Books I love because of my children…

Saturday 23 October 2021

Dame Jacqueline Wilson is on the radio this morning, talking about a concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to celebrate her books and, if I lived in London, I would have set out to the Barbican right there and then to get a ticket! Because, I love her writing. Lively characters who just dance off the page and plots that hook you from opening chapter and are ‘can’t put this down‘ engaging. But here is the thing; I didn’t read these books as a child. No, I chanced upon her through my own children. At bedtimes, we’d read them together and she made such times magical and a truly (unexpected but) delightful parental treat. So, as I sit in my lounge with a large cup of coffee, I decide to indulge and look back at my other favourite finds from the, ‘reading to your children’ years…

Now, to be clear, my favourite quartet are not necessarily the books my children read the most. Small Boy’s obsession with ‘Captain Underpants‘ and the ‘Hunger Games‘ era, when I barely saw my eldest without a book for weeks, are not titles I read a single word of. Why? Because by this stage my offspring had moved into the realms of independent literary appreciation and I simply left them and their imaginations to it. The delicious time for me to discover new children’s authors and to venture once again into the fantastic world of children’s fiction was a far narrower window. It came in the short span of years when I read to my trio of toddlers and it was here, amongst the cherished jewels I still hold dear from my own childhood, that I uncovered new titles, great new writers and, just as I had done as a child, set off on amazing new adventures.

And so it was that I was introduced to Dame Jacqueline Wilson. I picture my two girls racing up to their attic room, fluffy and clean from bathtime, to dive under the covers ready for the next chapter of ‘Double Act‘ or the ‘The Illustrated Mum‘ and I’d be as excited as them, because she is such a terrific writer that, never mind the kids, I simply couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. Dare I confess to occasionally reading on, even after both of them had drifted off to sleep? For me her gift was to draw you in, hook, line and sinker, to the world of her young characters and make you care for them completely. My absolute favourite, ‘Best Friends‘, stayed in my head and heart for days and I do recall my two little daughters staring at me wide-eyed as I stumbled to the end, my voice choking on that final chapter.

But I’ve already hinted at four, so here are my other three:

Judith Kerr; oh my goodness I still feel a tingle of excitement at the sound or sight of ‘The Tiger who came to Tea‘. A family member gifted the children an edition complete with a tiny china tea set that we would fill with water to act out the famous ‘tea scene’ as my trio of toddlers would ask me to read it again and again and again. Every word was a joy but my most-loved scene was always this one; the mother’s calm response to what should have been the strangest request she was ever going to receive, ‘Do you think I could have tea with you?’ asks the tiger, ‘Of course, come in’ says mum! More learned critics than I have hypothesised in depth about this little book, reflecting Kerr’s own childhood experiences in Nazi Germany, but this is my favourite point because it is at this moment that you cast aside adulthood and become a child again. Because in a child’s ‘imaginative play ‘ this is exactly what would happen to keep the game going. Why there is a large carnivorous predator at the door… come on in, we’ll find you a cup and plate and make conversation!

The Tiger who came to Tea: Judith Kerr

And onto Lauren Childs and her inspirational creation Clarice Bean. One of my friends passed on these books, as her own daughter grew out of them, whereupon we all fell in love with Clarice (and Betty Moody and Mrs Wilberton). So much so, in fact, that this one made it onto audio book version for the car and turned long dreary car journeys into a delightful escape into the imagination. So funny, so sharp and such brilliant writing that the tying together of all the crazy capers and plot lines would keep us guessing until the final page. Having listened to it so many times, I can probably recite huge chunks verbatim and the best ‘Clarice quotes’ live on in our household even now, and why wouldn’t they …

I say ‘Mom, how come you don’t change into an evening gown for dinner?’ She says ‘I do, it’s called a bath robe.

Lauren Child, Utterly Me, Clarice Bean

And to finish, JK Rowling, Harry Potter and well …what an incredible read. Her words filled my head with pictures and my heart with emotion. Perhaps more so than any other writer she took me back to that feeling I had as a child of ‘living in a book’. Yes, below the age of 10, with my head perennially stuck in an Enid Blyton, I’d often appear to be present in the room but the truth was that I was nearly always not really there! No, I’d be away on Kirrin Island with the Famous Five, or in the dormitories of Malory Towers with Darryl and Sally. And Harry Potter did this for me again. She was also my first find of the ‘reading to your children years’… in fact it is a faintly ridiculous tale.

