Babies love babies

A Board Book Every Week: No. 21

The Big Book of Beautiful Babies Board Book by David Ellwand

The Big Book of Beautiful Babies Board Book by David Ellwand

(Ragged Bears Publishing 1999)

 

This was a second-hand find which hits the spot in several ways:

  • Babies are fascinated by faces and fascinated by other babies. At the back is a big mirror page to see themselves in.
  • The black-and-white format might make it attractive to the very young who respond to monochrome images.

The Big Book of Beautiful Babies Board Book by David EllwandMostly just two words per page and a rhyme, ‘Baby happy…Baby sad’, it’s a simple book of opposites. Messy/neat, quiet/loud, bottom/top and so on, some more meaningful to tinies than others – but that’s always the case with opposites books, I find.

  • The photographs are copyrighted 1995 and I feel it comes from a happily less gender-stereotyped era than now. The babies come in all shapes, races and sizes but it’s impossible to tell from clothes and hair what sex they are. No flowery headbands on baldies, no frills or car motifs, and of course no colour to give any clue.

It is a nice size, sturdy, and the shiny pages will wipe clean easily enough. The Big Book of Beautiful Babies by David Ellwand

Unlike this little one!

Dinosaurs roar for boys – and girls

Week-by-week I’m building a library of stimulating and diverse books for a baby…

A Board Book Every Week: No 17

Image result for dinosaur roar

Dinosaur Roar! by Paul Stickland & Henrietta Stickland (Doubleday 2015)

 

There’s a weird sort of gender apartheid amongst animals that seems to have sprung up since my own kids were little. You see it if you look at children’s tee shirts, sleepsuits and socks, birthday cards, even baby muslins. Manufacturers, designers and marketers have decided that only large, snappy, vibrant and possibly violent animals are of interest to boys, and only soft, fluffy, pale-coloured and supposedly amenable animals are suitable for girls.

Creatures in the middle of this silly spectrum create a few problems. Do children’swear companies not know that a single sweet bunny-rabbit can ravage an allotment? Badgers seem to be for boys: why? Is it that assertively stripy face, or the big digging paws? Butterflies are deemed girly, but where are we on moths? And the jury’s out on giraffes.

It’s as if no boy ever hugged a kitten, or no tiger ever came to tea with a little girl!

As for dinosaurs, they’re definitely seen as male territory, though there must be some boys who aren’t that interested.

But what’s not to love about a dinosaur for any child? (Or grown-up!) Claws, spikes, scales, tails, big teeth, tiny brains. Roaring about the landscape tearing up trees like giant house-plants. So I’m including Dinosaur Roar! here to balance out the fluffy bunnies, and for dinosaur-loving girls (and boys) everywhere.

First published in 1994 in larger paperback format, this is basically an ‘opposites’ book. Every page has a different adjective for a dinosaur – fast, slow, above, below, short, long, weak, strong. The occasional word isn’t very useful for tinies – meek, anyone? – because it is wanted for the rhyme. The dinosaurs here come in crazy colours and contrasting sizes. They have wonderful expressions. Even the fierce one looks as if he’s having a laugh. Their small eyes make them all look a bit intellectually-challenged. The two vivid spreads at the end of the book with dinosaurs, both carnivores and herbivores, eating lunch and making horrible noises, are great fun. And let us revisit all the different ones, and find our favourites again.

The book is published in association with the Natural History Museum and a percentage of the royalties is donated to this much-loved institution.

Get those jazz hands ready: The Wheels On The Bus Go Round and Round

Week-by-week I’m building a stimulating and diverse library of baby books.

A Board Book Every Week: No. 8

The Wheels On The Bus, Annie Kubler, Child's Play books

The Wheels on the Bus illustrated by Annie Kubler (Child’s Play 2001)

 

“The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…The – [deep breath] – wheels on the bus go…” You get the picture. I must have sung this hundreds of times in my former professional life. It was a standard song with our local speech therapy groups, which used a plastic ring off a ring-stack to represent the song. I used this object of reference in a song bag when I went out on home visits – children would know what was coming next, and, if they were at that skill-level, could choose which song they wanted by choosing the object that went with it.

