When looking for a picture book, there are a few things I always think are a real signpost for success:
- Good illustration – there are times when beautiful pencil drawing and nature scenes are just what is called for, but I’ve personally always preferred cheeky characters and bright colours
- Playful language – one of the greatest things about reading to your little one is the way it helps their language development, and the more fun things are to say and listen to, the more they’ll want to repeat them
- A good laugh – there are some beautiful, emotional books out there and some with a good message, but nothing is more enjoyable than a good giggle with your kids
- Something for the parents – I think this is possibly the most important one. My kids are real connoisseurs of books, but even they occasionally develop the odd affection for an absolute snooze-fest of a story which quickly becomes the bane of bedtime and somehow gets ‘accidentally’ lost down the back of the sofa for weeks at a time. If we, the parents, are going to read them, we need to get something out of them too and the best children’s authors are able to pitch at both levels.
I was really nervous about receiving my first ever books from a publisher for review, but thankfully Hamster Sitter by Tracy Gunaratnam and Hannah Marks ticks all my boxes.
This is the story of two adventurous hamsters who have to put their explorations on hold to look after a host of naughty hamster cousins – unless they can find a hamster sitter who can handle them!
The illustrations are great; bright, cheeky, cute and Marks has an impressive ability to convey a whole emotion in the just the curve of a pen. Plus, the details in the scenes with all the cheeky hamsters give you plenty to look out for on each reading.
The language is fun and playful enough to make my eldest laugh, while simple enough for my youngest to copy and try out. There are in jokes for the parents – the Hamster explorers are ‘Marco’ and ‘Polo’ – plus the odd sneaky pun thrown in for good measure, such as Ms Baaton the sheep being “totally wound up” and “Lion Dancing” being a “roaring success”.
Ultimately though, the winner for us was the appeal to the children’s (and my…) totally immature sense of humour. Who couldn’t love a book which ends with a good old bum joke courtesy of Ms Bottomus the hippopotamus?
A lovely story worthy of a giggle. Two thumbs up.
Yesterday I had one of those major landmark parenting moments. It wasn’t a birth, the start of school or a graduation. It wasn’t one you’d take pictures of and boast about on Facebook.
But it was a landmark. The kind of thing I think every parent has to go through.
Yesterday I had to stand in the supermarket aisle and shout at my wayward children who had just nearly rammed the trolley into an innocent bystander. The kind of shouting where everyone looks at you, embarrassed for you. Shameful.
The whole trip was ill fated. The kids were tired and bored. I was tired and bored. We had loads to buy and, thanks to a recent reorganisation, I spent a lot of time wandering around passive-aggressively muttering things like ‘stupid bloody supermarket, cheese is dairy, why the hell isn’t it in the dairy aisle? Would that make too much bloody sense?!’
After numerous warnings, one full on shouting fit and subsequent extravagant efforts to show the world what a great parent I was by making the rest of the trip one fun game, we finally left.
‘Never again. Back to online shopping!’ I mumbled as we reached the car.
But as we drove off, I got to thinking. When I was 4 my mum was a single mum of 3 children under the age of 9. She worked, didn’t drive and there was no such thing as online shopping (even now she wouldn’t dare use it after she once accidentally completed a whole online shop only to realise she’d only actually managed to order one block of cheese…!) How the hell did she do it every week? I don’t remember tantrums in the aisles or moaning on the walk home, but we must have gone to the shops because we definitely always had food!
Thinking it through made me realise that it isn’t the big things we do as parents that matter, it’s the little everyday things – just muddling through, making sure the kids are okay and keeping things ticking over.
I always thought my mum was amazing, but I never appreciated how hard she must have worked just to raise us. All the little things I have no recollection of which must have been so difficult – like dragging 3 kids round the supermarket! I’m just embarrassed it’s taken me so long to realise.
So the next time my own monsters whinge about wanting chocolate cheerios (no chocolate at breakfast is the one battle I’m still winning!) I’ll try to remember that in 30 years time they’ll hopefully be faced with their own screamingg little brat and will finally be grateful for what I’m doing.
Thanks mum – and sorry I didn’t say it sooner.
