Finding Knowledge and Other (Green) Things at the Library

On this, the first morning of the school holidays, we walked to our local library. The walk was not without the usual handful of small dramas that tend to accompany any stroll with a toddler and a five-year-old, but all things considered, it was fairly successful. We encountered only one slightly scary, yappy dog on our journey. We had brief but friendly conversations with a man fixing his car in the driveway and a small boy peering through his front gate. We skinned one knee twice, but thankfully the knee belonged to the more physically resilient of the children, so we got away with minimal tears. Of course, the less hardy child noticed that her injured brother was receiving the lion’s share of attention and attempted to amend this discrepancy by fake-falling-over three times. But when the wheel of the pram accidentally clipped the back of her ankle, she was provided with a genuine opportunity to stage her own short production of suffering and sorrow. The balance of attention thus restored, we reached our destination in good spirits.

I’m a Library Teacher, so naturally I hope that my children will cultivate their own love of the library. I hope that they will learn to relish the hushed stillness, the smell of books, the cosy intimacy of a shared story, perhaps even that pit-of-your-stomach flutter of almost-hunger at opening a new book and devouring the first fresh and perfect words.

When we entered the children’s section of the library today, both of my children selected a pile of books and settled down on the floor to look through them. I felt a rush of pride at my well-behaved and studious offspring. We were getting ready to go when the library’s hushed stillness (and my momentary parental smugness) was pierced by the voice of a two-year-old not overly concerned with inside voices: “I’ve got green boogers!” He held his finger aloft, as if celebrating a Eureka moment of discovery, except that in this case the tip was adorned with a rather spectacular globule. “LOOK AT MY GREEN BOOGERS!”

Pick (excuse the pun) the Library Teacher’s son: making discoveries, eager to share his knowledge with others.

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Fire Engines and Feathers: Life with a Toddler

These are a few of my toddler’s favourite things: diggers, fire engines, cranes, motorbikes, big trucks with cars on top, monkeys, tigers, cousins, feathers. He thrills at blaring sirens, revving motorbikes, crashing diggers. He shrieks with delight at monkeys that show their lumpy crimson bottoms, puff their chests into balloons and hoot, or sail with insouciant ease from branch to branch. He gazes up, blinking and astonished at cranes that seem to stab the clouds. He adores any chance to run helter-skelter, throw balls and explore playgrounds with his cousins. And he loves feathers.

At two-and-a-half, my son is captivated by those fast and furious parts of life that roar and race and kick up dust. Things that go – quick as a flash, full steam ahead – are the things that appeal to my boy, because like them, he loves to go. His obsession with feathers seems a little at odds with all of his other fast, loud, bold objects of affection.

Last week, when we were getting in the car to take his big sister to school, my son picked up a small, downy feather. After dropping her off, we went on to our regular music group, where he played with Matchbox cars while I helped set up tables and chop fruit. We were part way through the music session that followed playtime, when I noticed his clenched fist. I peeled back his little fingers to discover the clammy, wilted carcass of a feather in his warm, sweaty palm – he had been holding it for two hours.

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Today was a blustery Easter Sunday; trees aglow on the drive home from church and the first hint of autumn crispness in the air. My boy found a feather in the yard and was instantly bewitched. He held it tenderly in his hand, smiling at the wispy softness against his skin. A gust of wind snatched it from his hand and he squealed in surprised delight, grabbing at his treasure as it drifted and dipped just beyond his reach. Over and over we tossed the feather into the air and he laughed and chased and tried to pin it down as it danced away like a skittish moonbeam. Last year my son was spellbound by the demolition of a house over the back fence, but today he was just as transfixed by the mysterious paths a soft and silent feather wove through the sky.