Wheels On The Bus is a favourite with small children and this little book from Child’s Play is a lovely version of it. The pages are quite busy and there’s lots to look at, plus various peepholes at window-, wheel- and other levels – I’m just noticing more and more. But reduce it to its simplest elements and you’ve got easy actions and sounds – beep, beep, beep; wah, wah, wah; ssh, ssh, ssh – to repeat and copy. And my fave: swish, swish, swish, with its slightly jazz-hands action. Even the child who has never been on a bus (not impossible these days) should be familiar with windscreen wipers. So adults with no sense of embarrassment can really go for it with these sounds, and have baby readers in stitches – they tend to love the idea of other babies wailing.

As for narrative, the bus gets more and more crowded, with a new character running to catch it on each page. The bus’s passengers are ethnically diverse. When I first knew this song, it was the stereotypical “mummies” who went “chitter chatter chatter”. Now it’s parents who chat, chat, chat. Phew. There are clues (presents, balloons, cake) that they’re all heading off to a party, and this is depicted on the last page, so again lots of chance to recap vocab and look-and-find-and-point.

In fact, each page has an accumulating recap of the sounds that have gone before – that is, if you’ve got the stamina for all this! (If you’ve got the sort of child who never ever lets you leave out any bit you’ve read before, just “don’t notice” this in the first place.)

The Wheels on the Bus, Annie Kubler, Child's Play

Little animals like frogs, birds and mice scamper about the page margins. Rain comes and goes. Faces change: there’s laughing, shushing, sleeping, licking lollies, even a few tears. Then party food and activities. Although I’m not fond of overcrowded pictures for babies and little children as it can all just get too confusing, I think in this case it gives the book great staying power, with more to focus on as a child’s experience grows. Fun for tinies, it should go on giving interest for several years.

 

 

‘The Dark Is Rising’ by Susan Cooper

I loved Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) when I was a child. At the time it was a stand-alone story. The rest of the books in the sequence weren’t written, or even conceived, until long after this first one was published. So I came to its sequel, The Dark Is Rising (1973), only this year, as an adult reader. I’ve forgotten all but the bare bones of the first book, except that it rapidly drew me in and introduced me to the legend of Arthur and the Grail quest.

I identified with Over Sea, Under Stone partly because it was set on the south coast of Cornwall in a landscape very familiar to me from summer holidays: my mother’s family live in that part of the world. The Drew children visit their great uncle Merriman Lyon for a holiday and stumble on a local mystery. So far, so children’s adventure…But then it gets deeper, turning very satisfactorily into a battle between the ancient powers of Light and Darkness.

I featured The Dark Is Rising on my recent wintry reads post and can’t imagine tackling it on a hot summer holiday. The action this time takes place over and around the winter solstice. Cooper grew up in Buckinghamshire, England – vividly depicted in The Dark Is Rising – but conceived the book while cross-country skiing through woods in Massachusetts, where she has lived for many years; and I think those surroundings make their mark on the novel, too.

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper Vintage Classics 2013

 

I do like this cover on my recent Vintage Classics edition, even with the slightly worrying South Park vibe of that orange-coated figure in the snow! It’s suitably chilly and the rearing horse and rider plus the sinister rooks hint at all the right story elements.

 

This time the family is the Stantons, with their rather unlikely ten children, partly because Will has to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a rare and chosen person. On the eve of his 11th birthday strange things begin to happen and Will’s ordinary, busy family preparations for Christmas turn so much murkier. The walls between his familiar world and a much older one grow thin and permeable. Shapes shift, Will travels in time and place, and meets The Old Ones who show him things and grant him knowledge almost overpowering to such a young boy. He discovers he has a key role – whether he wants it or not – in the endless fight between the forces of good and evil, light and dark. Merriman Lyon is again a vital figure, striding through the landscape full of ancient wisdom. Other Old Ones are strange versions of Will’s own neighbours, their own powers fiercely tested by the fight. Elements of British myth, like Herne the Hunter, are skilfully woven into the story to give it a wild, weird texture.

I know this is a very admired story, but coming to it now I found two problems with it, one large, one small.

Will is the kind of protagonist writers are warned against creating – he is very passive. (Passive protagonists can be annoying to identify with; the reader may just want to give them a kick up the pants.) The role of the Old Ones is to educate Will and, if they can, protect him. He is given visions. He is shown things, told things; when he’s unsure what to do next he’s told to wait and he will know, instinctively, or creatures will come out of the dark and the snow to lead him. And they do. He’s handed about like a parcel. Sure, sometimes he has to battle his utmost, but I never felt in doubt that he wouldn’t overcome, or have the right vision, or be saved by outward influence – even in the climactic fight. He doesn’t ever have to solve a problem himself, by his own ingenuity. Call me a cynical old adult, but I just didn’t engage with him enough as an active character to really worry for him. Perhaps if I’d read this book as a child I would have been swept along with Will’s journey and not felt the loss of narrative tension.

