Friday, July 30, 2010

Necessary and fashionable

I’m talking about shoes, of course.

One of Annalise’s all-time favourite books is "Birdie’s Big-Girl Shoes" by Sujean Rims. Birdie -

… longed to wear her mother’s shoes. She loved her crocodile pumps and her summer peep-toes and all her strappy sandals …

When her mother allows Birdie to wear her shoes, Birdie

felt beautiful. She felt glamorous.
… She felt like a movie star.

However, it doesn’t take long before she realises she can’t do all her usual activities in heels. The moral of the story is clear and Birdie comes to love her

beautiful barefoot shoes most of all.

The illustrations are gorgeous. They are a combination of exquisite watercolours and brightly coloured collage and the result is stunning.

Annalise (and I!) are mesmerised by the double page spread of Birdie’s mother’s shoe closet. I’m sure there are Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blaniks there! Every time we read it, we spend a long time looking at that page and decide which pair of shoes we would like to wear that day. I always try to match whatever I’m wearing to a pair. A bit cooler – perhaps a pair of boots? If I’m wearing a skirt, maybe a pair of peep-toes or sling-backs? Maybe an elegant black or maybe a burst of contrasting colour? So much fun, this window shopping in books! Annalise, however, never deviates. No matter what the day, weather, outfit or occasion, Annalise chooses the pink mules with the floral lining. I tell you, the girl has taste.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A duck hero

Most children have a special soft toy friend, and the boy in this story, “Duck”, is no exception. This is how the story begins -

This is Duck. Duck lives at my house. Duck thinks I’m the greatest. I’m Duck’s hero.

Of course, Duck goes everywhere with this little boy, until he is lost. When he is eventually found, this is how the little boy views his friend –

This is Duck. Duck lives at my house. I think Duck’s the greatest. Duck’s my hero.

Note the confident swagger of the little boy on the first page – he’s taller than Duck and he’s wearing the red hero cape around his neck. Now look at Duck on the last page – the little boy is nowhere in sight, and Duck is wearing the red hero cape! A classic example of how the illustrator, in this case, Jonathan Bentley, has imagined what the writer, Janet A. Holmes, has not said but implied.

Thanks to Grandma for this activity – suitable for everyone! We followed the recipe for playdough on the cream of tartar tin. Because it is made using edible products, I didn’t worry too much when some of Joe’s lump of playdough mysteriously disappeared!

We drew duck feet and a beak on yellow cardboard and cut them out. The kids shaped two yellow playdough balls to make a duck body and head, then added the feet and beak, and then a yellow feather for the tail.

Singing “Three little ducks went out one day” seemed to be a mandatory part of the activity too!

Monday, July 26, 2010

A dragon lives forever ...

Everyone knows this one – “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It began as a poem written by Lenny Lipton, who passed it on to Peter Yarrow from the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. They made it into a hit song in the sixties. Now it is a beautiful book, with illustrations by French artist Eric Puybaret and a CD sung by Peter with his daughter Bethany and accompanied by Rufus Cappadocia with his cello.

Peter describes Puff as – both childlike and wise, a king but also a willing follower of just about any bright spirit that inspired him. Puff gives his whole heart and soul to one special friend, Jackie Paper. And though it is terribly painful when Jackie grows up and has to leave, Puff has given Jackie the strength and courage he needs to believe in himself when he goes back to the real world.

You can really sense this through both the illustrations and the music. The pictures are gorgeous – acrylic paint on linen - Puff’s expression is so eloquent. The CD is lovely and gentle, and there are three other tracks, including “Froggie went a-courting”.

Tom’s interest in knights and therefore dragons led me to Puff. And then I found a great magical dragon felt kit from The Craft Circle. And then I found Puff’s cave at The Friendship Tree (which can also double as a mermaid cave!).

There is just something so whimsical about the combination of a frolicking dragon, an autumn mist, a billowed sail, painted wings and a cherry lane. Jackie Paper, why did you choose to grow up? You were on to such a good thing!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Carrot soup

A Melbourne winter day yesterday. Drizzly rain. Out and about in the morning. Ducking for cover between shops. Culinary inspiration hits at the supermarket. Let’s make carrot soup!

We borrowed “Carrot Soup” written and illustrated by John Segal from the library. The illustrations were done in pencil and watercolour – the watercolour makes the carrots look so real, as they show the graduations in colour. The story is about Rabbit, who plans his carrot crop, plants the seeds, watches and waits – all so he can make carrot soup. However, when he goes to harvest the carrots - something was terribly wrong at the carrot patch.  No carrots! Discouraged and disappointed, Rabbit went home. But there is a surprise for Rabbit - I think preschoolers will love the anticipation.

