Saturday, 12 April 2014

Adrian Mole - helping generations of teens through their growing pains.

I was really saddened to hear of the death of Sue Townsend.  Although I know she said herself that she wouldn't "make old bones", part of me hoped that she would be proven wrong, and that she would go on for as many years as old Bert Baxter himself, smoking woodbines, buying a Communist newspaper and eating nothing but pickled beetroot.

She spoke at the Oxford Union when I was at university, and I went to see her.  She seemed like the sort of person you could have a good chat with if you ended up being stuck together waiting at a bus stop, or similar. By which I mean she seemed down-to-earth, wry, interesting.

She was certainly an exceptionally talented writer.  Not only the Adrian Mole series, but her other works were often hilariously funny, but heart-breaking, all at the same time.  Whenever I see the Queen on TV, I always feel a bit warmer towards her because of her close and trusting relationship with her neighbour Violet in The Queen and I and Queen Camilla, even though, of course, both Violet and the relationship, are completely fictional. 

I was introduced to Adrian Albert Mole when I was 8 and a half. I often have very clear memories of where I acquired books which turned out to be lifelong favourites, and this is no exception.  My Nan and Grandad lived in Wolvercote, near Oxford.  In order to buy a 3-bed semi in Wolvercote now, you have to be independently wealthy, or some kind of hedge-fund gambling crazer, but back in the 1960s when Nan and Grandad bought their house, you could buy a family home in a pleasant village within walking distance of Oxford on the income of a factory foreman and home help. The past is, indeed, another country.

Anyway, there were regular jumble sales at Wolvercote Village Hall. This place seemed huge, and miles away from Nan's house (it was neither), and there were often jumble sales.  Mum and Nan would always take us along, about which we often moaned.  I wouldn't moan now - a) because I'd dearly love to be able to spend some time, any time, with my dear old Mum and Nan again, and b) because you just don't really get jumble sales any more, do you?  Even bring-and-buy sales seem not to occur with the regularity they once did.  I'll blame ebay, I think - that fits in nicely with my prejudices.

So, it was at one of these Wolvercote Village Hall jumble sales that I acquired The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4. I thought it must be a children's book, because it had a picture of a Noddy toothbrush on the front.  I bought several books (I was allowed because they were only 5p each, and it meant that Mum and Nan could look at jumpers and cream jugs, and other really boring things that adults are interested in).  When Mum came over to pay the lady at the stall said "How old is she?  I'm not sure this book's totally suitable?"  Mum explained that I was 8, and, yes I was tall for my age, wasn't I, and that she'd long since given up trying to control what I read, and that I probably wouldn't understand any bits that I shouldn't, because I didn't know any swear words and wasn't very worldly-wise. This was all an accurate representation, so off I went, clutching my Adrian Mole.

I am glad I read it so young, as I knew that whatever teen trauma came up (and they certainly did), I never had it as badly as Adrian Mole.  There were a few copycat type series, such as Diary of a Teenage Health Freak, which were more overtly trying to help you with puberty and nowhere near as rude or funny.

There are so many expertly drawn characters in the series.  The first few are still my favourites - I found the hope that teenage Adrian still has for his future deeply touching, and did feel that the later novels were a touch dark, and not quite so life-affirming (perhaps not a surprise given what Sue Townsend was going through). 

If you've not read the series, I would strongly encourage you to do so. They paint the whole of life in its true colours.  A real gift to the world.  Thank you, Sue Townsend, for sharing your gift with your readers. And thank you Adrian Mole, for being an even bigger geek than me.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Things you don't appreciate as a teen

In my school we had several things that mattered to the average teenager.  A big field with big trees which you could sit under, chat, and look at pin-ups of Mark Owen; a music room with massive keyboards and headphones so that you could play the same note repeatedly without the teacher actually realising, and several large structures you could hide behind and be out of the view of snooping teachers.

