skill we need to save and cherish and hold in the same esteem as getting to level whatever on a Gameboy. How we actually do this is a whole other problem!

Maybe this is a little indulgent middle-class rhetoric but then again, my working-class dad told the best stories in the world and I think he’s partly responsible for my love of language. What a bloody marvellous gift to give me.  It’s as if books have become uncool, defunct and pointless  they are also a casualty of an ever-increasingly throw away world where no one has time and living in the immediate is more important. They need a makeover and quick.

But more basic than this, we are words; big ones, small ones and all the ones in the middle. They make up our days and if our children were to struggle to read them and make sense of them – what a sad loss for us all.

If you appreciate a book, you will never be alone.

Stats from The Reading Agency UK

  • Children and young people who do not achieve expected levels of literacy are likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • 14% of children in lower income homes rarely or never read books for pleasure.
  • Parents are the most important reading role models for children and young people.
  • Only 1 in 5 parents easily find the opportunity to read to their children.

There is overwhelming evidence that literacy has a significant relationship to people’s life chances. A person with poor literacy is more likely to live in a non-working household, live in overcrowded housing and is less likely to vote.

Literacy skills and a love of reading can break this vicious cycle of deprivation and disadvantage. It is vital that children enjoy reading – motivation is essential for acquiring literacy skills.  Reading for pleasure is more important than either wealth or social class as an indicator of success at school

  • Yet only 40% of England’s ten year olds have a positive attitude to reading. The figure for Italy is 64% and 58% for Germany.

”books”

U, me and the kids

Shelving my plans for a good book

March 7 was World Book Day and it made two things abundantly clear to me. The first is the importance of reading to your children, sparking their imagination and making the words on the pages come to life. The second is far more practical, that my insatiable urge to buy more and more books means I will soon be lost under an avalanche of paperbacks unless I address my lack of storage soon!

I’ve always wanted a library room, ceiling to floor wooden shelves filled with all my cherished books. But when you live in a city terrace house this is about as likely as me giving up the real thing and heading to the dark side with a Kindle – I know they’re great and it’s my issue.

I’ve been looking at my options and there are lots out there from funky plastic coloured shelves to a traditional book case in wood – more my style I think.

My own mini library

My own mini library

I want them to be sturdy and child-friendly as far as possible while looking stylish and classic. John Lewis really do hit the mark with some great options for our sitting room and Arthur’s room – it seems his collection is growing at an equally alarming rate.  This one on the left also means I get to indulge in my library fantasy. You can also get an L-shaped one which also sent shivers of excitement down my spine! I’m just glad the only books Jonathan reads are gadget-related manuals!

Perfet for Arthur's room

Perfect for Arthur’s room

They’ve also got some more modern options in plastics and practical options with cupboard and shelve combos so you can store stuff you don’t really want to be seen and close the doors on it.

So while others may be looking for a new outfit or buying some tunes I’ll be spending a very happy few hours on their site, choosing the best bookcases and storage for my precious reads -  and loving every minute of it.

Train sets and stereotypes

This was the scene that greeted me when I walked into the house on Sunday.

 

den2

Tents and dens; strings and poles, a flurry of little and big boy activity that, quite simply, was a foreign language to me. I love how Arthur has carved out a world of trains and trucks for himself and he’s absolutely obsessed with his train track and begs the big little boy to build it for him at every possible moment.

But it’s something I watch from the sidelines, I can’t make the train track very well and get totally bamboozled by the bridges and stations that have to be factored in. I’m not brilliant at building Megablock towers either. Is it nature or nurture that makes my little boy so staunchly male in his choice of play? I don’t think his dad has forced these things onto him, yet I have to admit I haven’t exactly showered him with dolls and tea sets either.

As a child I never liked dolls, and was most happy playing outside mixing mud cakes and making rose petal perfume – with my younger brother I might add. I had a Cindy house but quite simply thought it was a ridiculous waste of time and effort. I would prefer to read a good book.

