Brilliant. Just brilliant. Dinovember has my vote

A friend sent me this blog link and I had to post it.

My daughter and I had a tooth fairy mishap a few weeks back.  

130722 iphone (12)

When she lost the tooth, I made a tiny envelope with a tiny poem on it to explain the tooth fairy’s taking of the tooth, sealed with a sticker. Two months later, as I rifled through our collection of stickers, I was startled by a triumphant, breathless shriek “It was YOU, Mummy.  I KNEW IT. I KNEW IT WAS YOU!”

Cue Mummy looking utterly confused – sorry, what darling? Yup, you guessed it, she clocked the very same tooth fairy stickers and so down came the house of cards I had flimsily built around magical and mysterious beings doing magical and mysterious things.  Father Christmas hangs on a thread, purely because the potential consequences are too dire to admit unbelief without physical proof and a capitulating parent.

But Dinovember, it’s awesome.  Truly a wondrous dedication to the magic of childhood.  And how fun it must be to create dino scenes of mischief your children couldn’t possibly believe you would actually do yourselves.

Can I take it on?  At this point I’m not sure we have dinosaurs big enough.  Santa might be able to see to that though.  Roll on Dinovember 2014…

 

 

What is going on with our country?

In a recent OECD report, England came 22nd out of 24 western countries for literacy in 16-24 year olds (21st for numeracy).  In another OECD / EC report, we top the list of most obese nations in Europe.

What on earth is going on with our country that our basic education and self-care is failing so badly?  What sort of preparation are we giving our children to have active, healthy, productive adult lives?

I was particularly shocked by last weekend’s Sunday Times feature on literacy providing the above OECD report figures (NB link will only show the full article if you are a subscriber).  I am incredulous that some (native English-speaking) 16-24 year olds can’t answer three questions my seven year old or even four year old could (e.g. Match the image (of an ear) to one of four words: ear egg lip or jar).  How can young people be so failed by our education system, and, dare I say it, their parents?

The article talks about a new free school opening in east London, with families flocking to sign up their children.  Most were so-called immigrant families, very few were white working class.  The article comments that in the latter children are growing up contemptuous of education, an attitude instilled by their non-working parents living in areas lacking jobs.

When I read things like this in the media, I immediately caution myself to keep perspective and remember that newspapers want to sell copy, or take a politically nuanced stance that may emphasise certain facts while ignoring others.   Why are those parents not working and resenting the system so completely – did it fail them too?  How many people are we talking about here – aren’t the vast majority of families full of parents working hard to give their kids opportunities, often in very difficult economic and social environments?  Does the report factor in language fluency? Is the picture as bad as the stats paint it?

22nd out of 24 though.  Hard to explain that away.

I’m as shocked when I read that one in three of our children don’t own a single book, about 4 million of them (see thisarticle).  Given research shows a strong correlation between book ownership and literacy, this too is truly terrible for our society, now and in the future.  What chances do these illiterate young people have without basic life skills?  From society’s standpoint, what is the impact on economic growth, how much time, effort and money will need to be pumped into these individuals to try to redress this start in life or deal with its consequences?  What does it mean for the next generation?

As a person who believes passionately in education as a life-long means and end in itself for a fulfilling life, I don’t quite know what to do with this information.  I love this country and I want my children to love being British while they equally love experiencing and getting to know the wider world.  But these statistics, these quality of life indicators – is this really a healthy and positive society for them to live in?

Japan is top of the literacy table.  I don’t think our answer is tiger mothers, rote learning and cramming schools.  Finland is number two – I also can’t see the Scandinavian model of massive taxation and public services translating well here either.  I imagine it’s hard to cherry pick policies from a very different culture and expect them to work without a lot of investment and commitment.

Apparently, after a world tour of educational approaches and outcomes, top of the action list is that we need better teachers.  “Under-qualified, under-motivated teachers and sub-standard schools are at least partly to blame for England’s poor performance” said Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College and the man doing the world touring.  And yet today sees our junior school among many others across the UK closed due to the teacher’s strike against performance-related pay and other aspects of Michael Gove’s latest reforms.

