Kids’s books for Christmas – fiction

I posted last week with some suggestions for non-fiction books for children for Christmas. Today, I’ve got some fiction ideas for you. Here is my round-up of some of the best books around at the moment, which I recommend for children. I’ve given you an idea of the age range too. As a rule of thumb, the central character in a book is generally a year or two older than the age of the children the book is aimed at. Kids like reading about people who are slightly older than them.

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Pax by Sara Pennypacker – suitable for 10-11 year olds

I reviewed this book here a few weeks ago. I loved it. Set in America, it concerns 12 year old Peter and a ‘pet’ fox he has raised from a cub. Peter is forced to release Pax into the wild when his father is called up to serve in the army. Peter’s mother is dead and he is sent to live with his grandfather. He runs away to search for Pax after realising what a terrible mistake he has made, and meets Vola, who lives on an isolated farm. Vola nurses Peter after he breaks his ankle and the two form an unlikely friendship which sets them both on a journey of self-discovery. Some challenging themes, but ultimately a heart-warming tale, with some lovely illustrations.

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada – suitable for 11-13 year olds

Perfect for pre-teens whose reading tastes and skills are maturing but who still love their animals. Narrated in three parts by three generations of a polar bear family who find themselves in different parts of the world: beginning with the matriarch in the Soviet Union, her daughter Tosca in East Germany, and her grandson, Knut, raised in Leipzig zoo. Very quirky and gently political. It is translated from the original Japanese so will also give children a taste of a quite different style of writing.

 

 

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Lucky Button by Michael Morpurgo – suitable for 9-12 year olds

I love a book with illustrations and I love Michael Morpurgo. This entry-level Morpurgo is a perfect Christmas offering. It concerns Jonah Trelawney who is the victim of school bullies and a carer for his mother. an accidental encounter gives him a life-changing insight to life in a Foundling Hospital in the 18th century (the original Foundling Museum was the inspiration for the story). Lovers of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather will enjoy this.

 

The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman – suitable for 10-13 year olds

Pullman’s The Book of Dust, part of the Lyra trilogy, is possibly the biggest children’s literature event of the year. Fans will already have bought it, so I’m not going to mention it here. Instead, I draw your attention to this graphic novel by the same author, which may encourage more reluctant readers, particularly boys. Just because it has pictures, does not mean it is for younger ones, who may find the storyline complex and the themes quite dark. John Blake is a seafaring time traveller. He rescues a young girl from a shipwreck, but his efforts to return her to her own time place them both in grave danger.

 

35529075The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy – suitable for 12-14 year olds

This debut has been very well-reviewed. It concerns Aila and her younger brother Miles who are sent to live in the rural town of Sterling, after their enigmatic mother, Juliet dies. The town carries a mysterious affliction: every seven years certain memories, experiences that people share in common, vanish. The locals believe that Aila’s dead mother, is somehow responsible and Aila must bear the brunt of their prejudice and hostility. A long book with some challenging themes which will suit keen readers who like a bit of depth.

 

2017-12-11 12.05.07Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester – suitable for 10-12 year olds

Friendship between girls is explored in this novel, which has been compared to Jacqueline Wilson. It is also a story about how friendship can transcend the bounds of language. Nadima is a new girl at school, recently arrived from Syria, and speaks no English. Jaz is a strong personality, and becomes friends with Nadima after the two share some confectionery. Their relationship does not always go smoothly and this book explores the ups and downs via themes of integration, community, and the things that bring us together.

 

Do you have any recommendations for children’s fiction this Christmas? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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Kids books for Christmas – non-fiction

I posted a blog last week encouraging you all to give a book a home this Christmas. A well-chosen book is NEVER a bad gift idea. Even if the gift receiver does not in the end like the book they will appreciate you buying it for them, especially if you write something inside about why you chose it. It will also give the two of you something to talk about. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Kids can be more tricky, as we know! Unless you know what authors they like, or what sort of reading material they are into, it can be a risk. And for a reluctant reader, receipt of a book may come as a disappointment. When it comes to encouraging children to read, my advice is always to let them choose, but that can be difficult at Christmas, if you are buying for nieces and nephews, for example. Non-fiction is always a good choice in this scenario as you will be able to find a book on almost any subject, targeted at the age range you are looking for. I’ve done a bit of research for you and here are some that have caught my eye.

