Monday, 12 April 2021

My Year of Reading 2021 - January to March

Well, as I said in my last post, I'm struggling to think of things to write about for various reasons. But one thing I can write about is books - although I seem to end up writing mostly about children's books. So this year I thought I'd talk about my own reading, particularly as I'm doing something a bit different.

Last year I think a lot of people like me (white, left-leaning, probably a bit sheltered) started to really consider our own biases in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Yes, it's embarrassing that it took this long to start having conversations about what anti-racism looks like, and how we all need to be aware of the effects of racism. And I'm still figuring out what changes I need to make in light of these conversations.

As you might have guessed, the main way I learn is through reading. I like to think my reading matter is already fairly diverse - I definitely don't focus solely on white authors - but I thought this would be a good opportunity to focus on more diverse voices, so I decided that in 2021 I would exclusively read books by authors of colour (sorry if that's the wrong term to use, please tell me if there's a better term). As I've mentioned before I'm a slow reader, so my goal is 20 books across the year. Here's what I've read in the first quarter ...

'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith 

I really wanted to like this novel. I'd heard lots about it, and knew it was highly acclaimed. But to be honest I really struggled. I just couldn't engage with many of the characters, and the broad scope of the novel made it hard to follow all the threads. Some storylines just felt superfluous, and I felt like the character I was most interested in - Clara - ended up sidelined. I could tell it was very skillfully written, but I didn't feel compelled to keep reading. I stuck with it to the end, which was just really strange, but was quite relieved to get it finished to be honest.

'Queenie' by Candice Carty-Williams

I got on better with this book - it's very, very readable, partly because of its use of instant messaging to break up the text and partly because the main plot is compelling, and the characters are likeable and I rooted for them. But my goodness this book needs a content warning of some kind. It's very explicit, with some scenes uncomfortably close to abuse.  It did make me more aware of how black women's bodies are fetishised, though. There was a bit of a nod to BLM but it felt a bit disjointed from the rest of the novel, although maybe I missed the point. Overall I did enjoy it, even if some parts had to be hastily skimmed over.

'Small Island' by Andrea Levy

I loved this novel. It took a while to get going, and some parts dragged more than others, but it's a wonderful story with fascinating and engaging characters. I learnt a lot about the experience of the first Windrush generation and the role of West Indian servicemen in World War II, as well as life in mid-century Jamaica. The twist at the end felt like it came completely out of the blue, although maybe I just missed the signs, and was summed up a bit hastily, but I could understand why the story went that way. This is a novel I can see myself rereading in future, which is rare for me.

'Rose, Interrupted' by Patrice Lawrence

This one is a bit different to the rest as it's a YA novel but I often enjoy the change of pace that MG/YA novels provide. This one is less about race than the other novels, but it has a lot to say about the challenge of finding an identity after escaping an oppressive environment, as it focuses on the lives of a brother and sister who have left a strict religious sect. I found it a really compelling read, and it taught me what fairy kei means! It's also a really good exploration of consent, boundaries, relationships and online abuse.

'The Confessions of Frannie Langton' by Sara Collins

I won't write much about this yet as I didn't finish it in March, but what I will say is that it's very much a slow burner ...

I'm aware that my reading list so far is dominated by black British authors. I am planning to read books by authors of other backgrounds, it just happens that these are the books I already had! If you have any recommendations I'd love to hear them.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Where From Here?

 A lot has changed in the last six months.

That may come as a surprise to some, as we live in the eternal Groundhog Day of the pandemic, with the same routines of socially distanced walks, checking daily stats and panicking mildly when that little shield pops up in the notifications bar. But for me, there has been a lot change.

I am now fully and officially a School Mum. Boy Child, a Preschooler no more, has started school - then stopped it again - then started it a little bit (more on that in a moment). And suddenly I'll never take a child to a play group again, which for me is a big deal. My social life had revolved around play groups for eight years, now even the one I volunteer at hasn't been able to meet for almost a year. When it does finally meet again I won't have a little helper/saboteur with me which is hard to get my head around. And Boy Child himself has transformed into someone who can read and write, which makes my heart swell with pride but does unfortunately mean he's definitely not a baby any more. Sigh.

