I’m on my holidays with the family in Portugal. It’s a lovely country: the people are warm and laid-back, the food is wonderful, it’s a seafood-lover’s paradise. The weather where we are, north of Lisbon on what is known as the ‘Silver Coast’, is warm and sunny, with Atlantic breezes keeping the temperature below the more intense numbers you get on, say The Algarve – mid-30s Celsius is tough on a fair-skinned Brit! When you have to take your holidays in August (school!) you have to think carefully about where you go. It’s so much more expensive before you even arrive and popular locations can be jam-packed, unbearable with children. Our location here in Portugal feels perfect just now.
The beach is stunning, vast and empty, and the ocean majestic, though cold even to paddle in for me and mostly too much undertow for swimming.
Since we arrived on Saturday I have finished reading The Power, the Bailey’s Prize-winning novel by Naomi Alderman.
I wasn’t bowled over by it I’m afraid, but will post a review in a couple of weeks.
We are staying close to the beautiful town of Obidos, which has designated itself, rather fortuitously for me, ‘City of Literature’! My book-seeking antennae were out and we found two amazing bookshops.
The first was a secondhand bookshop that also incorporated an organic food market – what’s not to love! Look at what I picked up from the English shelf:
Plenty of Manchester references here I expect!
The next bookshop was in a converted church and had the most amazing structure of wooden shelving which doubled as stairs and a mezzanine.
Beautiful isn’t it?
Reading-wise I’m currently enjoying Lisa McInnerney’s The Blood Miracles, which is so far matching the quality of her first novel The Glorious Heresies.
I hope you are also enjoying the holiday season and that you’re getting plenty of R&R (reading and relaxation) in!
My elder daughter turned 13 recently. I find this fact quite extraordinary and I am filled with a new sense of responsibility. Getting three children this far has been something of a feat, of course (!), but I now feel as if I have the huge challenge of nurturing a young woman. I have an older son, but that seems different somehow. Perhaps that’s because I have never been a young man, but I do have experience of being a young woman, so I am profoundly aware of all the special ups and downs that life can present to girls.
My daughter is strong, talented and determined. She is also loving, conscientious and kind, and experience tells me that this can make her vulnerable. The world has yet to fully come to terms with this potent mix of feminine powers, does not yet know how best to embrace it. It seems to me the world often seems to fear it. So, as a parent, as a mother, the conundrum is how to prepare my daughter for a world that may not be fully ready to receive her for all that she is and all that she can be, whilst also fostering her single-mindedness, encouraging her independent spirit and emboldening her to stay true to herself.
I recently read We should all befeminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (look out for the review next week). This was given to me by a friend as a birthday gift. It’s a fuller version of a speech the author gave to a TEDx conference in 2012. Its context is Nigerian society, but there is much here that we can all take on board in terms of how we bring up our children and the values we attempt to instil.
I have a particular conundrum in that I have for a long time been what is disparagingly termed a ‘full-time Mum’. I took the usual maternity leave with my first child (my son) and when I went back to work he went to nursery for four long days every week (we had no family nearby to support us), a fact which haunts me to this day. My job was challenging and I was 50 miles away, so it was a difficult time. When I became pregnant with my second child not only did it make little economic sense for me to continue working but I felt my higher education job was incompatible with our circumstances. There was no way I could be the kind of parent I wanted to be whilst being committed to my career, and with no back-up it seemed impossible. My husband’s job was senior, demanding and in a relatively male-dominated industry so there was little prospect, in reality, of a shared model. So when my daughter was born I took a career break. I had another child during that time and took seven years off, which ended with voluntary redundancy.
When I recount this story I find it quite hard to believe myself – I was always very ambitious, acquired a Bachelors and a Masters degree, had a good career where I was respected, have always been a feminist, and yet as far as my children are concerned Mummy stays at home. Mummy does work of course (I have run a small business, I write and I do some occasional work for a charity) but I don’t work long hours out of the house like Daddy does so the lion’s share of the household work also falls to me. I don’t feel unhappy with this and I don’t regret any of the decisions we made and if I could do it all again I would make the same choice to stop working (I only wish I’d been there for my son sooner and not put him in nursery), but I do worry about the kind of messages this sends to both my son and my daughters about gender roles. What kind of a role-model am I?