The only time he has any real agency, where I felt a charge of tension, is early on. Will has been shown he has to power to make fire, and like a typical young boy decides to test it out on a walk home down an out-of-the-way alley. His totally understandable experiment draws the attention of wicked forces, confusingly disguised as a local farm girl. This isn’t just wafting and drifting and going with the mythic flow. It’s Will making a unilateral decision and finding it’s a mistake. But then Merriman appears to save him and tell him a bit more useful stuff! And vanish again.

The other problem is a lesser one but niggling. It’s the girls.

Will has five brothers (another died as a baby) and three sisters, a big jolly household where dad works as a jeweller and mum keeps things going at home in their country cottage. Ten kids is pretty unusual for the early 1970s, and a non-Catholic family, but hey ho. The eldest, Stephen, Will’s hero, is away in the navy and sadly never does show up, though a significant gift arrives from him. All the boys, from adult Stephen down to Will as youngest, are lovingly drawn. They are talented: Paul plays the flute beautifully, James and Will are good singers, Robin’s mechanically-minded and ‘an excellent footballer’, Max fixes things. They willingly help with fetching the logs and the Christmas tree and sweeping snow. There’s jolly banter and sibling goodwill. They are described in a way that makes you think they’d look a rather attractive bunch to outsiders, and they’re unfailingly cheerful, charming and communicative.

Now, anyone who’s raised – or been – an adolescent boy – would you say that particularly those last three words are the first you’d pull out of the descriptive bag? Teenage boys can be charming, cheerful, helpful, and communicative, of course. But that’s truly not the default setting.

On to the girls. My feeling is that Cooper chucked in three girls just so that there weren’t only the seven necessary boy siblings – oh, and to give someone for Will to rescue. I found it hard to distinguish Gwen, Barbara and Mary. I found it hard to recall their names. We first meet them just before a noisy family mealtime, and how are they described? First sight of Gwen: patiently setting the table. Mary is ‘plump’, and listening to blasting pop music on the radio. She pouts when told to turn it off. Barbara is ‘sixteen and superior’ and tells someone to shut up. We learn that Gwen cooks whole meals for the family. Mary sniffs, and tosses her long hair. (She does this a lot, once described as being smug about it!) Already my resentment is building up. I don’t know about Will time-travelling, I feel as if I have time-travelled into the 1950s or some era when young women’s typical range of behaviour was seen as pouty, peevish, sulky, bossy, and shallow. The eldest’s natural role seems to be kitchen doormat. I’m really disappointed to find such lazy stereotyping from a woman author, writing this in the early 1970s. I was a teenager by then and I find this depiction very old-fashioned. Why can’t they be as skilful and talented as their glowing brothers?

I feel there is a real discrepancy in the way the boy and girl characters are treated. Even when they’re thinly drawn the boys are more positive. Big Max is ‘muscular’, practical, has an actual girlfriend in Southampton whom he writes to (basically he’s full of testosterone). Gwen, also interested in the opposite sex, rejects the carol singing trip to stay in and wash her hair, just in case she’ll see a certain boy the next day. We learn this from a catty remark of Mary’s. (It might be meant to be friendly teasing rather than catty, but since all that’s gone before is couched in terms of flouncy pouts and sniffs, I’m cued to think badly of her.) So poor Gwen, unlike manly Max, seems a bit vain and silly, and Mary’s always stirring it.

The girls don’t have much to do in the book, and little time to redeem (for me) those first slyly negative impressions. But Mary resurfaces to be put in jeopardy by the forces of darkness and Will’s tough task is to fight them for his sister’s life. Since he doesn’t seem to have a particularly significant relationship with her – he and Paul share much more page time and sympathies and some dramatic and lyrical scenes – I found this quite arbitrary. She’s a cipher Damsel in Distress. Is it because she’s female that Will feels even more the pressure to be heroic?? After her rescue she doesn’t recall a thing, is dismissively offhand about events, and is made to giggle twice in the space of a page. Great.

Which takes me back to Will’s passivity in the face of all the strange learning and ancient rites and battles. I just know he will triumph somehow. I didn’t worry about Will and I couldn’t bring myself to care about Mary, at all.