I first started writing this blog to alleviate the minding-tedium that is the first few months of maternity leave. The hours and hours with no one to talk to; the endless repetitive conversations about your newborn; and the monotony of baby groups.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some great baby groups out there and they are useful, essential, a lifeline even – but after years of studying, working and carving out your own identity, it can be tiresome spending hours singing outdated nursery rhymes and talking endlessly about breast vs. bottle.
I did, however, find one baby group that became my rock. In many ways it was just like all the others – singing, repetitive introductions, waving toys in the faces of tiny babies who couldn’t care less – but it had two important things the others didn’t:
- A dedicated time for grown up chat
- Free coffee and biscuits
The group was run by ‘Judgemental Jane’, a lovely but rather traditional woman. One week she asked us all to bring in a book we enjoyed reading to our child.
Torn between the multitude on our bookshelves, I finally settled on two.
The first was a peekaboo book with sounds which was always guaranteed to elicit shrieks and giggles from my son. When I demonstrated its effect on him there were audible awws from the other parents.
I then shared my second choice – the one I enjoyed the most.
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen had been sent to us by a friend after I moaned about how boring some children’s books could be.
It follows a sad bear searching for his lost hat. The simple, repetitively structured language is perfect for young children and the illustrations are dramatic and beautiful.
As Jane read the book aloud, I could see everyone was enjoying it and chuckled to myself at what was to come.
After much searching, the bear suddenly realises he has not lost his hat but it has been stolen.
Then the book takes a dark turn as he exacts his revenge…
(I originally planned to reveal the nature of the revenge here, but I don’t want to ruin the experience of you reading it – and you should!)
The babies and toddlers of course had no idea what had happened, but Judgemental Jane’s face fell as the reality of this book dawned on her. She gazed at me, dumbfounded, muttered something about it being ‘unusual’ and swiftly moved on to another, more innocuous book – probably about a fluffy bunny who like cheese or something equally inane.
I looked around the room at the confused parents and wondered if I was about to be cast out forever.
Then, slowly, a few sly grins crept my way and I knew I’d finally met some like minded parents.
After all, we might be reading for the benefit of our children, but, just like the baby group , sometimes you need to sneak in something for the grown ups too.
There are so many writers I adore and who have touched my life – Harper Lee, Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, Khaled Husseini, Alice Walker, Oscar Wilde – all have touched my life in some profound and beautiful way through their writing. So much so that they were used as table names at my wedding, though the high-brow literary cache was somewhat diminished by my husband’s insistence that they be couple with the names of his favourite Colchester United players.
But there was one name I left off the list, perhaps because it wouldn’t fit in with my pretence of being truly intellectual. Yet he is arguable my favourite writer of all time…
I remember having Dahl’s books read to me as a child.
I remember devouring Dahl’s books as soon as I had the ability to read myself, sneaking out of bed to turn on the light and staying up late into the night because I couldn’t bear to go to sleep until I got to the end.
I remember the sheer childish joy of stumbling across my Roald Dahl collection one summer when I was home from university. There they were – dusty, tattered, well worn and waiting to be discovered under my childhood bed. I snuggled under the duvet and gobbled up George’s Marvellous Medicine in one gulp.
Now, finally, I have reached arguably the best stage of parenting as I get to enjoy Roald Dahl’s masterpieces all over again.
We started with The Twits; short, simple to follow and so easy to love – who doesn’t love to imagine what’s caught up in that beard?
Now I’ve passed on my love affair. We’ve cheered on Bruce Bogtrotter, meandered through giant country and learned about the joys and perils of Hugtight Sticky Glue. We’ve marvelled at George’s medicine, clung tight to the stalk of the giant peach, revelled in the misfortunes of those horrid little brats in Mr Wonka’s factory, and are now soaring through space in a great glass elevator.
No one in the world got children like Roald Dahl did, and no one else can bring back the child in an exhausted, over-worked, guilt-ridden working mum of two in quite such a wondrous way.
Reading Roald Dahl truly is a phizz-whizzing experience!
Yesterday, we came back from Camp Bestival. It took us 7 hours to travel the 3 and a half hour journey back. I am now surrounded by washing. My living room has been overtaken by camping paraphernalia which I can’t imagine myself ever being bothered to sort out. While there we endured torrential wind and rain, three poo disasters so bad they resulted in clothes being abandoned forever and so many ‘emergency snacks’ I fear my children may actually be turning into giant bear crisps.