I really like the link between gardening and cooking. The story is bookended at the beginning with a picture of different types of carrots to grow or buy and finishes with a simple recipe for carrot soup. We made it yesterday Рsaut̩ your chopped onion and celery, add 5-6 grated carrots, a litre and a half of chicken stock and simmer for half an hour. Add salt and pepper, and some parsley or dill. I blended it a little but not too much РBaby Joe finds it easier to eat chunkier soup.

This book worked beautifully for us – a lovely new story from the library, Annalise felt proud of her carrot peeling achievements, Joe and Tom devoured it for dinner, and there’s enough left over for a freezer dinner. Everyone’s a winner!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Monkey Magoo and Annalise

Grandma gave Annalise a book when she was eighteen months old which quickly became her favourite. “Monkey and Me” by Emily Gravett tells the story of a little girl and her toy monkey visiting the zoo. The language is simple, rhythmic – I find myself almost singing it to the kids –

Monkey and me,
Monkey and me,
Monkey and me,
We went to see,
We went to see some ….

It’s lovely and repetitive for toddlers to say. The little girl leaps from the page with enthusiasm, as there’s no background to distract the eye.

Annalise loved this book so much that I decided she needed a monkey of her own. I used the pattern Monkey Magoo from Melly and Me – Magoo looked so much like Emily Gravett’s monkey! It was my first attempt at sewing a softie, but the instructions were so clear that it was easy to follow. The only change I made was to leave out the boxer shorts and add a tail to make Magoo match the monkey in the story. Magoo has been much loved by Annalise.

There's a lovely door plate on Emily's website featuring the little girl and her monkey which you can print out, colour in, cut out and stick to a bedroom door.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How to decorate an elephant's ear

During the school holidays, Tom and Annalise made a couple of cute elephants at a craft class at Mill & Mia. They had great fun in stuffing their elephants, sewing them shut (with a little help), and then decorating the ears.

I had no idea that elephant ear decorating could be so character revealing! Tom glued one sequin on each ear and was finished. Done. No need for anything else. Less is best. Annalise foraged around in the amazing bead and ribbon container, searching for just the right elephant accessories, adding more and more, including a ribbon for the trunk. She then had the foresight to ask Melissa if she could take some beads home, because, well, a girl can never have too many beads.

I think Annalise will be back for more craft classes and story time, which also includes morning tea and an activity.

In stark contrast to these soft elephants, I bring you “Elephants, a Book for Children” by Steve Bloom. This is a fabulous non-fiction book – the outstanding feature is the photography. Close-ups of elephant toes, skin, tusks. Amazing shots of elephants playing with each other, interacting with humans and swimming. This book could be enjoyed by little ones for the photography, and then used as a reader for early readers, particularly for kids who prefer fact to fiction. There’s not a lot of text on each page, and as it is divided into sections, it would feel satisfactory to attempt to read one section or one page at a time.

The language is straightforward –

Elephants have funny feet. You can’t see their toes. All you can see are their toenails peeping out from a thick cushion of flesh. The cushion helps them walk safely on all kinds of ground, and it also makes them move very quietly. They’re so quiet that you never even heard the one that just walked down your street. Take a look through the window. Is he still there?

I think it’s fascinating how children identify with or adore a particular type of animal, for a reason we can’t fathom. Tom has always loved elephants. This description of elephants could almost be applied to my Tom!

Elephants are very intelligent and usually very gentle. They have long memories, deep feelings, and lots of love for their family and friends.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Men on the Moon

I suspect that an interest in space is a rite of passage for most small boys. Tom will make a space helmet out of a cereal box, draw 20 rockets over the course of a week, complete his solar system jigsaw puzzle and sleep contentedly in his handmade rocket pyjamas. Here are two of his favourite moon books.

Reading "Man on the Moon (a day in the life of Bob)" by Simon Bartram always makes me smile. The language is very matter-of-fact which contrasts with the idea of an ordinary man called Bob working an extraordinary job – as man on the moon.

He must make sure he leaves by a quarter to nine, otherwise he wouldn’t make it to the moon by nine. On the way he reads the newspaper and does the crossword.

The story describes a typical day for Bob, and behind all the ordinariness is the question of whether there really are aliens on the moon. Are there?

‘The Sea of Tranquility’ by Mark Haddon is a nice contrast to the previous book. Tom was lucky enough to receive this book as a birthday present from a school friend. It’s about a little boy, fascinated by the moon – he got an atlas of the moon for Christmas and he read it like a storybook. The boy watches two astronauts on television, the first two humans to stand on the moon, and dreams of walking with them.

And there they were, on the flickery screen, bouncing slowly through the dust in the Sea of Tranquility, like giants in slow motion.

The text is very detailed, naming craters and seas but it also has a wonderful dreamy quality about it, which is matched beautifully with the illustrations.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Life lessons with chocolate

We made chocolate chip cookies today to take to a friend’s house. It’s a pretty easy recipe, and it only takes eight or nine minutes in the oven. If you hurry, you can just about clean everyone’s sticky hands, wash the dishes and put the kettle on before they’re ready.

