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.
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…)
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.
Having a child changes your outlook on the world completely. That first moment you hold your little one, you are transformed. You feel you could almost explode with love. It courses through your veins and beams out through every pore like lava oozing from a volcano before a sudden violent eruption (I’m worried that may read more like a horrific metaphor for the physical act of giving birth rather than a lovely warm metaphor for a mother’s love, but it’s nearly 11pm, I’m tired and can’t think of anything else so it’s staying in!).
Sadly, that feeling isn’t quite as all encompassing as it first seems. While my capacity for love has increased incredibly, so has my capacity to hate. Since the day I found out I was pregnant I have discovered whole swathes of people and organizations of whom I was previously unaware but who I would now cheerfully throw down to the bottom of a volcano with barely a second thought.
Here are just a few…
…and anyone else who tried to congratulate me on procreating by giving me ‘free’ stuff. From the moment I stared in disbelief at a stick with some lines on it, organisations were climbing over each other to shower me with gifts. How lovely! Except it isn’t. Excuse me if I sound ungrateful, but I’m not sure a couple of free nappies and a sample of fabric softener really prepared me for the realities of motherhood, and it certainly wasn’t worth the months of being bombarded by emails, mail shots and very persistent cold callers trying to make me change energy suppliers. Nor the rather brazen woman who wandered into my miserably lonely cubicle on the post-natal ward when I was desperately trying to soothe a crying baby and asked if I wanted to sign up for a professional photography session. No I bloody well do not, I’m busy trying to cram a sensitive part of my sore, sewn up, sleep deprived body into the mouth of a tiny, screaming monster. Now bugger off!
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you may find this recent Guardian article interesting: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/apr/28/alice-roberts-pregnancy-bounty-nhs
2. People who take lifts when they don’t need to
The Olympics and Paralympics were amazing. They showcased some amazing sporting talents, they inspired ordinary people to try new things and they brought our nation together. On a more selfish note, they also meant that the area near the Olympic Park (where I happen to live) was made much more accessible with lifts everywhere. It was the best legacy it could give me as a new mum: not having to constantly lug a buggy up and down stairs just to get around. Make no mistake though, as soon as my son is walking, we will be back to using the stairs. Lifts are useful, but annoying: slow, clunky and claustrophobic. I will never understand – when I am hanging around waiting for the lift to come down and collect me, while I stare longingly at the stairs and escalators which taunt me with their simple speed and availability, while I watch other people easily run up and jump on the train which I will probably now miss by the narrowest of margins – why there is always someone who insists on taking the lift when they don’t need to. I know you can’t always tell who can and can’t use stairs, but if you can run to the lift, athletically shove out your hand to heave open the closing doors and then squeeze your way in between two buggies, I reckon you could have at least managed to stand on the escalators.
3. People who stand in the wheelchair/buggy area of the bus when there are seats available
Seriously, I would love to sit down. LOVE it! There are loads of seats available so why have you chosen to stand in the only place I can possibly go? And why do you look so annoyed when I ask you to move? Enough said.
4. People who compare your child to their cat
I had far too many variations on the following conversation during the first few months of being a mum.
THEM: So how are you and the little one?
ME: Good thanks (I don’t know. I’m not sure I can remember my own name. Do I know you?)
THEM: That’s good. You’re not too tired?
ME: Well, I am pretty knackered. He’s been waking up every two hours the past couple of nights. Plus I have to rock him back to sleep so my back’s really sore. (I’m so tired and I’m in agony. Please kill me.)
THEM: That must be hard.
ME: Yeah, it’s so tiring, but I’m sure it’s just a phase (Seriously, kill me now. It’s the kindest thing to do)
THEM: Yeah. I know just how you feel. My cat is wearing me out. He woke me up at 5.30 this morning jumping on my bed. I’m so exhausted!
ME: Really? (Actually, maybe I’ll just kill you instead)
5. Strangers who ask if you’re breastfeeding/if baby is sleeping through the night.
One of the best things about becoming a mum was it made me part of a community. For years, as a Northerner in London, I’d been laboring under the common assumption that Southerners were just not that friendly. It was all heads down, power through, never look anyone in the eye and never, ever talk to a stranger on the tube.
All that changes when you have a baby. Suddenly everyone is your friend: the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery knows your name, you get to know half your neighbours through the children’s centres, and complete strangers stop you in the street to tell you how cute your baby is. It’s genuinely lovely.
What’s not lovely is that social norms flip so much that people feel they can ask you incredibly personal questions like “So are you breastfeeding? Is it going well?” – erm, yes strange old man in the street, would you like a rundown of exactly how many times a day I have to get my boobs out? – or “is he sleeping through the night yet?” – no of course he’s bloody not, he’s 8 weeks old, but thanks for making me feel like a completely inadequate parent by implying that he should be and getting my hopes up that maybe he will when in fact I have many more sleep deprived months to go. Seriously, I don’t know you. Mind your own business!