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.
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!
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.
I am a huge advocate of children reading. I’m not sure you’ll find a bigger one. When I first became a Godmother, I shunned the traditional silver bangles and rattles (what is the point?) and instead bought a library of classics. She may only have been a couple of months old, but you are never too young for Dear Zoo!
Aside from the many cognitive and educational benefits, it is one of the few guaranteed ways of getting a cuddle once the kids are old enough to run away from you and, quite frankly, I don’t know how anyone gets through bedtime without a story
Yet, if reading is supposed to calm and relax children before bed, why are we determined to scare them?
Have you read any children’s books recently? I have. Sadly, there is an awful lot of rubbish out there. Peppa Pig books make me want to climb the walls and nothing compares to the mind numbing boredom of being preached at about emotions in ‘Anna Angrysaurus’.
Thankfully, my extensive research has allowed us to find a huge number of excellent books, but I am slightly disturbed by how keen we seem to be to terrify our children just before they go to sleep.
Let’s start with the classics. Grimm’s fairy tales certainly live up to their name, with a genuinely disturbing view on the world where curses are commonplace, parents show their love for their children by locking them in towers and small children escape getting eaten by witches only to turn delinquent and burn said witch alive.
Then again, being eaten seems to be a recurring theme. From Red Riding Hood and the wolf, to the witch in Room on the Broom and the dragon, imminent ingestion seems to be a permanent threat in a child’s world. Often it remains only a dark threat, or something just escaped by the wily protagonists, but occasionally you will stumble across a slightly more sinister tale, where the threat becomes a reality, such as the excellent but disturbing ‘I Want My Hat Back’ by Jon Klassen. I will never forget the disapproving stares I received when, bored on maternity leave, I took the book in to a baby group to share with the others. As she reached the big reveal of what happened to the naughty hat stealing rabbit, our group leader, ‘Judgemental Jane’ as I shall call her, drew back in horror and shot me a look as if she was considering calling social services, before gently placing the book down and reaching for ‘I Love My Mum’, or some other boring, saccharine nonsense. At the time, I grinned cheekily across to the one other like minded mum in the room, but now my son is older I’m reluctant to read it again, wary of the moment he realises what has actually happened and grows up to believe that the punishment for poor behaviour is being eaten!
Still, I guess it can’t do much harm. I come from a generation which grew up almost exclusively reading Roald Dahl, undoubtably the best children’s writer ever, yet also perhaps the darkest. Remember the jolly old tale of James and the Giant Peach? Remember how he ends up with the horrible aunts because his parents are eaten by a hippo? Hardly a relaxing bedtime tale. What about The Witches? Perhaps it’s the enduring image of a terrifying Angelica Huston immortalised on screen as the Grand High Witch, but I am still a little nervous of eating sweets on the off chance I turn into a mouse and get squashed under foot. Even into our twenties and thirties, a group of workmates and I discussed animatedly only the other day how scarred we were by the idea of being trapped forever in a painting, then gradually disappearing, such is the power of the Dahl. And living in Hackney has become a nightmare since the beard trend came in: don’t these people remember the Twits?
Part of me is deeply concerned about the psyche of a person who decides to make their living telling stories to young children, then filling them with nightmare inducing possibilities: horrific prospects which, if acted out in full, would result in an 18 rating.
Still, it does make a better story, and if it meant I’d never have to read Peppa Pig and the Biggest Muddy Puddle in the World again, I would happily terrify my child every night of the week.
There is nothing in the world so important and which brings so much pleasure as reading.
My life revolves around reading: my house is full to bursting with books, in my job I teach children to be able to read and to love reading, and almost the moment I get home I settle down to read with my son. In a world where we are bombarded with noise, screens and media, there is nothing more beautiful and simple than snuggling up with your child to share a story. Storytelling is the foundation of our imaginations, our literacy skills and our social abilities.
That’s why It’s so disappointing when you come across a ‘bad’ children’s book. Obviously it’s all objective, but no one likes a book that’s too preachy, too boring or so simplistic as to offend the fun and creative minds which lurk inside each little person’s brain. Thank goodness for the genius of Julia Donaldson, Jon Klassen and the perhaps less well known Werner Herzog (if you haven’t yet read ‘The little mole who knew it was none of his business’, you’re in for a treat!) who keep our bedtimes full of fun and giggles. It’s clear you’ve got a great story in your hands when you find your 2 year old, who has only just learned to speak, turning the pages and ‘reading’ the story to himself when he thinks no one is looking.
