Our bedtime story routine usually involves a fair amount of bargaining over whether a book is long or short. By the time we’ve got through the trials and tribulations of tea-time, bathtime and the standard pre-bed activity of “running around in circles hysterically” (that’s the children, not me), anything with more than a dozen words per page is too long as far I’m concerned. Arthur disagrees, and so the delicate negotiations begin – one long and two short, or one long and one a bit long but not too long, or three, but only if they’re very short.
The Day the Crayons Quit definitely falls into the long category, but it’s so funny and quirky I’m prepared to overlook that, even at the end of the longest days. Written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, it consists of a series of letters to a little boy called Duncan, written by his crayons. The crayons have gone on strike and the letters set out their reasons – Pink’s cross about never being used while Grey’s exhausted from all the elephants and humpback whales. And Orange and Yellow have fallen out over who’s the true colour of the sun. It’s clever and funny, with a humour that both children and adults can appreciate – Arthur was given it as a Christmas present last year and it ended up being passed around all the adults to much chuckling before he had barely got his hands on it.
You know a book’s good when references seep into your family language – one of Arthur’s favourite insults now is: “You’re so short and stubby you can’t even see over the railing in the crayon box” (adapted from Blue’s complaint about being overused). Just like the book, it makes me laugh every time.
Recently I’ve started worrying that I don’t read enough to our daughter, helpfully adding to my already lengthy list of parenting guilt (much of it centred around excessive use of social media when I should be engaging with my children). I read to her older brother practically from the day he was born, but as a second child Lamorna has missed out on much of that one-on-one time. Although she’s usually around when I’m reading to Arthur she’s generally more interested in destroying toys, and I probably haven’t made enough of an attempt to involve her.
I don’t want to be blamed for failing to instil a love of books in Lamorna – I’m sure she’ll find enough to hold against me as she grows older. So since she turned one a couple of months ago I’ve been making a more conscious effort to find the time to read to her. And as I’ve been weaning her off a bedtime feed I’ve introduced a bedtime book instead. Our current favourite is Wow! Said the Owl, by Tim Hopgood. A friend gave it to Lamorna for her birthday and we are both enchanted by this story of a little owl who takes a nighttime nap so he can stay awake to enjoy all the colours of the daytime. Lamorna’s face lights up whenever we sit down with the book, she reaches out to touch the illustrations of the owl, and invariably wants me to read it at least twice.
With a very verbal three-year-old who engages so enthusiastically with books, sometimes reading to a one-year-old who isn’t yet able to follow a story or share her thoughts can seem a little, well, pointless. But Wow! Said the Owl has reminded me that, with the right book, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience, hopefully setting us on the way to many happy hours reading together.
This blog has been rather neglected of late. Work has been busy, and then we went away to Brittany for a couple of weeks. It was our first holiday abroad as a family of four and it was fabulous, although rather different from pre-children breaks. I used to love long, lazy days reading on the beach or by the pool and would take a stack of new books away with me. I didn’t even make it through one this time (of my own that is, I read The Snail and the Whale and The Tiger Who Came to Tea in their entirety at least once a day).
Instead, days were filled with building sandcastles, exploring rock-pools and eating crepes. The children enjoyed all that, but for them the real highlight was the roadworks outside our holiday home. Pre-children, having construction vehicles revving up at 8:30 every morning would have marred our stay somewhat, but with a digger-mad three and one-year-old the free entertainment was a welcome break after another 6am wake-up.
And like good middle-class parents we turned it into a learning opportunity too, buying them a book in French all about construction works. My A Level French hasn’t stood the test of time as well as I would have hoped, so I’m a little hazy on the details of the story in Le Bulldozer – something about animals digging and tipping. And bulldozing, of course. But hopefully Le Bulldozer will lead on to Le Petit Prince and L’Etranger, starting them on a love of French literature. Failing that, it should at least stand them in good stead for any French roadworks-related situations they find themselves in later in life.
Our house is somewhat divided over The Large Family – a family of elephants who feature in a series of books by Jill Murphy. ‘Mr Large in Charge’ is one of those books that Miles greets with dread and would happily condemn to the charity shop pile, finding it overly long and repetitive (“It’s like she only had eight pages but they told her they needed 20.”). I think it’s a sweet and nicely observed story, although I have a bit of a problem with the gender stereotyping at the heart of the plot – Mum has a day ill in bed so Dad attempts to take over household duties and chaos ensues. But Arthur loves it so it doesn’t really matter what we think. Occasionally I try to insert a bit of gentle feminism by explaining that men and women (or male and female elephants) can and do have equal roles in and out of the home, but I know he’s not really listening. He’s waiting for the bits when Mr Large burns the lunch and trips over a rake.
So he was thrilled to discover that there were more books about the Larges when he found ‘All in One Piece’ on one of our frequent trips to the library. This is a Large story that I can definitely get on board with – Mr and Mrs Large are going to a posh evening do, they just need to get out of the door without getting smeared with paint or food. I love the fact that Mr and Mrs Large are unapologetic about putting their desire for a good night out above pandering to their children’s whims. When little Luke charge sneaks into the bathroom where Mr Large is shaving and tries to join in, his father is having none of it: “Go away,” said Mr Large. “I don’t want you ruining my best trousers!” Similarly, when the children start messing around with Mrs Large’s make-up and clothes she unceremoniously orders them downstairs. And when the baby starts to cry as they say goodbye Granny tells them “Just go” – and they do.
