Specialist subjects

Do you ever remember thinking about the things you would share with your kids, when they came along?

All those things you love. All those things that you know something about. All those things that you think might even be helpful to them when they grow up.

Well. Some of that happens. Occasionally they even listen to you about something you’re keen to tell them about.

Just like any of us, kids develop specialist subjects, and they expect you to be expert in them.

Whether you are or not.

Mini is all about cars. Car identification: tick. Identifying old cars never previously seen: tick. Ability to continue to identify cars, at speed, even when tired or grumpy: tick.

I have been apprenticed to the school of digger appreciation in the past, so I have learned a little in this respect. Part of me rails against it; part of me is genuinely fascinated by the interest in something that would never have taken my fancy at that age.

So we talk about cars. Turns out I do know something about them now. Driving helps. As does looking at badges of Suzuki vs Seat close up, so we can tell the difference between them. (You’ll be off to check for yourself now.)

We start to introduce some car part terminology: hub caps, exhaust pipes, soft tops. Mini is entranced. I am quite proud of myself. This level of car knowledge I can deal with.

Mini will tell you as soon as a car has different hub caps to its overall make. It never occurred to me to look at hub caps, unless they happened to be particularly shiny and caught my eye, but now we look at hub caps.

We play variants on hand sandwich. Somethings we use hands, sometimes we just talk it through when walking along. There is still bread on the bottom, but then we get windscreens, horns, seatbelts.

Just the kind of things you want in a sandwich.

Mini wants to know ‘how cars go to the toilet’. So we talk about exhaust pipes getting rid of what cars don’t need. And, for good measure (and because we’ve noticed them too), we talk about radiator grilles, and what the car does if it gets too hot.

There is even a particular red Ford GT that we look out for, on our way to the sports centre.

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When kids love diggers, you learn to love them too. You spot them when the kids aren’t even there. You might even turn and remark to the person next to you when you’ve seen a particularly cool bit of equipment.

Until you realise that they are just another adult at the bus stop next to you. Then you go quiet.

Actually, I’ve managed not to do that part, just about. And by now, I have forgotten more of my digger knowledge.

Plus Junior has moved on to other things, and I need some working memory to talk about spies, and the MI5 and MI6 buildings, and how much of the spy equipment in books is likely to be possible.

Fortunately, there are also specialist subjects where you overlap. I am discovering that Mini knows a lot of the songs and rhymes that I do. And is keen to learn more.

I can remember telling Junior about the phrase ‘once upon a time’. There was this frisson: I am getting to tell my child about this really wonderful thing. The magic phrase that starts so many stories.

Now Mini is prepared to hear other magic. Like Morningtown Ride, or Golden Slumbers. And, equally, songs like Yellow Submarine, or She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.

Every now and then, we’ll find another song we have in common. And hopefully sing it together.

(Sometimes I am told off for this. Including for singing along with a song on CD in the car. It’s obviously fine for Mini to sing along with it, though.)

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I’ve written before about those points of connection with a parent: where you share the thing they love.

There is a special status to those things. Even in memory, they have some kind of internal glow about them when you recall them.

I am very grateful that there are those points of connection for me with both Junior and Mini. And that Dan has his too.

And part of me can share a smaller glow when recalling things that are my children’s specialist subjects too.

Even when it’s diggers. Or hub caps.

 

Moments: September 2014

September comes round, and for once this year, it’s not about starting up writing again.

But it might be about not getting stuck when I don’t post for a while.

I like September. It’s often one of the best picture months on the calendar (have you noticed? Go and look at your own wall calendar and come back to me about it).

I like the sunshine without as much heat. I like the brambles (as referenced before, and once again, and so on).

I like the sense of purpose and routine – usually around going back to school – without the being completely worn out bit. That’ll come by the end of the autumn term, I know it.

One of my grannies had her birthday at the start of September. It was another reason to like it. And you should know that C. S. Lewis was a big fan of autumn – as I discovered when I read a biography of him some time back.

Here’s where we’re at this time round.