Is have also hung up my SAHM hat as I have started working at a school part time. Hence Boy Child going back into school, as I am a critical worker the children can go to school when I'm working. Going back to employment after such a long time felt scary at first and all the changes that the latest lockdown has brought means that I still haven't found my new rhythm. It's been a big change and I still haven't worked out how to fit everything in.

Which brings me to this blog. I've been very quiet on here. Part of this is time - how anyone has been able to keep writing while juggling involuntary home schooling and/or work is beyond me. It's not just a time issue though, my head is so full I can't think of anything coherent to write. Hence this rambling blog post.

And then there's the issue of what to write about. As my children get older I'm very conscious of the risk of oversharing, and now I work in education I need to think about my own digital footprint. I'm still figuring this out as I do enjoy blogging but need to think carefully about how to do it in a safe and respectful way. Many of my posts over the last year or so have been book-related as that feels safe, but it's not the only thing this blog is meant to be about. I did consider rebranding, or even shutting down the blog entirely, but in a moment of technological incompetence I ended up renewing my domain name for two years, so I kind of feel like I need to make it worthwhile!!

So if I'm quiet for a while, it's because I'm still trying to work out where I take this blog. And I'm still trying to figure out where to take myself. And we're living in a bizarre disaster movie that is far more mundane than I expected but still not great for creativity. Any or all of those things.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Review: 'The Knight Who Might' by Lou Treleaven and Kyle Beckett

DISCLAIMER: I was gifted this book for the purposes of this review but all words and opinions are my own.

How does your little one do at trying new things? Are they keen to give it a go even if they struggle at first, or do they give up easily? Perseverance is something that a lot of children are born with but it can fade over time without the right encouragement. For other children, they are naturally more cautious and need support to learn to take risks and keep on trying.

'The Knight Who Might' is a really good book for talking about perseverance, but also about perseverance. The main character really wants to be a knight, but struggles with every skill he needs, from riding a horse to even wearing armour. Nevertheless he keeps trying, firm in the belief that one day he might be a knight.

His self-belief is impressive, particularly as he is surrounded by voices of doubt. His magic talking horse, sword and helmet are all ready to tell him that he might not be a knight. And when he enters a competition for knights, instead of supporting him they all hide, believing that without them he won't go through with it.

But the Knight Who Might is undeterred and sets off for the competition alone. When he sees his first rival, The Lord With The Scary Looking Sword, doubt creeps in for the first time. But just then his magic team come to his aid and encourage him to try.

I love the message of this book. It can be used to talk about perseverance and how we mustn't be discouraged if we struggle with something at first, but also how we can be good friends and support people even when they're finding things difficult. It's so important to teach children how to build others up rather than point out their flaws and difficulties. I also really like the fact that the ending isn't as triumphant as you might expect, but still remains positive. So many underdog stories end with an implausible triumph, but I think it's a stronger message to show that things don't always go how you want but good can still come out of difficult situations.

The message is delivered in a light and humorous way, with some great wordplay thrown in (I do love a good pun!) and witty illustrations to make little readers smile. It doesn't feel like a story with a message, so is good for sneaking in a positive message with children who might be more resistant to more obviously didactic books. 

'The Knight Who Might' is published at the end of October 2020.

Linking up with #ReadWithMe hosted by Mama Mummy Mum.

Read With Me

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Review: 'Pirates vs Monsters' by David Crosby and Lee Cosgrove (gifted)

DISCLAIMER: This book was gifted to me for the purposes of this review, but all words and opinions are my own.

Do you have a child who likes to tell tall tales? I think most children go through this stage, whether it's a case of their imagination running away with them or wanting to sound braver, cooler or better off than they actually are. 

'Pirates vs Monsters' tackles this issue in a funny and child-friendly way. It begins with three pirates trading stories about terrible monsters they have defeated, each trying to outdo the others.

But while they boast of their beastly battles, a mysterious fog is drifting in, and with it a ship with a very scary crew ...

