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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.

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.

 

Lit Kid: books with counting

Cometh the reader, cometh the reading preferences. Which is fair enough really – and it keeps it fresh for the adult narrator too.

Junior Reader could be relied on to spot rhymes. Sometimes to guess a rhyme before I’d read it. Or to fill in the gaps where I left a space.

Mini Reader is very suspicious of gaps. Where are the words, please? But give an opportunity to count in a book – just as in real life – and all is well.

I’m more a rhymes gal than a numbers person, but that’s OK. I wasn’t much of a diggers and dumpers person either, but I learned fast when Junior Reader required it.

So in honour of books with numbers in them, here’s a few you can count along with.

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The Bear with Sticky Paws – Clara Vulliamy

“I don’t like this book!” Mini informs me. “We haven’t read it yet,” I say. “I don’t like it!”

I start reading anyway, and soon Mini discovers the numbers element – and requests an immediate rereading. (Always a good sign.)

First up, I need to tell you that this is a really beautiful book. Some readers with aspirations towards princessly activity will love it simply for the look.

The style of the drawings is lovely, and I can only dream of living in a place as nice. Think French mansion with its own patisserie to provide all the cakes in the book, and you are somewhere close.

There’s some nice rhythms to it too, with the ‘girl named Pearl’ getting cross at breakfast time, and going on to discover a partner in crime when a small white bear arrives at the door.

The bear is very hungry all the time – so Pearl has to keep feeding it. 7 pieces of pizza, 11 carrots, and 15 iced buns. And that’s just for lunch.

Each food item is lovingly drawn so you can count them all out – and of course decide which is your favourite bun / ice cream etc on that particular reading.

I won’t spoil the outcome of the story, but the counting rounds things off nicely at the end too. Do give this one a go.

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I did my shout-out for The Very Hungry Caterpillar recently, so it’s just to remind you that there’s some decent counting in there too.

Each day, the caterpillar eats one more item – and by Saturday, there’s significant eating to be done, and counting to go with it.

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There are many many books that include counting to 10. Some are more appealing than others – and let’s face it, if you are going for multiple rereads, you really want to have an appealing book for counting and recounting.

Here are a few more at various points of the spectrum:

One to Ten and Back Again – Nick Sharratt and Sue Heap

Many of us know Nick Sharratt’s distinctive drawings. They are all over books as varied as Jacqueline Wilson’s teen chapter books and pre-school books with Julia Donaldson of Gruffalo fame.

I have only come across this pairing more recently, and it’s a pretty good one. As both authors are illustrators, you get a mix of two visual styles on the same page, which adds more variety.

Sharratt’s signature pictures are black outlined, but Heap’s aren’t generally, so the impact is a little softer.

What I like most, though, is that the book doesn’t stop at 10 – it counts up and it counts back down again, as the title suggests.

This makes it a bit longer and adds a bit of positive challenge for your confident counter.

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Who’s Hiding in Princess World? – Marks and Spencer books

Counting in books also brings you nicely to ‘spot the…’ books ie those ones where you have to find various items within a busy visual scene.

I mention this particular book because for every double page spread, it offers the chance to count a range of different items e.g. starting from 1 crystal ball to 2 ice sculptures, and so on, up to 10.

The plus point of this is that pretty much everyone can spot the 1 item, the 2 items and so on, so it builds confidence for those who find counting harder  – or equally those who find it harder to spot items if a scene is very detailed.

For the really keen counter, there are usually items to spot where you have to count up to 20. This is harder to keep count on the page, but can bring in maths strategies such as finding ways to group what you’ve counted, or to work your way across the page.

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Anno’s Counting Book – Mitsumasa Anno

Anno books were popular in the 1970s, but it took until I was in my 30s to be introduced to them. Anno is a Japanese illustrator who creates exceptionally beautiful books which bear many rereads.

Anno became famous for depicting different countries and historical periods, but he also had his own take on pre-school activities like learning numbers and letters.

The counting book is very clever, because (like many of his books) there are no words, but on each scene, there are multiple pictures that encourage you to count.

On the 1 page, there is one of each item; on the 2 page, 2 of each item and so on, but all arranged much more as elements in a landscape.

The book goes up to 12, so it naturally ties in with visuals for 12 months of the year, showing how counting ties in to other maths notions such as progression of time.

I confess I haven’t yet tried this one with Mini Reader yet, but I have a feeling it ought to go down very well with my counter extraordinaire.

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Any counting books you like? Or ones where you groan at a further rendition? There’s always space for more recommendations.

On that note, I feel I should add another item to my ‘books with holes‘ list, and remind you of this classic version of The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly.

