How do you discover good books for your kids?

130624 ella readingLittle Miss E is a six year old with an addiction.  It’s one I am extremely happy to encourage, but am struggling to feed. 

Where, oh where can I easily get good children’s book recommendations?  How can I hone in on books she’s likely to appreciate without wasting too much money and storage space on titles she doesn’t like the look of, will never read again or whose stereotypical stories / characters or poor writing make me cringe at what they are telling her? 

And much more importantly, where should someone look who isn’t at all interested in the book industry, so doesn’t spend their time surfing for relevant blogs, websites, twitterati, etc.?

When Miss E’s skill and interest in reading blossomed on starting school, she inevitably pounced on the ubiquitous Rainbow Fairies series – unsurprising given they and Horrid Henry were the only real choice in her school reading boxes that weren’t Biff and Chip or factual D&K books.  It’s a great series to get girls reading, but goodness me I disliked those books – as I talked about in a post last year on gender-divided children’s books.

More importantly, I was also at a loss as to where to look for good ‘next steps’ to offer her at her level or just beyond.

The library?  Ah, yes, the library.  I’ve done my best with it, but I can’t say it’s been a brilliant experience.  Hard to browse, zero recommendations, a terrible online service, popular series’ rarely in stock, let alone anything a bit different, two kids scattering loudly to the four winds if I actually tried to look for something.  Oh, and the inevitable email reminders of books overdue and carrying said books in the car for weeks before guiltily slipping in to scan them at the furthest point from the librarian I can find.

Our local bookshop?  Our Waterstones is great, but I never have time to properly browse the spine-only shelves or find a member of staff mosying about to ask for recommendations.  Let alone the challenge of managing Master T past the stands without him swiping copies that his cross-ness at me not giving them to him risks bending so much I have to buy them anyway (good strategy Master T).

Friends?  The gold dust.  But most people I know have the same problems as me.

Amazon? Probably the option I go for most.  I can do it at home, there are loads of reviews and, though I hate to admit it, the books come at a cost that means if she doesn’t like it I haven’t wasted too much money.  But I have a nagging feeling the recommendations are pretty limited.  So often the same titles come up – usually the first page of which are other titles in the same series.

And yet, Amazon says it has over 113,000 paperback children’s books for 5-8 year olds, and a further 85,000 for 9-11 year olds.  On browsing a substantial publisher’s children’s book catalogue, I found a whole slew of series, let alone individual titles, I’ve never even seen.  When I came across the publisher Nosy Crow, I had never heard of their books and now their Rescue Princess and Goddess Girl series are two of Miss E’s favourites, re-read time and time again.  Had I not interacted with Nosy Crow I wouldn’t have found them, and that feels wrong.  Not to mention all the other amazing books we might be missing before she’s past the stage of appreciating them.

And don’t even get me started on finding books for advanced readers with age-appropriate themes.  I’m sure it’s the same for the opposite way around too.

So what’s the answer?  Hours in the bookshop?  More requesting of specific titles or asking for advice at the library?  Book review sections of newspapers?  Signing up to lots of book blogs?  Constantly asking every parent I meet?  Putting this into the ‘too hard’ bucket and sticking with same old, same old?

I guess in reality it’s some combination of those.  I’m keen to find the smartest way though – time is a precious commodity and there’s always plenty more on the to-do list.  Below are some sources I’ve discovered for myself – I’d love to add anyone else’s suggestions.

I recently came across, which seems like a good start.  Easy to navigate by age range, a mix of best sellers and classic reads, it seems to offer what I’m looking for.

Some of the children’s book blogs I’ve discovered are very helpful for reviews, although I’ve found more that are focused on picture books and ‘YA’ than on primary school age.  Here’s a few: (children’s book reviews, helpfully organised by age band) (children’s book reviews) (book lover blog for girls aged 8-14 years) (mostly picture book reviews)

Nosy Crow’s blog has been great for recommendation lists, such as the ones below (check out the comments for even more suggestions).

I’m not sure if sites like Goodreads might help.  I posted a broad recommendation request earlier and have had a few come in, but it doesn’t appear to be the site’s main purpose.

Any ideas anyone?


Fly, Bella, fly…Oh, goddang, I swallowed a fly

This weekend held three firsts for me.  One was my first at-speed insect-swallowing incident while out bike riding.








