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Weekly snapshot: 4 Feb (almost)

You’d think it wasn’t too hard to write a post a week.

Four weeks into my imposed writing routine, evening outing plus tiredness sets in on a Thursday night…no post.

Rather than berating myself, let’s just pretend it’s still 4 February, and go for it. OK?

The half-yearly visit to the dentist is upon us. Oh, the varied and wondrous set of shiny instruments in the dentist’s room that we are not meant to touch…

Oh, the lure of the pink mouthwash which two out of three of the visitors are not yet invited to use…

But the main purpose for visiting the dentist is to pick the coolest sticker possible after having your teeth checked.

I make a point of telling the dentist that he has the coolest stickers in town.
(The second coolest are given out at Gymnipper classes for pre-schoolers, on a weekly basis.)

These opinions are based purely on positive reaction levels from the kids. Sadly I don’t generally get offered stickers on these visits, so my own opinion of them doesn’t get to count.

By the way, it’s best not to get distracted by hungry kids, and leave the dentist’s premises without your handbag. Is it?

Luckily it was a very quick to prep tea once we got home.

This last week also brought the genuine delight of the double playdate. I should probably call it a triple playdate, since it works perfectly for mum, older child and younger child.

Mum gets two adults to chat to. Older child gets to do more stop motion film making with friend of same age.

Younger child gets to run around with the two kids of the same age, resulting in some very interesting spy/fairy cross-over dressing up.

You know it’s a good playdate when you’re onto your third round of hot drinks for the grownups, there’s been no real fights to break up, and the kids are generally still getting on with it.

And sometimes? When kids say ‘it’s a real mess upstairs’, they really mean ‘there’s some large items I can’t quite reach to put away, but other than that it’s not too bad’.

That kind of tidy up I can deal with. And Mini is still playing with the Duplo zoo set up that the visiting mum came up with.

Another visit to Granny and Grandpa. We do some detailed calculations based on snowy/blowy weather reports; lie low one day and venture out the next.

There are three choices of soup, to cater to different palates, and Mini discovers what Scrabble tiles look like.

But before that, there’s the day at home, a weekend staple. It’s a funny but happy mix: extended pyjama time, read alouds to the kids over lunchtime, usually a film at some point.

(We’ve just finished Paddington book 3, in case you need to know.)

For me, the day also seems to include the hauling of one load of school uniform and the beginning of another washing load, to try to get things ready for the next week.

But there might be other bits and pieces that don’t seem to get a look in until the weekend. Sorting out school clothes for Junior. Making the next set of birthday cards. Chipping away at Mini’s homework tasks.

As long as I can farm out at least some of the food production onto Dan, I don’t mind too much.

Mini gets a longer writing task for homework. Cue requirement to fit that in after school each day as well as usual homework for Junior.

Cue epic grumping on the first day, doodling and somewhat more compliance on the second day, and so on.

(These are Mini’s responses, not mine. But maybe I should try doodling and moderate compliance as a maternal gesture, sometime.)

Junior ends up with a day off school when the current cough going round gets to be a bit too much. Extra sleep? Check. Time for a film to aid recuperation? Check.

I even manage a coffee in town with Mum, and a spot of shopping together. New electronic scales (previous balance ones died). A step up for my Monday baking sessions.

There are bus diversions because of roadworks. So in turn, there are new routes home, hoping I’ve taken the right turns through neighbouring streets.

There is practicing for a forthcoming school assembly (more next time).

There are crocuses coming up in the park. And one day, even that first hint of spring-like light.

The birds don’t care. They’ve been singing away for weeks. Even with the recent run of wintry weather, they’re still at it.

So am I, in a way, typing away. Hoping that there will be a spring for the words I am still waiting for.

Maybe the tips are starting to show.

In the meantime, I’m joining the birds with some singing, with some help from Elizabeth Mitchell. This one’s been going through my head all week.


Weekly snapshot: 21 January

Enjoying silence tonight. (So far, anyway. Mini’s got a cold.)
I love those points when the house shuts down for the night, and there is a chance for some brain space.

What to say of the last week?


Peter Rabbit reigns supreme just now. Kind relatives bought Mini the whole set of Beatrix Potter books for Christmas, and we are working our way through them at bedtime.