Really?  I admire and respect all the teachers I know for the jobs they do: it’s a lot of work, full-on days, and often incredibly challenging. It doesn’t look to me like the pay or pay increase potential is particularly motivating and I know zero teachers who do it for the money.  But I don’t understand why performance related pay isn’t a given.  Why would we not incentivise our teachers to do their best to receive greater rewards? And make it less attractive to do a poor job of it?  Surely no teacher except a poor one wants a system that allows poor teachers to get the same rewards as teachers doing a brilliant, or even average, job.

Perhaps the gripe is about the way the performance aspect is implemented or the percentage value.  I’m sure there will always be things that could be done better and I don’t pretend to know the details. Irrespective, it seems to me that fundamental change is needed when the outcomes being delivered are so poor.

I see many examples in life of how small changes make big differences.  The big picture is important, but it’s nothing without the small steps that create it.  I feel hopeful that the changes discussed in this particular article might start to make a dent in this problem.  And I’m relieved that the UK scores better on other quality of life indices (see this helpful OECD site).

As so often when I read articles about issues that touch me, I also feel a little helpless and at sea with what to do with the strength of my feelings.  It feels wrong to read it, react to it, put it aside and go back to life as normal.  But what can I do about it?   The issues are complex, my time is limited, and the options to influence or get involved are so often not realistic, let alone choosing which of society’s issues I believe most passionately in helping address.

Spot the person well beyond the single-minded idealism of youth.

My awareness may be an important first step, choosing my politics and bringing up my own children according to my beliefs two others.  But none of those make a blind bit of different to the illiterate or obese young people in our country today.

I know this is not the England I want to live in.  The question is, what can I, will I do about it.

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 www.lovereading4kids.co.uk, 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:

http://bookauhubooknook.wordpress.com/ (children’s book reviews, helpfully organised by age band)

http://didyoueverstoptothink.wordpress.com/ (children’s book reviews)

http://girlsheartbooks.com/ (book lover blog for girls aged 8-14 years)

http://storyseekersuk.wordpress.com/ (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).

http://nosycrow.com/blog/kate-s-twelve-favourite-children-s-books-because-it-s-still-121212

http://nosycrow.com/blog/and-now-best-books-for-10-year-old-boys

http://nosycrow.com/blog/books-for-girls-and-books-for-boys-gender-skewed-packaging-and-content-in-children-s-publishing

http://nosycrow.com/blog/best-books-for-seven-year-old-boys

http://nosycrow.com/blog/best-books-for-10-year-old-girls

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?

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.

Keeping the connection alive: Relationship 101


tides ebb and flowIt’s interesting, isn’t it, how relationships ebb and flow.  Just over a year ago, Mr H and I split our weekday jobs into diametrically opposed roles: he would keep working, focusing on his career and bringing in the dosh; I would stop working and do everything else.

On the face of it, you could say I have a cushy life.  We live comfortably without me working.  With Littlest H now at pre-school every morning, I have time (in term) to myself I can decide what to do with.  If there’s a snow day at school, a child is ill or there’s something at school I’d like to attend, my life isn’t turned upside down.  Yes, some rejigging is required, and things I planned to do go un-done, but in comparison to the stress created by the nanny calling in sick or figuring out how to be at home to attend a school event without missing meetings I couldn’t really miss, it’s pretty manageable.

And yet, such a stark split of roles is tough.  Especially as a reasonably feisty, independent woman who enjoyed working and having financial parity with my partner, and who also has a pretty highly honed radar for female stereotyping.  It certainly took a while for us to get used to the new arrangement, without me feeling defensive about perceived expectation of ‘little woman’ behaviour, or a lack of understanding about just how much juggling there is in managing the day to day commitments of two kids. (To give an example, after a typical logistically-challenged day early on last year, that ended with tired, awful children, when Mr H arrived home to discover no milk, he questioned how I could not find time to get more.  A rare reaction, I might add, and rarer still since that particular instance and my response…)

Most of the time I can genuinely say I am happy managing the kids and the household by myself Monday to Friday, although I’ll admit I count the hours to Friday nights.   I’m used to it; we have our established routines and they work well nearly all the time.  I love hearing about the kids days first-hand and being the person ferrying them here and there and getting to know their friends.  I love being part of a community of mums who support each other through good and bad days, emergencies, building work, appointments or just the need for time out or a rant.  It’s also easier now I have some time in the day for decent exercise, as that keeps me sane (Mr H’s hours mean I can’t exercise early morning or evenings).