Ew.  A protein shake would have sufficed.  Nearly had a sting in the ear too.  Perhaps these mishaps go along with my second first: cycling on a road bike. A bright yellow one at that.  Check out my gratefully borrowed steed:

Road bike







I announced the intention to do a triathlon on my blog last summer.  I haven’t talked about it much on here since – other people’s exercise is pretty dull, really – but I can’t help myself today, because of my third first: feeling officially excited about doing it.

I’ve spent the winter steeling myself for road rides on my sluggish mountain bike, and doggedly trudging to the local pool twice a week, alternating struggling for breath with struggling against my inner giver-upper: “Why the hell did I take this on, why can’t I just stop, I’m never going to be able to do this, why am I so crap.”










But this weekend I told the gremlin where to go.  Flying along like a yellow she-devil knocked down the last-but-one hurdle to feeling like the event is do-able.  Cycling on roads CAN be fun and I CAN go fast. I nearly laughed aloud with glee at the difference this skinny whippet of a bike made.  It was like swapping a 2CV pulling a tractor for a Ferrari.  Well, maybe that’s stretching it, but you get my drift.

But what was the final hurdle you might wonder.  A very female one, I’m embarrassed to admit: what to wear.

I’ve been having mild what-to-wear panic attacks as I’ve started to think through the practicalities of the event.  Wear a sports bra under my swim suit and then add cycling shorts over the top?  Could that look any less attractive?  Short and crop top combo?  Not for this Mummy-tummy.

triathlon suitI solved the problem this weekend.  I succumbed to my first tri-specific kit purchase, a tri-suit.  This one here, in fact, at a vastly reduced rate I couldn’t possibly turn down.  Yes, it means I’ll be in all-in-one lycra (time to ease up on the cakes and pies), but at least I don’t have to worry about silly combinations or changing clothes.


The trouble is, each of these advances limit my ability to excuse a poor show on the day.  I have kit that shouldn’t take me too long to transition between the three disciplines, I have a bike that shouldn’t hold me up.  Goddamn, it’s all down to me and my mental battles in training and on the day.  The giver-upper gremlin’s perfect hunting ground.

The gremlin has been with me throughout my life, particularly for physical challenges.  I like exercising, but only to a point.  If it ever gets beyond that point and actually gets hard, the gremlin wakes up and spends really quite a lot of energy trying to convince me to stop.  Is it just me that does this?  I hope not.  I risked sharing this weirdness with a friend and she told me her husband has a similar gremlin, which made me feel a bit better.  Weirdness shared is weirdness halved and all that.

In learning to swim front crawl for this event, I’ve realised it’s a really, really long time since I put myself in a situation where I genuinely can’t do something and struggle hugely to learn.  It’s not easy.  Duh.  Statement of the obvious.  But experiencing in practice what you intellectually know in theory still feels revelationary, even at nearly forty years old.

Do children feel a similar way about all the things they learn from scratch?  It’s so easy as an adult to avoid situations that truly push you. You almost need to seek them out – life can get stuck in a comfortable groove very easily, which feels, well, comfortable.

For children, by contrast, doing and learning new things is life.  How brilliant is that – new experiences and discoveries being your daily life.  We adults could learn from that.  Maybe one New Year’s resolution each year to do a completely new, out of comfort zone thing would do it.

I read an article in Red magazine recently about a well-being theory called ‘flourishing’ from an eminent psychologist, Martin Seligman (apparently he’s a positive psychology guru).  He thinks it’s no longer enough just to consider human happiness, we need to consider four other dimensions to life fulfillment and wellbeing on top of positive feelings: our engagement with the people and world around us (our flow), the quality of our relationships, finding meaning and purpose in our lives and accomplishment of goals we set ourselves.  Each element has to satisfy three criteria: it contributes to wellbeing; many people pursue it for its own sake (not just in pursuit of other elements); and it can be defined and measured independently of the others.

I like this idea – fulfillment and life satisfaction is about more than feeling happy.  Do I feel happy when I go swimming? No, mostly not, I still find it hard work and nowhere near as pleasurable as running or cycling, but it is satisfying because it contributes to achieving a goal and makes me feel proud of myself for doing something hard.

Making choices I can feel proud of, doing hard things, positive interactions with people, helping a friend, being a good parent and a good partner – these are things that make me happy with who I am.  I know it’s a teeny tiny small thing next to the realities so many people face in the world, but taking on this triathlon is contributing to my ‘flourishing’.