We should all be feminists and the small companion book Dear Ijeawele have given me much food for thought. One of the first suggestions in Dear Ijeawele is that a woman should be “a full person” and not be defined by motherhood. I think in the early years I allowed this to happen, although with three young children and a husband working away every week for a number of years I had little time to define myself any other way! However…that is changing now. As my children get older and can take more responsibility for themselves I am trying to strike a balance between being there for them, but also not being therealways, if you see what I mean.
Suggestion number ten in Dear Ijeawele is to “be deliberate in how you engage with [your daughter] and her appearance”. Adichie is a beautiful woman who embraces her femininity. She is a face of No. 7 cosmetics, a fact for which she has been criticised and for which she makes no apology. I have always struggled with my femininity; I think it was handled clumsily and fearfully when I was a teenager (I don’t think I’m alone). Being feminine should not be incompatible with feminism, this much I believe, but I struggle with both my young daughters’ desires to wear make-up, for example. I feel very conflicted as I want them to be happy with their natural appearance, to know they are beautiful as they are, and not to feel influenced by the media that they have to look a certain way or that a certain beauty product is a ‘must-have’. I also worry about the pressure to wear revealing clothing, although, as Adichie says, we should never link appearance with morality.
With a teenage and a pre-teen daughter, these are all very urgent issues. I’m afraid when they were young they did play with dolls and much of their environment was pink, though trains, lego and other colours were available! I agree it is important not to provide gender-specific toys and to encourage breadth and variety. Mostly, my kids liked to paint, make things and play with water, and I never tried to stop the girls getting messy – they were worse in fact! But the issues seem to be weightier now, especially as their thoughts gradually turn to their futures and as sexuality begins to emerge. They hear the news and find that there continues to be a gender pay gap in society, that there is not parity of treatment between LGBTQ and straight people, and that women and girls continue to be abused and exploited more than their male counterparts.
There is much that we all still need to do.
I would love to hear your thoughts about raising girls in the 21st century.
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Last week I posted here about my July reading challenge, which was to go along to your local library and select a book. I couldn’t resist the appeal of three titles (as usual!) and found myself uncertain about which to tackle first (I decided on Evan Davis’s Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it in the end and I’m loving it!) This month’s challenge is linked with the annual Summer Reading Challenge aimed at primary-age children, which is launched in libraries this weekend. So, if you have children or grandchildren it’s a cheap, rewarding and wholesome activity you can do with them.
Children these days have so many distractions which can take them away from reading; they seem to be so busy with out of school activities, have more homework than ever before and, of course, there are the digital distractions…don’t even get me started. But reading is such an important activity for them:
it supports their ability to sustain concentration, which, in a world of instant gratification and over-stimulation, is a crucial skill,
it is an aid to relaxation, by providing downtime, taking them away from social pressures,
it can help with their imaginative and creative development – good writers are usually good readers, and
it helps their literacy skills – time spent reading may be just as if not more valuable then learning about the rules of grammar and sentence structure (IMHO!). And is far more interesting.
Reading takes kids into new worlds, it helps them learn to be alone, another important skill in building their mental health resislience, and it gives them access to experiences that they don’t have in real life. The beauty of the Summer Reading Challenge is that all books count, so if you have a reluctant reader, they can still get rewards for non-fiction, reference books, science books, there is no judgement of their chosen material. This year, there is also an online link where kids can sign up, create a profile, review the books they’ve read, and generally share their thoughts. They can do it all here.
If you are reading this you are probably a keen reader yourself, so I don’t need to tell you about the benefits, of course. The trick is getting the reading habit embedded in our children’s lives from the outset, and that is where the Summer Reading Challenge is so good. This year’s theme is AnimalAgents, a group of crime-busting creatures, beautifully illustrated by Tony Ross (of Little Princess fame).The idea is that for each book children read they get a smelly sticker and a clue that will help them solve a mystery.
So, if you’re kids have or are about to break up for the summer holidays and you’re looking for something to fill in the gaps, get along to the local library and sign up. This is my last year at primary school so I hope my 11 year-old will embrace it, even if it’s just for old time’s sake!
How easy do you find it to keep your children reading as they get older?
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We’re all on a budget and we’re all busy, so why would you make the effort to go to an independent bookshop when, with a couple of clicks, you can get what you want from the comfort of your armchair and have it delivered, and probably for a discount on the jacket price? Well, as they say, use it or lose it!