And yet in other children’s books, in the face of far less elemental pressures, I have worried in agony, holding my breath and clenching my hands, for characters who have to be brave and go that huge extra step to rescue a friend, or an animal, or even their enemy. I’ve fully engaged with their challenges and dilemmas. Why not with Will Stanton? Maybe Cooper’s mythic elements are too big for my tastes, and Will just washes along with it all like a branch in the thaw-flooded River Thames.

I have to say I did really enjoy the wonderful scene-setting, the dramatic weather and geography of the Thames Valley that Cooper obviously knows so well. Visually it works well. Some of my favourite scenes involved Will trekking through the brutish winter weather, harried by sinister birds or vague but looming threat; and, in contrast, those indoors in the firelight and candlelight with mysterious old Miss Greythorne at Huntercombe Manor. I like the layers of myth in the landscape and when we see how modern names and routes hark back to ancient ways and knowledge; because I love learning this sort of thing about little patches of English countryside and cityscape and it’s nice to see that detail in a children’s book.

But overall I was disappointed at not meeting Will Stanton as a convincing hero I could totally cheer for.

Narnia – where it’s always winter but never Christmas

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe C. S.  Lewis

Ok, so it’s the last day of 2013 but Twelfth Night isn’t here yet so I can still get in my other Christmassy book. It was the first of the Narnia Chronicles I came across as a child, therefore the right place to start my re-reading. The young man behind the counter in the Age Concern shop where I bought it recited their proper sequence to me in a solemn voice – clearly a fan. But blow the recommended reading order suggested by C. S. Lewis! The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe was the first he wrote. It was published in 1950, and The Magician’s Nephew (the creation story of Narnia) didn’t appear until almost last.

This book was read out loud by my class teacher in junior school, in the precious 15 minutes at the end of every school day when we could just sit and listen to a story.* I must have sought it out afterwards to relish by myself. The copy I read then had this joyful cover art by Pauline Baynes, whereas my current one – still with the evocative Baynes illustrations inside – has a very different feel on its cover (by Julek Heller).

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis cover art by Pauline Baynes Puffin books

I was surprised to find that what I remember as an epic is quite short, just 200 small pages with plenty of pictures. It’s fast-paced and the tension keeps up. After a quick and absolutely classic set-up – parents ditched (actually they don’t even get a mention, the children are just sent away from London ‘because of the air-raids’), despatched to rambling country house, adult supervision largely removed – Chapters 2 and 3 contain the stand-out scenes which cement this story in my mind: Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus and Edmund’s with the White Witch. The good/evil dichotomy is convincingly established. And we’re introduced to the icons of LWW: the snow, the lamppost, the Turkish Delight. I’m convinced that at least half my love of Turkish Delight springs from this scene. It’s shown as the ultimate desirable food, and yes, it did used to come at Christmas in a round box, tied with ribbon, and there was never enough. I don’t think chocolate or toffee would have worked nearly so well.

Another surprise is that Mr Tumnus, so fondly remembered as a major player, has a very small part in the action. After Chapter 2, he doesn’t appear again until he’s discovered, turned to stone, in the Witch’s palace, and then doesn’t do much at all.

In fact, quite a few aspects of the book were thinner than I remember. This is a beloved classic of children’s literature, but it’s not perfect. I don’t think I ever felt Lewis created very interesting characters, but as an adult reader this was really noticeable. Edmund is the only one with any complexity, if you can call it that, and only because he’s not straightforwardly nice. Early on we learn that he is ‘spiteful’ and prone to telling lies. Poor kid, he’s already gone over to the dark side before the Witch begins her work!

But somehow Lewis makes his actors memorable – animals more often than humans – without giving them much substance. Although it’s Lucy’s story – she is the good, active force that starts it off – she and Susan are soon pushed into very conventional girl roles: caring, loving, healing (Lucy’s bottle), calling for assistance (Susan’s hunting horn), and definitely not fighting. ‘Battles are ugly when women fight,’ says Father Christmas, handing Peter his sword and shield. As if they’re not ugly when men do. Lewis was a young soldier in the First World War; surely he must have known this?