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Sunshine. Day after day of it. Sure, the temperature goes up and down, you get the coat/jumper/length of sleeve bits wrong at different points.

Part of me is uneasy at the relative lack of rain (it is Scotland, after all). And part of me is very happy to send Junior and Mini back out to the trampoline after tea. Again. And again.

We experience that early September burst of summer. Year after year, back in my office days, I would set out around Scotland at this stage in the month, and enjoy sunshine all over the country. I smile at the prospect of it coming round again.

Sometimes, the sun and the light combine in magical ways. At the mid September long weekend, it’s nice enough to go down to the sea and paddle.

Mini has already dispensed with Crocs, trousers and sleeves pushed up as far as they will go. The swell of the Forth is coming in, and I watch a certain amount of wave jumping and sand scrabbling.

We retreat when a jellyfish is washed in (just in case), but in those few minutes, I breathe easier. And we take a little seaweed home to remember it by.

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There is a trip to feed the ducks on the river by my parents. Suddenly, there is a benefit to the ongoing refusal to eat crusts.

The obligatory basket is brought out to put the crumbs in – and I learn that my mother used it as a little girl when she did the same thing. The binding around the handle is coming loose in one place, but other than that, it is the perfect size for a child’s hand to carry.

There are three adults to one child. The afternoon stretches before us. There is no rush. Plus there might well be pizza for tea.

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We play and play and play at the park. At least, Mini does. I watch the process of increasing confidence; learning tricks from other children; coming back to the same elements day after day.

Small climbing wall. Scrambling net. Rope bridge (with added potential to swing it sideways, once you’ve built up the courage).

We discuss the possibility of making a list of all the new jumping and swinging skills. Maybe there’ll be enough for some kind of a reward. Mini thinks so. (I do too, to be honest).

We see a succession of junk model robots come home, courtesy of Junior Reader. In true inventor style, they have numbers for the new upgrades: Frank 1, Frank 2, and so on.

As I write, Frank 3 has come home today. He makes rude noises if you press his eyes. I am encouraged to do so.

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I come to the end of reading Pippi Longstocking to Junior Reader. I am initially sad, then I remind myself that there are two more books still to have fun with.

I am not sure whether it sits in the category of books that are funnier to read to yourself than to read out loud. (The Hyman Kaplan books are also in that group, but those are a way off for Junior Reader.)

In the meantime, I discover a new Church Mice book, second hand. Junior Reader appreciates the dry humour, the word play, and all the little injokes in the drawings.

Mini discovers Meg, Mog and Owl. I have another opportunity to revisit my own childhood, reading and reading them over again.

We talk about which one we like the best – I still think Meg on the Moon is the greatest, with their tea of egg and chips floating around in zero gravity. (Sadly, I can’t show you the individual picture – but you can see the cartoon version online.)

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There is one golden Saturday morning when Junior and Mini get up, eat breakfast and keep playing. No real squabbles. Dan and I look at each other, get our teas or coffees, and stay in bed as long as possible.

There is a discovery – and rediscovery – of Duplo. Larger and larger blasters are made. Longer and longer trains are put together, along with their various passengers. A clown figure pushes another clown figure in a Duplo pram.

There is a sighting of Yorkshire rhubarb in the supermarket. It’s not the early sprouting stuff, true, but it is also on offer. Rhubarb and brambles. I feel the need for a crumble, and maybe some custard to go with it.

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There are plenty of other days and hours and minutes that are less moment-y. There are forgotten lunchboxes that come home smelling. There are abandoned socks and argued over food remains, pushed to the side of the plate.

There are attempts to use up food that don’t quite work out. Refusals to do X. Arguments over who gets to open the front door first in the morning.

Still, the light reminds me that we still live in the afterglow of summer. It is autumn, true, but of the pleasantest kind.

I choose to write about the brambles, and the light, and the swell of the sea on an afternoon that seems without end.

Marching two by two

We’ve just had our first go at separate trips, over a long weekend. Dan took Junior Reader to see his side of the family, I took Mini to my parents.

It’s strange, just to be two of us. One parent, one child – and two grandparents to help pick up the slack.

