Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Review: 'Refuge' by Anne Booth and Sam Usher

Two years ago, I saw a few tweets about a new Christmas book that was something very special. Published on a very tight turnaround, it was a retelling of the Nativity with the focus on the vulnerability of Jesus and his family and how they effectively became refugees after his birth. It came at a time when the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe was becoming desperate, and was sold to raise money for War Child, a charity working with displaced children. That book was 'Refuge'.

I bought the book that year and I absolutely love it. It's such a simple retelling of a very familiar story but each word is so carefully chosen, so thought-provoking. Sam Usher's illustrations are similarly simple yet striking, really evoking both the joy of the new arrival and the fear of Herod's reaction to the news of a new King.

Interestingly the simplicity of the illustrations sparked a conversation with Eleanor (5) about the origins of the book. Throughout, Usher mostly uses monochrome with golden tones, and Eleanor asked me why all the pictures were 'black and white'. I explained to her that the book was written very quickly to raise money for refugees, so using mainly black and white meant that it could be illustrated and printed more quickly. This led to us talking about how Jesus was a refugee like the people escaping war now. 

I really love this book and everything it stands for. The concise text means that it is a great book to read with children of different ages - it's short enough for toddlers not to get bored, but there is enough in it to talk to older children about. It's not clear whether proceeds still go to War Child two years on, but nonetheless this is a useful book for starting conversations about the (sadly ongoing) refugee crisis.

Linking up with #ReadWithMe hosted by Mama Mummy Mum.

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Thursday, 7 December 2017

Santa, Elves, and Accepting Beliefs

I've written before about our decision not to tell our children that Santa is real. I've also written about how the reality of that can be tricky once children are in childcare. Well, as Eleanor has started school it has stayed tricky - although actually, we have found a way of managing it.

Photo by Markus Spiske freeforcommercialuse.net from Pexels

Eleanor is at that stage where beliefs are fluid, where she can kind of believe and not believe all at once. A few months ago she emphatically told me that she doesn't believe in Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny, but she does believe in the Tooth Fairy. (We've been honest about all three.) "Well," she continued, "I know it's not real really, but I want to believe it."

A couple of years ago, when I was a bit more gung-ho about these things, I might have taken issue with this statement. But I've relaxed a lot about it since she started school, mostly out of necessity. She lives in her own imaginary world so much - she has imaginary friends, she 'sees' fairies, she even has a magic wardrobe - that I've accepted that figures like the Tooth Fairy inhabit that strange crossover world between fantasy and reality for her.

As the Christmas season approached this year, Eleanor told me she believed in Santa. My response? "OK." I won't do anything differently - the presents will be labelled with the actual gift-giver's name, there will be no Elf or Santa Cam spying on her and I will continue to approach the whole thing with a sense of playfulness. She knows I don't believe. She does. It's an opportunity to show her that two people with different beliefs can co-exist and respect each other.

It's interesting seeing her work out what she does and doesn't believe in. She claims that a red light on her classroom ceiling is Santa watching them, and she even says she's seen the bobble of his hat poking out - and that she's the only one who can see it. Their class also has an elf which she explains, "is just a toy but some children pretend it's real," and that they can't touch it not for magical reasons but the very practical reason that it might get damaged. She's happy to play along and relates the elf's exploits with glee, but at the same time she knows it's a game.

One thing I have been clear about, though, is the idea of nice and naughty lists. I hate the way Santa is used as a way of bribing children to 'be good' - sorry, but it just makes me deeply uncomfortable. So I have told her that in some versions of the story only good children get presents - but that we know that's not true because all children do their best.

This approach also calms my anxieties about what Eleanor will say to her friends. She's a very forthright girl and will speak her mind without a second thought, painfully so at times. And while I choose not to do the Santa thing, I have no wish to spoil things for families who do - I respect their choice to do things differently to us. Luckily I think Eleanor's desire to fit in with her peers is, in this case, stronger than her desire to speak her mind. Phew.

So on the whole I think I've developed a more pragmatic approach to Santa. We'll go to no lengths to continue her belief nor will we go to any lengths to extinguish it. If it brings another level of play and excitement for her then that's fine, and hopefully we can use it as a way of teaching acceptance of other people's beliefs.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Review: 'Oliver Elephant' by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens

We are now a few days into our Book Advent, and on Day 2 we read a new Christmas book for this year, 'Oliver Elephant'.

I won this book in a giveaway on Toppsta (if you love children's books I really recommend this website - nope, not a sponsored post, just love it!) and read it to myself straight away but decided to keep it for Advent. That was hard though, as it's such a lovely book!