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And right there lies the sweet and bewildering paradox of life with my toddler. The world to him is a place of wonder and he runs into it full-tilt, arms wide, zooming like an aeroplane. He throws things he shouldn’t throw (a plate of toast crusts, a box of dominoes, a ceramic angel), he yells because he likes the sound of his voice, he runs to get places, he stomps when he’s happy. As my husband once said: he lives life with verve. But then there’s the flip-side: when he’s tired or hurt or overwhelmed or just wrapped up in a moment – the bravado slips and I see the quiet and gentle little soul that is just as much my son. When he presents a bumped knee to be kissed, when he looks at me with tear-stained cheeks and reaches up for a cuddle, when he folds his little arms around my neck and rests his head on my shoulder – these are the slow and cherished moments that remind me this is only the third autumn he has seen.

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Oh yes, this toddler of mine can race and roar and go, go, go. But he can also (sometimes) softly, softly stroke a baby’s hair. He can squat down in front of a one-year-old and observe in wonder, “It’s so little!” He can whisper in awe at the sight of the moon. He can bend down and watch the slow crawl of a fuzzy caterpillar. And he can hold a feather for several hours in his hand. Just don’t expect him not to crush it.

The Best Picture Books I’ve Read This Month #1

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If authors are my rock-stars, children’s authors are my sword-swallowing, trapeze-balancing circus performers. I realise that may sound a little excessive, but stay with me! Writers of picture books manage to make something really difficult look completely effortless. Writing a picture book is something everyone thinks they could do, but – out of the handful who actually go ahead and try – only a few are actually successful in getting their books published (three out of 10,000 that are written was a statistic I read today). Mem Fox once famously likened writing a picture book to writing War and Peace in Haiku. This is bad news if you’re a writer trying to catch a break, but good news if you’re a parent and/ or Junior Primary Library Teacher like myself. It means that the standard for picture books that are published each year is, on the whole, incredibly high.

Both as a teacher and as a mum, I read a lot of picture books. Of course there are plenty of duds out there: books that a too wordy or too blatantly moralising; books that are clunky in their use of rhyme or just plain boring. Then there are those books that are special; books that I’m happy to read again and again. A good picture book can captivate the most restless child; mesmerising them with its rhythm or drawing them into the web of its story. A good picture book can fire a child’s imagination, enlarge their world, even trigger their empathy.

I’ve decided to start a regular series of posts, highlighting a small handful of the best picture books I’ve read that month. I will include both books I have discovered for the first time, and old favourites I am happy to return to. I hope that these reviews might give other parents and teachers some ideas of great books to enjoy with their kids. After all, sitting down with a child and a good picture book is always time well-spent!

The Day Louis Got Eaten
By John Fardell

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This book was given to us by a friend – I never would have chosen a story about a boy being eaten by a monster for my very sensitive then-four-year-old daughter. However, the fact that both she and her two-year-old brother love it is sound proof that it is much more funny than scary. The book’s title says it all: one day Louis gets eaten by a Gulper, which gets eaten by a Grabular, which gets eaten by an Undersnatch and so on. It’s up to his gutsy and resourceful sister to rescue him. This is a compelling tale, with a very sweet sibling relationship at it’s heart.

Why it’s worth reading:
It’s refreshing to see such a gloriously brave and inventive heroine, and kids will enjoy watching the improvements she makes to her bike in order to aid her quest. The illustrations are fantastically detailed and clever; the climactic scene features a wonderful cross-section of monsters-within-monsters like Russian nesting dolls.

Best suits ages: 3 – 7.

Tiddler: The story-telling fish
By Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

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Tiddler is a little fish with a big imagination: “He blew small bubbles but told tall tales.” Every morning he is late for school, and every morning he arrives with a far-fetched story to explain his tardiness. Most of his fishy classmates dismiss his tales of riding seahorses, diving with dolphins and battling squid, but Little Johnny Dory likes his stories and tells them to his granny, who in turn shares them with her friends. One day, Tiddler’s daydreaming lands him in the middle of the ocean, desperately lost and alone. There he is surprised to hear his own tales being told and realises that following the chain of stories to their source is the only way he will be able to find his way home. This is a fun book about the power of stories.