It’s an age old question and one I’m not going to attempt to answer. But it’s one that shapes our relationships and the time we spend with our children. With me Arthur loves, reading, singing and silly games. With daddy it’s all about building, vehicles and exploring outside. We’ve fallen, quite easily, into this pattern. It’s shaping his view of the world and maybe I should be doing more to erase these stereotypical roles but quite frankly they work for us.

But occasionally, I get to peek into their world, just to dance on the edges of their boy time, ready and waiting to pounce with a book and a piece of mummy’s homemade cake. Maybe, if I have another baby, it will be a girl and she’ll love trucks and trains too. Maybe the things you love are intrinsically linked to the people you love.

Snow, stories and linguistics

This week’s been a busy one with the boy and me ploughing through snow, scaling new heights and taking on the London underground again – if you read this blog you’ll know we’re not the best of friends!

In between snowball fights, magnificent snowmen and frost-bitten fingers we’ve been out and about testing the snow wheels for our Bugaboo Cameleon. I love my Cameleon and have done since we first started using it when Arthur was days old. It’s practical, stylish and just the easiest buggy to manoeuvre around cities and country. But even this buggy struggled in the heavy snow, one evening I had to push Arthur home on two wheels leaving me with a dodgy back and Arthur with a head rush!. We passed loads of buggies and all the mums and dads gave each other knowing looks. Looks that said: “Why the hell did I think bringing a buggy out in the snow was a good idea”.

Cruising with the snow wheels

Cruising with the snow wheels

Entre the Bugaboo snow wheels, unlike my wheels they are air-filled which apparently means they deal better with snowy terrain. All I know is that I glided smugly over the ice and snow leaving lesser buggies in my wake. I got so confident I practically headed for the snow, confident Bugaboo would see me through.
They were very easy to attach and in a few clicks I’d removed the everyday front wheels and replaced with the snow ones. They go on the front of the buggy, replacing the small ones. This does mean manoeuvrability suffers very slightly but when you’re wading through snow the most important thing is stability and feeling confident you will be able to get through without performing some kind of gymnastic move worthy of an Olympic gold.. So a small price to pay in my view.

NATIONAL STORYTELLING WEEK

Arthur’s learning to speak in little sentences which is lovely and definitely scaling new heights but wow is it frustrating. Part of me has also taken to wondering if he’s making up stuff on purpose to mess with my mind – hhmmm.
Now I’m all for freedom of speech but I have to admit when I’ve stood for, what seems like hours, trying to work out what he’s said, I’m more than happy to make it up for myself and hope it’s near enough. Bless him, it is very cute and obviously I’m full of encouragement but come on – it takes a skilled linguist to know that: “mummy cubble feerengeen flees ta” means “mummy can you please cuddle my fire engine. Thanks”.
One of his favourite people in the world is his cousin Florence and he’s just learning to say her name properly. It’s started as ‘Flosmat’ and now sounds like ‘Flence’, so we’re getting there. I’m endlessly fascinated by the speed at which they learn words and phrases – he’s also started reading along when I sit and read one of his favourite books with him. He loves stories and I hope this continues.
A few weeks ago I listened to The Faraway Tree on BBC Radio Four and it reminded me of the power of a good story. Through words alone, a good story, either read or told, graces our lives, creating a whole new world in which to get lost. My mum read the Faraway Tree to me, my grandmother to her, and I’ll read it to Arthur – that’s what I love too. A story that spans decades and remains loved and valid – I hope he continues to enjoy reading and stories throughout his life.
I’ve always loved books, and truly believe you never have to feel alone if you love books. I can remember some difficult times when days stretched out and problems remain unsolved and I would immerse myself in someone else’s life or lives. They’re not only good for the imagination but good for the soul too.
It’s not just the world of fiction and creative writing that uses story-telling, businesses are beginning to understand its power. A message delivered through a story is so much more easily accepted and believed than a suit in front of a microphone telling you something. Stories involve two sides and the reader or listener is as important at the story-teller. Trust is paramount and I think you have to fall a little in love with the story – whether that’s a character, location, moment or a feeling it evokes. I lost my heart to Wuthering Heights many years ago and I’ve had several torrid affairs and one night stands since – but my heart will always belong to Heathcliffe.

http://www.sfs.org.uk/national-storytelling-week