Sound like the worst holiday ever? It wasn’t. It was awesome.
I know for many of my friends the idea of camping with kids alone is frightening, let alone a festival. The weather was mostly horrendous and I totally sympathise with the many families near us who gave up and packed up mid-festival after almost two days of solid rain.
But I love festivals – the music, the atmosphere, the people – and no amount of kids or rain would stop me from going!
There were certainly low points: the ‘poonamis’ on day one certainly put a downer on things, at one point I thought the tent was going to fly into the air and transport us over the rainbow to Kansas, and it is never helpful to have a child who likes to throw his wellies away when you’re in the middle of the world’s boggiest field and the festival shop has already sold out…
Still, where else would we get to dance with Ubercorn* next to the world’s biggest disco ball, see my son laugh so hard at Big Foot the clown I worried his vein would pop out of his neck and bounce around in the pouring rain to Mark Ronson as if we were teenagers again (thanks to the babysitters for that kiddy-free moment)?!
If I was to give any advice to people thinking of taking kids to festivals, it would be this – there is strength in numbers. There are times when you want quality time just you and your family, but this isn’t one of them. Take friends. When you’ve spent nearly an hour dealing with poo, everything you own is damp and you and your partner are on the verge of throwing tent pegs at each other’s heads, what you need is someone to laugh at you, hand you a plastic cup of wine and remind you that it is all actually quite funny.
And if my raving about it isn’t enough to persuade you to give it a go, here are my son’s wise words:
“Being at a festival is great. You can eat loads of junk food and because you don’t have to wash, there’s so much more time to play Uno!”
*A giant disco dancing, go-jetting unicorn. Do I really need to explain?
There are many difficult things about being a parent: lack of sleep, endless demands, practically no social life, all that sh*t. No, literally…all that sh*t!
You spend your life thinking about it, sniffing it out, cleaning it up, wrapping it in nappy bags and putting it in the bin, washing it down the toilet, scrubbing it out of clothes, freaking out when you can’t decide if that smudge on your hand is chocolate or poo. You pass potty training and think you’re finally safe, but there are still years of dealing with poorly wiped bums, tummy bugs and that most feared of all things, a poo accident.
But don’t think it’s just the physical act of pooing you have to deal with because, to a small child, what’s funnier than a rude word? Nothing!
Poo. Wee. Fart. Bum. Potty. Toilet.
Simple words, but all liable to initiate howls of laughter amongst pre-schoolers by their mere utterance.
No wonder so many publishers have spotted its marketing genius. Stick poo in a kids’ book and its bound to be a hit.
So, since even during storytime you’re unlikely to escape the joys of number twos, here’s my rundown of the best, worst and weirdest books about poo…
- Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake
This was an impulse buy funded by guilt after I spent an entire child-free day drinking wine in Soho (ah, the memories). I never quite managed to explain it to my bemused husband on my return home.
Its central character is a rabbit called Simon who can only say the phrase ‘Poo Bum’, which bizarrely leads to him being eaten by a wolf and having to be pulled out of its stomach by a rabbit doctor. Confused? Not as much as I was when I discovered this picture depicting the aftermath of said ‘operation’…
I can’t decide if this book is wonderfully cheeky and subversive, or absolutely terrifying.
Lessons learned? Don’t drink and book-shop.
- The Dinosaur that Pooped…series by Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter
“What do kids like?”
“What else do kids like?”
“Great. Write about that.”
This is how I imagine the planning meetings for these books went. Weirdly though, it seems to work.
While the images of the dinosaur pooing do make me feel nauseous, the storylines are playful and all credit to the excellently crafted writing. Nothing annoys me more than a forced rhyme or a missed beat, but verse like this is pure class…
- The Worst Children’s Jobs in History by Sir Tony Robinson
Having foolishly ventured into the world of Horrible Histories far too early (even I draw the line at bedtime stories about beheading for 4 year olds) we found this gem.
It’s beautifully set out and full of interesting detail: educational enough for you to feel smug about your parenting, but with enough poo and other yucky stuff to make the littl’uns giggle. I’m certain we’ll be reading this for years to come.
- Who’s in the Loo? By Jeanne Willis and Adrian Reynolds
A really simple story exploring what animals might get up to in a toilet cubicle (no, not like that!).