Why it’s worth reading:
Tiddler has a zippy, buoyant rhythm that makes it the perfect read-aloud book. This author/illustrator pair are the same team behind The Gruffalo. Make sure you take a moment to identify the “Gruffalo Fish” in one of the pictures.

Best suits ages: 3 – 7.

Peck Peck Peck
By Lucy Cousins

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What pre-schooler doesn’t relish the opportunity to poke a finger through holes punched in the pages of a book? Peck Peck Peck is The Very Hungry Caterpillar on a sugar high. Little Woodpecker sets off to practise his new pecking skills and it turns out that he’s a natural.

“PECK PECK PECK
a magazine,
a picture of Aunt Geraldine,
an armchair,
a teddy bear
and a book
called Jane Eyre.”

Lucy Cousins, author/illustrator of the Maisy series, possesses the perfect instinct for what will appeal to very young children. My toddler loves this book, but it has enough cheeky humour (“I pecked the loo.”) to earn some giggles from a bunch of less-easily-amused 8-year-olds.

Why it’s worth reading:
Holes. Lots and lots of holes showing all the places Little Woodpecker has pecked. The rhyming inventory of all the objects he’s put holes in is very entertaining.

Best suits ages: 2 – 6

What the Ladybird Heard
By Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks

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I’ve been doing an author study on Julia Donaldson with my junior primary classes this term, hence the inclusion of a second of her books (and it was tough to pick just two!). “Once upon a farm” lived the usual assortment of farm animals, that made the usual farm-animal noises. Except, of course, for the ladybird, who “said never a word.” But when that clever little ladybird observes two bad men plotting to steal the fine prize cow, it is up to her to devise a way of foiling their plans. No spoilers here, but let’s just say that her idea is both ingenious and hilarious, and the consequences for Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len are most satisfactory.

Why it’s worth reading:
Young kids are invariably fans of sounds in books, and this one has a barnyard full. The animal noises, combined with the easy rhyme makes this the kind of book that invites participation. My daughter knew the whole thing by heart after a few readings. The story is perfectly pitched to a junior primary level, with a simple but engaging plot and plenty of humour.

Best suits ages: 3 – 7.

Silver Buttons
By Bob Graham

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At 9.59 on Thursday morning, as Jodie is putting the finishing touches on her picture of a duck, her little brother takes his first steps. Meanwhile, all over the neighbourhood and beyond, people are busy living out both small and grand moments: a child is posting sticks and stones through a gate, a man is buying fresh bread from a baker, children are sailing boats in a fountain, a baby is born. The book’s opening pages display all the domestic minutiae of Jodie’s family life, before panning out to show her street, neighbourhood, local beach and finally the far horizon.

Why it’s worth reading:
It’s the detail of each scene – both in the written descriptions and the illustrations – that carries you along for the journey. The book would be a perfect and gentle launchpad to discussions on a whole range of topics, such as local and world events, and similarities and differences between people.

Best suits ages: 4 – 8.

What was the best picture book you read this month? I would love to hear!

The Comedy Act

When she’s in a particularly good mood after her bath, my five-year-old daughter likes to dabble in a bit of physical comedy. She throws her underwear into the air, cries “Where’s my knickers?” and spends the next minute scrabbling madly around the room pretending to search for them, while her two-year-old brother just about hyper-ventilates from laughter. It’s HILARIOUS. My toddler has never once attempted to imitate this comedy act, but he heartily enjoys the show.

This morning my two-year-old is sitting in the trolley as we do the weekly shop. Bonds underwear is having a sale, so I devote a minute to the merits of a three-pack of cushioned-sole, low cut socks. And then a voice interrupts my meditation: “Where’s my knickers?” I shush him, but he knows he’s on to something. This time there is a certain confidence, an authority in his voice as he bellows, “WHERE’S MY KNICKERS?” And then again, but this time in a weird, sinister growl I’ve never even heard him use, “Where’s my knickers?” For goodness’ sake, he doesn’t even wear knickers. Full marks for timing, though.