You can probably guess what happens next, but it reveals that the pirates were not as successful at vanquishing their monster foes as they claimed to be!

This is a great book for talking about how other people's boasts may not be all they seem, a useful conversation to have with younger schoolchildren! We've all had to tell our kid that little Jimmy probably doesn't get to stay up until 11pm playing on his iPhone, right?! But aside from the moral lesson, it's simply a very fun book for kids who enjoy scary stories. The illustrations are well-pitched - colourful, expressive and with just the right scare factor for young children. 

I would say that it might not be the ideal book for more sensitive children or those with a fear of monsters, as (spoiler) the monsters win in the end and the descriptions can be a bit scary, but there are plenty of kids who love a bit of a fright and would really enjoy this book. It would be a fantastic book for Halloween, with the spooky fog creating an eerie atmosphere!

'Pirates vs Monsters' is published by Maverick Books and available now.

Linking up with Read With Me hosted by Mama Mummy Mum.

Read With Me

Friday, 25 September 2020

Review: 'Why?' by Billy Dunne and Rhys Jefferys (gifted)

 DISCLAIMER: This book was gifted to me for the purposes of this review, however all words and opinions are my own.

When Girl Child was a toddler and reached the 'why' stage, a friend advised me to try giving increasingly lengthy and complex answers so she would soon get bored. Unfortunately this was not a good tactic with my little information sponge, and she would keep asking why until my own knowledge base was exhausted.

The little girl in 'Why?' has a similar energy, and I love her for it. When her dad points out a rainbow and explains that they occur when sun and rain come together, her interest is piqued and she needs to know more. Lots more.

I think a lot of parents will relate to the rising stress levels of the dad, whose answers become increasingly scientific and technical as her desperately tries to satisfy his daughter's thirst for knowledge!

I really enjoyed reading this book. It's an impressive feat to not only explain complex science in a way that's accessible to children, but to do it whilst also rhyming! It definitely taught me a few things I either never knew or have forgotten in the 20 years since I last studied science. (Sorry science teachers, I'm sure you explained all this to me back then but my brain decided memorising Britpop lyrics was more important.)

The illustrations complement the text brilliantly, helping to explain the science behind rainbows and refraction in a really accessible way - that is, until the final explanation at which point the page is taken over by formulae and symbols as the dad's knowledge finally reaches its limits. I also love the subtleties with which the dad's expression changes with the turn of each page, not easily with just a few dots and lines. The curiosity and exuberance of the daughter is also very well expressed. And I absolutely love the visual gag on the very last page!

I'm really impressed with this picture book. The use of rhyme makes it appealing to children and it explains scientific principles really clearly, whilst also adding in humour for the adult reading it. I think it would appeal to older toddlers, preschoolers and younger school-age children depending on their level of understanding, but I do plan on leaving it lying around for my eight year old, "too big for picture books" Girl Child as I think she will really enjoy the scientific element.

'Why?' is due to be published by Maverick Books  in October 2020.

Linking up with Kids Love To Read #KLTR hosted by Laura's Lovely Blog and Bookbairn and #ReadWithMe hosted by Mama Mummy Mum

Read With Me

Monday, 14 September 2020

Out With a Fizzle

My youngest, my baby, started school today. And just like that, I have two schoolchildren. My days as a mum of a pre-school-age child are over.

This is not how I saw that stage of my life ending.

I'd had lots of plans for the last Spring and Summer with my little boy. I was going to start taking him swimming, go on little adventures with him, and generally enjoy our last weeks of just the two of us. Of course, none of that happened. It's a small thing compared to how coronavirus has impacted many other people - we're fortunate that we have all stayed healthy, as have the people we know and love. But I still can't help but feel a sense of injustice over the loss of the last of my one-on-one time with my son before I have to share him with school five days a week. We have had happy times as a family, yes, but balancing the very high and very different needs of my two children has been difficult, and I can't help but feel that Boy Child has been short-changed. 