As I was pregnant with my eldest, I foolishly told my husband that the midwife had proclaimed it ‘never too early’ to start reading to your babies. Read to them in the womb! Read to them when they are a day old! They won’t know what you are reading so read anything; it could be the perfect time to read ‘War and Peace’. Well my husband decided that it was the perfect time for me to read ‘Lord of the Rings‘. Quite why I agreed, I’ll never know but, as we brought my Eldest home I did indeed, every evening cradle her in my arms and subject her to Tolkien. Yes I ploughed my way through all three of those lengthy tomes, engaging with the story of Frodo and Sam, but finding all the complicated names, tribes and battles for power tortuous on occasion. However, by the time Prom-dress daughter appeared, the cursed ring was safely consumed in the fires of Mordor and I was free; free to meet Harry, Ron and Hermoine! Well what a difference. From the second the Hogwarts Express drew into the platform, I was addicted, gripped and invested. I devoured those books whether I had any children to listen to me or not! The books sparkled, fired the imagination, flooded my head with lavish images and, at time, pulled my heart from my chest. Reading to my toddlers became a cherished half hour of the day when I, as much as them, escaped from the stresses, strains and toil that parenting small children can bring.

Gosh, great memories! My teens are all grown-up now and for me, the world of children’s books is a closed chapter once again but not forever I hope… roll on the grandchildren years….

Running with headphones…

Saturday 2 October 2021

Just in from my first ever run with headphones! Bloomin’ brilliant and … why have I never done this before?

Why indeed? For me, there are two reasons and the first is quite serious. It is about safety; women’s safety. Several years ago, I was talking running with one of my friends and she told me that she had ditched the ear buds after being mugged by a man who had attacked her from behind and she had not ‘heard him coming’. And sadly, particularly in the week when the news is dominated by the heartbreaking testimonials from the Sarah Everard trial and female fear becomes, again, the topic of much media debate, my friend is not alone. From the NBC articles in 2018, Scared to run alone? Women runners share their best safety tip, running without earphones, in certain situations, comes in at number two.

“One important thing I have changed in my running routine is that unless I am around a lot of people or running on the boardwalk during the day, I no longer put headphones on,”

Christie Maruka, a fitness enthusiast who runs/speed walks daily

The second, I can only put down to the frantic nature and financial strains of single parenthood. For years, I simply could not afford a phone that had an earphone port! As for one that could play music or understood what a podcast was; well that was an even longer wait. My kids had them, as cherished birthday or Christmas present but for their poor old mum (let those violins play now!) there was no-one in my life who combined caring enough and earning enough to bestow such a gift upon me. But about 3 years ago, as technology advanced and prices fell, I did finally treat myself to a device that coped with more than just ‘calling and texting’ and could in fact take pictures and play sounds.

But that was several years ago; why the delay until today to finally attach a pair headphones? It’s time. Time for me to stop and learn how. If you are a single parent your entire life, it often feels, has no space for you. Frequently, you inhabit domains where you are the only adult and, hence, the first port of call for solving problems for everyone else. Amidst helping with homework, revision plans, clubs, friends, exam stress, health, future study decisions, driving lessons …. and so on you simply drain of the motivation to stand still and explore ways to make your own life a little bit easier or nicer.

So what changed this morning? Work panic … that’s what! Our new boss has introduced the team to weekly readings from book on leadership psychology. Last weekend, I left my copy at work and had to make my excuses at the Monday meeting and, as I wake up this morning it hits me that I have done exactly the same thing again! Yikes! What to do? My Kindle is dead and the only charger is now in Edinburgh with Prom-dress daughter. So I type ‘audio book’ into Google and 30 minutes later I: am enrolled on a 30 day free trial with Audible; have scrabbled around the house to find an only slightly damaged pair of headphones; have laced up my trainers and am ready to go. Necessity… very clearly the ‘mother of invention’ on this October morning!