The reason these stories are great is that they look at the world, not through the eyes of an adult who wants to read to children, but through the eyes of a child. A crazy, imaginative, silly child who finds wonder and fun in everything they see.
One of my favourite authors from my own childhood, Roald Dahl, wrote that the problem for most adults was that they could not remember what it was like to be a child, they only thought they could. The difference for him was that he really could remember, and that was why he could write his particular style children’s books (written in The Roald Dahl Guide to Railway Safety, showing how brilliant he was that I remember that 25 years on).
Alongside the amazing Mr Dahl, my other favourite storyteller, I am certain, knew exactly what it was like to be a child. If she hadn’t, she could never have created the captivating stories she did. Don’t try looking her up online; like all the great artists, Ellen McCormick was unrecognised in her time. I know only of her great work because I am lucky enough that she was my Nana. For that reason, only myself and my brothers will ever know the wonders of Angus McFangus who ate only Aberdeen Angus, or Auntie Esther who lived in Chester, or the boys who snuck off in the night on adventures with little green men, seeing the world but always getting back just in time to get under the covers before their parents came in.
Two years ago when my son was born, I began to think about how sad it was that he would never know my Nana, who had passed away the year before. I could piece together her stories from the scraps she left behind on the backs of envelopes and lines of sticky notes, but he would never know the funny, mad and wonderful person she was. He could hear the stories she wrote, but not the even crazier things she did in her own life (such as painting the ceiling, failing asleep part way through and waking up thinking she was blind because paint had dripped down and stuck her eyelids together) which inspired her stories.
My Nana was the one who sparked my love of stories, which led to a lifetime love of reading. She is my inspiration.
Last year I began to write the stories of ‘Nana Nellie’ – a mad, scatty and fun loving Nan – for my son and all the other children who are not as lucky as I was to have a real Nana Nellie in their life*. It became a new inspiration, and sparked off a new love – a love of writing. Now I think back and remember what it was like to be a little child, and look through the eyes of my own child, to write stories which I would have wanted to read, and which I would like to read with my son.
This post is my entry for the Mumsnet: The Big Idea competition for aspiring children’s story writers.
* The Nana Nellie stories are in the process of being illustrated by my very talented sister-in-law. I would have asked for some pictures to include in this blog but she is getting married in a couple of days so is rather busy! She designed my logo though so you can get an idea of how it might look.
Screw it, let’s do it! That was the name of the book which changed my life. Well, briefly…and rather superficially.
8 years ago I moved to London. After a brief stint living in what was essentially a shoe box with a window, I moved into the flat which was to be the scene of some of the happiest moments of my ventures into true adulthood. Living with two friends from university, I spent the subsequent year partying, staying up late chatting and watching the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice on a permanent loop. Getting to bed before 5am on a Saturday was a rare treat and if you didn’t wake up to discover at least two people crashed out in the living room, you knew it had been a boring evening.
Yet, despite all this fun, my housemates and I weren’t as happy as we hoped. We’d moved to London as graduates do, determined to find our vocation and forge our career paths in the big wide world. We’d all sought out and successfully gained positions in the jobs we wanted, only to discover they were crap!
One housemate came home regularly soaked in other people’s urine while my life was blighted by an ageing socialite charity trustee who, rather than helping me raise funds would instead tell me off if she thought my hairdo didn’t match my outfit or my voice was slightly too high that day. As for the other girl, there were days we thought she’d moved out we saw her so little during the week.
Then one day, clearing out a cupboard, we discovered a book by multimillionaire Richard Branson. As a group of young women committed to working in the charity sector, this was a strange source of inspiration. In this tiny book, Branson set out his key values which allowed him to storm ahead and make his fortune, all the while smiling and pausing regularly to jaunt of round the world on his latest adventure. The main key? Set yourself a challenge every day. Not every month or week or every so often, but every day.
So our new life began. Every day we set ourselves a new challenge to make our lives better. Since everything else was fine, basically the challenge was ‘don’t moan about work’.
It worked. Every time a negative phrase formed on our lips, someone would shout ‘what would Branson do?’ Every time one of us was having a tough times, we’d wisely advise ‘Set yourself a Branson challenge!’ Faced with a moment of uncertainty we’d chant ‘Screw it. Let’s do it!’