Of course, he knows no different. He doesn't really understand what has happened over the last six months, and it probably hasn't occurred to him just how much mummy-son time he's missed out on. But I know. I know what I'd planned, I know that all his lasts before this big first have been taken away. The end of his pre-school life, and the end of our time together, feels like a big anti-climax. Even starting school feels strange as I know that his 'bubble' could get closed and there's no knowing if or when that will happen. How I'll explain that to him I don't know, but it adds a layer of instability to how we can approach the next few months. And milestones like his first harvest festival, his first nativity - well, they look very unlikely right now.

Then of course, there's the looming question of what's next for me. I've been a stay at home mum for almost nine years now, and the last six months was meant to be my time to come up with a plan. But, in the words of Phoebe Buffay, now I don't even have a pla. After such a long time where my life basically revolved around my kids, I was looking forward to carving out a new path. But there's so much uncertainty now. It definitely doesn't feel like a good time to be job hunting, when so many other people have lost jobs and businesses face a challenging future. So for now I feel like I'm entering a holding position, a limbo between having at least one child to keep me busy most of the time (or all the time over lockdown) and finding a role for the future. Even the volunteering roles I had before lockdown have shrunk or disappeared so I feel like I've stumbled into being a housewife, which is not a role I planned or wanted to have!

So in general, I feel like what should have been a big moment, for both my son and me, has turned into a damp squib. No big bang of a new start, just a fizzle of uncertainty.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Peer Support in a Pandemic

Today I did something I haven't done in months. I went to a breastfeeding peer support group. And it was lovely.

In normal times, I'm a volunteer breastfeeding peer supporter. I help to run a local peer support group, which before lockdown was welcoming around 12-18 mums per week. That might not seem huge, but for those women, it was a chance to get support with feeding problems, meet up with others in their situation and generally feel heard and accepted.

And then, the week before lockdown, we had to cancel all sessions indefinitely. I was gutted. How were all these women, and the new mums to come, going to get the support they need?

Peer support since then has been difficult. We set up Zoom sessions but numbers dwindled and providing support with problems over a video call is a big challenge. We have a Facebook group which mums can use to share concerns which has been great for the more commonplace issues as other mums are often very ready to share their experiences as reassurance, but it's hard to address more complex problems via keyboard. And the backdrop of all this was not knowing which services were still running and not being able to signpost to breastfeeding counsellors who would usually offer home visits but, for obvious reasons, are unable to now. As a peer supporter, I am trained in the basics of breastfeeding support but much of my role is signposting, so this has made things really difficult.

This week a report was released called 'Babies in Lockdown' which highlights the challenges new and expectant parents have experienced during lockdown. One of the issues highlighted was the lack of breastfeeding support. Some of the stories women told almost made me cry with frustration at what they've had to deal with. It's genuinely heartbreaking to see mums struggling and being unable to provide or refer to the support they need.

Today, to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, we tried out a peer support group in a park, with strictly limited numbers and social distancing measures. It felt very different to the usual meetings we have in a children's centre - I kept getting the urge to offer tea and biscuits (another big part of my role usually) and not being able to get a sneaky cuddle was rubbish. Now I'm done with baby making myself, the biggest perk of peer support is being able to nab other women's babies for a cuddle on a regular basis. But that aside, it was so lovely to be able to talk to mums about how they'd been doing, offer support and reassurance, and see them chatting to each other and getting the social support that these women have so lacked in lockdown. It reminded me why I love the role. 

I really hope that as we weather the ups and downs of the next few months - because it's become obvious that it's not going to be a steady relaxing of rules, and situations can change very quickly - more thought will be given to the needs of new parents. They need support in so many areas, but breastfeeding definitely needs more protection. This isn't a judgement on formula feeding. My role is to facilitate mums to meet their own feeding goals, not beat them round the head with a 'breast is best' message. It's a recognition that there are challenges specific to breastfeeding than need support, and that for many mothers being able to feed their baby how they choose is a priority. 

I hope I will be able to get back to more regular peer supporting soon. I hope that mums get the support they need. I hope that the government will prioritise the families of infants and toddlers who have been almost entirely overlooked so far.