For younger ones:

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Paper Monsters by Oscar Sabini (£14.95). This is a gorgeous gift book. The idea is the child makes a collage on a blank sheet and then uses the monster templates to cut round. There is a similar book Paper Zoo which is just animals.

71FNtt45dULBarefoot Books World Atlas by Nick Crane & David Dean (£9.99). I love the values and ethos behind Barefoot Books. Multi-cultural and humanitarian themes are present in everything they publish and their books can be valuable tools in combatting exclusion in our world and teaching children about kindness. This world atlas focuses on the interaction between environment and the communities and cultures of the world.

For 10-13 year olds:

2017-12-04 13.20.00Illumanatomy  by Kate Davies and Carnovsky (£15.00). A superb large format book about the human body that goes into real detail. The illustrations are outstanding; when viewed with the special lenses provided you can see different parts of the body (skeleton, muscles, organs) and how they interact. Perfect for budding biologists!

2017-12-01 12.59.15EtchArt: Hidden Forest by AJ Wood, Mike Jolley & Dinara Mirtalipova (£9.99). This is rather like those books in the colouring trend except the images you create are shiny and sparkly. The child uses the etching tool provided to produce glorious forest-themed pictures (there is also a sea-themed one available). Lovely, and nice and solid.

Older teens:

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Notes from the Upside Down: Inside the World of Stranger Things by Guy Adams (£12.99). My teenagers love this show and Season 2 has been hotly awaited in our household! Yes, I know it’s a companion to a TV series, but it’s potentially entry-level Stephen King, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

2017-12-04 13.17.39 Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith (£12.99). Yes, I know it’s not exactly a reading book (though there are plenty of words) there are writing and drawing opportunities. I actually love this series as I think they tap into teenagers’ anarchic tendencies, whilst also encouraging a degree of creativity. Here’s the 2017 offering and the cover is much nicer than previous editions. Good fun.

If you have any non-fiction suggestions I’d love to hear them.

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Book review: “The Bastard of Istanbul” by Elif Shafak

As I write this, it is being announced on the radio news that Ratko Mladic has been convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague, for his orchestration of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 where as many as 8,000 Bosnian muslims were killed. It is ironic then that my book review this week concerns a novel, at the heart of which lies the Armenian genocide of 1915. It is believed that up to 1.2 million ethnic Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-16. A few thousand managed to escape, mostly to America. This atrocity is considered to be the first genocide of the twentieth century and led ultimately to the establishment of the concept of ‘genocide’ in international law after World War II, which was considered at length by Philippe Sands in his book East West Street, which I reviewed here last year after it won the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction.

2017-11-14 14.33.12The Bastard of Istanbul is a curious book, which my fellow book club members found disappointing. At the heart of the novel is the Kazanci family, living in Istanbul. The household is exclusively female and comprises Asya, (the eponymous ‘Bastard’) her three aunts and her mother (whom she also calls ‘Auntie’), her grandmother and ‘Petite-Ma’ who I think is her great-grandmother (more of that later, it’s part of the problem with the book). There is an uncle, who moved to America as a young man and has never returned. All the men in the family are afflicted by early death. Mustafa, the prodigal son, is in his 30s.

 

There is a second family to get to grips with, living in Arizona. Teenager Armanoush is the product of Rose (a southern gal) and Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, the son of an Armenian family, part of the Armenian diaspora. Rose and Barsam separated when Armanoush (also called ‘Amy’) was a toddler, and Rose then bumped into and married Mustafa (the prodigal Kazanci son). Still with me? Armanoush, curious to learn about her Armenian forebears’ early life in Istanbul, contrives to travel to the city and stay with her stepfather Mustafa’s family (the Kazanci women) without her parents knowing (they would not have approved.)