It’s interesting to try books that I knew nothing of before. Ginger and Pickles run a rather strange shop, and go out of business fairly quickly.

We also have The Pie and the Patty Pan. Were I writing crime fiction, or something detective-y, this might be known as The Case of the Double Oven.

Suffice it to say, I am with the dog character on this: I would prefer not to eat mice pie, either.

Mrs Tittlemouse comes across as very OCD these days, but there are the wonderful characters of Babbity Bumble (the bee whose family has taken up lodging without asking), and the toad who sneezes when offered a plate of thistledown.

Reading more Beatrix Potter means we can also get out the audio CDs. Patricia Routledge and Michael Hordern are the readers, and you couldn’t want for more comforting voices.

Mini is very keen on The Tale of the Two Bad Mice. Maybe it’s the temptation to bash up the fake dinner, discovering that it was only plaster. Somewhat more overt violence for a children’s book.

For my part, I rather like the way that reading more in the series lets you meet certain characters again: the dolls of Bad Mice fame crop up again, visiting the shop which Ginger and Pickles own.

I have also introduced Mini to the Peter Rabbit series on CBeebies. This is generally going down well so far. Mini is less keen on the hectic guitar music for the series, and I have to agree – it’s a bit heavy, for such lovely pictures.

Whether or not we make it through the whole series remains to be seen. If so, I might finally finish Little Pig Robinson (started many years ago) for myself.


We have an early birthday celebration at my parents, which also allows for further Eating Up of Christmas food items. Two birds and all that.

To be honest, any offer of being fed that includes a) smoked salmon and b) me not cooking is generally to be seized. Swiftly.

Probably the main present of the day was the amazing views of snowy fields, as we drove out to the Borders. In one area, water had run off fields that slope above the road, forming brilliant icicles on the hedges.

Having driven through all this, the kids were fairly underwhelmed to see almost no snow on the ground outside my parents’ house.

Thankfully, Granny Ro was prepared to put boots on and go hunting for more snow with Mini. At least enough was found for a small snowball fight.

In fact, there was even some on the ground back at home, the following morning. The sledge, which gets more outings on grass on the back garden than anything else, did just fine on snow too, at a nearby park.

(It also worked well for dragging some snow back home after. I’m not sure if there was scientific enquiry, or just a thought to practise throwing snowballs at the fence. Probably more of the latter.)

The previously-mentioned joint project of building a hotel in Minecraft has gone a bit quiet. I’m not quite sure whether they’ve finished, or agreed to go back to individual game time.

In the meantime, Junior has decided to do a bit more work in Scratch, a visual programming tool which allows you to build little animations, and I’m sure much more.

Stop-motion is hanging in there as something to do when there’s ten whole minutes spare before heading off for school. And at other times too, if Daddy’s available for a bit more team effort.

I continue my own roles in this area: a) let them get on with it b) smile appreciatively when required c) leave Dan to figure out the rest when they get stuck.

Dan meanwhile has the opportunity to age by at least a decade. I’m trying out those patches for elbows, for when jumpers have holes in them.

So far, rather suspicious – and the stuff the patches are made out of smells a bit too. We’ll see how we get on. We can always remove the patches and go back to holes in elbows – it’s worked for us so far.

However, I am making some tentative attempts at darning – or at least, fixing a hole in one of Mini’s school jumpers with some embroidery thread.

It’s not quite the same colour. It’s not wool either. But knowing Mini’s abilities to expand holes in clothes, it’s a case of getting in quick now.

Buoyed by the success of last week’s apple cake, I did a bit more Solitary Baking this week. There were some gluten-free muffins, which I’d tried doing before and like.

I also had a go at making some granola, having found a new recipe with fewer nuts, but with the additions of ginger and cinnamon. So far, so rapidly disappearing.
I think that’s a good sign.

I think the kids are fairly happy at the prospect of me continuing this on a weekly basis, if they get cake for after school snacks. So am I really, if I get to eat some too. And there’s fruit or veg in too, so that has to count for something.

In the same session, I had a go at a kind of chicken pot pie. Chicken good, pastry bit not so much.