But I can’t pretend it hasn’t felt a bit dull and mundane sometimes too.  I love my children dearly, but the level of conversation is more “Mummy, I have a joke.  What is it Littlest H.  What do you get if you have a farmer?  I don’t know Littlest H, what do you get.  A farm.  Get it, Mummy?  Isn’t it funny, Mummy?” than discussing whether Cameron is right to call a referendum on Europe or even gossiping about the latest workplace drama or thorny issue.

I don’t think I noticed that mundanity last year.  Alongside the novelty of being with the kids, there were plenty of ‘projects’ that kept me occupied – redecorating, the allotment, planning a home-building project, writing this blog and children’s stories.  It’s only struck me since I started setting up a business with a friend this year.  It feels so purposeful, so constructive, so stimulating to be thinking about the world outside my domestic enclave in a pretty tightly circumscribed corner of Surrey.

But it hasn’t really changed anything about the roles Mr H and I have.  It won’t, as the whole point is for me to find fulfilling work that fits with family life.  In a way it’s harder – the volume of time I need to work on the business competes with time to spend with him, so the need to schedule ‘us-time’ is almost more important.

Being brutally honest, our set up has put a big strain on us, and we’ve fallen into lazy habits that haven’t helped.  Mr H is knackered when he’s home, and rightly puts his limited energy into the children first, who clamour for his attention.  Then there are the outings or social engagements, exercise, and sometimes it feels like we come last.  Not by planning or design, just by circumstance.  Us can feel like a mostly practical, sorting-out thing, a managing-our-lives thing.  A co-existence, not a fulfilling, positive relationship.

Last night we went out for dinner.  Just the two of us, to our favourite local haunt. I think it’s the first time we’ve been out by ourselves since mid December.  It’s been too long.  We’ve let our commitment to weekly date nights, or at least weekly ‘cook together and eat/chat without putting the telly on’ nights, slide.  It shows in our snippiness and lack of connection.  It’s easy to get lazy, but that connection is so important – I’ve seen at close hand what the loss of it has done to other relationships.  Without it, all our relationship is is a vessel for the children’s lives and our own separate existences.

Family life with young children, at the age when careers break through or risk being left behind, is tough.  You’ve survived years of sleep-deprivation. The time, money and energy for things you used to love doing are harder to find.  The fun of life requires more effort.  But allowing a lack of effort towards one’s relationship to slide into routine is a big risk.

So in a way I feel thankful we had a row on Thursday that triggered a rearranging of commitments to go for dinner last night.  Because we talked, we re-connected with each other’s lives and each other’s feelings.  We acknowledged the situation we’re in, the risk and the need to do it differently. We discussed ways to achieve regular date nights that don’t get canned by unavoidable work commitments or opting for the easy way out of tv and laptops.  We’ll book in some fun things to do together.  The ebb will return to a flow.

No doubt we will face another ebb at some point, but I am certain we are strong enough, and have open enough communication lines (albeit sometimes at higher volume than we’d like), to turn it around.  It might be relationship 101 to stay connected, but it can be all too easy to forget.  Marriage was never meant to be easy, but it definitely needs to be fun.  Time to bring on some more fun, I think.  Nevermind the Year of the Snake, let’s make 2013 the Year of Fun.

I can’t believe it’s come to negotiation with pants

spiderman pants

“I’m so disappointed in you, Littlest H. You’re not the big boy I thought you were.  Only big boys get to wear Spiderman pants, so I’m afraid they are going away until you can show me you’re a big boy who doesn’t wee in his pants because he can’t be bothered to get to the loo on time.” (Image courtesy of Amazon.co.uk)

This was tactic number three million and three in managing my son’s mind-numbingly dull decision to use wee as a weapon of parental torture.  It was mildly successful – he really loves those pants – but as with all other tactics, both positive and negative, he quickly forgets and we’re back to Vanish spray and old towels as my new BFF.

