Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable’- an interview with HP Wood, author of Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet

Magruder's Cover

H.P. Woods spent a fair few summers propping up the bar at Coney Island’s Sideshows downing Coronas with her friends and sometimes buying a round for Michael the Tattooed Man. The granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician, she read for a degree in theatre studies and took a series of girl-gotta-make-rent jobs in New York City before she settled into the world of publishing. Instead of making things disappear, she makes books of all shapes and sizes and has now written her first novel, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet (Sourcebooks Landmark) which was published earlier this month.

Woods went back to Coney Island for inspiration for her story, setting it in May 1904, when the resorts newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened with the hope of making back the cost of its investment. many times over. As crowds continued to flock to seaside resorts in their thousands, Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive in the city by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine but a series of unfortunate events leaves Kitty alone in the city with nobody to turn to except the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet.

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Cyclops from “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008” at the Brooklyn Museum

Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Kitty is taken under their wing and with their help she endeavours to find out what happened to her mother only to run into problems when a plague hits Coney Island and the resort is placed under quarantine. As the once-glamorous resort is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen, is Kitty’s missing mother the least of their problems?


Coney Island is as much a character in the novel as Kitty and the Unusuals. Once the largest theme park in the USA (between 1880 and World War Two) Coney Island drew crowds of several million visitors per year as they flocked to the three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park based there. They promenaded on its iconic boardwalk, congregated at Nathans HotDogs and Childs Restaurant to people-watch and shoot the breeze and soaked up the sun and sea air on the beach, just a few miles away from the hot, dusty and crowded streets of New York City.

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On the beach at Coney Island in 1902

The amusements attracted entrepreneurs, opportunists and carneys and their innovation and imagination birthed a new age in theme park design. The earliest carousels (as we know them today) were built in Coney Island, alongside what is widely considered the first modern roller coaster in 1884, the Gravity Switchback Railway. As night fell, over 250,000 electric bulbs lit up the skies at Luna Park which was soon nicknamed Electric Eden after its opening in 1903 and crowds gathered inside Lilliputian Village which was staffed by three hundred dwarfs.

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet has been described as “gloriously original, colorful and alive…. a magnificent riot of unique turn-of-the-century characters…fools and sages, snakes and saviors” and a “cracking Coney Island roller coaster of an adventure, full of marvelous, colorful, and unapologetically authentic characters and a bright, breathless debut….” so  I asked HP Woods about the book and her inspiration. Here’s what she has to say.

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 Can you tell us about your family background of inventors and magicians?

Arthur F Poole was the inventor in the family and his main contribution to the world was an electric clock, which he spent the majority of his life and fortune perfecting… only to have a better ones be invented by others in the years that followed.  His son, my actual grandfather, was something of an inventor as well, and he was the only one who knew how to make what he called “a little doodad” that was required to make his father’s clocks run properly.  When he died in the 1970s, the little doodad went with him, and it is nearly impossible to make the family clocks run properly now.

So it is, if not a sad story, certainly one tinged with a certain irony and/or absurdity.

Theron Wood was a traveling sideshow magician in the 1920s and 1930s.  He gave it up to raise a family in central New York, although he did still perform from time to time.  My 11-year-old daughter is actually quite good at a basic coin trick that has been passed down in the family.  It’s a shame he never got to meet her… although I’m told that he was absolutely determined that women should not do magic, ever. Or wear trousers. So, perhaps it all worked out for the best.

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An advertisement of Theron’s, from when he settled down in NYC.

Is Magruders a story that has always been there, waiting to be told?

Ha! In a sense, Magruder’s is a story that has ALREADY been told!  By which I mean, the central premise—girl and mother check into hotel, mother gets sick and is “disappeared” by said hotel to cover up her dire illness—is apparently an “urban legend” that predates me by some time.  I was not aware of this when I was writing.  I came across the story in a book called The People’s Almanac, where it is presented as fact.  I’ve since been shown other versions of the story in other books, all likewise presented as fact.

In my blissful ignorance, I became very curious about what had become of the girl. As there was no information available (which makes sense in retrospect, the story being false!). I decided I had to write my own ending.  I set it in Coney Island because I have an abiding love for the place.

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Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island, 1938. Reputedly, he could rotate his head 180 degrees.

 

Tell us about your research process…

For research, I read a lot about the history of sideshows; I had studied them a bit while getting a theater degree in college, but I really delved into it much more when I was writing the book.

I read a lot about the plague.  Two books about the Black Death, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, were incredibly important to me. I also read about plague epidemics that hit San Francisco and Honolulu in the early 1900s.  Many events in my book, such as the spineless government cover-ups and scapegoating of immigrants, did actually occur, just on the West Coast rather than New York.  (Trivia moment: the Governor of California was thrown out of office in a scandal related to the fact that he spent two years lying about the existence of plague in his state.)

I’m very envious about your time spent at Coney Island and in the theatre. Were you actively storing up stories and vignettes back then?