Of course I haven’t actually completed the event yet, nor indeed the training, so the gremlin has plenty of time to do its worst.  It’s a tad late for a New Year’s resolution, but, nonetheless, I think mine is to build an enormous mental mallet that bashes the hell out of the gremlin as soon as it appears.  Without it on my shoulder who knows what I could be capable of.

Ps If you’re interested in the theory of flourishing, check out Martin Seligman’s talk about it on The RSA , or this Guardian article,  or this excerpt from his book. . Or buy the June issue of the UK’s Red magazine.

Starting a new business: From sticky mud to soaring kite

Starting a business is a fascinating, challenging and exciting process.   There are so many unknowns, so much at stake, and yet also so much potential.  Grand dreams and ideas on the one hand, comfort zone-breaking wobbles on the other: do we have what it takes to launch, market and deliver something tangible and valuable? 

blog post 36 images

Mud by; Kite by Clappingsimon at en.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons

At times it feels like wading through gloopy, sticky mud (will we ever get this thing launched, and even then, will it succeed?) and other times exhilarating – like feeling a kite pull up and soar into the sky or a boat heel up to the wind, lift and rush forwards and onwards.

Nearly every weekday at the moment we chat with someone new who could help deliver the service or otherwise help us get off the ground.  The positive energy of these meetings is uplifting.  There is so much support and encouragement within the small business community for others making the leap.  Just as useful and important are the words of caution and realism, mainly resulting from our contacts’ own experiences.  And then there are the many ideas, suggested resources or pointers to similar services and business models of which we need to be aware if we are to position ourselves as best we can in our market.

It is difficult to balance staying focused on our core proposition with ensuring we keep our ears open to any serious alarm bells or game-changing perspectives that should change our approach.   It feels like we are constantly going back to our core ideas to double check we still believe they are the way we need to go.  That’s the bit that can feel like sticky, gloopy mud.

As a result of that process, the core proposition has flexed.  We’ve shifted our business model and brought forward services to test at launch rather than later.  What’s interesting, and hopeful, is that the fundamentals haven’t changed – who we are targeting, the need we fulfil, the way we want to grow.  That helps me feel confident we have something worth trying, however tough or crowded the market might be. 

Take our brand name.  I won’t reveal it now, as we aren’t at the right point to do that, but it’s been a bit Marmite with those we’ve tested it on – you either love it or hate it.  We wanted something that stands out, that reflects the brand identity we want to have and is relevant to the target market.  But getting mixed feedback forced us to decide if its ‘Marmite-ness’ was a risk we were willing to take.  We said it was. 

Then last week a wonderfully positive introductory meeting opened my eyes to another section of our target market to whom our name may not resonate at all. My heart sank – firstly had I lost all the credibility I’d built up through the conversation by demonstrating we hadn’t thought through this part of our market and brand, and secondly, did this mean we needed to start again?

Back to the core once more. Back to feeling relieved to have a fabulous business partner with whom to share the highs and lows – the difficult decisions, the workload, the potential and the fun of the process. 

As for our brand, we are sticking with it.  Most of our strategic conversations end in the same place: if we don’t try, we will never know.   It is our own, tiny-scale version of one of Richard Branson’s nuggets of wisdom in his book of advice for entrepreneurs, ‘Business Stripped Bare’:

“Failure is not giving things a go in the first place. People who fail are those who don’t have a go and don’t make an effort.”

I haven’t written this blog for quite some time, mostly because the effort of finishing our house extension has taken my time, and setting up the business my energy.  I lost the habit of writing, but not the desire.  Today is my first attempt to get back on the horse. Hopefully I’ll be on for a good long gallop through the rest of 2013.


PS. For anyone else interested in learning from the secrets of Mr Branson’s success, here are some other nuggets he imparts in his book ‘Business Stripped Bare, illustrated through his stories from his own and Virgin Group’s journey.  It’s a good read, and inspiring stuff for any budding entrepreneur, even if Virgin’s story feels somewhat in another league! 