The novel opens with a bang – Zeliha, the most flamboyant and wayward of the quirky Kazanci sisters, arrives at a clinic demanding an abortion. At the very last minute, however, she does not go through with it. Enter Asya. The first half of the book is setting the scene of both Asya’s life (she is now a slightly surly teenager) and the Kazanci household as well as Armanoush’s life in the US. The second half is mainly concerned with the two young women and their developing relationship in Istanbul, and gradually the connection between them unfolds. Throughout the novel, the history of the Armenian genocide is woven in, particularly as it relates to the Turkish Kazancis and the Armenian Tchakhmakhchians.

Let me tell you what’s good about this book: I loved the sense of place – I have never been to Istanbul but am fascinated by it and by this part of the world generally and it’s on my bucket-list. I loved the characters: they are interesting and credible and the way the author builds our impression of them is beautifully done. Elif Shafak can write, and she can write with humour; there are some laugh-out loud moments, although knowing what I now do about the Armenian genocide, I’m wondering if it was fitting.

However, there are also some problems with the book, mainly it is over-written. For me, it needed some skilful editing. There is a large cast-list here and I’m afraid I rather lost track of some of the peripheral characters (Petite-Ma, for example), who are actually rather important to the story because you need to understand the ancestor relationships in order to fully appreciate the plot. There are some superfluous chunks that could easily have been stripped out and this would have given the plot lines (and later twists) greater force. Also, the historical thread, the background on the genocide, would have been given greater prominence.

The author states in the Acknowledgements that she was put on trial in 2006 for “denigrating Turkishness” with this novel (charges were later dropped). For that reason, and for the historical detail, it is worth a read, but I’m afraid, for me, it was a novel that did not quite live up to its potential.

If you have read The Bastard of Istanbul I’d love to hear your views.

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Top #10 tips for getting and keeping your kids reading

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I’ve been having lots of conversations recently about how to get kids reading. Social media and electronic devices appear to be the main culprits keeping our children away from books, according to the parents I have spoken to. Not only are they described as “addictive” but parents feel they are behind what is seen as our children’s ever-shortening attention span. On this, Universal Children’s Day, it seems appropriate to publish my Top 10 tips for getting and keeping your kids reading.

Top Ten tips:

  1. Do not put yourself or your kids under any pressure to read (done that, failed). Do not bribe them (done that, also failed), coerce them or make it a condition for getting some sort of reward. All that does is turn something that should be pleasurable into a chore.
  2. Model desired behaviours – read in front of them, put down your own devices. You are their greatest teacher. Let them see your joy.
  3. Value all types of reading (especially if you are starting from a low base), including non-fiction, newspapers, magazines and comics. Even leaflets! Never judge their reading choices.
  4. Fight the urge to tidy and leave reading material lying around. My teenage son, having told me a couple of years ago that he “hated” (yes, hated!) books, started reading again when we left the weekend papers on the dining table all week. It started with five or ten minutes at mealtimes. He now orders all sorts of books for himself from Amazon, mostly quite heavy non-fiction, history, politics, philosophy.
  5. Have lots of books around the house, in every room.
  6. Buy books for your kids, but take them to the bookshop and let them make their own choices (see 3 above). Yes, it’s probably more expensive than buying online, but the pleasure is immeasurably greater. Bookshops can be very exciting places these days, and you can often lose hours in there on comfy chairs and having a hot chocolate. It’s a very pleasurable way to spend an afternoon. The average children’s book costs £6-£8. That’s less than a cinema ticket, or an hour in a play centre. If cost is an issue for you, there are charity bookshops and libraries (see 7 below).
  7. Rediscover your local library. Libraries are under threat and if we don’t use them we will lose them. They have fantastic stock and you can usually reserve and order books in from other branches.