We also had a library.  I properly hated the library.  I can't remember the librarian's name, but she was an utterly joyless woman, and, even though I was an extremely good girl, I used to delight in tormenting her.  My friend and I would find a book (the more ridiculous the better) and sit and giggle over it until we were kicked out of the library. This happened a great deal until the Sixth Form when we had to go there because that's where the computers were, and we were treated with justifiable suspicion.

It wasn't really a very good library.  We had a fantastic library in the village where I read every book and was so well behaved that I was offered a job, so it obviously wasn't libraries per se, but just the singularly dull and oppressive library at school where all the books were at least a decade out of date, and nobody was allowed to smile.

It's a shame, because a good school library is an absolutely wonderful thing.  I am lucky enough to work in a school where the library is the jewel in the crown.  The librarian is extremely well-read and knows the children extremely well, and recommends books which will both interest and stretch them.

So many school libraries were lost in a ridiculous false-economy.  Reading is so unbelievably crucial, and reading for pleasure is a habit which should be cultivated about all others. Librarians are utterly passionate about this, and work hard to ensure that reading is promoted throughout the school.

I am fairly sure I *would* have appreciated this. A wonderful booklet produced by Lin Smith, the librarian at Ecclesbourne School in Derby, which was shared by Lin to all the school librarians that she knows.  I don't know Lin personally and I haven't been in this particular school's library, but this work strikes me as a labour of love, and contains some excellent recommendations for books to engage teenagers in reading for pleasure.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

You know it's been a good day when...

1) You have spent two hours in a library looking at books for mooching with, rather than books for study.

2) Your daughter allows you to read her a poem and expresses pleasure and interest in said poem.

I would quite like it if schools shut on a Wednesday every week. I don't want to completely ditch school altogether, obviously, as then I would not have a job, and I would be unable to keep up the level of patience required for the amount of pottering around at child pace that we have done today.  But to be freed from the time restraints of the school run for a day has been absolutely wonderful.  There has been a great deal of wandering going on.  There was nothing to rush for at all. The kids spent an hour playing spies in the park, an hour looking at books, two hours pottering around their favourite museum.  BabyM and I very much enjoyed the company, especially the bit where we ate chips and cake for lunch with friends (well, I say we, BabyM did not partake). The kids got on like they used to before the shadow of puberty started to loom large over their inseperability.  I am absolutely and completely exhausted, but it has been a golden day.

They now have plenty of reading material, and it seems a shame to send them back to school tomorrow.  But I don't think "they had to read their library books, and the baby and I will miss them" counts as exceptional circumstances.

The poem, by the way, was from A Poet's Guide to Britain by Owen Sheers. I picked it up and opened it at a poem by U A Fanthorpe (one of my favourites) about a place very near where we live.  This was obviously a sign that I should borrow it. It's about Swarkestone, where, apparently, Bonnie Prince Charlie decided he didn't really like England much after all. I very much know how he felt, since I can't drive over that blasted bridge without clipping the curb.  Obviously that was what made Charlie turn back. 

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The evolution of Usborne

BabyM has another new book.  Much as he and I adore Moo, Baa, La, La, La, there are only so many times a day that I can stand to read it.  Plus it was an Usborne book which didn't look like an Usborne book, so I had to investigate.

I've said before that I love Usborne very much indeed.  I have been to Usborne book parties where I have had more Usborne books than the sales rep! I did briefly toy with becoming a rep for them or for Barefoot Books, who I also deeply love, but then realised I would probably just buy the stock and then keep it, which would not make me an awful lot of money.

There is still something about the old-school illustrations where the children have fat plaits, chubby legs and arms and snub noses, and the grown-ups all look slightly alarmed but good-natured, that makes me feel very safe.  A feels the same.  I know this because when she is feeling like she wants to be little again, she goes and finds the Farm books with Poppy and Sam and Rusty the dog at her Granny's house and squirrels them off somewhere to read them for a while, taking herself back to a time when the most pressing matter was "but can you find the little yellow duck?"