Not quite a classic, but lovely rhymes and illustration; induced many a chuckle from me and my boys.
- The Story of the Little Boy who knew it was none of his business by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch
I love, love, LOVE this book! Found in a random hipster market, it has induced mixed reactions among family and friends invited up for storytime.
There is no lazy attempt to throw poo in just to grab an easy giggle here. This is a book entirely about the act of defecation.
Poor old mole gets up one morning to discover something has left its business on his head. So begins an investigation into the toileting habits of all his animal neighbours until he tracks down the culprit and exacts his revenge.
This is not one for those with weak stomachs, but you will never find another book quite like this!
Got a good recommendation for a poo based story? Leave your ideas in the comments.
(There’s a sentence I never imagined writing…)
The real talent of a truly great writer is their ability to reflect the world back to you in a way which makes you view things differently. A good book can make you see things you’ve never noticed before, see the danger lurking behind the things you accept every day, or see the beauty and magic in the most mundane aspects of your life.
Many great children’s books do this, but by far my favourite is The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb.
Donaldson is undoubtedly one of the best at what she does; she is the Don of children’s literature. The characters she creates appeal to all children and the adventures they go on capture hearts in a way which few will ever forget.
But The Paper Dolls is in a league of its own. Like all great stories, it works on several levels. For children, they will enjoy the daring adventures the dolls go on – facing crocodiles, tigers and that meanest of all creatures, a little boy. For parents, they will see reflected back at them the true beauty and importance of their role in their child’s life. In this simple story of a mother playing with her daughter, Donaldson makes you realise the great magnitude of those simple little things you do (or sadly sometimes don’t find time to do) that make all the difference to a child.
Yesterday, my eldest finished his first year at school. As a reward for a great report I promised he could do whatever he wanted with the first day of the holidays.
“Can we stay at home all day?” (Turns out a whole year of school is tiring.)
Faced with a whole day indoors with two small children, I needed to plan and quickly scrawled down a list of activities. Inspired by the previous night’s story, I added ‘make paper dolls’.
What was intended as a quick time filler quickly became the focus of the day. As I put the finishing touches to ‘Scary Mary’ (I’m not much of an artist), my son giggled like crazy at ‘Jim with 5 eyes and 2 noses’. Once they were finished, I left the dolls to explore the house while I hung out the washing. They had, I was later informed, encountered a scary zoo-keeper, nearly been eaten by a dinosaur and had escaped by hiding in a glow-worm cave.
I can’t remember the last time I saw my son’s face so lit up with glee. All it had taken was a scrappy bit of paper, some crayons and a pair of scissors.
And, of course, a story.
I challenge any parent to read The Paper Dolls and not well up with emotion. It is what all great children’s stories should be: filled with adventure, beautifully written and illustrated, and with a subtle reminder to us parents about how important – and lucky – we are.
This is Jeffrey.
Jeffrey once got left in a café in Hackney; my husband had to leg it back sharpish when we realised he was missing only 5 minutes from home. Jeffrey came with us to Barcelona; after the Hackney café incident though, he wasn’t trusted to leave the apartment so didn’t really see the sights. Jeffrey was once the cause of the most traumatic bedtime in memory, when his owner – our eldest son – snuck him into the bath when we weren’t looking, not realising monkeys take a lot longer to dry than people and therefore couldn’t accompany him to bed.
Jeffrey is part of our family.
This is Sleepy Bunny.
Sleepy Bunny is disgusting – a constant bundle of smeared snot and spit, chewed and sucked on continuously and inexplicably all day by our youngest. Sleepy bunny is also a saviour; when all else fails, ‘do you want bunny?’ is sometimes the only thing to stem the tears. Sleepy Bunny is also my nemesis; I can often be found running around the house at 2am muttering ‘where the f***is Sleepy Bunny’ when we have forgotten to put him in the cot at bedtime. Sleepy Bunny is an enigma; no one has the faintest idea where he came from!
Sleepy Bunny is part of our family.
(Had I known this at the start, I would have given him a better name.)
The attachment a young child has to their soft toy is a strange and beautiful thing. A source of comfort, a confidante and an early friend, the soft toy is a staple of any kid’s life.
But soft toys are slowly destroying my sanity.