Well, no. Two grandparents to do a myriad of kindnesses, including feeding, entertaining, some gentle disciplining, and lots more.

There are plenty of good things about being a foursome. Lots of learning from each other. But also squabbles, attempts to bridge age gaps, balancing everyone getting enough attention. All those kind of stretching things.

Mini and I go away, and I get to stick to one age group. One set of eating requirements. One level of concentration (or otherwise).

Dan and Junior, for their part, get to do the older kid stuff. Long rides on river boats. Flights, and a chance at an upgrade of seat. Picking sushi together. Staying up that bit later.

Grandparents in both locations were happy, getting more time with just one child – and getting their own grown up child back for a little while. (Parents like to be spoiled just as much as children.)

It is strange how the mind adjusts. Junior Reader came home, and I had to remember again: growing up. Yes, really that size, that leg length. A haircut that Dan arranged, not me. Only a few days away and I have to remember who this person is.

It went well for both teams, everyone came home happy. Tired too, but with lots of new stories to tell. New acquisitions. Opportunities to giggle, and have ‘I missed you’ hugs.

It won’t always be my choice, marching two by two. I’m glad there will be plenty of foursome times too. But maybe just occasionally, we can all benefit from a little divide and conquer.

If only the washing basket would divide itself into half the amount to catch up on. That really would set a seal on the experience.

 

 

Lit Kid: pulling strings and lifting flaps

Mini Reader continues to have some clearly expressed views about books. Amongst them are:

Flaps are good.

There is a whole slew of lift the flap books out there. Mini has a particular fondness for Spot the dog, who has a good number of flap books to his credit, but there are many others besides that get the seal of approval.

For those mini readers who can’t yet read, may not be quite at spelling things out, but still want to interact with a book, flaps give the opportunity to do something while reading. And hopefully find some fun surprises too.

So here’s a little round-up of lift the flap books – and their cousins, those ‘pull the tab’ types. (I’ll explain more below.)

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Where’s Spot? – Eric Hill

Much of the fun of lift the flap books is about finding things. It’s the book equivalent of Hide and Seek, or Peek a Boo.

In this book, Spot’s mum is looking for him at teatime, but she can’t find him.

As she searches round the house, she finds lots of places he isn’t – but a number of other animals are there instead. Hippos, snakes, penguins, they’re all here – as are the opportunities to give them voices as you read.

One of the things I like about this one is the false ending. The mummy dog thinks she’s found Spot, gets fooled again – and then gets a tip as to where he actually is.

Having found him, there’s still the drawing him back to why she was looking for him in the first place: there’s a meal to be eaten.

I like the ‘bounce’ of the illustrations for Spot. They are simple, but there is something in the quality of the illustrations that adds humour.

I also like the choices of animals: not just the hippo but also one of the little birds that hangs out with hippos. Not just one, but three penguins, all ready to tell you that you’ve not found him quite yet.

We’re equally fond of Spot Bakes a Cake. The child can relate to an adult’s birthday coming up, and wanting to be involved. Spot predictably gets a bit carried away with the mixing and the icing, but the result is still appreciated.

I like the author’s ear for understanding how children see themselves having achieved the whole – when actually a parent has been alongside them for much of the process.

So Spot’s dad congratulates him on the cake (complete with decorative dog bones), and Spot says:

‘Thanks Dad. Mum helped a bit.’

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Rod Campbell is also well known for flap books. Dear Zoo is a classic – the kind where a child tries to choose a pet, but the various choices don’t quite suit.

(If you like that kind of storyline, I also highly recommend Lauren Child’s I Want a Pet, and Satoshi Kitamura’s A Boy Wants a Dinosaur – both for older readers than the flap book types, but both lots of fun.)

Rod Campbell’s visual style is quite similar to that of Eric Hill, so if your child likes one, they’ll probably like the other.

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On the non-fiction side of things, Usborne has cornered the market with lift the flap books with a difference. These are large scale hardbacks, but on all kinds of different subjects, particularly history and science.