The bigger they get the more powerful they become
Most of us would be uncomfortable with the idea of only one major supermarket or only one petrol station. We all recognise that competition means consumers get the best deal. If there were only one supermarket around, you would not see the BOGOFs, the price reductions, the CHOICE. Don’t get me wrong, I use A****n along with everyone else, but I try to spread my spending. And when you work it out, it usually is not that much cheaper. As for choice, well, I am plagued by daily emails recommending heavily-marketed titles to me, but what about the books that are not pushed my way, and the authors that have written them? There’s nothing qute like discovering something new, a title you haven’t heard about. Bookshops can give you those surprises.
If it’s cheap you value it less
Anything that is cheap and plentiful we tend to treat with less respect than something that is scarce or more expensive. In my household, cheap food is much more likely to go to waste or pass its ‘use by’, whereas we are undoubtedly more disciplined about expensive organic or free range products. I think the same is true of other items we consume in our households; if we’ve paid more for a book, we may be more inclined to value it.
You don’t get much buzz with a ‘click’
For me, there is nothing quite like the smell of a bookshop, or the pleasure of browsing the shelves, spending time properly choosing, reading the first couple of pages, feeling the weight of a book in may hands. An online purchase just does not give me that same experience. I know some people like to choose in the shop and then go home and buy online, to get the discount, but, really, for a book? If you’re there in the shop, you’ve made the effort to go there, is it really worth the one or two pounds you might save by buying it online? And then you’ve to wait until it’s delivered!
Real-life independent bookshops provide an experience, and the good ones (and it’s mainly the good ones that have survived) often provide spaces for you to sit and read, or to hang out with your kids. A Saturday afternoon activity that will cost you less than a tenner! For a child this is exciting, and will encourage them to read much more than a brown package arriving through the post, two or three days later.
You are dealing with people who are passionate
It’s hard running a small shop in today’s often under-crowded high streets, but it’s even harder running an indie bookshop when you consider what they’re up against. Bookshop owners definitely don’t do it for the money! If you love books you have to love indie bookshops and for my money their passion, expertise and sheer tenacity deserve our support.
So, check out your nearest indie bookshop here and make an effort to take yourself along some time this week. You won’t regret it.
Do you live near a great indie bookshop? If so, give them a shout out here.
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Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature. I aim to read and review at least one children’s book every month, so here is my offering for May.
This was the third book I read last term with the children’s book club at my daughter’s primary school. It was something of a risk as it’s not conventional either in its subject matter or its format. But having read Time Travelling with A Hamster with them (which they loved) and The Snow Spider(which many of them were lukewarm about), I felt they were ready for the more complex themes and the quirky format. The kids in my book club are 10-11 and it’s well-known that children tend to like reading about characters who are a couple of years older. The central character in this book, Kasienka, is 13, so that fits, although some of the themes are quite mature. For example, she mentions her periods, puberty more generally and her feelings about a boy at school, which had some of my book club attendees sniggering! That could have been down to the group situation, however, and read alone or with a parent, this might actually be an opportunity to have a proper conversation with a child about such issues.
The book starts with Kasienka and her mother leaving Gdansk, Poland, with just a suitcase each. They are travelling to England to join Kasienka’s father, who left some months earlier. They are heading for Coventry, as they know he is somewhere in that city, but they have not heard from him for some time and have no address for him. There are clearly two things going on here: firstly, there is the immigrant experience, people leaving their home country in search of a better life, but there is the sub-text also of the mystery of the father’s departure and possible marital issues between Kasienka’s parents.
When Kasienka and her mother arrive in England they find themselves in a dingy bedsit, living amongst other immigrants, including Kanoro, a Kenyan doctor working as a hospital porter. Kasienka is placed in a local school, but is put down a year because of what are perceived to be her inferior language skills. She is resentful at this humiliation not only because she finds the schoolwork very easy, but also because she struggles to be accepted amongst the girls of her own age. Parents of teenagers will know there is usually quite a maturity difference between 13 and 11/12 so one can only imagine what it must have been like for Kasienka to be placed in this situation. There is a sense that the authorities at the school do not necessarily have her best interests at heart either, that perhaps they feel the additional demands placed upon them by immigrant pupils are a burden. There is a feeling that Kasienka is being made an example of.