Chocolate chip cookies
This recipe, with a few minor adjustments, comes from an old Delicious magazine recipe by Jill Dupliex.

125g unsalted butter
125g caster sugar
125g brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
100g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 190°C. (I set it at 180°C as my oven is fan-forced).
In a food processor or electric mixer, mix the butter with the caster sugar and brown sugar until creamy.
Add the beaten eggs and vanilla extract and mix again.
Fold in the sifted flour, baking powder and half a teaspoon of salt until a stiff batter forms.
Stir the chopped chocolate into the mixture.
Using your hands, form little balls (about a tablespoon or so) of mixture onto lined baking trays. Allow about 2cm between each ball for spreading.
Bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes or until lightly golden, but not browned, then remove from the oven.
Leave cookies on the tray for five minutes to firm before transferring to a wire rack to cool. Store in an airtight container.
Makes about 20.

Grandma gave us a book called ‘Cookies – Bite-Size Life Lessons’ by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. The text and illustrations depict various children and animals learning valuable lessons – all with the help of a chocolate chip cookie. It’s not a moralistic type of book – how could it be, with a chocolate chip cookie featured on every page?

Modest means you don’t run around telling everyone you make the best cookies, even if you know it to be true.

Trustworthy means, if you ask me to hold your cookie until you come back, when you come back, I will still be holding your cookie.

Now that’s a tough lesson to master!

My favourite would have to be –

Wise means, I used to think I knew everything about cookies, but now I realize I know about one teeny chip’s worth.

Hmm… something in there for everyone, I think …

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Princess and the Pea

I’m not really sure what I think about princesses. When Annalise began her interest in girls with crowns and long flowing dresses, I panicked. What sort of role model were princesses to the modern three-year-old? What exactly did they represent? What would they inspire in her? What characteristics would she try to imitate?

I decided that it was up to me to provide good, inspiring, courageous, kind-of-out-there princess examples. We started with the princess from “The Princess and the Pea” story. For Christmas last year, I gave Annalise three different versions of the story, as well as a small princess figure and a wooden bed with ten mini quilts. I sewed the quilts with leftover fabric scraps and bought the princess and bed from the lovely toyshop Honeybee Toys. And, of course, we needed a pea – not a real one, just a felt one!

“The Princess and the Pea” by Rachel Isadora is the stock standard version, so that Annalise would know the original story. The illustrations, made with oil paints, printed paper and palette paper, are vibrant and vivid, and I love the African princesses. The story also uses some African words, which are defined at the back of the book. Thanks to Honeybee Toys for finding that book for me.

“The Princess and the Packet of Frozen Peas” by Tony Wilson is about a prince called Henrik who wants to find a princess to marry.

She didn’t have to be beautiful or sensitive. She just had to like hockey and camping and have a nice smile.

Prince Henrik’s test involves not a canopy bed with 20 mattresses and one pea, but a thin camping mattress, an old sleeping bag and a whole packet of frozen peas. You’ve got to love a down-to-earth, practical prince!

“The Princess and the Pea” by Lauren Child is an amazing piece of artwork. Lauren painted cornflake packets for the paneled rooms and set up the paper-dressed characters inside with tweezers, before Polly Borland, the photographer, took the photos. The language used is just as wonderful –

“You see,” said the king, “a real princess is not only mesmerisingly beautiful and fascinatingly interesting but, most important of all –"
“She has manners,” said the queen.
“No one should ever travel without them,” said the king.
“No, never, never go anywhere without your manners,” agreed the queen, taking her elbows off the table.

And now I am ready for Annalise to embrace her inner princess – she can be as mesmerisingly beautiful and fascinatingly interesting as she likes – as long as she remembers her manners!

Friday, July 16, 2010

One of the best baby books

‘Owl Babies’ by Martin Waddell would have to be one of my favourite baby books. I bought our first copy for Tom when he was only four months old, and this board book has been replaced only once, despite being chewed by all three of our babies.

‘Owl Babies’ tells the story of three baby owls who wake up one night to an absent mother. I love the repetitive discussion between the three owl siblings, as they try to reassure each other. The repetitive dialogue makes it perfect for toddlers.

“She’ll be back,” said Sarah.
“Back soon!” said Percy.
“I want my mummy!” said Bill.

I looked after my one year-old niece once when she was a little concerned about the absence of her Mum. Whenever she asked, “Mummy?” I found myself saying, “She’ll be back!” “Back soon!” Annalise would say to her younger cousin. “Just like Owl Babies,” Tom added.

This snippet of dialogue has become firmly entrenched in our family conversations, and I think it could be used to comfort a little one. Because, of course, their Owl Mother does come back!