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8. Talk to your kids about what they are reading. Show an interest in and respect their opinions. If they love a book and recommend that you read it too, then please do it. It will open up all sorts of conversations and they will be chuffed

9. If concentration is a real issue for your child try audiobooks. When my kids were little we had all the Roald Dahl CDs, which we played when travelling. They adored these books and it has provided a powerful memory for them. A good narrator can also help to bring it alive for them. (Simon Callow reading The Twits is our absolute favourite.) There are also audiobook subscription services which they can listen to on mobile devices.

10. Finally, if you’re feeling bold, create some family time for reading. Half an hour on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps. It may be challenging at first, but, like most challenging things, it gets easier if you can build the habit over a period of time.

Good luck!

Help your child imgA book I am particularly fond of is Alison David’s Help Your Child Love Reading which I reviewed on this blog last year. Much of what I have learned on this subject and which I commend to others is distilled from that book.

As Christmas is now fast approaching, look out for my recommendations on reading material for your kids over the next couple of weeks.

 

 

 

What are your top tips for getting kids reading?

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Book review: “Not My Father’s Son” by Alan Cumming

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It’s been a very busy few weeks, so my reading rate has been somewhat below par. Besides half term (which, actually, was relatively low-key and relaxing) I’ve been having some further work done in the house; it was a like an ’80s museum when we bought it three years ago and we are gradually working our way through it, room by room. We have been having the final two bedrooms refurbished which has entailed complete chaos, clothes and stuff everywhere, and two weeks on a sofabed. I love it that our builder is happy to work with us in our ‘organic’ (procrastinating!) way, but we are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting the job finished! When we decorate we do so for the long-haul so it has to be right. Consequently, it was the end of October before I got around to reading an autobiography for last month’s reading challenge.

Not My Fathers SonI was really torn between Claire Tomalin, Anjelica Huston and Alan Cumming. I left it in the hands of the local library and it was Alan Cumming that became available first! I’m still waiting for Claire Tomalin, and that is probably the one I was keenest to read. I was attracted to Alan Cumming’s book, however, because its premise is not dissimilar to the book I am writing, namely family research and the uncovering of a long-held secret. There the similarity ends, however, as Alan’s book is much more about his relationship with his father.

I know very little about Alan Cumming, having seen nothing of his work that I can remember (although apparently he is in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, a film I have seen a couple of times, though I don’t recall him in it). He now works mainly in the US and has done quite a bit of TV over there. He was born and grew up in rural Scotland, where his father managed a saw mill. Alan’s father was violent and abusive and the nature and frequency of the aggression Alan experienced is upsetting. What is clear from the outset, however, is that the young Alan can find no explanation for it.

In 2010, Alan was invited to appear on the BBC television programme Who Do You Think You Are?  where the family history of a celebrity is explored and hopefully something interesting and unusual emerges. In Alan’s case, the mystery to be solved was that of his maternal grandfather, who died in mysterious circumstances as a result of a firearms ‘accident’ whilst serving in the Malaysian police force. It was during the filming of the show that Alan was told by his then terminally ill father, with whom he had had no contact for many years, that he his not in fact his son, but the product of an affair his mother had with another man. This sets Alan off on a journey of self-discovery, forcing him to face up to many of his demons.

It is an engaging and at times very moving story. I’m not sure if there was a ghost-writer involved, but it is well put-together and flows nicely. It’s a decent read, and you’ll like it if you’re a fan of Alan’s work, or if you can relate to any of the themes. What I most admired was how he managed, after such an inauspicious start, to break out of the constraints of his background and upbringing, to become a successful, globe-trotting actor, living in New York, at peace with himself. To that extent it is inspiring.

 

2017-11-14 16.26.50For November, the challenge is to read a book set in or by a writer from the southern hemisphere – which is, broadly, South America, southern Africa and Australasia. As the nights draw in and it gets increasingly wintry I wanted to be reminded that in other parts of the world it is Summer! So, my choice this month is Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia, a book I picked up in my local Oxfam bookshop and which has been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for far too long. Allende is such a fine writer and I’ve read a number of her books over the years. It’s great to have an excuse to dive into this one and experience the sensuousness of her writing and the world she evokes, as the last leaves fall from the trees here and nature seems to go into hibernation.