Noah is on a shopping trip with his mum, little sister, and his favourite toy, Oliver Elephant. As mum buys Christmas presents in different shops, Noah plays with Oliver, but when it's time to go home he realises Oliver is missing! Did he leave him in one of the shops?

I adored this book. Something about it reminded me of the Alfie books by Shirley Hughes - it's such a gentle, human story, so easy to relate to and simple, and told with such warmth. It's told in rhyming text too, which Eleanor (5) really enjoyed as she read it to Ezra (1).

As well as being a lovely story beautifully told, the illustrations are gorgeous and so very festive. Ezra is maybe a little young for the story but he loved pointing out the details in the illustrations, and making his elephant noise every time Oliver appeared!

I really think this book has the makings of a Christmas classic. It's rare to find a book about just the everyday preparations involved in the run-up to Christmas so this is perfect to read as part of Advent. The story is familiar and warm, the text is rhythmic and fun, and the illustrations really capture the excitement of walking into a beautifully decorated mall.

Although this book was our 'Day 2 of Advent' story I'm hoping to get plenty more reads in this month, and in years to come!

Linking up with #ReadWithMe hosted by Mama Mummy Mum.

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Thursday, 30 November 2017

Advent Acts Of Kindness

On Monday I wrote about a new 'tradition' I'm starting this year with my kids - the Book Advent. But last year I started another Advent tradition, which was Advent Acts Of Kindness.

A few years back I bought a wooden Advent calendar from a local charity shop - I think it cost around £5 but I thought it would be good to save us buying overpriced calendars every year. Plus it meant that, as Eleanor was just a toddler at the time, I could put healthier treats in it instead of giving her a daily dose of chocolate.

Last year I thought she was old enough to add another level to the preparations. I'd seen about the idea of giving children activities to do every day through Advent, and more specific ones about 'Random Acts Of Kindness', and I thought this was a great way to encourage children to see Advent as a time of preparation and participation, not just eating sweets!

You can find all kinds of printables online with pre-written prompts, but I wanted to be able to tailor the activities to our situation so I quickly designed my own little slips to print off and fill in myself. Not the prettiest solution admittedly, but it gave me a little more control over what we did.

As Eleanor was at school during the week this limited our time a little so, for the most part, the actions were small things we could either fit around school (such as litter picking on the way home or phoning relatives in the evening) or she could do at school (like talking to someone new or hugging a friend). We saved more complicated things for weekends (e.g. baking for her teachers) or the school holiday (anything requiring a visit). We also used it to encourage her to help around the house and get her Christmas cards written!

Why did we choose Advent Acts Of Kindness? For me, Christmas is all about love. (Specifically, God's love for us expressed by sending His son, but I won't go into a sermon here, don't worry!) And so taking time to think of others, to do something kind for someone else, even if it's just a case of saying hello or feeding the birds, can be a great reminder of what the season is all about, and of how we can express love for others in lots of different ways.

I think incorporating a bit of kindness and selflessness into children's daily lives is an important lesson whatever the time of year, but I certainly found the structure of Advent very helpful. I can't say with all honestly it started a lasting trend of daily do-gooding - the excesses of Christmas and birthday celebrations kind of detracted from it a bit - but hopefully if we do it every year it will plant a seed that will help both my children grow into kind, selfless and compassionate people.

So tomorrow I start it all again! What Advent Acts Of Kindness will we do this year? Comment below with your suggestions, I'll try to keep you updated on our progress via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

Monday, 27 November 2017

Our Book Advent

I first heard of the idea of a Book Advent about three years ago, during my brief spell as a children's bookseller. I loved the idea, but couldn't afford to get 24 Christmas themed books (I know you can use any books, but I thought that Christmassy ones would feel more special). But over the last three years I've slowly stockpiled a collection of Christmas and winter-themed books so at last I think we can try for a Book Advent!

I still had three books to get at the start of Advent which means that I couldn't do an arty pile of wrapped books (you should check out BookBairn's, it's stunning!) but then I'm not keen on wrapping anyway! I'm going to opt for a Christmassy bag hung somewhere with a book appearing in it every day.

My collection is a hotch-potch of bought, given and acquired books, and I'll note where each comes from in the list. There are a couple of days where I've doubled up books - I'm hoping that for the most part both my children will enjoy the same book, but as Ezra is not even 2 and Eleanor is nearly 6 with a very high reading age, I've paired short books for the former with more challenging books for the latter.