Fast forward several years and we’ve all moved on: new and better jobs, new homes, new babies. Life is less manic and definitely involves less partying, but I’ve certainly been lucky enough to find happiness at work and at home. Still, the last few weeks have been tough for me: a family bereavement, illness (the dreaded chicken pox) and stints of parenting alone as the other half jetted around reporting on various dull-sounding conferences. I found myself more and more annoyed. I seemed perpetually stuck at home with no social life, thinking I back on the days when an could jet off at a moment’s notice and do whatever I wanted. More and more, my husband and I seemed to be saying ‘You know what I miss about before we had a kid…’ and discussions with childless friends always seemed to end with: ‘Probably not. I don’t know if we could find a babysitter.’
Gradually it dawned on me that to an outsider, it might sound like we don’t like being parents at all. Worse than that, I was dangerously close to convincing myself that life was better pre-parenthood.
So I set myself a Branson challenge: for one whole week I would not moan about parenthood. No matter what happened, I would be relentlessly positive. I did not complain about being tired at work when I’d been up since 4.30am. I’ve cheerfully accepted the fact that my head is now freezing on the cycle to work since I can’t get peace long enough to dry my hair in the morning. Even when I had to miss out on staff drinks after Ofsted (and if a glass of wine isn’t deserved then, it never is!) so I could get to the childminders in time, I just smiled and shrugged it off.
The truth is, like so many things in life, it’s the idea of stress or the idea of missing out that’s the worst thing. As soon as I stopped thinking about it, it stopped being an issue. Who cares that I couldn’t go to the pub? In truth, I probably had a lot more fun playing with the little one than I would have had in the pub: guzzling down wine, moaning about work and ending up having to face the next day’s teaching with a hangover. Plus, getting up at 4.30am was quite useful when I had Ofsted prep to do!
There seems to be something about parenthood that lends itself to moaning: tiredness, loneliness, boredom, stress, all the things you have to give up. Sometimes you wonder why the hell anyone is doing it. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the internet, where lonely parents go to vent!
So this is my advice to you: turn off the computer, cheer up, go out and enjoy being a parent. Not because it’s beautiful or magical or a privilege or some other annoying and unhelpful cliche. Certainly not because it’s something that you ‘should’ do. Just because, actually – as I’ve thankfully remembered is week- it’s really fun!
I have little faith in parenting books.
Preparing for our son to arrive, our attitude was very much ‘We don’t need books. Let’s go with our instinct!’ A week after the birth, back in hospital because the baby couldn’t feed, I began to doubt my instincts. Maybe if I’d read a book I could have prevented this.
‘Don’t be silly’ my husband said, ever the optimist. ‘It’s just one of those things. We’re doing fine’.
We trundled along through despair to confidence, making very occasional reference to the one baby book we were given: What To Expect: The First Year. The book is very helpfully structured in a question and answer format, the answer to every question invariably being ‘Stop stressing. It’s fine! Here’s how I vaguely recollect it:
Q: I was told to start weaning my baby at 6 months, but my next door neighbour started at 5. Should I run out and by some rusks before the little one wakes up?
A: No. Stop stressing. It’s fine.
Q: My always sleeps on his left hand side. I don’t want to wake him up but I’m worried it might do permanent damage to his left arm and he’ll never grown up to be a concert pianist. Should I move him?
A: No. Stop stressing. It’s fine.
Q: A crazy old lady down the street told me that if you carry your baby down the stairs too much the gentle bumping gives them brain damage. Should I pack up, make my husband quit his job, put on a grey wig and move to a retirement village so we can live in a bungalow and avoid the horrors of the dreaded too-many-stairs syndrome?
A: No, you idiot. Stop stressing. It’s fine!
I mock, but it was occasionally useful.
On the whole we stuck with our ‘Let’s make it up as we go along’ – erm, I mean ‘Let’s go with our instincts’ – parenting approach.
It didn’t stop me occasionally neurotically babbling at my husband ‘So-and-so read 4 books on weaning before they started on solids. We haven’t read any. Do you think that makes us bad parents?’ ‘No’ he replied firmly, jamming a spoonful of apple puree into our son’s wide open greedy gob.
It also didn’t stop me sneaking off to the parenting section of the library when our son inexplicably decided aged 4 months that he no longer needed to sleep. Ever.