Baby Stuff has changed since A was a baby.  Now you can buy bouncy chairs that cost more than an Ikea Poang, and pushchairs that cost more than a roadworthy car (yes, OK, I admit, mea culpa, but it is a *very* nice pushchair). TV has changed.  A was born in 2004, when Teletubbies, the Tweenies and the Fimbles still reigned supreme on CBeebies.  Now there is a knight called Mike.  Now, no disrespect to the name Mike, but it's not really a medieval name, surely?  Michael yes, Mike? Not so much. It's like have Dave the Knight, or Steve the Archduke.

Anyway. Usborne, too is changing.  The That's Not My series did exist when A was little, but it was things you might expect babies to actually have, like a dog, cat, dolly, or toy tractor.  Now you can purchase (and, yes, when I say you I do mean me) That's Not my Meerkat (it had to be done) and That's Not my Prince (bought for the staunchly republican MrM in his Christmas stocking). Perhaps you can buy actual meerkats and princes for babies now - I am a little out of the loop.

Peep Inside the Zoo, the new book on the scene, has almost an Usborne font, with almost Usborney pictures.  But they've got that modern darkened watercoloury-type feel.  It's very attractive, but it's not quite Usborne.  Well not my Usborne anyway.  Perhaps I am getting old. How depressing. Now where's my copy of Things People Do?

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Reading by stealth - Minecraft and board games

I am quite lucky in that my boy (well the one that can read!) has inherited a love of reading, and often has to have a book prised off him at some ludicrous hour of the evening.  However, I am all too aware that this is not always the case, particularly with the male of the species.

I was in Burton-upon-Trent this week, which is not a town with a  huge amount to recommend it.  That said it does have a wonderful library and a very, very good Waterstones.  It's very small, but seems to magically have what you need, and the displays are always wonderfully thought out, and generally lead me to part with a few quid (a fool and his money, and all that).

Anyway, I was on a mission for the Minecraft Combat Handbook for C.  He already has the Beginner's Guide and the Redstone Handbook.  I have not the first idea what Redstone is, but C has internalised and can churn out the entire contents of the book at will, and will readily do so to the unwary person who asks an innocent question about the workings of the game.

When I walked in there were piles of a book and my spirits rose.  Alas, it was the Construction Handbook, and not the Combat one.  There was a gamble to be made.  A and C get to choose a book from the Book Fair after Parents Evening at school if their report is good.  Since, without wishing to be an irritating boasty parent, they are pretty much angels at school, their reports are always good, and we always end up with them choosing a book from the relatively uninspired selection in the school reception.  I decided to pre-empt the good reports and get the books before in a bookshop where I knew the books were good. However, C had said that there were Combat Handbooks at school, but not many left.  I bought the construction one, hoping it would be OK, and then ordered the combat version from the Book People when I got home.  This was considered VERY OK.

If a child has an interest, run with it.  It doesn't matter if they only want to read about Minecraft - let them.  Yes, it's not as good as if they were reading a selection of different, challenging texts, but I don't know anyone who lives in an ideal world, so instead of striving for that, I find it's generally easier to offer a selection, and just run with it if they get stuck in a rut.  Chances are he won't want to read them next year, but if he's enjoying them so much now, then who cares?

Minecraft guides (Beginners, Redstone, Combat and Construction) are available from many outlets. And if you live near Burton, they are readily available, since over Christmas they ran out, and have now gone slightly overboard to make sure that doesn't happen again.  100 copies of the Construction handbook, anyone ;)

Moving on in the week, today has been wonderful.  MrM's team won 5-0 against the local rivals, we had a lovely lunch out with some fabulous friends, and then ate cake for tea.  Since we were winning at parenting today, we decided to really push the boat out with a  board game.  C had Forbidden Desert for his birthday.  It's a co-operative game, since we have some not very good losers in the family (not just me). I also think that with the age gaps we now have, competitive games are going to be quite tricky for a few decades, since, although BabyM does not play yet, he will take a decade or so to catch up on the others (although of course he is so much younger than the rest of us, that when we've all gone senile he can thrash us at board games then). Forbidden Desert is fab.  There are lengthy instructions though, so allow yourselves half an hour family reading time to really understand what it is you have to do.  There you go, then you've covered another genre.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Moving on from the doom and gloom of North Korea...