And what of the safety worries? Well it is 9:30am and I do only run on busy roads, so I decide that it is the perfect situation to try and chip away at some of the limiting fears that can impede my life as a woman. In fact, my logical mind interrupts, road safety is likely to be a bigger peril to avoid today. I say my logical mind but it would be more honest to admit that I did recently read Paula Radcliffe explaining that,

“I actually don’t listen to music outside when I run. I prefer to be aware of what’s going on and in tune with my surroundings. Keeping an eye out for bikes or dogs coming out of nowhere, I like to be aware of that!”

Paula Radcliffe 2019

Whatever the reason, I set the volume to sensible level that still lets the background noise in, and set off.

And I love it. Both the run and the ‘reading’ fly by like never before. I definitely on the road to conversion, already wondering ‘what next?’ ; when I finish this book. Mmmm, maybe music …

And so the year ends…

Sunday 29 December 2019

As I pull into Norton Canes, the service station on the M6 Toll Road, it seems as good a place as any to reflect back on 2019 and put together my final post of the year.

It is homeward bound after a lovely Christmas break in Oxford and Cambridge. My old university stomping ground as it happens, but on this occasion, just exciting to be visiting friends and family, as opposed to wandering around the dreaming spires. The closest we come to anything you could deem an ‘Oxbridge activity’ is breaking out of a Cold War themed Escape Room (with 5 minutes to spare.) We are the ‘Squad of Seven’ – move over Cambridge Five!

The Toll Road on the return journey, now that is my guilty pleasure! I loathe queuing. I am really not a patient waiter. In my time I’ve driven huge (and probably time-costly) detours to avoid the grim misery of gridlocked traffic. So paltry charge of £5.60 for the utter luxury of 27 miles of well-lit motorway, wide lanes and a joyous lack of other road users seems a very small price to pay! Eventually, of course, it will be a return to the endless cone-lined crawl of the 50 mph zone on the M6, but a coffee break delays that for another half an hour, so here goes…let’s review 2019. I take a deep breath, I fire up my blog on the laptop, click on ‘January’ and step back in time.

It is not just the end of the year in a couple of days, but also the end of a decade. As I re-read my blog however, re-visiting each month in turn, I realise that one year is more enough for me to look back upon. I try to decide if, as the midnight bells chime on Tuesday, 2019 will it count as a good year or one to regret? But there’s no answer to that…because it’s neither. What it is, is just one full calendar year… 365 unforgettable days of ups and downs. And I like that. There have been moments of great happiness; fun times, cloud-9 times, laugh-until-you-cry times. Equally, I’ve shed a fair few tears and I re-live days of disappointment, even sadness. I’ve met new people and I’ve had to say ‘farewell’ to others. I’ve relished new challenges and I’ve battled with the drudgery of daily routines. I think it’s called life! It strikes me that we don’t actually need significant temporal landmarks such as years and decades to make sense of our lives. In actual fact every day matters. And that is true of any year. The difference for me in 2019 is that so many more days have been captured and will be remembered. Because I have written their stories down and that’s one thing that is not going to stop.

Exactly one year ago, the blog was my New Year’s Resolution. Little did I know how much I was going to love it … just love writing again. It’s not enough to tell you that it’s fun to have a record of the year to re-read and share. It has been a complete joy. I start with a blank screen. I set off. I rarely know where I’m going or what I want to say. The words just dance on the page, then blend and reform into thoughts, sentences and stories. It feels exciting, it feels creative and it has been, without question, astonishingly therapeutic. I recommend it to anyone. Whether it’s building basket ball stands (Slam dunk – my most popular post of the year) or conversations with your friends that transform your outlook on life (Single parenthood necessity) any day or event can make a memorable tale.

Carrying on with my blog, that’s a definite ‘Yes’ for me. I would also add writing to my previous tips of running and reading, for any stretched and stressed parent. All three pastimes are free and flexible. They fit around you and your schedule and are fantastic for health and well being. Hey, reading, running and writing – the veritable 3R’s of sanity, for people of all shapes and sizes.

Glancing up from my reveries, I notice that it’s getting quite dark. I drain the last of my coffee and reluctantly, resign myself to the fact that my therapy time is up for today. If I ever want to get home again, I need to face the M6 ….