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– but after years of studying, working and carving out your own identity, it can be tiresome spending hours singing outdated nursery rhymes and talking endlessly about breast vs. bottle.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.
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.