Kasienka finds her relief in swimming, it is where she feels free and where she feels equal, and it is where she is able to prove herself to her enemies from school. It is also where she begins a relationship with a boy from school, William. There is some kissing here, which the kids in the book club found deeply amusing!
The second strand to the book is the search for Kasienka’s father. Her mother sets about the task with great energy, knocking on doors, marking off the streets on the map as they go. Kasienka is doubtful about this work and you sense early on that she realises long before her mother that her father does not want to be found and that they would be better off giving him up. They do eventually find him, with a new (English) partner and a baby. Kasienka then has to cope with her mother’s depression and despair. Things do work out in the end for them but the themes are clearly quite challenging. The book club coped well with it and particularly enjoyed the occasional minor swear word!
A word on the format, which is quite unique. It’s written in verse form, although it flows more like prose and each chapter is very short, with each topic covered as an extended poem. This makes it quite powerful. Here is an example of one of the early chapters, entitled ‘Mistaken’, when Kasienka is beginning to realise the scale of the challenge facing them in their new life:
“When Mama said
‘We’re going to England,’
I didn’t see myself
I knew I’d be different,
I knew I wouldn’t understand
But I thought, maybe, I’d be exotic,
Like a red squirrel among the grey,
Like an English girl would be in Gdansk.
But I am not an English girl in Gdansk.
I’m a Pole in Coventry.
And that is not the same thing
At all. “
I really enjoyed this book and my 11 year old daughter did too. It’s a good one for this age group so if you have a child transitioning from primary to secondary I’d recommend it for the holidays perhaps, particularly if you’re travelling abroad; it may help them to think about what it feels like to move to a foreign country.
Many households up and down the UK will be like mine this summer – tiptoeing around a teenager revising for their exams. In my household, my eldest is doing his GCSEs so this is our first experience of exams that really matter. It’s so hard for them and as a parent there is not a great deal you can do to help – which makes it hard for us too! At 16 they need to be working out their own best revision and study methods (definitely not the same as mine!) so although my heart is desperate to ‘help’ my head tells me that I need to step back and avoid interfering. Also, many of my son’s chosen subjects are areas I know very little about – Spanish, Russian – or have limited interest in – physics, electronics – or remember very little about – mathematics! So, beyond providing encouragement, food and drink, and making sure they’re getting enough sleep, what more can you do as a parent?
One area I can help with is English literature. It also happens to be the subject in which my son has least confidence (how? why?). It’s difficult isn’t it – I have a degree of knowledge and expertise and can geneuinely help my child, but at the same time I don’t want to undermine my son’s confidence, or indeed alienate him, by coming across as some sort of expert, or for him to feel self-conscious with me. You know how sensitive teens can be!
So, I have given a great deal of thought in recent weeks as to how I can best help my son with his English Lit revision. Here are my top ten tips:
Get to know their set texts yourself – feel it with them! I have re-read Michael Frayn’s Spies and re-acquainted myself with The Merchant of Venice this year.It has been very pleasurable for me and I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm will rub off.
Get hold of an audio or video version of the books – they need to know the texts well so there is nothing to lose by watching or listening to the texts being performed or read. I got a free audiobook of Spies with an Audible trial and borrowed a DVD of The Merchant of Venice from the library. They may well have watched DVDs at school but it will do no harm to re-watch.
Discuss the texts with them – have conversations with them about the books and talk enthusiastically. They don’t have to be big set-piece conversations, you could have a 10 minute chat over dinner or in the car, which will be more memorable to your teen than a sit-down ‘session’.
Read through their English notes – identify the key themes their teacher has directed them to learn about and understand these yourselves. You could also buy study notes booklets or there are various websites which give you textual study guides, such as the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize.
Test them on examples from the text – it’s absolutely key that they can provide evidence for points they make – they have to illustrate with examples from the text. So, from Spies, I might ask for three examples of Keith’s controlling and bullying behaviour towards Stephen. It comes back to knowing the text really well, so if they can’t remember, re-read/listen/watch extracts to make sure they can recall the examples.
Make a plan for yourself – I find that my conversations with my son are best done in shortish informal bites rather than scheduled sessions. He is more relaxed and therefore more responsive. It’s all a cunning ruse, however, because I have my own plan about what to discuss with him and when.