I never worked at Coney Island, I just lazed about a great deal. But I did spend almost all my time until the age of about 24 in or around theater: amateur productions, student productions, professional, whatever I could do.  When I needed a job in high school, I got one in the box office of the Hartford Stage Company, which is quite a respected regional theater here in the US.  After college I worked at places like the now-defunct (not my fault!) Circle Repertory Company and New York Theater Workshop.

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The author, in her 20s, at the sideshow bar, on the Coney boardwalk

The playwright Lanford Wilson once stole my pen, so I’ve got that going for me.

My point is, as a writer I connected to my sideshow characters via that background, as fellow theater-types.  Not as biological oddities or weirdos.  And I think that does give the book a different angle on “freaks” than many other books have.  I don’t see the characters in Magruder’s as exotic in any way.  They are exoticized by others, for sure, and that’s a big deal in terms of how they live.  But I see them as regular showfolk trying to make a living and get by in an often-hostile world.

For instance, Zeph, a character who had his legs amputated after an accident, has to go around either on his hands or in a special vehicle.  There are little details about the gloves he has to wear, the handles that are bolted into furniture so he can climb around and reach things, and his utter shock at a girl ever flirting with him.  But all of this is discussed in passing.  It’s not, you know, Here Is A Disabled Character Let’s Discuss That.  It’s not exotic or weird, nor is it romantic or tragic. It’s just part of his regular day.

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The character of Rosalind is genderfluid but again, it’s just a fact of life. There’s no “coming out” narrative here.  In fact, Rosalind drops his boyfriend, Enzo, because Enzo hesitates to be “out” in public and Ros ain’t having it.

The character of Kitty, who is the newcomer to Magruder’s and therefore the reader’s surrogate, is just expected to catch up with all this.  It’s normal life at the Cabinet.

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Can the reader seek out their version of Magruder or is this a world and lifestyle that is completely gone? Our opinions about what makes a curiosity might have changed…

 Well the Coney Island Sideshow  is alive and well, that’s for sure.  In fact, yours truly will be reading from Magruder’s there on July 9, mark your calendars please.  They even have a sideshow school where you can take classes in fire-eating and banner-painting. Meanwhile, the World of Wonders Sideshow  still tours the US during the summer.

So I don’t think the tradition has completely gone away—although it is, as you hint, far more niche than it used to be.  One positive development, though, is that sideshows are much more performance-based now.  In other words, sideshows involve showing off weird skills, rather than exploiting biological differences.

Coney Island itself has had something of a resurgence of late.  New amusement rides, new restaurants, even a hotel going in finally.  But of course, that always sets up a different conflict, of the preservationists versus the gentrifiers.  By my nature I tend to side with the preservationists, but not all change is bad, either.  I’m glad that Coney Island doesn’t look like “The Warriors ” anymore.

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Michael Dolan: CC/ Flickr / Freak show signs at Coney Island

How challenging is it to balance the readers need for space to create his own image of Magruder’s curiosity cabinet and your obvious pleasure in describing it to your readers? I could have happily read a straight ten page description of the attraction as a section in itself but other readers seem to prefer more space. 

This is kind of a dream-come-true question for me, because I think of myself as being terrible at description!  As a reader I guiltily skim it.  I view myself—I think because of my theater background—as primarily a dialogue girl.  But since this isn’t a script, I knew I had to try to put the reader in the specific location.  I worked really hard at the description but never thought it was good enough.

I will say, it was hard to stop myself piling on more weird exhibits, just because they are fun to invent and/or discover.  Just to give you one tiny example, there really is a book called Ought I Be Baptized?  I saw it at a tag sale, and it must have been 500 pages at least.  You wouldn’t think that query would need such a thorough investigation but somebody clearly did.

But at a certain point I just wanted people to start talking!  So, returning to your actual question, I think I just followed my own instincts as a fairly impatient reader.  Don’t bother describing the furniture, gimme an argument.

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 I’ve always been interested in the tension that exists between what fascinates us and what repels us. The Victorian freak show was the incarnation of that and although it no longer exists in such a straightforward way, some might say we have its modern-day equivalent ie Jerry Springer, reality shows like The Kardashians and Donald Trump. What do you think about this? Are we less honest and self-aware about our need to ‘other’ some people than the Victorians were? 

My initial reaction is to deny any connection between my beloved Unusuals and Trump!  But I take your point.  However I am not so sure if the situation can be generalized as us being “more” aware or less.  In fact researching this book kind of led me to the supposition that humans really don’t change all that much.

Sideshows made their money by pinging whatever raw nerves society happened to have at the time.  Studying their history, you can see that very similar acts keep appearing and reappearing, but with adjustments based on whatever was bugging people at the moment.

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So for instance, there’s a famous act usually called Spidora or similar, in which a woman pretends to be part woman & part spider.  It’s an old act.  But what interested me was, the cause of the spider transformation changes over time.  Originally it would have been something simple like, a bite from an especially mean spider. So in that instance, the uncontrollable natural world is the enemy.  But later, “atomic radiation” was the culprit.  In the 1980s, that was adjusted to “toxic waste.”