After about an hour of simultaneously rocking the buggy and flicking through endless pages of contradictory and often completely impractical advice, I threw Gina Ford and her patronising parenting guru-rivals down in a fit of fury and headed home to find solace in the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
That was the end of my foray into parenting books. Not because I think I know everything, nor because I think parenting books have no value. I did take issue with how contradictory the advice was and I would rant about it here, but someone else has already done a much better job: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ava-neyer/i-read-all-the-baby-sleep-advice-books_b_3143253.html
The main reason I gave up on ever reading parenting books, is that I love reading too much. I love it. I’d do it all day if I could. I love reading in bed, and continue to do it even though I know it winds my husband up, because I always answer his questions with a cursory ‘hn’, refusing to tear my eyes away from the page. I don’t even know why I’m writing this now; the baby’s asleep so I could be reading!
If you’re similarly bored of parenting books and would rather indulge your literary demon, here are my top 5 books for mum (or anyone really):
1. ‘How To Be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran.
I go on about this book all the time and people may be starting to think my admiration for Caitlin Moran is verging on obsession, but I don’t care. This book marked the turning point in my maternity leave, where I finally managed to find the balance between the new ‘mum’ me and the old me. Plus, it’s bloody hilarious!
2. ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’ by Pamela Druckerman
‘Hang on!’ I hear you say. ‘This is a parenting book!’ Exactly what I thought when it was leant to me at the start of my maternity leave, and that is exactly why it sat on my shelf, unread, for about 9 months. As it turns out, this book is fascinating. It holds no advice or suggestions on how to get your child to do XYZ, but is instead an interesting mixture of personal anecdote and well researched analysis of the differences between Anglophile parents and their French counterparts. For those who are interested in the practice and sociology of parenting, but don’t want to be told how to do it, this is a great read.
If you have not read this by now I can only assume you have been hiding under a rock. When I first read it a stranger approached me and said ‘I am so jealous. I wish I could read that again for the first time’. Now I understand. So moving I sobbed for about an hour as read the final chapters
Along with ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, this is probably my favourite book. I could take my socks off and still probably not have enough appendages to count the number of times I’ve read it. Plus, it gives you a great excuse to dig out the BBC box set and watch 6 hours of the best TV ever made.
I found this for a pound in a bargain bin and was amazed to discover that, despite it being a Booker prize winner, nobody seemed to have heard of it. The style and content are astoundingly original and may not be to everybody’s tastes, but it’s worth a go. Also, no matter crap a day you’ve had parent-wise, you can rest assured you’ll never be as bad a mum as the one in this novel.
As my last blog post was all about the things I hate, I thought I should redress the balance and show that I have discovered people I love since becoming a mum. (Sorry if that means it’s a bit soppy and boring. I’ll get back to being angry and cynical next time, I promise!)
1. Our Cockney Neighbours
I love London: the lifestyle, the parks, the museums, the markets, the culture, the transport (yes, the transport – I can’t drive so a sprawling tube and bus network really appeals to me, no matter how hot and sweaty), but most of all the diversity. I love that despite being too lazy and disorganised to have actually gone travelling, I have still managed to meet and befriend people from all over the world.
Still, it was always a bit disappointing to move to the East End of London and never meet anyone remotely like the people in Eastenders. Why isn’t there a podgy ginger man selling fruit and veg at the end of my road? Where is the local pub run by Shane Richie and a busty woman in a too-small leopard print corset? And despite all the shouting outside my house throughout the day and night (seriously, shut up occasionally!), why have I never heard anyone scream ‘Rickaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay?!
It’s very disappointing.
Thankfully, our short-sightedness meant we decided that one week after having a baby would be a really good time to move to a new place. On the second floor. With no lift.
Continuing our laissez-faire attitude to organisation, it took us a further two months to discover we actually owned an out-house/shed in which we could leave the pram without having to bump it up the stairs everyday like a scene from the tenements in Call the Midwife.
Now my daily trip down to get the buggy also means a daily catch up with our downstairs neighbours who, you guessed it, are bona fide cockneys! They seem to spend their retirement standing in the garden smoking, waiting for me to come and collect the pram so they can shout “Oooh, ‘ello li-ool Jowjeeee. Ain’t you growwwn?! Jooowje! Joowjiiiie! Aaaaaaah”
They constantly tell me how cute he is, they always take the time to stop and chat, often emerging from their houses as soon as they hear the key in the shed lock far quicker than their walking sticks suggest they should be able to. They buy us chocolate and other completely impractical but lovely presents for a baby and, most importantly, while they don’t get through quite as many fags as Dot Cotton, they are at least real East-enders.
