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 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.