Well, actually, not moving on from doom and gloom at all.  A has now finished watching all 5 series of Horrible Histories on DVD and has read all of the books.  I am frantically scouring libraries, bookshops and ebooks to try to find something which will continue to fuel her love of reading history.

We have recently acquired several books about WW1, being the 100th anniversary of its start, there are lots to be had at the moment.  We've not got round to looking at all of them yet, but a particularly wonderful one has been The History of the First World War in 100 objects.  It's not aimed at children, and in fact, the text is too dense for them (and, sometimes for me I must admit - I do mainly just look at the pictures!), but the objects have fuelled some very interesting discussions with both kids.  It's quite expensive, but the good old Book People have it at a heavily reduced price at the moment. Highly recommended for adults, teenagers and younger children to look at with a parent - some of it is highly upsetting so you will want to pick and choose which bits you read with them.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Big Bang Fair and scientific inspiration

Yesterday we went on a day out (we've not been on a day out for aaaages, Mummy!), which I had been a bit nervous about, not having been out and about much as a family of five.  I considered this to be good training for when I take all three children to London alone after Easter (I am currently in denial that this is going to be anything other than plain sailing, despite the fact that BabyM seems to have forgotten to emerge from the other side of the 4 month sleep regression, despite now being a venerable 6 months old).

Anyway, it was a bargain that tempted me out of my comfort zone, when I would normally be sitting drinking tea and eating Sunday lunch prepared by MilM. I am sure she was devastated to have a week off from cooking for and entertaining her eldest son, his wife and many children, but she handled the disappointment well.

We went to the NEC's Big Bang Fair, where the tickets are completely and absolutely free; as are all of the things that you can do / watch / participate in inside.  There must be an awful lot of money pumped in to this by lots of organisations, but the general idea is to inspire kids to consider further education in the sciences. I enjoyed science at school, with the notable exception of physics.  I think this was probably more to do with my physics teachers (one of whom smelt dreadful, and the other one took an instant dislike to me - probably because I invariably did my homework at the back of the room at the start of the lesson) than the subject, but anyway. Back then the teachers seemed unconcerned about encouraging girls to study sciences. I got top grades in GCSE science, but was not approached by any of my teachers to consider A-Levels. I am not sure that I would have done, but the fact that I was not encouraged, and was allowed to quietly drop all three would probably not happen now. Perhaps then I would have a useful degree.  Although in fairness, I think I was destined to teach, and am not sure that me in a room with thirty youths and various poisonous and flammable materials is a very good idea at all.

I digress. A has said for years that she wants to be a food scientist. C varies between Rollercoaster Tester and Game Designer.  However, yesterday he decided he wants to be a chemist.  This is mainly because the nice chemist man asked him lots of questions that he could answer, and flattered him, then gave him colouring pencils and a sticker.  Perhaps they should rename the fair the Bribe Kids to Study Science Fair. Not quite so snappy perhaps.

Still, they learned lots, and were very inspired, and MrM and I enjoyed the show put on by the man that eats vile things on Incredible Edibles on the telly. BabyM liked looking around at everything, smiling at random strangers, and eating our lanyards.  He did NOT like the explosions, which happened frequently, and at random. Bless him.

I predict a resurgence of interest in our science books. We have a few.  For littlies, these are great. I have read several of them on many more occasions than I care to remember.  Might be worth reading them through yourself first: some sensitive kids might balk at the food chain one, and some sensitive parents might balk at the one that hints about the birds and the bees.

Moving on this contains both cartoons and experiments, which is a particularly engaging combination.

For older children How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients is an approachable introduction to the wider questions of how stuff is made up of other smaller bits of stuff.

The Big Bang Fair is on every year, and there are events spread throughout the country during the year. We will definitely be making our way there again next year. It's aimed at ages 7-16, and there is a fair bit of waiting around involved, but the activities and shows, are, in general, worth the wait.  The gumpf says to allow three hours to see everything, but we were there for five and only really went in one of the halls, so next year will be heading down for the entire day.