  • Always protect against the downside
  • [As a business], remember who you are and what you’re there for
  • Trust your instincts.  Have the courage of your convictions.  The world is full of people who want to put you right, who want to play the realist to your wide-eyed innocent.  Gather people you trust and get them to play devil’s advocate.
  • Protect your reputation but don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
  • Remember to communicate.
  • Attention to detail defines great business delivery.  Delivery is never rocket science.  However complex a business is, you should be able to boil it down to a proposition ordinary people can understand.
  • Brand is key. A brand always means something, and ultimately you can only control the meaning of your brand through what you deliver to the customer.  Whatever your brand stands for, you have to deliver on the promise. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver and deliver everything you promise. 
  • Keep a cool head. You’re in business to deliver change, and if you succeed, the chances that no one will get hurt are virtually zero.  Be sportsmanlike, play to win and stay friends wherever possible. Befriend your enemies.
  • Innovate your way out of trouble.  When your very existence is threatened, you have to change.  The best way out of a crisis in a changing market is through experiment and adaptation.
  • People who fail are those who don’t have a go and don’t make an effort.  If you’re hurt, lick your wounds and get back up.  If you’ve given it your absolute best, it’s time to move forward.
  • Innovation is what you get when you capitalise on luck, when you get up from behind your desk and go and see where ideas and people lead you.

Can a book discombobulate you? “The Fault In Our Stars” certainly can

dis·com·bob·u·late  [dis-kuhm-bob-yuh-leyt]. verb: to confuse or disconcert; upset; frustrate

The fault in our stars coverYesterday morning I finished reading ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green.  “Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw” shouts the back cover in bold, narrow, handwritten type.  If I take the “disconcert” and “upset” parts of the definition above, this book most certainly discombobulated me.

Sundays are my ‘morning off’, which usually means I snooze for a while before sneaking in some reading.  Not so yesterday.  As soon as Mr H had reluctantly succumbed to Littlest H’s insistent and boisterous ‘I’m HUNGRY, Daddy’, on went the light and out came the book.  I’ve been tired all week from staying up late to read it, and yesterday I wasn’t leaving my bed until I was finished.

At which point I gathered myself, wiped away the tears and re-engaged with family life.  But I was unexplainably snippy with Mr H, and then, while on my bike, straining up a hill in open countryside (usually a positive experience of ‘yay I’m exercising’ and ‘yay, I’m on my own’), I found myself full-on bawling for no obvious reason.  Yes, I was exhausted from the effort of more uphills than I anticipated; yes I was frustrated with my recklessness in planning a route I didn’t know when I had a finite amount of time to get back to pick up Littlest H from a birthday party; but neither of those would usually be reason enough for such an uncontrollable emotional outburst, even for me.  So I can only conclude I was letting out the emotion this book created in me.

Why did this book affect me so much?  Its subject matter was never going to be light and fluffy – it’s about children with cancer.  But I don’t think the awfulness of childhood cancer was what got me.  It was the real-ness of the characters and their emotions, the breathtakingly intelligent banter of the teenage protagonists, so beautifully observed and written, and the power of the writing to put me right there in the lives of the families and the truly awful situation they were in.

I want to read it again, to take it more slowly, to savour the bits I didn’t stop to fully take in.  There are no wasted words in this book.  I remember reading Thomas Hardy at school, skipping the first one to two pages of every chapter with their lengthy, flowery descriptions of place and time.  None of that here.  I am in awe of John Green and his skill.

No, this is not light and fluffy.  Yes, I cried tears of anguish more than once.  But mostly, I found it incredibly uplifting – how these teenagers and their families function in a terrible and terrifying situation.  How they find a path to life, rather than giving up on it or focusing on death, however close it may be.

To me, books or any other art form, work if they make me feel.   This book made me feel on every page.  I feel the privilege of life, the privilege and preciousness of healthy children, family and friends, and the temporary nature of that privilege.  I feel the truth of how humour, ‘real-ness’ and a lack of melodrama or sentimentality could help make cancer or other disease more bearable. I have a new perspective on how my and others’ behaviour could look or feel to people suffering with cancer or other disease.  That point struck me in particular reading how some family members acted around someone dying – remembering them to their face while still alive, using the past tense, being sentimental.  It is beautifully handled in the book.  I have a tendency to melodrama and sentimentality, and I hope I managed to avoid making my father’s two years with cancer more difficult by acting as these people do, however understandable the reaction is.  Even if I did, I can’t change it now, but perhaps I can handle it differently if, god forbid, I’m in the situation again.

I completely agree with the proclamation on the back cover of this book.  It is insightful, bold, irreverent and, more than anything, raw.  The irreverence is its brilliance in my view.   I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everyone going through cancer, nor do all the main characters manage it in this book, but it is a real, unsentimental coping mechanism that I can relate to.