There was a reason why the recipe showed separate pie tins, and I’ve discovered it. There is actually such a thing as too much pastry after all.

Junior and I are doing a bit of language learning, to tie in with a series of books we’re reading. I’ve found that the textbook I used for it in the past is now online.

It seems that even this kind of practice is cool if you can drag and drop words into the right columns, and do other more interactive stuff.

And if you get them all right, on one exercise, you get a flock of butterflies covering your screen. Which, apparently, is an incentive as far as Junior’s concerned.

The real test is whether Junior can learn enough to teach a school friend, so they can both speak to each other without others knowing what they’re saying.

Nothing like spy requirements to put you under pressure to come up with the goods.

Meanwhile, day by cold (and by turns rainy) day, the light creeps back.

I know, from previous years, that by the end of the month, it’ll be light at five in the evening. It was almost properly light at eight this morning.

I walk round the park before pick up, and admire the allotments. The leeks stand proud like bundled ribbons. The other remaining veg appears to wear hairnets.

But despite the cold, the wet, the relative lack of promise on the ground, the birds are already singing more.

And on days when my hands are freezing, even despite warmer gloves, that’s a good thing.


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.


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.)


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.


Lit Kid: off on another adventure

You can’t beat a good series. It may be on TV, on radio even. (People on the production team for The Archers clearly knows something, even if it’s not my personal tipple.)

So it is with books. And not just with books for adults – kids need their series too. All that youth, all that free time – it’s the perfect opportunity for series guzzling.

We may all have one book in us (or so we’re told), but what publishers would like is that we have a series, really.

Because a series allows us to do many things: create characters that we want more of. Introduce new ones. Have them interact. And so on.

Some books, you feel, have to be stand alone. 1984 is one that springs to mind.

We could spend time learning more about the world(s) that Big Brother controls, but the character arc for Winston Smith is complete. (A small amount of time on Wikipedia shows me, however, that others don’t necessarily think the same way.)

There are plenty of Great Books that would no doubt come into that category. But there are others that seem to become series in their own way – or, you could argue, are a long story that needs several books to tell them.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be one here – and, clearly, Tolkein felt there was much more to tell about Middle-Earth, or he wouldn’t have come up with the various other books that expand our awareness of that world.

Kids need their series too. They have a character they like, and they want him or her to keep having adventures. There may not be so much character development, or concern for origin stories, but that does not mean the demand is limited. Far from it.

Enid Blyton clearly knew this, or we wouldn’t have the various sets of books she created. You may say many different things about Blyton (and many have), but she clearly understood the junior reader’s demand for more.

Some of the series have endings written into them: the boarding school worlds of Mallory Towers and St Clare’s, for example. (Though that hasn’t stopped others writing extra books into the timeline for St Clare’s, for example.)

But others can seemingly go on for ever. Famous Five, Secret Seven, and more. Some are harder to spot as series (The …of Adventure ones), others have an ever-changing setup as part of their premise (The Faraway Tree series), and all allow you to create more and more.

Series allow you loyalty to a character – and enable you to contemplate loyalty to others in turn. You see their strengths and weaknesses (maybe not so strongly in children’s fiction), but you still trust them. You still want to be with them – or, often, just Be Them.

My holiday book buying lends itself to series. In a given year, you invest in your characters; you spend time with them. You could equally read completely unrelated books, and that would be fine, but there is a certain something of following the groove, repeating your steps and yet dancing them anew.

Another time, I’ll look at a bit more of what I see in children’s book series – what takes them beyond a single story, and into a larger narrative.

But for now, I am lost in happy pondering of which series I might pick to look at. It turns out you really can’t have enough of a good thing.

Lit Kid: how bad is your baddie?

It’s school holiday week, and I’ve done a certain amount of pre-writing. So you’re getting all the goodies three days in a row – next week it’s back to normal service.

(Writing about children’s literature is the sweet spot for now; so if I want two posts in the same week, I can. It’s my holiday too.)

Back to the books now.


Last time, I tried to draw a distinction between anti-heroes and villains.

While anti-heroes may awaken some sympathy, or cause us to laugh, villains do not win our favour in the same way.