Set questions for them – if you’re busy, work and have other children, helping your teen to revise can seem like an additional chore. So, if you find that on some days you simply don’t see them much, or there isn’t time for your revision chat, set them a question to answer. This will also give them practice in writing about their texts.
Teach them how to mindmap – as a grown-up you will know how mind-mapping can be a great tool for committing things to memory or exploring an idea, even for the least visual among us. If they haven’t done mindmapping yet at school, get them a big piece of paper (flipchart or some old wallpaper) and a marker pen and do it with them. It can be done for themes as well as for plot and character (they MUST get the basics right so make sure they know all the key characters and how to spell their names correctly). Stick these on their bedroom wall, be creative, print out pictures or draw the characters, use different coloured pens.
Help them to memorise quotes – it’s always useful to have a few key quotes up your sleeve so help them identify some (eg the “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech from Merchant of Venice) and test them.
Finally, praise. Your job now is building confidence.
If you have any other tips for helping your teen with English Lit revision I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, best of luck!
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Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature. My children are part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter. JK Rowling is one of my heroes, for a number of reasons, but primarily for all that she has done to get (and keep) children reading, particularly those who might otherwise not have done so. Harry Potter wasn’t the first literary character to bring wizarding and magic into children’s literary lives, however. The Snow Spider was first published 30 years ago and was a multiple award winner. It was originally published as a trilogy, but this anniversary volume has been issued as a stand-alone. I chose it for the book club I run at my daughter’s primary school.
It’s set in Gwynedd, rural Wales, where our central character, nine year-old Gwyn Davies, lives on a farm with his parents. It starts on the morning of Gwyn’s birthday with his grandmother, the eccentric Nain, giving him five gifts: a brooch, a broken wooden horse, a yellow scarf, a piece of seaweed and a tin whistle. It turns out that these rather unusual tokens are in fact a kind of test, designed to determine whether Gwyn has inherited the magical powers that run in the family line but which have now missed several generations.
We learn that Gwyn’s birthday is usually a quiet and fairly sombre affair because it is the anniversary of his elder sister’s disappearance, four years earlier. Bethan went out in search of a pet lamb belonging to her little brother, after he begged her to do so, and never returned. Gwyn’s father blames Gwyn for his beloved daughter’s disappearance and has since become a cold and distant figure in his son’s life.
Gwyn soon finds that he does indeed possess certain magical powers and each of the gifts given to him by Nain has an individual significance, a power he must explore and learn about. The first sign he receives is when the brooch becomes a delicate and beautiful silver spider, Arianwen. The spider becomes his guide and companion throughout the rest of the book and on his journey of self-discovery. The broken horse unleashes some malevolent forces that Gwyn must learn to control – this is a very high-action chapter! The yellow scarf, which had belonged to his sister and was the only sign of her left on the hills after she vanished, attracts Bethan back into the family’s life, but in an abstract way; Eirlys is introduced about halfway through the book when she arrives at Gwyn’s school, apparently an orphan. She lives with a family in the village, but after becoming trapped in a storm finds herself spending some days with Gwyn and his family. Eirlys clearly reminds Gwyn’s father of his missing daughter and her presence brings about a softening in his relationship with his son.
The children in the book club had mixed feelings about The Snow Spider. Some did not like it at all – one even abandoned it! For others I think it was perhaps rather gentler than their usual reading, with not quite enough “action”. Compared to many of the books published today it has a certain innocence that I confess made me rather nostalgic! I loved the sense of place; rural Wales, with all its traditions of myth and magic is beautifully evoked, and the characters are well-drawn and familiar.
The recommended age group for this book is 8-12 years, but I feel it would probably work best for children at the younger end of that spectrum, and it’s a lovely one to read aloud together; some of the keener children in the book club raced through it (it’s quite short) and I think this may have compromised their enjoyment. I think it also helps to have an adult to discuss the book with as it deals with some challenging themes, not least the disappearance of a child. Gwyn’s relationship with his parents, particularly his father, is quite a tricky issue, as is the question of acceptance by peers (once Gwyn’s ‘visions’ become playground gossip, he is teased by some of the other children). Also, Gwyn’s discovery of his magic after his 9th birthday is, I think a metaphor for puberty and adolescence, which may resonate with children approaching double figures.
It is a lovely book that I think quieter, perhaps more thoughtful children will enjoy, or children who like to read with an adult. But it isn’t Harry Potter!