Tonight’s Bedtime Monologue From my Two-Year-Old

7.20pm: Give two-year-old a pep talk about going to bed nicely, unlike the previous night.

7.22: Two-year-old lies quietly in cot.

7.23pm: “I’m waking up now! I want ice-cream! Green ice-creams. I want ice-creams all DAY! I want ice-cream all-ready!” (Hums for a while then stands up). “Mummy, me keep waking up! Door not shut! Not shut anymore. Not shut. One, two, three, four.” (Starts jumping in cot. I lie him down).

7.25: “Want go outside one day. All day…. Mummy! Me is cross! Me biting! Yeah! (Wet slurping noises). Want bite someone! Aaaagh! Can’t reach you, Mummy! Me not go to sleep!” (Stands up. I lie him down).

7.30pm: “Want to take off sleeping bag! Waaaa!” (Loud fake crying). “Want Daddy! Really want Daddy! Cuddle please Mummy!” (Give him a drink, discover toy Platypussy inside his sleeping bag which leads to much laughter. Put him back to bed.)

7.35pm: “Ha ha! Never seen Platypussy there before! Me know Zac. Mrs T got Zac. Me see Zac for long long time long long time. For long long time. Mummy! Not going anywhere! You stay Mummy! Never see Zac at childcare. Never see Zac at childcare. Hmmm. Pretend you is Mrs T, Mummy!”

7.40pm: “Let’s check on Lily. Let’s check on me.” (Starts humming tunelessly).

7.45pm: “Please sing song, Mummy! Not that one. Not that one. Different one. Wheels on the bus go round and round. You know that one for long time? Wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round. Wheels on the bus go round and round all day long. All day Mummy. All day Mummy. All day Mummy. All day meemee. All day hmm hmm hmm.”

7.50pm: (Starts humming softly. Hum gradually builds to scream). “Something on my Platypussy! Dad! Daddy! At work Daddy? Want Daddy! See Daddy after sleep? Then have my break-sast.” (Starts groaning loudly).

7.55pm: “Mummy! Mummy! Want Daddy! Daddy is home! I’m stuck! Aaaah! Can’t get it out!”
(I pull legs from between bars of cot).

8.00pm: “My friend’s called Wang-wo.”

8.04pm: Breathing deepens. Stay another 15 minutes just to make sure.

8.20pm: I exit room and head straight for chocolate stash.

The Luxury of Forgetting Dreams

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I awake in terror. A scream. The gaping mouth of an empty cot. Oh no oh no oh no. Blind with dread. Running slowly like through water. My husband on the front porch, grabbing back my child. Giddy with wild relief and shock.

Just a dream. I struggle to claw my way out of it. It coats me, thick and viscous as tar. I’m hot and trembly and I can’t seem to settle. I see the wan face of the mother of a missing child, fronting up to the media scrum. I see the mothers of those boys in Bali – about to be shot for smuggling drugs a decade ago. I see the mothers who have lost a child in the most horrifying of circumstances – in Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq. Often I look away, I distance myself from their situation because I don’t want to taste their grief. How else do you deal with the tsunami of horror and heartache incessantly lapping the edges of your consciousness? This time I can’t look away. For the briefest moment, I feel something of what it is to lose a child. Mothers all. And I wonder how they endure.

In the morning my little boy toddles down the hall to find me, peering into each room he passes and declaring, “not there!” I crouch down at the end of the hallway, just out of sight. I grab him up as he rounds the corner, smother him with kisses, breathe in his morning smell as he giggles and wriggles in my arms. My heart aches with thankfulness that he is safe.

Because truthfully I can’t presume to know what it feels like to lose a child. Unlike so many mothers around the world, I have the great luxury of waking from my nightmare. And yet, far too often I take it all for granted and allow myself to parent from a place of distraction, half-heartedness. Too often I allow dissatisfaction to creep in and colour the way I interact with my children. Yet how can I be anything but satisfied when they are safe? Today I feel anew the gift and the charge of loving my children well.