He dwells only briefly on the fighting, unlike the film version where the final battle goes on at length with all the usual CGI thwacks and grunts and even more ‘protect the girls’ business than in the book. I had to turn back a page to check the Witch’s fate, as Lewis almost skips over this momentous event. The grisliest scenes concern the Witch and her mob taunting Aslan at the Stone Table and are really harrowing.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis Puffin papaerback cover by Julek Heller

Julek Heller’s cover illustration

Peter is assigned the traditional role of the oldest brother: sensible, responsible, and required to be brave. At least he’s allowed to admit he doesn’t feel brave. It’s all very conventional, as if Lewis doesn’t want to give the four children much thought, or simply wants them to represent clear good/bad roles. There is a very strange passage – all stiff upper lip and ‘don’t mention the war’ – when Aslan has a talk with the repentant Edmund which we’re not allowed to overhear but ‘which Edmund never forgot’. If it’s that blinking memorable, why can’t we benefit from it too? I demanded petulantly. Then Edmund shakes hands with his siblings and Aslan instructs them, ‘There is no need to talk to him about what is past.’ And they don’t. I expect as a child I saw this as a fair-enough response to an awkward situation, but at this distance it just feels really constrained and emotionally illiterate. But we are in the 21st century now!

The children’s speech is strikingly banal, too, and of its time, apart from the olde-worlde-speak they develop at the end because that’s how princes and princesses must talk! (If this is a joke, it goes on a bit.) I did wonder if I’m just used to much quirkier, smart-mouthed characters in modern children’s fiction, but then Oswald Bastable, William Brown, Dido Twite, and even for younger readers Pooh Bear, have a joyous command of language and their speech tells us a lot about the inner workings of their minds. There is some gentle humour in LWW but it tends to come from the non-human characters.

So what remained of the book I loved as a child, and read at least twice? The wonderful fairytale feel of a land where it’s ‘always winter but never Christmas’. The thrill of the thaw when it comes, along with the tinkling bells on Father Christmas’s sleigh. Deep magic and deeper magic are pretty persuasive. Aslan remains impressive, and, although it struck me as an odd mix of borrowings – and the internal logic not quite sound – I found the mash-up of characters from European folktale, Greek myth, Victorian Christmas, and jolly British wildlife endearing. But most satisfying was still the idea that by hiding in a wardrobe you might accidentally find yourself in another world: that really grabs the imagination. After all, it could happen to anyone, couldn’t it?

* Maybe ‘reading for pleasure’ wouldn’t be such an alien concept if the school curriculum allowed this unheard-of luxury to all primary school children, every day. It was a much-needed wind-down time, let teachers share their favourite books without any demonstrable learning required, and turned us on to new stories. Or let us just daydream, which is no bad thing.

Shock horror! All animals are boys!!

After I’d chosen my Top 10 Animals in Children’s Books I realised that all of them – every single animal I loved and sometimes heavily identified with – were male. And I hadn’t noticed, not at the time of reading the books they appear in (and sometimes reading them over and over) nor when I chose them for my blogpost.

But although I’m embarrassed to find that I’ve totally ignored and left out female animals, I discover it’s easily done. It seems that male is the default setting for animals in literature everywhere, and male characters not only dominate the cast-lists in children’s fiction but usually take the biggest and most exciting parts too. This was true not only in my childhood, and long before (Beatrix Potter* and Kenneth Grahame were first published around 1900 and A. A. Milne’s children’s books in the 1920s) but right through the 20th century. And now we’re in the 21st apparently it’s not much better.

Here is some lovely low-tech research carried out this year by Rhino Reads in response to the question “Why are crocodiles only boys?” April | 2013 | Rhino Reads

In another post Rhino Reads talks of reading Dear Zoo many times before spotting that the zoo has nothing but male animals. (And a very unsuccessful breeding programme, I imagine!) And I’ve done just the same, even though I credit myself with being fairly aware and usually not letting people get away with sloppy gender stereotyping.

Around the same time Alison Flood wrote an article about recent research from Florida State University here Study finds huge gender imbalace in children’s literature | Books | theguardian.com

And some detailed research from 2007 – Gender Stereotyping and Under-representation of Female Characters in 200 Popular Children’s Picture Books: A 21st Century Update – is here http://www.centre.edu/web/news/2007/2/gender.html

So I’d have had to search far and wide to find key and beloved female animals. What seems odd to me is that

  1. I didn’t notice, so used am I to males being given the lead roles, those the reader expects to identify with, and to all-male cohorts of characters.
  2. I had no problem identifying with all these boys as a young girl reader.

*To be fair to Beatrix Potter, she did give us Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs Tiggie-Winkle and more, but her male characters by far outnumber her female ones.