Whether they are ‘bad through and through’, or the sheer amount of their treachery goes against our opinion of them, we choose to hate them – instead of admiring them (at least in part).

Let’s try this out with some examples. I’ve tried to find some villains who are named in the book titles; others loom large, even if they don’t get top billing.


‘Bad through and through’

You don’t have to go too far to find these characters. In The Twits, Roald Dahl spends quite a chunk of time making clear that the title characters are thoroughly bad.

Whether it’s their weekly Bird Pie arrangements, or their cruelty to the Monkey family, or their ongoing nasty tricks played on each other: we are clear by the end of the opening section that we are to offer them no mercy.

All of this sets the scene for a pretty spectacular and intricate comeuppance.

(And we have to add a further shout out here for Simon Callow’s audio book version of the story. You can hear an excerpt of it here.)

Hot on the heels of The Twits are many of the other Roald Dahl villains. Grandma, in George’s Marvellous Medicine. Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, in James and the Giant Peach.

But there are many more in children’s literature to choose from. The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids was one that scared me a lot – he was particularly nasty in his determination to eat up every single one of the little kids (baby goats, lest you worry about the Kid part of Lit Kid).

You can see the pictures from the Ladybird version of it here – but only if you are feeling very brave.

Of course, there are plenty more that are bad through and through. Most of them we’ve known as long as we can remember.

The troll in The Billy Goats Gruff. The evil Queen in Snow White (the Disney pictures stick in my mind for this one).

We know they are bad – and there are worse besides in the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, if we dare to look.


‘Quality of badness tips the scales’

High up on the list, for me, would be Count Olaf, the dastardly villain in the Lemony Snicket books A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Olaf is not named in the titles of the series – but he is the key person responsible for creating many of the unfortunate events.

Olaf does seem to manage to turn on the charm at points – whether to reassure other adults that he is a suitable guardian for the children, or even, turning the head of Aunt Josephine.

Interestingly, the true judges of his forms of evil are the Baudelaire children, who always see through him: his disguises, his schemes.

Another contender would be Jadis, Queen of Charn, who is woken (rightly or wrongly) from centuries of sleep in The Magician’s Nephew.

The book is a favourite of mine, and I like the way in which C. S. Lewis gradually builds the picture of her as we go through the book. We see also how this picture is formed through the different perspectives of the main characters.

Diggory, the boy hero, is initially impressed by her – but soon sees how little she cares for the damage she inflicted when using the Deplorable Word against her own people.

Uncle Andrew, a fairly shady character himself, is impressed by her powerfulness. He sees an ally in her determination that she is right, and that others are inferior – but receives little kindness from her when she realises he is weaker than she.

A particularly striking scene is where she has stolen a hansom cab. We are partly impressed by her ability to control the cab and horse, driving at breakneck speed – but repelled by her treatment of the horse.

By the time we see her in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the die is cast. She is fully in villain mode – and receives all the consequences that go with attempting to kill Aslan.

I suspect Cruella de Vil, villainess of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, falls into this category. There is something of her style and dash that appeals – she does start out being named as a friend of Mrs Radcliffe (at least in the film version).

But as soon as we understand her real reasons for liking the Dalmatians’ coats, and her plans for the puppies, it’s clear how we are to feel about her.

(I should confess that I have not yet read the original story – but I do have a copy, and the intentions to remedy that.)


There is not much that is noble about sticking a glass eye in your husband’s tankard of beer. The ‘bad through and through’ villains are mean; they are persistent; and they do not adapt themselves to others.

But perhaps these elements are to bring out the hero’s qualities all the more. Many of the Roald Dahl villains are relentless in their pursuit of others; the heroes emerge as able to change and innovate.

Their own plight does not blind them to the difficulties of others – and as a result, they find allies who help them fight back. (Think about the other animals who help dig, in Fantastic Mr Fox – and who share the triumphal banquet.)

For the more slippery villains, the heroes are by contrast dependable. While others may choose to charm or flatter, they remain themselves. They dig deep in hard times – and they also find unlikely helpers along the way.

Whichever mode of villainy, or sheer badness, we find ourselves presented with in life, we are not unprepared.

We have both characters to compare them with – and suggestions of how to respond without being caught up in the dreadful deeds ourselves.