In Western society we are increasingly used to the expectation of long life.  Our politicians and finance gurus discuss the problem of pensioners living longer.  More and more  diseases are eradicated or managed with sophisticated drugs. The vast majority of us are used to clean water, sanitation, heat, excellent medical care, jobs that won’t lead us to early death, limited immediate threat of war.  Long gone are the days of high infant mortality and fifty being a ripe old age.

Watching historical drama or current documentaries about Africa or other areas of the world where life is less certain, I wonder at that sense of living with death.  Parents of the past expected some of their children to die – I’m certain it was still hugely traumatic, but perhaps one felt helplessness and inevitability about it compared to the shocking, terrifying, gut-wrenching feelings towards it today.  We believe it will never be us.  We expect to live until we’re old, crinkly and bad-tempered, necking gin at 10am and pushing to the front of the queue because we can.

I do think cancer is changing that perception in current generations though.  More and more of us experience it ourselves or in our close family and friends, and it makes long life feel less certain.  Many cancers are survivable, yes, but it is a disease we fear because it strikes hard and indiscriminately – there is little we can do in our lifestyles to manage our risk of getting it, or indeed, to not be the wrong side of the survivor statistics.  How the teenagers and families in this book handle that process in the extreme, is a lesson for me and no doubt any other readers.

If you read one book this year, read this one.

Girls will be girls…or will they?

I’m a rule follower.  I’ve often wanted not to be – it’s far more exciting and cool to be someone who naturally breaks or makes their own rules.  But I think I can accept I’m not one of them, not as my first instinctive reaction anyway.

But today, I heard something in a workshop that got me ready to snap a rule in half.   So much so, I instantly wrote, underlined, boxed and marked with a big A for Action my passionate desire to do so.

The workshop was about getting children’s books published, hosted by Kate Wilson, owner of Nosy Crow, a children’s book publisher.  Kate made the point that following accepted conventions will help get you published.  One aspect of publishing is the indisputable gender divide.  Books are quite clearly signposted in style and content to boys or girls.  The Grunts or Rescue Princesses.  Mr Gum or Rainbow Fairies.  Diggers or magic ponies.

I find this infuriating.  Are we so determined to stereotype our girls and boys so early in their lives?

As an avid early reader, my daughter has virtually no choice but to reach for the vapid and badly written Rainbow Fairies, or a.n.other book about ballet, fairies, jewels, princesses, magic animals, or possibly gymnastics.  Some of these do, to be fair, include adventure, but it’s so proscribed by these core ‘girl’ themes, it’s seriously depressing.

Don’t get me wrong, Little H enjoys many of these books, and at this tender age of first forays into independent reading, the most important thing is that kids find books they  want to read.  But the books that have got her totally immersed in story and suspense are ones like the Famous Five, Swallows and Amazons, The Faraway Tree series, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other Roald Dahl classics, Mr Gum, Horrid Henry, Pippi Longstocking.

None of those books, old or new, fall into the ‘girl’ category, I don’t believe, and for that I’m eternally grateful.  I know I sound a bit militant – books about princesses, fairies and the like exist because girls like reading about those things.  But how much of that is conditioning?  If shops weren’t full of pink things for girls, blue for boys, would so many choose it that way?

Surely this is a time for rule-breaking.  There MUST be room for girls to enjoy adventure stories, where female characters aren’t princesses, home-makers like the Famous Five’s Anne  or pseudo-boys like George, nor indeed tomboys uncomfortable in dresses like the Amazons.  Can’t they like fairies AND making dens, dressing up AND muddy jeans, fairytales AND riding bikes?  Does it always have to be rescuing poorly animals or using jewels?

Where are these stories?  Please, tell me if you know some.   Kate Wilson also talked about trends.  Quirky is popular right now, space is on the up.  Disney have put out Brave, their first animated film featuring a female lead character.  Perhaps that is a sign of a trend towards strong, feminine female characters and adventure stories for young readers.  Perhaps publishers have a load of books on their lists that will hit that mark (I can only hope – The Rescue Princesses look like they go some of the way at least so I’ll give those a go).    Perhaps I’m in too much of a minority.  Perhaps I’m denying the reality of what girls want to read.  Perhaps I’d better stop writing this and get down to the library to do some proper research and then get my ideas hat on…


Some girls have shoes…

…others have handbags.

