Building a library for children, part 2

I have no shame in admitting that if there is a kind of childhood book I love above all others, that I could never part with no matter how many I own, it is fairy tales. It may have become fashionable to knock them – or at least the Disney Princess variety of fairy tales with all the stereotyping and traditional gender roles they bring – but I came to fairy tales from a rather different direction.

I wasn’t really raised on Disney (bar the classics like Dumbo and Bambi), and the thought of ever going to Disneyworld is enough to bring me out in hives. Rather, my first exposure to fairy tales was via Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book and Hans Christian Andersen. So the versions I read included the chopping off of heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper, and the terrifying fate of the Little Mermaid to feel like she was walking on knives when she replaced her tail with legs (though how relieved I was that she had a happy ending of sorts, even if it didn’t involve a prince).

Luckily, alongside the more disturbing versions of these tales were the picture books I loved most of all, Cinderella and Thorn Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty) illustrated by Errol le Cain, published by Puffin. I’ve since also bought (possibly my favourite of the lot) the Twelve Dancing Princesses, which I borrowed from the library as a child but never actually owned.

It’s the gorgeous, detailed, jewel-like illustrations which make these books so precious to me. Here, for instance, is Cinders dressing one of her ugly sisters for the ball…

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And here is the Sleeping Beauty asleep in her bed:

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Here, finally, are the twelve princesses in their magical underground palace, dancing…

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(Incidentally, how weird and mysterious that story is. Who *are* the princes trapped underground in the castle? Do they ever get out or do they wait forever in vain for the princesses to come back? The book doesn’t answer those questions and it’s always haunted me…)

Those pictures don’t even show the best of the books, but it’s hard to capture the tiny details in a photo – mice transforming into horses for Cinderella’s coach, the different costumes of the twelve fairies invited to the Sleeping Beauty’s christening, and above all the frames and borders of each page which are decorated in the most lush, delicate repeating patterns.

As a child, it was hard not to believe in fairies when presented with such fantastical, magical pictures, and if you can track these books down on second hand sites anywhere, I highly recommend them to anyone you think needs an antidote to Disney. (And for the record, I did have a ‘princess dress’ as a little girl, but also had a ‘Cinderella dress’ made of shabby brown stuff covered in patches, and a toy broom to go with it, so I could play at being Cinderella when she was sitting in the ashes).

As I grew up, my early love of fairy tales opened doors to more stories – British folklore like the Mabinogion and the tales of King Arthur, and the mythology of Greece, Rome and the Norsemen, as told for children by Roger Lancelyn Green (again, if these are still in print I recommend them – Lancelyn Green’s novel for older children about the fall of Troy, The Luck of Troy, is particularly worth a read).

Even devouring these books aged 9, 10, 11 or so, I never would have imagined what would follow – the fascination with fairy tales and mythology led me to what was possibly my favourite ever module of my English degree, Romance, Ballad and Fairy Tale. This course introduced me to the idea of fairy tales as symbolic narratives which help shape children’s understanding of the world and the journey to adolescence and adulthood (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Angela Carter, Marina Warner).

Then, my fascination with Norse mythology drew me to study the Viking sagas, which in turn gave me a yearning to go and see all the places for real one day – and thanks to that, I got to visit Iceland for a memorable weekend in 2009, followed by Newfoundland in 2011 to see L’Anse aux Meadows, the place the Vikings (it is believed) knew as ‘Vinland‘ in the saga of Erik the Red.

Who would have believed a childhood love of fairy tales could lead to such adventures and experiences?

So, for anyone who worries about whether their children should be reading fairy tales or not, or anyone who has neglected to read fairy tales themselves, I have plenty more weird, wonderful and inspiring books to share.

Angela Carter’s collection of updated fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, is most definitely for adults not children, but I read and enjoyed her Virago collection of fairy tales from around the world in my late teens.

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Worth owning for the cover alone is Alan Garner’s amazing collection of folk tales. Some very odd and fascinating tales here you won’t find anywhere else. I’ve also just been given a lovely collection of tales as retold by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Faber.

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For younger children, I’d also recommend the glorious, sunny tales of Joan Aiken’s A Necklace of Raindrops collection – no dark or troubling corners to be found here, only the magical illustrations of Jan Pienkowski and a world of fantastical and imaginative stories. (I also had a couple of other collections by her aimed at slightly older readers, The Kingdom under the Sea and Tales of a One-Way Street).

Finally, no house should be without Grimms Tales (as per the current trend, you can buy a Penguin Classics edition retold by Philip Pullman) and Hans Andersen – and it’s worth remembering that although many of the tales are psychologically quite disturbing and even more are downright bleak and depressing (see The Red Shoes, for instance, or The Story of a Mother if you want to feel really miserable), there are plenty of positive role models too – heroines who rescue the men rather than the other way round – East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon is a favourite of mine, and of course the best heroine of them all, brave, resourceful, loyal Gerda in the Snow Queen.