What are you reading this month?

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“May you live in interesting times” – two political classics and why we need them more than ever

‘May you live in interesting times’  is an English expression which is said to be translated from an ancient Chinese curse. Laced with irony, it conveys the danger and the associated anxiety when national or international events  seem to go through periods of intense change or activity. I don’t know about you, but it certainly feels to me that we are living in interesting times at the moment! It’s not so much the political turmoil (British, European, global) that bothers me, I suspect every generation experiences times when world events seem dangerously unpredictable. No, it’s more the way that power is exercised by a small group over a large group and how the small group gets the large group to behave in particular ways that benefit the small group. I’m talking about lying with impunity, inequality and abuse, distorting evidence (especially about climate change) and stirring up hatred. These things frighten me more and have the potential to damage more of us than the ‘threats’ others would have us fear, for example, North Korea, terrorism or immigration.

In recent weeks I have turned to two very important books which have sharpened my understanding of our present situation. Whilst on holiday in the Summer I read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and I have been listening to 1984 by George Orwell, a book that I last read whilst at University.

2017-11-12-21-46-11.jpgI read A Clockwork Orange on my husband’s recommendation, straight after he’d completed it – it’s one of his favourite films, which we have watched many times, but neither of us had read the book. It’s quite short, but also quite hard-going as it is narrated by the central character, Alex, who speaks in ‘nadsat’ a kind of teenage vocabulary of the future, based loosely on Slav languages. I read it with a glossary (though Burgess intended that it should not be), but after while I found I did not consult it, and it flowed better just to read it and understand the sense, if not every word.

It is a book about violence and hatred, between generations, between genders, between different social groups. It is also about social isolation, about fractured communities and about a violent experimental penal system where punishment is presented by the author as nearly as vile as the original offence. Parts of it are difficult to read because of the violence (there is a terrible rape scene at the beginning when Alex and his ‘droogies’ (friends) go on a drink and drug-fuelled rampage through the town), but mostly because it is profoundly disturbing as an example of how a society, or parts of society, can be persuaded to act in the most vicious ways, and how this is driven by collective approval, the power of the group. It is a book about collective moral failure and the breakdown of the social contract which maintains order.

I listened to 1984 on audiobook over a period of several weeks in my car. There were moments when I had to pull over, aghast at what I was hearing. It was written in 1949 and I first read it lazily and only partially in the late ’80s, when I was 19 or 20. At that time the book was only 40 years old, and it was amusing that it described a future society in a year that had already passed (just as Space:1999 became ironic at the start of the 21st century!) The book is now over 70 years old and, frankly, parts of it could describe the world we live in today, our ‘interesting times’. The book describes a totalitarian state, Oceania, said to be based on Stalinist Russia, led by an omnipotent strongman Big Brother. The world is divided into three power blocs – in addition to Oceania there is Eurasia and Eastasia – who are perpetually at war. The constant state of war justifies the indefinite suspension of human liberties and the permanent control not only of human action, but of human thought. Offenders are eliminated, cruelly, and power is exercised through fear.

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Ministry of Truth? A new statue of George Orwell was unveiled at the BBC headquarters in central London this week. The author worked at the BBC for a short time during WW2.

In the context of our own ‘interesting times’ the themes which disturbed me most were, firstly, the ‘cult of personality’ – Big Brother is all powerful and his power is conferred by an artificially inspired devotion. I’ve decided you can have too much personality in a leader and it is overrated. Secondly, ‘historical revisionism’ – populations are manipulated all the time by being told subjective versions of events, both past and present, that suit the teller and are politically expedient. Extremists and the seemingly not-so extreme, are guilty of this, it seems to me. And finally, “2+2=5” – we all believe we think for ourselves, but human beings can be persuaded to think the unthinkable, or believe what is objectively untrue. From big business marketing (corporations who deliberately befuddle our notions of ‘want’ and ‘need’) to political spin (like the numbers attending a political rally, or how happy they are to be there) to selling whole populations a pup, it seems they will dare to persuade us of anything. I fear 1984 could be renamed The 20-teens.