So here's my current plan. It may change depending on which other books I get. I'll be reviewing a few of these over Advent and will link in any reviews I do (and one I did many years ago).

1st December - 'Stick Man' by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (bought - actually pinched out of our regular bookshelf but hey, it has Santa!)

2nd December - 'Oliver Elephant' by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Toppsta giveaway)

3rd December - 'The First Christmas' (given at playgroup)

4th December - 'Dear Santa' by Rod Campbell (charity shop buy)/ 'The Princess and the White Bear King' by Tanya Robin Batt and Nicoletta Ceccoli (bought)

5th December - 'Snow Bear' by Tony Mitton and Alison Brown (gift)

6th December - 'Refuge' by Anne Booth and Sam Usher (bought)

7th December - 'Sam's Snowflake' by Gillian Shields and Rosie Reeve (gift)

8th December - 'A Letter For Bear' by David Lucas (bought, after years of longing)

9th December - 'The Christmas Poem' by Bob Hartman and Honor Ayres (given at playgroup)

10th December - 'Teddy Bear Postman' by Phoebe and Selby Worthington (hand-me-down from my husband!)

11th December - 'Christmas Around The World' by Lesley Sims and Angelo Ruta (bought)

12th December - 'The Fox's Tale' by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen (gift)

13th December - 'Mr Grizzly's Christmas' by Libby Hamilton and Maggie Kneen (gift)

14th December - 'Thomas's Christmas Party' (hand-me-down from my husband)

15th December - 'The Christmas Star' (given at playgroup)

16th December - 'Busy Christmas' (bought)

17th December - 'Snowflakes' by Carrie Burnell (bought)

18th December - 'Babushka' by Sandra Ann Horn and Sophie Fatus (bought)

19th December - 'Last Stop On The Reindeer Express' by Maudie Powell and Karl James Mountford (giveaway by Along Came Poppy - received after the above photo was taken)

20th December - 'Coming Home' by Michael Morpurgo (bought)

21st December - 'The Miracle Of The First Poinsettia' by Joanne Oppenheim and Fabian Negrin (bought)

22nd December - 'Maisy's Christmas Eve' by Lucy Cousins (charity shop buy)

23rd December - 'The Wise Men' (hand-me-down from friends)/ 'Christmas With Princess Mirror-Belle' by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks (bought)

24th December - 'The Night Before Christmas' by Clement C Moore and Eric Puybaret (bought)

As you can see, it really doesn't have to be expensive to put together a book advent - at present, less than half of the books were bought new and a few of those were part of a deal - you just need to be good at hoarding and keeping your eyes open for good buys!

Are you doing a Book Advent? What are your favourite Christmas books?

 Linking up with #ReadWithMe hosted by Mama Mummy Mum.

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Thursday, 23 November 2017

What To Buy From WAHMs This Christmas (And Why)

It's just over a month to the big day - how organised are you? Everything bought or still trying to work out what to buy? And do you go for the big stores or try to shop local?

I'm definitely disorganised, very little has been bought so far but I quite like the last minute rush! One thing I do try every year is to buy at least some of my presents from small businesses - it's so important to support them, and you can often pick up lovely unique items you just couldn't find anywhere else.

I especially like buying from work-at-home mums (WAHMs). I guess it's a solidarity thing from my WAHM days, but I know how hard it is to juggle childcare with a small business, and to make yourself heard above the clamour of big businesses. I also know the feeling you get when someone places an order - someone once said that when you buy from a WAHM you make someone somewhere do a little happy dance! For me, knowing I'm supporting another mama makes the gift-buying process even more meaningful for me.

Don't know any WAHMs? Don't worry - I've had a look for you and found some brilliant WAHM-made products on Etsy. All these sellers have a special place in my heart as they are either based in, or have lived in, my current home county of Yorkshire so it's great to support local mums too.

Christmas-themed gifts

I love getting festive-themed gifts, it's always nice to get something out of the decoration box in later years and remember the person who bought it. There are some really gorgeous Christmas decorations on Etsy - like this Candy Cane Wreath from JEMLeeatMagic. 

Or how about a card that doubles as a gift? These handmade Christmas cards from Dillymoo Designs are decorated with beautiful knitted items which make them great to use for decorations in future Christmasses. 

Also from Dillymoo Designs is this beautiful Framed Star with the quote 'Robins appear when loved ones are near'. This would make a really thoughtful gift for someone who may be missing a loved one at Christmastime. 