I blame Toy Story.
Every time I tidy up, ramming seemingly endless toys into which ever bag, box or tub has most room (I’ll sort it all out one day, I promise), the shiny plastic eyes of a fluffy owl seem to gleam up at me, begging me not to leave them stuck underneath that stupid phone on a string, it’s sharp plastic edges sticking into its fuzzy little wings.
Last week, we had a mini-clear out; my son chose a few toys he never played with and agreed to give them to charity. As I placed the bag at the end of our driveway for collection, an elephant’s trunk reached out to me. ‘I’m sorry Nellie’, I whispered (yes really!), ‘but no one plays with you here anymore. Maybe you can find a new child to play with, someone who really appreciates you’. I hoped this was the case, and she wouldn’t be left on a shelf, gathering dust for ever more.
And on rare occasions when Sleepy Bunny isn’t being used as a chew toy, I find him/her (can an animal which is half blanket have a gender?!) unceremoniously abandoned in a corner of the room. ‘Don’t worry’, I want to say, ‘He still really loves you. He’s just busy trying to figure out how to break into the snack drawer’.
I blame Toy Story because, with alarming regularity, I imagine the boys’ toys springing to life the moment I leave the room. I imagine them crawling desperately out of the crush of the toy box. ‘When the hell is she going to sort us all out?’ they wheeze. ‘There’s a soft toy bag upstairs, why aren’t we all in that? Why do I always end up with the double decker bus on my head?!’ I imagine them comparing their days, those who haven’t been played with in months quietly sobbing into their cotton padded sleeves when they hear of the fun Tom the Triceratops and Eddie Dinosaur had in the garden today.
But most of all, I think about Jeffrey. Poor Jeffrey. Once so loved, but now so often rejected. I imagine the silent hurt he feels every time I say to my eldest, ‘Do you want to cuddle up with Jeffrey?’, and he cheerfully replies ‘No thanks’ as he turns to gaze adoringly at his Spiderman posters, or switches on the torch to look at his Horrible Science book under the duvet.
I imagine Jeffrey’s heart breaking as he realises: ‘He’s growing up. He doesn’t need me anymore’.
I’m sorry Jeffrey. I know how you feel. I really do.
If ever there was a convincing argument against evolution, it’s babies.
For years now, the majority of us have gladly accepted the genius of Charles Darwin’s theories, merrily accepting the idea of survival of the fittest and gradual adaptation of each species to their environment. We consider ourselves, humans, the most successful of all, with only the Creationists and a few other mad conspiracy theorists daring to contradict the father of evolution.
Yet, all anyone needed to do to undermine Darwin’s genius was shove him in a room with a baby for a few months. He, presumably, was too busy conducting actual scientific research to deal with nappies and weaning, but had he had the time, surely he would have realised his theories had no basis in reality.
For a start, let’s take sleep. If ever there is a time in the human life cycle where sleep is crucial, it is in those first few years; years of huge physical, emotional and mental development, all requiring large amounts of sleep. If evolution was true, surely human infants would have evolved to be able to…well…sleep! How can a species which has the capacity to build cities, create the internet, produce Shakespeare, not evolve in a way which allows a baby who needs to sleep to go the **** to sleep?! Did Darwin ever spend endless hours in the midst of the night, pacing back and forth, bleary-eyed whispering ‘it’s ok, I’m here, go to sleep, please go to sleep, pleeeeeeeease go to sleep!!!’, or arguing with a toddler who screams ‘but I’m NOT tiiiiired’, while sprawled across the floor, yawning and rubbing their eyes so much you think they may actually rub them out? I think not, or surely it would have blown a substantial hole in his theory that animals adapt to meet their own basic needs.
Unconvinced? Let’s consider teething. When all the other bones and vital organs have developed in the womb, teeth are left to the outside world. Perhaps this is deliberate? It allows for easier suckling in the early days (Ha! We’ll come to that later). Yet how can a system of development which causes infinite amounts of pain to a child be a result of millions of years of careful natural development? Aside from the total bewilderment of a poor, miserable child who cannot possibly comprehend what is happening to them, it once again brings us back to sleep, or rather the lack thereof. Screaming baby = no sleep for anyone = bad backs and grumpiness for the parents = miserable family = very poor design.