Friends respond to my moaning by commiserating about his ‘accidents’.  I utterly refuse to accept there’s anything accidental about it whatsoever.  When I see his wee-signals, I often try to sunnily or breezily or cunningly bring his attention to the imminent loo visit, but however I do it, even ignoringly, he resolutely sets his mouth and refuses to go until he is so desperate he, of course, doesn’t make it.  He absolutely knows what he’s doing.  Even more irritatingly he immediately comes out with a plaintive “I’m really sorry, Mummy. I promise I won’t do it again,” repeated ad infinitum and utterly meaningless.  Oh, and then we have the battle of actually bothering to pull up pants and trousers shortly followed by the Great Hand-Washing War, both of which are often preceeded or followed by a game of Who Controls Who: “I’ll do it if you come to the stairs, Mummy; please hold my hand up the stairs, Mummy; no, Mummy, stand right there, no there.”

Honestly.  Does it really have to be this hard?  I’m so totally over his trouser drawer always being empty, the constant washing and the house and washing basket giving off Eau de Wee.

Have I vented enough?  I’m not sure.  I definitely could go on a lot, lot longer.  The worst of it is he’s not out of nappies at night yet.  He’s never been that good at sleeping through and I couldn’t bear facing up to the additional sleep-deprivation and life-shortening washing cycles of duvets, sheets, PJs and even closer companionship with Vanish, until I had to.  Which I reckon is when he’s four.  Which unfortunately looms large and close as it happens – for some reason I feel like it’s something I need to sort before he starts school (in September).  Not sure why, but that appears to be one of my personal ‘things’.  We will see.  At least spring and summer will ease the washing burden and allow Eau de Wee to waft outside more than it is circulated by central heating or results in us freezing to death.

With a six year old and three year old, I’ve tried a good number of negotiating strategies over the years, over a great many different things.  Some work, some don’t.  Some start out negative before I force myself to turn it round to a positive incentive.  Some don’t quite make it to the positive and a few even manage to start in a way I’d feel smug about when reading a parenting manual.

So far in the Battle of the Wee, we’ve used stickers, Thomas the Tank Engine books, cubes in the jar, masses of praise, putting a nappy on him with a heavy douse of parental disappointment about being a baby, ignoring it completely, leaving him in wet things, giving up and hoping the teachers sort it at nursery, and of course shouting at him in frustration. We may have tried others but it’s been so long I can’t remember.  Oh, and in case you’re wondering we have given each one a number of tries to get a tick in the ‘consistent parenting is key’ box.

I’m hoping there’s mileage in the pants angle though.  A great mate (and mother of three boys so when she advises I always listen with interest to such wise experience) suggested explaining the Spiderman pants (once returned) will be whipped off and away if they get wet.  Good idea.  And my own next step is to encourage him with the enticement of a new pair of Spiderman pants if he makes it through a whole weekend with no accidents.  I bought a pack of three so who knows how long they will last. Months I should think.

God knows what I’ll do if Spiderman goes out of favour.

PS

To my lovely followers, you may have noticed a lengthy absence of Mrs H blogs.  I’m finally back on the horse with this one, albeit a tad rusty, thanks to a nudge by a couple of people.  It’s good to be back doing something with the many observations and frustrations of parenting and stay-at-homing and everything-else-ing.  And as always to learn from and be inspired by comments and thoughts in response.  Roll on a blog-tastic 2013.

A Christmas Encounter

It was too exciting to sleep. It was Christmas Eve and Ella was desperate to know what Santa would bring.  She sighed as she stood with her head under the curtains watching the sky.   The clock ticked past midnight.  She should have been asleep hours ago.  She pictured Santa with his sleigh weighed down by presents in big, bulging sacks.  Would he really come?