As this book has been loved so well, I decided to use Kristen Doran’s gorgeous owl panel to make up our own owl babies. It was fairly simple to cut around the owls, cut out the backing material, sew them together, turn them inside out, and help the kids to stuff them. The owls definitely needed a home, and there was definitely more gorgeous owl material left over, so I made a bag to keep them in. Annalise has loved acting out the Owl Babies story with our own owls, and it’s great for really little ones to have something to hold while reading the story.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The lion roars tonight …

Baby Joe received a new lion book recently, which started us off on a lion drawing afternoon. We hunted down (excuse the pun) all our lion books:

‘Library lion’ by Michelle Knudsen
‘The lion who wanted to love’ by Giles Andreae
‘Tawny scrawny lion’ by Kathryn Jackson
‘The happy lion’ by Louise Fatio
‘How to draw a lion’ by Adam Wallace

The wonderful thing about drawing animals is that there are so many different poses. So it’s easy to find a simple picture which a young artist can attempt. It’s all about having a go. So I wasn’t offended at all when Tom told me my version of a lion looked more like a sheepdog!

With a big heap of books on lions in front of you, it’s an ideal way for kids to see the many possibilities there are to create the same object. One lion book published in 1954 used mainly black and white, with an occasional splash of yellow and red. Another used soft, muted acrylics. One book was illustrated with bright acrylics.

The stories themselves are as much a contrast as the illustrations. Lions in jungles, zoos, cities. Fierce lions, kind lions, hungry lions, helpful lions. Lions who roar and lions who politely say, “Bonjour!” Lions who interact with other animals, lions who engage with people.

Drawing lions was a fabulous wet afternoon activity. I’m also thinking of making lion manes and cakes, and I’ll review some of these lion books later too.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Elmer and Mali

In our family, in the school holidays, it’s almost mandatory to go to the zoo. The kids were keen to see Mali, the baby elephant. Tom has always loved elephants, and so we have a range of elephant books at home. Mum bought Tom a little set of five Elmer books when he was two, and he has loved them almost literally to bits.

‘Elmer’ by David McKee
Elmer is a patchwork elephant so he stands out from the other grey elephants in the jungle. When Elmer decides he doesn’t want to be different any more, he finds a way to colour himself grey so he can blend in. Elmer is so pleased when he isn’t recognised by the other animals in the jungle – he is simply called elephant, rather than Elmer. However, Elmer’s colourful personality soon bursts through his grey exterior.

“Oh Elmer,” gasped an old elephant. “You’ve played some good jokes but this has been the biggest laugh of all. It didn’t take you long to show your true colours.”

Elmer is a really likeable character – he has a good sense of humour, he appreciates family and he’s happy to help out. The small size of these books make them fabulous to tuck into handbags to entertain little ones. There is a reasonable amount of text on each page so they might be a bit long for the more wriggly two year-olds, but the stories will appeal to that age group. And because the stories are funny – Elmer’s cousin Wilbur is a ventriloquist who likes to play tricks – Tom at 6 years still enjoys them.

So after we had seen Mali, and read Elmer and some other elephant books, we had to make our own version of a patchwork elephant! I drew a rough outline of Elmer on paper and cut out small squares of coloured and patterned paper. Annalise used heaps and heaps and heaps of glue to stick the squares on her picture. Then I cut out the elephant shape and she glued it on cardboard.

I drew another Elmer outline for Tom on brown paper but cut his elephant out, leaving the brown paper intact. Then I ruled some lines on some red cardboard, 2cm apart, folded the cardboard in half and cut on the lines. (This is the same method for making a paper lantern.) Tom used long strips of paper to weave in and out of the red cardboard, and then he stuck it behind the brown paper Elmer outline. Two different, but equally effective, patchwork elephants!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why books matter

I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by books my whole life. My Mum read picture books to me as a child and has bought me beautiful books for every birthday and Christmas. My Dad read Roald Dahl’s books to us in the school holidays. I have worked in educational publishing. I do a small amount of work now as a freelance editor. But the most important work I do now is read to my three small children.

I read about superheroes and pirates and dinosaurs to my six-year-old son. We talk about the different methods the illustrator has used – is it watercolour or acrylic paint? I read stories about monkeys and shoes and frogs to my three-year-old daughter. Sometimes, she tells me to read the blurb first so we know what the story is about – even though we have read it eighty-five times already. I read rhymes and point at simple pictures with my 12-month-old son – sometimes I have to read really, really quickly before he flicks the page over!

Reading to my kids is one of the best gifts I can give to them – I’m giving them my time, my attention. And if I’m reading something wonderful, their language is richer, their view of the world is expanding and our connection is stronger.

Through this blog, I hope to offer some reviews of picture books and some ideas for connected craft and playing.

Happy reading!