We’ve now become converts to Anna and Elsa in our house – despite the lack of Disney in my childhood, I have no problem allowing The Mouse into our house, provided it’s *good* Disney. The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians and The Lion King are all welcome, and Toy Story OF COURSE, (mainly parts 1 & 3 – 2 was a big disappointment). So far, Frozen wins on all counts – great songs, some very impressive set pieces of animation and a heroine as brave as the Hans Andersen character who inspired her. But I won’t be neglecting to tell the toddler the real stories too – when I look at where it led me, how can I resist?

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Me at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, 2011

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The day before, we’d been on a boat trip to see ICEBERGS! See what I mean about where a love of fairy tales can lead you? Icebergs, that’s where! I rest my case.

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Building a library for children, part 1

Having no new house updates to share, and a garden still mainly off-limits in the wild meteorological conditions we’ve been having, I’ve been rather stumped as to what to blog about, but then inspiration struck.

I haven’t blogged about books for a while, and I’ve never really tackled the subject of children’s books – and considering I spend a lot of time reading children’s books and reading ABOUT them (many, many good children’s book bloggers out there who have inspired me), I realised I was missing a trick.

As an adult BC (before children), I still clung fondly to my favourite childhood books, and actively tried to replace copies which had gone astray or got damaged; when I was pregnant, like any hopeful bookish parent, I dreamed of sharing most-loved books with my child, rediscovering old friends and generally getting swept away by the nostalgia of it all.

The reality, of course, when you’re reading Topsy and Tim or Charlie and Lola for the umpteenth time, is quite different – but I still have some of my classic and most treasured picture books stashed away for the future, and I have tried to make sure the toddler gets exposed to real poetry as well as nursery rhymes.

For anyone becoming a parent soon, or buying a present for a young child, I do have some book-based guidance which may be of use – there are many, many lovely poetry and rhyme anthologies which you may think would look beautiful on a nursery shelf.

Which they will – but if you are from a bookish family like ours, you might find that you’ve ended up with *many* anthologies and treasuries, and next to picture books, they rarely get a look-in during the toddler years, which is a shame.

If you are considering buying an anthology as a gift, maybe check first with the parents that they don’t already have several. I would also check a poetry book for age-appropriate content, too – I had a poetry collection as a child which contained the highly depressing and unsuitable poem ‘Flannan Isle’, about a mysterious real-life tragedy at a lighthouse, exactly the sort of thing calculated to give me nightmares, I can’t imagine why it was included in a children’s collection.

Having said that, there are some poetry books no child should be without, and these I can wholeheartedly endorse. The poetry book I loved most as a child is the classic collection edited by Kaye Webb of Puffin Books, ‘I Like This Poem’. It was published in 1979 in support of The International Year of the Child, and to my complete joy is still in print.

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The poems were all selected by children for children of their own age, so everything is arranged in chapters for 7 year olds, 8 year olds, etc, up to 14/15, and each poem is followed by a brief comment from the child who selected it explaining why they like it (and how odd to think that these ‘children’ from 1979 are now adults older than me!)

It was from this book that I discovered some of the poems that have stayed with me for years – Night Mail, Ozymandias, and Tarantella.

I discovered romance and death in The Highwayman, laughed myself silly at When Daddy Fell Into the Pond (unbelievably, these two by the same author, Alfred Noyes) and was entranced – still am – by the opening line of John Masefield’s Cargoes: ‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir’. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what a quinquireme was, it was the magic spell cast by the rhythm and the fascinating, unknown words that stayed with me.

If you have a child, and they don’t own this book, buy it for them now. Just do it!

The second poetry book I love most will be familiar to anyone who encountered the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber in the 80s – Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I had the cassette tape of Cats, and the mug, and the t-shirt and the souvenir programme, but I had the poetry book first – and having known and loved Old Possum for so long, it didn’t feel quite so daunting when I had to tackle TS Eliot for adults later on. (The Waste Land was the very first thing I studied at university – a long way from Jellicle Cats, but it now has as fond a place in my heart as Old Possum does).

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The legacy of ‘Cats’ the show being so closely associated with the poems is rather a bittersweet one – in some cases, I can’t read the poem without hearing the song in my head, but in others, the cat jumps right off the page and is alive in my mind without any need for Bonnie Langford prancing around in tights. Bustopher Jones, for instance, ‘The St James’s Street Cat’ – who hasn’t known a black cat with white spats swaggering through your garden like they own it, just as he makes his stately progress down Pall Mall in the poem?

Reading the poems aloud as an adult, you find yourself having to stifle a giggle at odd places, especially in Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer – ‘after dinner, one of the girls/Suddenly misses her Woolworths pearls’ – and Growltiger’s Last Stand, which slightly terrified me as a child, is actually hilarious, I now realise.

My favourite poem in the collection is still, as it’s always been, Macavity the Mystery Cat. As a child, I was fascinated by this rangy, mangy, wicked ginger cat, but it was only as an adult that I realised who was the true inspiration for Macavity: it was, of course, James Moriarty.

I was reading Sherlock Holmes about 4 years ago, and the description of Moriarty – domed forehead, sunken eyes, head moving from side to side like a snake – and it jumped out at me, Macavity IS Moriarty! And how cheeky of TS Eliot to have lifted the character so blatantly from Conan Doyle, though obviously it’s an homage rather than sheer plagiarism – though wouldn’t it be great if Eliot had written a sequel where Macavity gets his comeuppance at the hands of a consulting detective cat?