The night outside was black and twinkling with stars.  The reindeer food glittered on the grass where Ella and her brother had sprinkled it before bedtime.  As she gazed out, Ella saw an aeroplane pass by – twinkles moving steadily across the sky.  Then another.  And another.  Hang on, she thought. That one looks funny.  It’s sort of rolling, like waves.

She kept her eyes fixed on the rolling twinkles, wondering what sort of aeroplane moved like that.  As she watched, she saw them dip down towards the lights of town before rolling back up into the sky again, all the time coming closer.  Her eyes widened, she stifled a squeak.  Could it… could it be him?

She held her breath and quietly opened the window just a crack.  As she stood still, not breathing, she heard a faint tinkling.  It’s their bells, she thought, it must be!  Ella crouched down so only her eyes peeked over the window sill.  She mustn’t spoil the magic, but oh, how amazing it would be to actually see him!

All of a sudden, her ears caught another sound, much closer than the tinkling.  In fact, it sounded like it came from her garden.  She straightened her knees and slowly, slowly peered over the window sill into the garden below.  She stopped, her mouth open, her eyes like saucers.  There was a reindeer in her garden eating the reindeer food!  So it was him, he was coming to their house.  He was REAL.

It was all Ella could do not to scream in excitement.  She couldn’t help her feet dancing a little jig.  The movement must have caught the reindeer’s eye, as it looked straight up at her, antlers gleaming in the moonlight.  Ella stared back, stunned by fear of what this meant and by wonder at this amazing beast in her garden.

In the sky, the tinkling was getting louder.  Ella’s eyes filled with tears of horror – had she spoiled everything by being awake? As she panicked, something suddenly whumped against the window, and hung, snagged on the open corner.  It was a blanket – the reindeer’s blanket.  She pulled it in hurriedly and looked down to see why the reindeer had thrown it to her.  But he had gone.

Ella slumped down the wall, terrified she had ruined Christmas not just for her, but for her brother too.  She wrapped herself in the warm blanket and buried her nose in its animal smell as she thought of how awful that would be.  At that moment, she heard the door creak and saw Mummy’s face peer round to check on her.  Then the door closed again and Ella heard Mummy go into her parents’ bedroom.

But why didn’t she see me?  Ella wondered, puzzled.  I’m not in bed, she should have been really cross.  She looked again at the blanket.  Was the blanket something to do with this?  She poked her head out, and looked down at her arm, covered by the blanket. She couldn’t see it – there was nothing there.  As her pulse quickened, Ella looked down at her legs. Nope, they weren’t there either.  The reindeer blanket made her invisible!

Ella jumped up and twirled around.  She hadn’t spoiled anything at all.  The reindeer must have meant her to watch Santa coming – why else would he have given her the blanket? She returned to the window, wrapped in the blanket from head to toe, her eyes looking through a tiny slit.  She scanned the sky for the galloping, twinkling stars and watched as they continued their journey up and down from chimney to chimney.

As they came closer she gradually picked out the outlines of six reindeer in front of a sleigh, just as she had always imagined.  The wooden sleigh was lit by tiny lights all the way along, and it was piled high with bulging sacks.  Right at the back was Santa himself, his red and white coat flying behind him as he raced through the sky.

Now he was close enough for Ella to watch him go into the houses.  She watched him gently pull on the reins to slow the reindeer, who stopped still in the sky.  Santa pulled a list out of his pocket, reading carefully before delving into a sack.  After a couple of tries he found the gifts he was looking for and jumped down from the hovering sleigh onto the rooftop.  He deftly removed the chimney pot, got himself inside and disappeared, leaving the reindeer waiting patiently above.  A few minutes later he reappeared, a bit red-faced, and a bit sooty.   He stepped across to the next chimney and did the same thing again.  Once he’d been into all the houses in the row, he clambered back onto the sleigh.  Ella saw him reach into his pockets and bring out a carrot for each reindeer and a mince pie for himself.

Then, oh how wonderful. Ella saw something that explained a bit of the Santa magic she had always wondered about: how could Santa possibly carry presents for every child on one sleigh?  As Santa sat there reading his list, Ella saw an elf on another reindeer appear at his side, carrying another sack.  Santa gave the elf a big smile, and patted the reindeer on the nose before taking the sack and pouring the presents into his big sack on the sleigh.  He gave the elf the empty sack, along with a mince pie for him and a carrot for the reindeer.  The elf slung the sack over his shoulder, turned and rode off into the sky until he was a tiny speck in the distance.