I have books.  I love them.  I love reading them, I love buying them, I love owning them.

A book-buying spree gives me a massive rush – I love knowing I have a pile of neatly stacked new reads waiting for me.  I never get out of a bookshop with fewer than three books, so I have to give myself a stern talking to if I feel the itch – woebetide a need to shop on Amazon, it’s a killer.

When I set this blog up I thought it would be a big outlet for my passion for books, but, weirdly, that hasn’t happened. The wonders of everyday life with kids have got in the way.  So this post is overdue. I want to break the drought and release my inner bookworm.

For me, three things about books get me going. Firstly, the thrill of a juicy review or passionate recommendation – all that potential enjoyment just waiting for me to get online or down to the bookshop.  Secondly, the exhilarating rush of the ‘ooo, I’m going to LOVE this’ feeling I get when a first page hooks me, line and sinker. And lastly, savouring the end, a friend I don’t want to leave, re-reading the back cover, the reviews and feeling uplifted.  Bliss.

So, I think I’d like to share my favourite reads of the year so far, for me and with the kids, plus my most anticipated to-reads.  In return, I would love to hear yours, and I might just do this again every so often to keep my bookish juices flowing.

For me then, of the books I’ve read this year, three stand out (see Goodreads in the sidebar for all the books I’ve read this year):

In third place comes The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows.  I asked my book group girls about the books they read before I joined their wine-merry band, and indulged my favourite bad habit of going straight onto Amazon and ordering the lot.  Retail therapy at its absolute best.  This was my hands-down favourite for beautifully written, light enjoyment.  Deliciously quirky characters, a lovely central love story and an all-round feel good movie waiting to happen.

In second place, I put Barack Obama’s Dreams of my Father.  I noticed it forgotten, gathering dust, on my bookshelf, so I took it on holiday for a try.  It was great – had he written it recently I would have been quite sceptical of its authenticity.  But given he wrote it before he went into politics, let alone ran for President, I found its honest, lyrical, grounded exploration of identity, race and faith fascinating.  The trip to Kenya lost the observational element of the first half but I still found it an engaging story of roots, family, tradition.  I only wish I’d read it when I bought it, as I would have followed his Presidency much more closely.  Maybe I’ll get a chance with his second run.

But in first place by a country mile is Caitlin Moran’s roaringly funny call to arms for women everywhere, How To Be A Woman.  I’ve only previously heard the *f* word used so freely in all its guises in team meetings with the video games developers I worked with a few years back. As a communications person used to the corporate tone of banks, that was certainly an eye-opener, and Ms Moran’s style was just as much fun.   Content-wise, it wasn’t so much that her views were new to me, it was more that she articulated views I’d had a vague sense of disquiet about but never consciously put together – like her views on porn or body hair.  I’ve never laughed so hard, with such horror, as at her first pube story.  I don’t think I would have survived her family life, I can tell you that much.

For the kids, joint favourites between all three of us (me, Little H (nearly 6) and Littlest H (3.5)) are all a bit silly, but, hey, if you can’t have a bit of silliness in kids books, what’s life for?

In third place, Sir Charlie Stinky Socks and the Really Dreadful Spell, by Kristina Stephenson.  We borrowed this from the library this week, and it’s silly, silly, silly. I’m in admiration of Ms Stephenson’s imagination, and the stinkiness went down well, particularly with Little H (probably a little bit too sophisticated for Littlest H to get quite as much from it).

In second place, Mrs Armitage On Wheels by Quentin Blake. I love this book.  I love Quentin Blake’s illustrations.  The kids LOVE the silliness of it and we all shout PAHEEURGH at top volume, every time.  A classic.

In first place has to be Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants, by Giles Andreae.  Hilarious, and I love Korky Paul’s illustrations.  It’s my mum’s favourite too, and none of us have tired of it since Littlest H got it for his birthday in April.

Finally, my to-read shelf.  It’s a bit bursting after a browse in Foyles and fateful reading of the weekend paper review section, but top of the list are: Men and Gods (Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks) by Rex Warner (yes, that was a Foyles one – I was entranced by the intellectual styling of a stand of New York Book Review books); The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (I’m excited by this one); Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge (yes, another Foyles).