Do you think we are living in ‘interesting times’?

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Children’s fiction review: “Pax” by Sara Pennypacker

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and the challenges of keeping our kids reading when there are so many other distractions and calls on their time. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting titles to recommend and this one caught my eye recently. It was first published in 2016 but has been given some prominence in my local (chain) bookstore in recent weeks.

Pax imgThe cover is lovely and there are a handful of illustrations in the book which are truly beautiful and very evocative. The apparent subject matter (animals) and the fact that it has some illustrations might put off some of the target readership (10-11 year olds, I would say), particularly the more advanced readers among them, who might think it is better suited to younger ones. The themes, however, are much more mature than you might think and may in fact be upsetting to more sensitive 9-10 year olds, say. It is perfect, therefore, for older primary school kids who are perhaps more reluctant readers who may find some of those thick volumes a bit daunting. At 276 pages, with a few pictures and nicely spaced typeface, this is a book where pages will be turned quite quickly; in my experience, this is a surprisingly important factor in many children’s enjoyment of a book!

The plot of this story concerns 12 year old Peter and his ‘pet’ fox, Pax. Peter found Pax when he was just a few weeks old, the only one in the litter still alive and the parents having also been killed. Peter was allowed to keep the fox and he raised him as a pet. Peter’s mother died some years earlier so when we meet him he is living alone with his father, a rather severe man whose character is not fully drawn, but you definitely get the sense that he has troubles of his own. The story is clearly set in the US, but the time is unclear. It is not exactly ‘present day’, however, as there are references to a war going on in the surrounding area. The event which sparks the story is that Peter’s father is called away to take part in the war; he is an electrician or similar. He is posted not too far away, but it means that Peter has to go and live with his grandfather, with whom he does not appear to be close. Because of this, Peter is told that he can no longer keep Pax and that he must be returned to the wild.

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Pax is abandoned by the side of the road

As soon Pax is released, rather hurriedly and rather coldly, Peter bitterly regrets this action. Fearing that Pax could never survive in the wild, being virtually tame, Peter runs away from his grandfather’s house and embarks upon a search for Pax in the forests where he thinks they left him (a couple of hundred miles away), which is also the area where explosives are being either laid or tested in pursuit of the war.

The chapters alternate between Pax’s story, as he has to try and survive in the wild for the first time in his life, and Peter’s journey. Pax meets other foxes, particularly a feisty young vixen called Bristle who is at first hostile to him because he smells of humans; she lost her parents and siblings to a trap and looks after her younger and weaker brother, Runt. This mirrors Peter’s encounter with Vola, who finds Peter at her isolated farmhouse where he shelters after breaking a bone in his foot. Vola is a recluse who runs a small farm which she inherited from her family. She has a wooden leg, having lost one of her own whilst participating in the war as a medic. At first Vola resents Peter’s intrusion into her quiet life, but as their relationship grows (she finds her conscience will not let her abandon the young boy) so she is forced to face up to her own demons, terrible memories from her past, particularly her time in the war. Similarly, Bristle learns increasingly to trust Pax as he helps and protects her, both from the soldiers encroaching on their forest territory and predators, such as coyotes.

SPOILER ALERT!

Pax and Peter do eventually find each other  and Peter must decide whether to take Pax back in again as his pet, or whether to let him go and live amongst his new companions. His choice does not provide the happy ending that many younger children would want and expect, hence my feeling that it’s for older ones. But it will raise important questions for readers about how animals and human coexist and the impact of human habitation on wildlife and the balance of nature.

I really enjoyed this book and animal-loving kids will love the Pax chapters which are written quite differently to convey the special way that foxes communicate and interact – the book has been well-researched and just about avoids anthropomorphising whilst also making Pax a sympathetic character that readers can identify with. There are some challenging themes (not least Peter’s recollections about his mother’s death and the difficult relationship he has with his father), a few gory bits, and some scary suspense-filled bits. Recommended for 10-11 year olds.

What books are your children reading at the moment?

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