This is our second copy of Old Possum, by the way – the one I actually read to the toddler.

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The illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great fun, though I do find the faces a little too human – I like my cats to be cattish, not humanoid – but as a picture book for a toddler it’s perfect.

The other area of poetry no child should be without is the nonsense rhyme – the best exemplar being the mighty Edward Lear. Shamefully, we don’t have a Lear collection in the house yet, though the toddler does already know and love The Owl and the Pussycat. We do have a copy of another nonsense classic, Spike Milligan

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– which has gems including The Ning Nang Nong and the unfortunate tale of the soldier called Edser, (‘Edser in bedsir/Was deadsir’) but some that go into rather (unsurprisingly for Milligan) bleak territory.

I feel like I’ve barely skimmed the surface of my favourite poems here, but it’s a start, and I haven’t even got on to fairy tales or picture books yet. More to follow on this topic – much more – and if you have favourite children’s books or recommendations, please share them!

Wreathed in glory – the 2014 reboot

Our Christmas spirit came to a rather abrupt end today when we came home from the New Year’s Day trudge round the park & lunch to find our tree had fallen over! Either a draught coming in from somewhere (it has been very windy) or our tree stand is not going to last us another year.

Still, no decorations were broken and it would have been coming down in 2 days anyway, but I’m keeping all the other decorations up for a few more days to compensate for the loss of tree. And we had spent the morning hanging pictures which had been stashed away since before The Builders, so the house was already looking a bit less bare, luckily.

To make the last bit of Christmas cheer last into 2015, though, I’ll share with you some of the lovely wreaths I’ve seen around our local streets lately. Lots of interesting colours and decorations beyond the usual holly and red ribbons, I’m pleased to report!

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A very bright red berried wreath against a pale blue door in winter sun – this was the first one I spotted and I loved it!

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A simple but pleasing wicker/straw and ribbon affair.

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What a beauty – pine cones and dried orange chillies against a royal blue door. Gorgeous colours!

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All in shades of green, against a grey door. Classy.

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Possibly my favourite of the year, a lovely natural wreath incorporating dried hydrangea heads.

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Another natural wreath, this one in autumnal colours against *another* pale blue door, and this one has an unusual shape with the sprays of leaves spiralling out.

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A wreath entirely of gold leaves and berries, a bit reminiscent of the laurel wreaths given to ancient Olympians (I think I’m remembering a gold laurel wreath which features in ‘Asterix at the Olympics’.

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Jingle bell wreath, pure and simple. We have some similar jingle bell stars hanging up in the windows which the toddler is very fond of, and whilst it wouldn’t be the sort of thing I’d have bought a few years ago, I want there to be a few decorations she feels are especially ‘hers’ and which she’ll get excited about them coming out every year – exactly how I remember feeling at Christmas.

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Finally, a vision of pine cones in purple against a dark door.

Those are all the wreaths – but I have one more thing to share, a picture of the handmade decorations I sent to friends and family over Christmas.

It all started with a kit for decorations (mainly felt & buttons) I bought in Oxfam, and have supplemented with other ribbons, my own button collection and Christmas fabric which was a very well-timed birthday present. Most had cloves inside so they smelt Christmassy too.

I had so much fun making them I now feel a bit bereft without a craft project on the go – my fingers are itching to start something new.

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In any case, it feels good to start the new year with a reminder of something creative I achieved in 2014 and something which also brought a great deal of enjoyment. If I feel really inspired for next Christmas, I might make enough to sell at a craft fair, but I doubt the hours spent hand-sewing and what I spent on materials would result in a very good return on investment – still, if I enjoy the work, that’s what counts, I hope.

The year in retrospect was dominated by the stress of the building project, but also a lot of good stuff too – our summer holiday in France gave me the chance to tick 2 things off my adult ‘life list’, the Bayeux Tapestry and the Normandy landing beaches (I’d visited both as a child but had few memories of either).

Both matched up to my expectations, and this time round will be remembered for many years, I hope – and it leaves me excited about what 2015 might bring, probably not any travel abroad but a chance to explore a corner or two of Britain we haven’t seen so much of lately. The main priority will be finding a good family-friendly venue for our main holiday, now that the toddler is old enough to really ‘get’ what holidays are about, we have to make sure it’s as fun as possible for her, whilst still keeping entertainment for adults in mind (even if it’s just remembering to bring board games this time…).

The other big joy of 2014 was seeing the toddler change from a baby, this time last year, to a fully functioning, chattering child. The growth in her language after she started at nursery in May has been phenomenal, and as her nursery is a co-operative run by the parents, I’ve been privileged to see a lot of her development and interaction with other children up close myself.

She will be ready to move to preschool and towards school itself before we know it, so this time spent with her at nursery has been precious indeed, and I know she has loved it too.

There is not likely to be any gardening happening soon unless the weather gets markedly better – so the next proper, meaty blog on that topic may be some way off…and there is still plenty to occupy us inside the house, too. So for now, a Happy New Year and hope that 2015 brings good and joyful things to you all!