So what are your fave reads at the moment?  Do help me feed my habit with some recommendations.  I could do with a(nother) good reason to go mad on Amazon (shh, don’t tell Mr H).  And in the meantime, happy reading!

I don’t want to be in the Olympics

This is Little H’s latest refrain, hot on the heels of reluctance to take part in the school fun run once she realised she might not win. It even surfaced when soaking up the incredible atmosphere in ring-side seats at the men’s artistic gymnastics yesterday.

What to do…Do I go all Amy Chua on her and ferociously encourage a competitive, focused, ‘winning is best’ mentality?  Or do I foster a more laissez-faire spirit of gentlemanly sportsmanship – ‘trying hard and taking part is what matters’?  Or, do I do nothing and leave it up to her to find her way, telling me what she wants to try or not try, letting her change her mind as she sees fit, dropping one interest in favour of another, or, indeed, keeping them all.

At five years old, everyone gets a medal and too much openly competitive spirit with peers is tempered with quiet parental asides to remember others’ feelings and not be unkind.  Well, that’s how it goes down in Surrey, anyway, heartland of middle-class England. If the stereotype of Asian parenting is true, I suspect the same doesn’t apply in middle-class China or Japan. Which is right?  Which parenting style is going to turn out better children? And therein lies two big questions: what is ‘better’ and what is the role of a parent in achieving it.

Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother,  brought these questions to the fore, making me explore my own values and beliefs, even though I haven’t ever cogently articulated them before – to myself, let alone to anyone else.  What do I believe life is for?  What does it mean to reach one’s fullest potential?  Is being happy the best end goal? How much is it about the goal versus the journey? What core values and beliefs do I believe I need to instill in my children and what am I willing to dedicate and sacrifice to achieve that, assuming Mr H agrees?  And anyway, where’s the child’s view in all of this?

Big questions, particularly for a Sunday evening.  I don’t think I have fully formed answers yet, but I do think it’s important to consciously consider them and talk about it with Mr H.  We also need to stay conscious to it as our kids do stuff, share their views and feelings and watch how we go about our lives.

When Little H shared her reluctance to take part in the 2km school fun run if she didn’t win, I knew how I responded was important.  I heard myself carefully trying to balance the sentiment that taking part is fun even without winning, with the view that if you want to win/succeed, you need to work hard and believe in yourself.

London 2012’s slogan is ‘Inspiring a generation’.  The row of people in front of us watching the gymnastics yesterday were treated to Little H’s embodiment of this: wonder, excitement and a deluge of questions and comments.  Could one man win the Olympics for their country; why were the Chinese not being very good today; how does a country win the Olympics; how do people get to be in the Olympics; I don’t think I could be in the Olympics; I wish colouring was in the Olympics; I wish I could watch you doing that, Mummy (cue the whole row turning round to say they’d quite like to see that too).

I grasped the opportunity to talk about self-belief, awe-inspiring skill and strength, hard graft, enjoying proud moments, wanting the best of yourself.  Watching her absorb and react to the electric atmosphere was worth every penny we paid for the tickets.  Seeing Team GB’s men win their group wasn’t half bad either.

We’re going to be watching, listening to and talking about sport a lot over the next two weeks.  I want her to be inspired, to see the joy and pride that comes with putting your all into something you believe in, to think maybe it could be her competing or being one of the best singers, dancers, actors or techie geniuses representing her country in a spectacular show like the opening ceremony, to start to dream and to see that even for the best, dreams are only realised through hard work.

And I guess through that I answer my own question about potential.  Personally, I think that if an individual has the potential to be great, then that is what they should strive for in life.  Yes, it takes sacrifice, yes it asks a lot of those you love, yes you need to step back and enjoy the journey, but striving for a dream is worth the effort, whatever direction that dream takes you, practical considerations allowing (oh dear, I can already hear that conversation – blow the ideals, darling, where’s the rent coming from).

Even the smallest of things worth doing in life take effort, determination and belief that you can.  So my message to Little H and all other littlies is start with having fun colouring the best picture you can, singing your heart out, trying your best in a 2km school fun run and let it flow from there.

There’s time for the hard lesson of life that no-one’s great at everything, and everyone has to choose where to focus their energies.  For now, I think my job as a parent is to encourage her, to enable her to try as wide a spectrum of fun things as possible, to believe in her, to help her believe in herself and help her to enjoy putting effort into what she does and reaping the rewards.