2. The cast of ‘Cold Feet’
Every modern parent knows that a good box set is the key to sanity in the early days: regular Saturday nights down the pub are a thing of the past and prime time reality TV is well past its best.
When our son was born we invested in a huge number of box sets.
We quickly decided that, while brilliant, Breaking Bad is not good, relaxing viewing after a long hard day with a baby. So instead we moved to that 90s classic ‘Cold Feet’. I remembered really enjoying it the first time round: a group of fun, trendy, slightly sarcastic 20-30 somethings muddling through life. It was like a calmer, less canned-laughter based, British version of Friends, right?
Unfortunately, while it’s still great, on second watching you realise it’s actually quite depressing and now a little too close to home. Pete and Jenny going slightly mad from lack of sleep when they have a baby? Yep, that was us. Adam and Rachel arguing about the baby sleeping in their bed? Been there, done that. When Karen moans about spending her afternoons with a bunch of Stepford Mums discussing boobs and breastpumps? I am with you Karen, all the way, I am with you.
Over the months I have come to love the cast of Cold Feet as if they were my own friends. We’ve been through the same dramas and felt the same pain. The only place we differ is on the infidelity front, thankfully.
Unfortunately, where Breaking Bad led to ridiculous, far-fetched dreams about running away from murderers and accidentally finding myself dealing drugs from my classroom, Cold Feet has led to more than one “you dream-cheated on me!” conversation over breakfast.
3. Caitlin Moran
I love Caitlin Moran. Seriously, I love her.
‘How to be a Woman’ is one of the best books I have ever read and it 100% saved my sanity this year.
Have you read it? No? Then stop reading this now and go read that instead. Seriously, it’s much better.
4. The NHS
It’s very fashionable to hate the NHS, and even more fashionable to say how much you love the NHS, and then list everything that is wrong with it.
I however love the NHS. No ifs, no buts. I think it’s brilliant.
When politicians come to power – once they’ve had long meetings with their PR advisors on how to hide their skeletons so far at the back of the closet they’re practically in Narnia – they start to think about how to make their mark. It’s always the same: education and health. These are the two things everyone has a stake in, so these are inevitably the two things they start meddling in.
The problem is, before you can start ‘fixing’ things, you have to figure out what’s broken, and point it out in great depth. So our politicians, supported by the media, have set about persuading us that the NHS is a great big mess!
Waiting times, unreasonable targets, missed targets, infections, infection control, staff shortages, rude and unhelpful staff, not to mention the hundreds of pointless ‘back office’ staff who are clearly paid to do literally nothing but sit around moving sheets of paper back and forth across a desk.
I realise all these things are probably real issues (except the ‘back office’ thing – I have no problem with that, in fact I’d rather have some admin assistants than have someone who spent 10+ years training as a surgeon spending valuable time screaming at a laptop when he can’t quite sort out the mail merge to tell everyone the office address has changed!) but seriously, stop moaning! We have free health care! FREE!
As parents, we should be especially grateful: free scans during pregnancy (including a free photo with which you can annoy all your friends!), regular midwife checkups, free ante-natal classes so you know what to expect, a choice of where to give birth, a choice of how to give birth, a choice of pain relief. Sometimes the worst happens and all these choices are taken out of your hands – as they were for us, but from the moment it was clear things weren’t working out to the moment when my baby boy was placed safely in my arms was less than 30 minutes. 30 minutes when at least 9 different professionals (that’s what I counted in my drug induced haze) provided the best of modern medicine to get that baby out safe. And they did.
You can’t really say fairer than that.
5. My son
I’ve realised I’ve not included my husband in this and, as he generally proof reads my blogs, I should at least give him a mention! There’s a great episode in series 5 of ‘Cold Feet’ (yes, I really am a bit obsessed) where Adam starts to feel he’s been replaced by the baby: it gets all the attention, sleeps in their bed, is always the first one to get a kiss in the morning and gets praise simply for existing. I imagine all partners feel like this at times, and I’ve definitely been guilty of neglect. So just in case he does read this, I should make it clear that I haven’t included my husband because I haven’t learned to love him, I’ve always loved him, and now we’re parents it’s that little bit easier to remember why.