Finally, let’s look at movement. Ever watched a nature documentary where a baby giraffe is born? We might coo and aww, giggling slightly as it tries to stand and inevitably stumbles over its newborn, gangly and cumbersome limbs. ‘Aww bless, it can’t stand up’. Erm, yes it can! It might be wobbly, but 2 minutes out of the womb and it’s already on the move. Give it a few days and it’ll be walking miles to find food and water. Our lazy offspring laze around, crying for attention, and half of them can’t even eat properly when a nipple full of milk is shoved right into their open gobs. How is that the result of years of careful natural selection? Is that really the best we can do? If humans have truly evolved to be so successful over the years, surely they should be born, jump onto their feet and head straight to the fruit bowl to help themselves to a banana before coming over to snuggle up with a calm, contented and rested parent.
Sorry Darwin, I’ve always believed you, but I can’t ignore the evidence of my own experience. If babies were designed, the poor designer who presented them to the boss would be promptly kicked out of the board room: “Come back when you’ve figured out how to stop it defecating everywhere, and, for God’s Sake, surely the sound department can come up with something that doesn’t grate quite so much on the ears!”.
Sometimes I wonder whether, if people actually took the time to read all the stories printed about being a parent in the media, anyone would ever be motivated to procreate again.
If you judge parenthood on the excitable and overhyped stories which creep up on my Facebook feed, it is a constant stream of judgemental Janes, sneering mums and unhelpful shop assistants.
This week my social media accounts have been overwhelmed by stories, blogs and comments about the poor lady who was asked to leave John Lewis because they had received a complaint about her tantrumming toddler. There is no doubt that whoever made that complaint was a thoughtless moron, and the staff member who acted upon it by asking them to leave was naïve and insensitive to say the least. I can guarantee you that no one in that store felt more uncomfortable and put out by that child’s tantrum than the mum, and to be asked to leave in such a way must have been pure humiliation.
Yet we love these stories, because we love to be outraged. We share them with our friends, perpetuating an idea that large swathes of the world are against us mothers, determined to be mean and spiteful just because we have children.
Angry tales about how badly breastfeeding mothers are treated abound. Again, this treatment is completely out of order, but the prevalence of these angry responses paints a skewed view of a world where strangers are lurking in corners just waiting to jump out and shout at anyone who dares to feed their baby anywhere but their own house or the privacy of a dank public toilet.
And if you think the stories paint a bleak picture, just take a look at a parenting forum.
Lonely, exhausted and stressed over my difficulties to feed my son during my first maternity leave, I discovered the horrors of these forums first hand. Desperate for advice on how to feed, I turned to the internet for support and solace but found the exact opposite: page after page of desperate stories and judgemental comments, with only a spattering of kindness to break the misery.
Thankfully, I came to my senses and went out into the real world, only to discover that actually…people are lovely! Random strangers would stop me in the street to talk to me about my baby, passers-by would go out of their way to open doors for me or help me down stairs with the buggy. Having lived for years in London and never managed to exchange more than a few words with a stranger, suddenly I became an actual member of my local community. I’ve breastfed two children and never had more than a handful of funny looks (at least that I’ve noticed!). I’ve dealt with hideous toddler meltdowns in public and only once wanted to punch someone in the face for their unprompted attempts to intervene.
Sadly, there will always be some people who are thoughtless and unhelpful when you are trying to deal with children, and the sleep deprivation that comes with parenthood will inevitably make those moments feel a hundred times worse. But for anyone who begins to feel that the world is against you and your children, let me leave you with this story…
I was having a crap day today. Stressed, sleep deprived, soaking wet, with a whingy baby and having earlier left my son’s beloved scooter on the bus, I boarded the number 73 grumpy and dreading the journey home. When my son suggested singing ‘This old man…’ to cheer me up, I forced myself to join in, hoping the rest of the passengers wouldn’t mind. Then, as we reached ‘he played three’, a jolly old toothless lady on the next seat joined in. Then the lady behind. Then the lady next to her. Before I knew it, half the bottom deck of this busy bus were engaged in a spontaneous flash mob style singsong, before each smiled or told me what a lovely boy I had as they disembarked. It was one of the loveliest moments I have ever experienced.
You see, some people are gits. But most people are lovely.