As for me, I’m signing up for a triathlon next year. And if we do get our house extension, and thereby space for a piano, I’m taking it up again.  I want to do both for me, but if it helps Little H see that trying new things is hard and fun, that it’s important to start with ‘I think I can if I try’, it might not be Carnegie Hall or the Olympics but hey, we all start somewhere.  We can all do our bit to inspire a generation.  My new generation is sleeping on it.

In need of an uplift

Last week was a bad week.  I know this because I kept breaking into tears in front of friends, and now I’m consulting Toddler Taming  to find some new strategies.  Or at least to remind me about the things I already know work and don’t work so I can then reflect on the current daily battles and decide which to fight and which to try to ignore or deflect.  Not forgetting step three: negotiate agreement on plan with Mr H so we achieve the holy grail of calm, consistent parenting…well, try to.

No, it definitely wasn’t the week you want to have going into the Big Test of new non-working motherhood: six weeks of summer holidays.  That week would be full of love and gorgeousness with my three year old, reward charts full of stickers and siblings who might actually play together for more than a millisecond.  Instead I felt each smeared loo seat, each refusal to come down the stairs without a pick up, each episode of hitting or shouting, each jab and counter-jab of sibling fencing were arrows pinning me to a summer of despair, an abysmal mother finding no joy in her children, only willing the clock to reach 6pm each day.

Three things lifted me from such awful self-absorbed misery.

Firstly, friends.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  They are brilliant.  What would I do without them.  I can’t avoid them either (at least in term time), so when I feel like I want to hide in a black hole feeling sorry for myself, they force me to have the moment of light relief and human contact I actually need.  Last week, they did much more – three chunks of time Littlest H was whisked off me, and precious time it was too.  I read somewhere that people are three more times as likely to say yes to requests for childcare than people are to ask.  Asking for help is hard, even if it’s in return for help I’ve given.  I always feel bad foisting my child on someone else when there isn’t a ‘good’ reason like work or medical appointments.  In reality, time to be alone is good enough.  Even an hour can reset the balance and allow me to face the day with renewed vigour, patience and playfulness.

Secondly, books.  Is there anything more uplifting than a really good read?  I have started reading the books my book club read before I joined it, the latest of which is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  What a fabulous little gem of a book.  I loved it, it lifted me up and made me feel warm, positive and happy.  Losing myself in a good book, even if it’s just for a few minutes at bedtime, recharges my batteries, reminds me I’m still me and there’s more to life than our little domestic enclave.  I also found time to read some of the weekend’s paper on the same weekend I bought it, rather than the usual month later.  The fact that I can steal an hour to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read the paper undisturbed was definitely a pick-me-up, a sign life isn’t all bad and is getting more balanced as the littlies get bigger.

Finally, meditating the parent mantra: “Ommmmmm, it’s only a stage, it’s only a stage, it’s only a stage, ommmmmmmm.”  Things Littlest H made an unholy fuss about a few months ago pass by unnoticed now.  Teeth brushing for instance.  I remember so well battles as described in Playing with the Holsby’s recent post, and now it’s a walk in the park (take heart Mrs Holsby).  Putting shoes and coats on was a grinding battle of wills where now he’s sunny as you like about it.  Only a month ago he refused to come to the table for meals, now he mostly gets up and tucks in without turning a hair. I have to hope the same will happen with walloping his sister and toilet battles. I know in my heart it will.  In the meantime, Toddler Taming is now being joined by ‘How to talk so kids listen’ and ‘Raising Happy Brothers & Sisters’, as recommended by a friend today.  I don’t care if reading how to parenting books makes me an ‘alpha mum’, or a control freak, sometimes I need to read wise words that help me think calmly and positively about ways to make it better.  I used to read work books to find new ways of thinking and approaching my job, so why not now?  This has got to be the hardest job I’ve ever done and it’s not like I can just resign to find a more suitable position, is it.

So on we go.  Two days of summer holiday down, a few bumps already along the road but I feel hopeful last week was a blip.  Seeing more of Little H is wonderful, I miss her when she’s at school.  She’s both an antidote, a help and a fellow sufferer/enjoyer of Littlest H, so it’s great to have her along for the ride.  My new books will wing their way to my door radiating more hope, and no doubt at least one gem will find its way into our lives, making us all rub along a bit more smoothly.  And the glass will feel a bit more full for a while – until the next shift in behaviour of course, and who knows what delights await us then…