It’s a 1970s edition, and I was delighted to snap up my own copy in a charity shop one time. It’s not too hard to find elsewhere online, if you feel like adding to your own collection.

Lit Kid: books with holes in

I’m not here to encourage you to get the scissors out (and you’d have a hard time doing so with board books).

But I am being reacquainted with certain categories of books, following in the wake of Mini Reader, who has some very definite ideas about what makes a good book.

One with holes in, for example.

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We can agree on a particular one, certainly, which is the classic book with holes: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle.

I’m sure I initially came across this in paperback – and you need to be a bit more careful poking your finger through the holes in paper. This works even better as a board book, though we have it in both versions.

The conceit, of course, is that the aforementioned caterpillar, being very hungry, needs to eat, and so there are little holes in the pages where he has supposedly chewed through them.

There is some gentle maths thrown in, where he gradually eats one more item over the course of each day of the week – plus you have the days of the week element too.

But there’s also the visual aspect: each day of the week has a food of a different colour, as you progress over strawberries, plums, and so on.

Saturday is the biggie, when the caterpillar has his blow out meal, and regrets it after.

(There may not be terribly many supermodels nibbling just one green leaf the day after breaking their diet, but surely ‘just salad’ is following in the steps of the caterpillar.)

Saturday is of course the day that sticks in my mind from reading it as a child. It is partly the greed factor of so many items of food, partly the attraction of all the different things.

I’m sure it also drew me in to notions of more cosmopolitan fare – its pickles and salami, for example – years before I sampled either.

Mini Reader doesn’t necessarily put a finger in the holes of the book. But the days of the week are flipped very fast, so that you have to read quickly to keep up with them.

And we’ve had some happy discussions about just what is going on in that cocoon to bring the caterpillar into being that amazing butterfly of the final pages.

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Junior Reader and I are fans of Harry and the Dinosaurs: a small boy with a proud pudding bowl haircut, but also (importantly) a plastic bucket full of his special toy dinosaurs.

I’ve mentioned Harry before – particularly when his older sister Sam riles him – as a good example of recurring phrases. But Mini Reader has introduced me to another book with holes: a story where you see colours through a hole in the page.

Harry and the Dinosaurs Play Hide and Seek introduces colours and shapes, as does another in the series, Harry and the Dinosaurs have a Very Busy Day.

Harry is hunting for his dinosaurs – and thinks he sees a different shape, page by page. You then lift the flap to see a larger object, each with its own dinosaur on it.

The book is therefore an additional way to talk about form and colour – as well as a chance for your own mini reader to test your pronunciation of Apatosaurus and Scelidosaurus.

It’s lighter on words than the conventional Harry books – but if you are looking for quickies to add to the growing pile of bedtime stories (Mini’s book total at bedtime seems to be on the increase), it’s light and fun.

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I’ll add in a slightly different book with holes: a fold-out book which then forms a series of dioramas. (Mini Reader rather likes it too, at least to look at.)

I have a copy of Thumbelina from my own childhood – and am very pleased to find
a picture of the same issue, so you can admire it too.

There are I think six scenes, with not so much text per page – just enough to take you through Thumbelina’s initial escape, and the other places she seeks to find a home.

The plus side of the book is that each double spread folds out, so you can see two or three layers into each page. But the big excitement is that the covers of the book have strings, so you can fasten the whole thing into a lantern shape.

I think the notion, for the publishers, was to create some kind of mobile (think decorative hanging device, for those gentle readers who might think just of phones). There is a little loop at the top too, so you can certainly hang up the whole book.

The downside of this is that the pictures are quite small and detailed, and at ceiling height, it would be harder to admire them.

And it is worth admiring them: they are reminiscent of a do-it-yourself cardboard theatre
(I had one of those too as a child), with lots of levels of scenery to look through.

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I can’t leave without mentioning Peepo again – one that I referenced before, in relation to the way the text rocks you along.

Peepo allows you to see a tiny part of a scene – then you turn the page and see the whole scene.

It is partly the fun of imagining the whole before you see it all, and partly a play on the notion of the book: the peeper is a baby, exploring his home, the park, the back yard, and so on.

Peepo is a classic too – known in particular for its illustrations that conjure up a world of baths in front of the fire, coal cellars, children making their own toys, Dad in his ARP uniform, mum in curlers.

Even as an adult, we want to look through the hole in the book – back to the world we may only just remember, or (for me anyway) recognise through stories and films.

Whether we find out more with our eyes – or whether our mini reader explores with their fingers – a book with a hole is an invitation. The world we are about to find is engaging – and safe.

As long as we don’t eat too many lollipops on Saturdays.