When Good Fairies Go Bad

This is the scene behind my toaster at present: a shell filled with dried corn kernels, a floral toothpick-holder containing a shrivelled blossom, a cork, a scattering of rose petals, some small shells and a plastic sweetcorn. It appears that I may be some kind of hoarder-in-miniature, or perhaps that I’ve dedicated a bizarre shrine to the toaster crumb-tray. There is something far too precise about the collection to indicate that I’m simply a really untidy housewife, so cast that thought away. Each tiny item has been chosen and arranged with infinite care, as if by… well as if by very small magical people.

The view behind my toaster.

The view behind my toaster.

My daughter loves fairies. She talks constantly about her fairy friends, the language that they speak, the midnight feasts they share. She was distraught when our resident fairy family suffered severe flooding to their home in the strawberry patch thanks to some overzealous watering. Immediately, she packed up all of their worldly possessions and relocated them to a new home behind the toaster. I dare not trespass.

I’m in two minds about my daughter’s enthusiasm for small winged creatures of the magical persuasion. On the one hand, I love that her interest gives rise to lots of imaginative play: the creation of tiny enchanted worlds, funny new words, and magical potions from petals and basil leaves. On the other hand, it can be a little intense, verging on obsessional. No Mummy, you can’t throw out that (cornflake/ watermelon seed/ cup of brown sludge)! Please can I have (strawberries/ Tic Toc biscuits/ glow-sticks) for a midnight feast with my fairy friends? The fairies speak a different language, but you can’t understand it. I’m not pretending! It is real! And then there’s the situation behind my toaster.

When it came to gifts for my daughter’s fifth birthday, the question was: to fairy or not to fairy? Should we use the opportunity to try to broaden her interests a little, or should we give her what she really wanted in the form of fairy-related gifts? I admit that the very idea of seeing her eyes light up over something that she loved was an irresistible prospect. I had no concept of the power of this notion until I became a parent (though in retrospect, I suspect it was the light in my eyes that convinced my own father to let me have a pet duckling when I was her age).

So we gave her the glittery Tinker Bell doll that promised to light up and fly three metres at the pull of a string. And we gave her the fairy egg: just add water to hatch your own fairy friend. And there were gasps and squeals, and oh yes there was the light in her eyes.

After breakfast, we went outside to launch Tinker Bell. It quickly became apparent that achieving fairy lift-off was trickier than the ads had suggested, and my daughter started to become frustrated. She tugged at the cord with increasing agitation, perhaps less conscious of the direction in which the toy was pointing. Then suddenly, just as the tiny toes were poised to spring into the air, the spinning, glitter-encrusted wings twirled straight into my daughter’s nose. The sting to her face was perhaps less acute than the sense of betrayal from one of own precious fairy friends, and she immediately dissolved into tears.

Tinker Bell: Winged Assassin.

Tinker Bell: Winged Assassin.

Then there was the fairy egg. The images on the box promised a great deal, and deep down I suspected that the end result may not quite meet expectations. But I knew that my daughter would be enchanted by the thought of hatching her own fairy. (She was!). And it seemed like a fun idea.

What we were promised.

What we were promised.

We placed the egg into a jug of water and waited to see what would happen. The next morning, my little girl ran into the kitchen in a state of great anticipation to see if the egg had hatched. Indeed, the shell had peeled back just enough to reveal a bloated, yellowish face: a warrior of uncertain gender, with fierce brows and angry eyes. With a silence that filled the room, my daughter turned the fairy’s vessel so that she could no longer see its face. Then, without a word, she picked up her spoon and ate her cereal.

What we got.

What we got.

I’m starting to think that I needn’t worry about intervening in my daughter’s love affair. The fairies are obviously perfectly capable of destroying every last magical speck of fairy dust all on their own.