I also really love these felt heart-shaped baskets from Northern Handmade Collective - these would make lovely gifts filled with sweets, or placed on the tree for a little treat on Christmas morning!

Gifts For Kids

It can be easy just to go for toy overload at Christmas but that's something I try to avoid - I think less is more when it comes to toys. So what else could you get your little ones?

I really love buying children's clothes from WAHMs - it's lovely knowing that your dressing you child in something unique and I often get great comments when my little ones wear WAHM-made clothes! At the moment I'm in love with these dinosaur dungarees from Spider & Fly - what child (or adult) doesn't love dinos?!

For children of babywearers, you could get an item of clothing made from wrap scraps from Mama Pixie UK, like this gorgeous pixie hood. Or if it's for a baby who's still being worn, how about protecting those little toes from the cold with these super-cute rainbow booties from IndigoSky2Knit?

For something a little different, you could go for a personalised rainbow picture from Dillymoo Designs to brighten up their room. Or if you have more money to spend, how about this amazing play kitchen from The Joiners Workshop? (This one's more like a work-at-home-dad, but hey, I'm not picky!)

Gifts For Grown-Ups

I don't know about you but I always find adults harder to buy for than children! It's so hard to know what they want, what they already have etc etc. But with buying from small businesses you can get something really individual - a gift for someone who has it all!

For family members, I think this family tree cushion cover from Delix Designs would be fantastic - what a lovely way of being reminded of your nearest and dearest! Or on the family tree theme, this Fingerprint tree from Pink Cottage Prints would make a lovely gift for grandparents, and something the whole family can help to personalise.

Speaking of families, if you have a friend 'in the family way' you could get her some birth affirmation cards from Mama Pixie UK to help her on the big day!

Jewellery is often a winner with female friends and relatives, and personalised items can feel all the more special. This floral bracelet from Delix Stamped Designs can be engraved with a message of your choice. And men don't have to be left out - the same shop also offers a personalised bottle opener!! (OK, women drink beer too - maybe you could get a matching set for a couple?!)

For all those people you know who are too busy to drink a hot cup of tea, how about getting them a beautiful crochet mug cosy from IndigoSky2Knit to buy them a little more time? Actually, I think I could do with one of these!! 

There is so much choice on Etsy, these are just a few of the many great gift options out there - and you're pretty much guaranteed to make someone happy-dance whatever you choose!

DISCLAIMER: This post contains affiliate links - this won't affect how you shop, but means if you buy through one of the links I'll get a few pence to spend on pretty things myself!

Monday, 20 November 2017

Review: 'I Want To Go First!' by Richard Byrne

In my relentless pursuit of books I've recently started entering pretty much every competition I come across to win children's books. Recently, this effort did pay off when I won a signed copy of Richard Byrne's latest picture book, 'I Want To Go First!'

I've been reading Byrne's books for a while now, picking them up at the library every time I spot a new one, so it's great to finally have one to call my own. Er, the kids' own, I mean. I really love the way he plays with the book format - many readers will be familiar with his brilliant use of the gutter in 'This Book Just Ate My Dog!' This new title is no exception - it is gleefully meta, drawing attention to the fact it is a book and encouraging the readers to join in the story.

On the first page we are welcomed to the 'Front-Of-The-Book Nature Reserve' and we are then introduced to a family of elephants on their way to the 'Back-Of-The-Book Watering Hole'. Elphie, the smallest elephant, wants to lead the way but the rules dictate that the biggest elephant goes first. So he cleverly enlists the help of the reader to get him to the front of the line.

This is a fantastic story for reading aloud, and for encouraging interaction. With every page, Elphie asks the readers to squeak, growl, wobble the book and so on to distract his brothers and sisters so that he can jump the queue. I was a little worried how Ezra, my 1 year old, would understand the concept of the story, but I enlisted the help of my 5-year-old Eleanor who enthusiastically joined in with the noises and actions and he couldn't stop laughing at it! Hopefully the more familiar he gets with the story the more he'll understand it and start joining in.

Eleanor, as usual, read the book in her head first, and when I said it was more for reading aloud, said, "but it's funny in my head too!" She loved the fact that there was an elephant with her name, and that all the names began with E - she's very big on alliteration (she chose her brother's name!!). I don't often get to read aloud to her now she's so confident at reading to herself, so this was a fantastic chance to have a family read-together!

Does Elphie make it to the front of the line? I'll leave you to find out for yourself!

Linking up with #ReadWithMe hosted by Mama Mummy Mum and Kids Love To Read #kltr hosted by Laura's Lovely Blog and The Inspiration Edit.

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