In this case, lifting the flap means finding out more: seeing inside the body, or a medieval castle, or the workings of a toaster. The range is called See Inside, and I can highly recommend them.

While there’s a focus on being informative, there’s also a good sense of humour too – a little gentle poking fun at the weirder aspects of life in the past (e.g. the inner workings of Roman bath houses), or of our bodies, and so on.

If you have readers who like spotting things, being able to spot the flap and find out more works well. See these as natural companions if your junior readers are of the Guiness Book of World Records persuasion.

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Lift the flaps are fairly easy, and a good intro to those all-important paper-moving skills which allow you to turn the page.

But there are plenty of books which combine them with more complex mechanisms, including tabs to pull, wheels to move round, and so on.

So the final cheer goes to The Tickle Book, which has flaps, tabs, wheels, and generally all three, on every double spread.

Author Ian Whybrow is also the one behind Harry and the Dinosaurs books, while illustrator Axel Scheffer (of Gruffalo fame) leads a quirky touch to the drawings.

The elusive Ticklemonster (who can be coaxed out of hiding with the appropriate tab or flap) is a fairly wild looking being, complete with a feather duster for enhanced tickling. Ken Dodd would be proud.

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The downside to flaps, tabs and the rest is the overall wear and tear.

It’s not so bad on board books, but even there the flaps can become permanently folded or – sometimes with library books – removed altogether by an over-enthusiastic hand.

So if your readers are more on the mini side of things, and your book is multi-tabbed, urge a little caution. Model how to use the various parts of the book carefully.

And if the worst has already come to the worst, most of these can still be moved about with a finger if the tab or wheel has ceased to function or has gone missing entirely.

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We all like a few surprises. For your mini readers, surprises that are predictable –
the equivalent of telling a favoured joke again and again.

For your junior readers, genuine surprises and discoveries are in order – the kind that evoke at least a few wows, and maybe some giggles too.

 

Toothypegs

In the maelstrom that is two children asking questions at the same time, the washing machine running, the dinner cooking (but still needing some attention), sometimes words emerge that go WAY back.

Sometimes they come out at bedtime, when the noise level has gone down, and there’s a slight chance that you can hear your own thoughts.

Sometimes there’s a phrase that resonated many years ago, has almost been forgotten – then saw its chance and jumped out of your mouth again.

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Mini has a particular bedtime routine just now, which includes a song I make up as I go along. Sometimes I need a few rhymes to help it along.

The other night I was singing it and needed a rhyme for ‘legs’. Lo and behold, what should come to mind but ‘toothypegs’ – the kind of thing that no doubt my mother said to me when I was at a much more tender age.

Toothypegs brought on some giggles, and now it has become part of the bag of words and phrases that get repeated over and over – while playing, while walking along, while waiting for the bus.

Some time back, it was ‘in the wars’ – and you can read more about being in the wars in a previous post. (I still rather like ‘in the wars’. It makes a random bump and cry afterwards feel much more heroic.)

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It seems to me that it is very difficult to parent afresh. You can try fancy new routines – or new books – or new ways of conveying suspicious ingredients into your little charges’ mouths.

Every now and then, though, the ghost of parental sayings past comes floating by.

At those points, you are generally beyond stringing a sentence together, let alone summoning enough patience for the latest ‘is – is not – IS – IS NOT’ contest.

And so a word makes its way from your childhood vocabulary into theirs. It’s quite sweet really, but a bit disconcerting when you had done perfectly well without saying it, or thinking about it, for over twenty years.

Maybe it’s the verbal equivalent of ‘phone a friend’ from TV quiz shows.

You’ve used up logic, you’ve uttered several of those ‘remove that toy crocodile from your brother’s armpit before I do X’ phrases that you never realised existed before.

Just as you scrape the bottom of the linguistic barrel, and think you might as well go back to grunts – the kids do, don’t they? – you get the little bit of help you need.

And it sums up all that it needs to – because it was part of forming your world when you grew up.

And now it becomes part of theirs too.

Toothypegs. There, you’re welcome. Just don’t forget to brush yours tonight.