So that’s how he does it, Ella thought.  The elves help him.  How clever. We must leave more food out for the elves next year.

Just then, Ella saw Santa look over to her row of houses.  He put his list away, picked up the reins and, with a gentle tinkling of bells, the sleigh set off again.  Only this time, it came closer and closer until Ella found herself looking up at the reindeer standing right above her house.  She could see the clouds of steam from their nostrils as their breath met the cold air.  She could hear the crackling of the paper as Santa unfolded his list, and the ruffling of fabric as he rummaged in his sack.

“Aha,” she heard him say under his breath.  “Here we are. Ella and Tom, number 17.  Elf report says they’ve behaved well this year and shown lots of kindness.  Full complement of presents for them this year, eh, Rudolf.”  The red-nosed reindeer snorted softly as if in answer.

Then Ella saw the sleigh shift a bit and heard a soft thud on the roof above her.  She rushed to her door and tiptoed downstairs to the living room.  As she peeked in, the lights from the Christmas tree lit up the empty stockings hanging over the fireplace, and the food and drink they had left out for Santa the night before.  She barely breathed as she saw Santa’s boots appear in the fireplace, followed by his legs, his tummy and finally his arms and head.  He moved the fireguard away and dusted himself down, before reaching into his pockets for the gifts.  As Ella watched, he filled up the two stockings, drank the drink, and stuffed the carrot and mince pie into his pockets.  Then he bent down and squeezed himself back into the chimney.

Ella raced back upstairs to her window.  The reindeer were still there, standing quietly waiting for their master to return.  Ella heard Santa replacing her chimney pot, walk a bit on the roof and then silence.  He must be visiting our neighbours now, she thought.

After a few minutes, she heard him return and saw the sleigh tilt slightly as he got back in.  No elf appeared this time – it must be an occasional refill.  She couldn’t help herself craning her neck that little bit more to see Santa himself.  Sure enough, she could just see one side of him: his big, thick boot, the red coat trimmed with white, and his gloved hand holding his list.  I can’t believe this, she thought.  I’ve actually seen Santa.  I know he is real.  While she was thinking this, she had a funny feeling she was being watched.  She swung round to her door, but nobody was there.  She glanced at the garden, but no, no-one there either.  She pulled the blanket more tightly around herself and returned to watching Santa and his sleigh.

A moment later, she saw Santa’s hands folding up the list and putting it back in his pocket.  She saw him pick up the reins and turn the reindeer back towards the sky so they pointed away from her.  Ella wanted to hold onto this moment forever.  Did they really have to leave so soon? She felt like crying.

As Santa picked up the reins, he suddenly turned and looked straight at her. Before she could do anything, he winked at her, smiled and tapped his nose.  Then he was gone.  Up into the sky and away.

He knew!  He knew she had been watching him, and still he brought their presents.  Ella found her teddy and buried her face in him.  “Can you believe it, Teddy,” she whispered.  “Santa’s real, he really is, and I saw him!”

While she hugged Teddy, she heard a soft grunting from outside.  She leaned out to look into her garden, where she saw the reindeer again, looking back up at her.

“Oh,” she whispered to him.  “You must be cold without your blanket, you need it back.” She opened the window fully and threw the blanket down to him.  As he shook it into place, she smiled at him.  “Thank you, reindeer.  You made this Christmas the most special ever.  I will never forget you.”

The reindeer snorted and nodded its head before turning to gallop down the garden and up into the sky.  Ella watched as he faded into a shadow and then disappeared completely into the night.

Ella climbed into bed and wrapped up herself and Teddy tightly in a bundle of duvet. What a night.  It almost seemed like a dream, it was so amazing.  She smiled as she kissed Teddy and closed her eyes.  It was going to be a brilliant Christmas.

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(Photo credit: http://www.johnrwallace.com)