The book was first published in the 1980s, which probably explains its refreshingly bracing take on parenting. The modern approach too often seems to be all about putting children’s needs and wishes first at every turn and being there for them every second of the day. Admitting that, actually, you’d like your children to keep their sticky hands off you while you prepare to escape from them for the night seems almost blasphemous. But I doubt if the Large children ended up in therapy because their parents left them with Granny while they went out on the town. And of course Arthur isn’t remotely disturbed by the idea of adults wanting some time away from their children either. In fact he’s rooting for Mrs Large to get out of the door all in one piece too (spoiler alert: I’m afraid she doesn’t – but Mr Large thinks she’s a smasher anyway).
I have very clear memories of visiting the library as a child. We were lucky enough to have plenty of books at home, but visits to the library introduced me to new stories and authors – I discovered Judy Blume there, and the Sadler’s Wells series by Lorna Hill that kept me enthralled for years. I had my own little pink paper pouch containing 10 plastic tokens and after making my selection I would take them to the front desk, where I handed over a token for each book, and the librarian stamped the return date in the front covers.
Things are a bit more hi-tech these days – my little boy already knows how to swipe his own card in the self-service machine – but the thrill of being let loose in a room full of books is the same. We visit the library most weeks to take books back and choose new ones, and Arthur loves being given free rein to pick whatever appeals. Some are rubbish (I hope the Ben and Holly phase is short-lived), some are wonderful, and the library helps to show him there is a wealth of books to explore, and the amazing worlds they can open up.
It is also one of the few free indoor places to take the children for an hour or two on wet days when we’re all in danger of a meltdown if we don’t get out of the house. That alone makes it invaluable as far as I’m concerned, and that’s without going into all the other services it provides for us and many others – reference books, internet access, printing and photocopying facilities, newspapers, a meeting place, talks and groups, somewhere to go where you can sit and read and think without having to hand over £3 for a cup of coffee. So it depresses me to see endless cuts to library services around the country and reports of decline in use (which is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy – how can you use your local library if it’s hardly ever open?). Luckily, lots of other people agree that libraries are wonderful and there are some very active campaigns to keep publicly funded libraries open. Earlier this year members of the public even occupied the Carnegie Library in Lambeth in protest at its closure. It’s cheering to see that, even if politicians don’t value libraries, many people still do. And I hope that in 30 years time my children’s children will be discovering all they have to offer.
The Tiger Who Came to Tea is another of those books that I loved when I was little, and was so excited to share with my own children. There’s a timeless appeal to the story of a tiger who, ever so politely, invites himself in for tea, and then proceeds to eat everything in the house.
It’s a sweet and simple tale, beautifully illustrated, that has been enjoyed by generations of young readers. But reading it as an adult I am also now aware that there is a darker story behind the book. Author Judith Kerr was born in Berlin in 1923 and was the daughter of a German-Jewish theatre critic who was vocal in his criticism of the Nazis. The family fled Germany just before the Nazis came to power and eventually settled in Britain. Kerr explored her experience as a child refugee in the semi-autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (which I will also be introducing my children to when they’re older). But fellow children’s author Michael Rosen has suggested that, consciously or subconsciously, the story of The Tiger who Came to Tea could also have risen out of Kerr’s experiences as a child, and that sense of an imminent threat that could disrupt domestic life.
Whether or not Kerr intended this subtext to the story, it’s an interesting reading. Another I’ve heard sees the tiger as a metaphor for post-natal depression – this interpretation of the chaos wreaked by the uninvited guest would certainly ring true with any mother who has struggled to get through the day with a young child.
Of course, it’s possible to read too much into a book. Perhaps it is just a charming tale about an imaginary tiger. But, reading it now, the interpretations and context behind this childhood favourite remind me that the best children’s books – as with the best adult’s books – invite constant re-visiting, allowing readers to find new meaning and develop their own theories.
Apart from the incessant “why?” questions, most conversations initiated by the two-year-old currently involve talking through the plots of his favourite stories. He’ll climb into bed with us in the morning and whisper “Shall we talk about Peter Rabbit?” or pipe up from the back of the car “Shall we talk about the Gingerbread Man?” It’s sweet, but slightly wearing by the tenth request of the day.
One of the stories he asks to talk about the most is We’re Going On a Bear Hunt, the much-loved classic by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenberry. So when I heard Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake and Bad Things was coming to a town near us I had to take him – if only to give myself a break from telling and retelling the story.
The immersive, interactive exhibition is designed for children aged 0-11 and was created by Discover Children’s Story Centre in consultation with Michael Rosen. Focusing on some of the author’s most famous books, as well as the people and places that inspired him, it takes the audience on a journey through Rosen’s imagination and is perfectly pitched for little ones. After being led on a bear hunt – which was just exciting and scary enough to leave Arthur exhilarated rather than terrified – children are free to explore at their own pace. As well as the bear’s den there are recreations of Rosen’s childhood kitchen, re-imagined as a huge chocolate cake, his old schoolroom and grandparents’ sitting room. Smaller children are content just to play around while there are games and activities to keep bigger ones engaged.
Arthur was completely enthralled and when it was eventually time to leave I had to practically drag him away. For any child who loves the book – and I’ve yet to meet one who doesn’t – it’s a magical experience. We’ve been talking about it ever since.
Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake and Bad Things is on at Cornwall College, Camborne, until July.