In Magruder’s, you get to see Rosalind’s performance as a half-and-half, meaning one side male, one side female.  It’s an act whose popularity tracks pretty closely with the suffrage movement.  In the same era, you’d have cartoons in the newspaper showing “a suffragette at home,” where her husband is wearing a frilly apron as he cleans with one hand and holds a baby with another.  So there was tremendous gender anxiety at the time, and it was turned into performance at the sideshow.

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Anyway, it’s not hard to “read” Trump in this light.  He is performing hyper-masculine aggression at a time when a certain segment of Americans are feeling emasculated—by the post-Fordist economy, by globalization, by feminism.  By the very fact that a black man has led the free world for 7.5 years. Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable.

I honestly don’t know enough about the Kardashians to get a read on them in this way, but I guarantee you there is some social itch that they are scratching, just like Spidora did back in her day.

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Who are you reading and what other books in the Magruder theme might you recommend to readers newly interested in this subject?

I am reading More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, which has pretty much nothing to do with Magruder’s, but you asked!  There are loads of novels about sideshows and Coney Island, most of which I avoided reading because I didn’t want to copy them.  But Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is supposed to be excellent, as is Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry.  (Aside to that one damn reviewer who dismissed me as “derivative” of Hoffman: I started my book several years before Hoffman’s came out. And indeed I had myself a good long cry when I found out about hers, because I was certain all my work was for nothing. Humph!)

The Platonic Ideal of a “freak” book is of course Geek Love.  It is a Modern Classic that means a great deal to a great many people.  It’s not some dumb old commercial “beach read” like mine: Geek Love is respected as Great Literature.

I hate the bloody thing.  I can’t stand how profoundly, aggressively ugly and cruel all the freaks are. (Yes, I understand that it is social satire.  I “get” it, I just don’t “want” it.)  Jean-Luc Godard said that in order to criticize a film you need to make another film… And you could definitely interpret my book as a response to Geek Love in that sense.

And finally, on my website  I have a page called Magruder’s Library, which lists the books I read as research.  So there you’ll find the real history of Coney Island, sideshows, plagues, and all manner of other oddities.

Coney Island Freak Show

 

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet is out now.

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Michael Dolan / Flickr: Coney Island in 2010

https://twitter.com/swordswallow


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas food between the pages

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“It was a world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapour had frozen over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar, Everything was rigid, locked up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.” … Winter not only sets in hard for Laurie Lee, but inspires him to write one of the most evocative depictions of Christmas in literature, His words resonate deeply with those of us living in the northern hemisphere where a sudden drop in the temperature turns noses the colour of cooked quince, bursts the tender cells of dormant plants as it clads the landscape in a brittle tracery of frost.

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‘Cold December brings the sleet, blazing fire and Christmas treat’ goes the saying, as the earth moves its vast bulk to faces the shortest days of the year, square on. Daylight hours are misty and crepuscular meaning indoor lights remain lit but this unrelenting greyness is interrupted by the gaiety and colour of Christmas: scarlet holly berries and shiny gilt bells; a forest of trees and garlands looped from wall to wall; and the exotic poinsettia, the Christmas flower of Mexico now popular here. Sheeny sweet wrappers get balled up and left down the sides of sofas and outside, decorative festive lights are reflected in the wet cement of the town, making walks home at the end of the day less austere. The smells are different too: the smokiness of decaying autumn leaves and the hot sweet scent of chestnuts from street sellers; the spiced citrus rime from bowls of clementines and sweet baked fug of hot apples ‘hissing and bubbling with a rich look’ as Dicken’s Mr Pickwick enjoyed them.

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In the midst of this can be found the Christmas experiences of others, committed to the pages of novels and memoirs, a rich source of pleasure on dark evenings when a book, a blanket and warm chair are all one needs. Some of our most vivid memories are these written recollections and their remembering serves as a kind of collective seasonal synergy where Christmas plans become suffused with the idealised images of celebrations we’ve read about. Dylan Thomas understood this when he wrote A Child’s Christmas in Wales with its richly- stirred pot of the real, the imagined and the magical, His words are the sum total of a child’s magical thinking married with an adult need to recreate what was most enjoyed for our own children:

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” 

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Take carolling- I’ve never been, but having read Laurie Lee’s childhood account of stumbling through the snowy village lanes and surrounding fields with friends and other villagers, I feel as if I was there alongside, cupping my mittened fingers and huffing into them to combat the freezing air:

“Mile after mile we went, fighting against the wind, falling into snowdrifts, and navigating by the lights of the houses. And yet we never saw our audience. We called at house after house; we sang in courtyards and porches, outside windows, or in the damp gloom of hallways; we heard voices from hidden rooms; we smelt rich clothes and strange hot food; we saw maids bearing in dishes or carrying away coffee cups; we received nuts, cakes, figs, preserved ginger, dates, cough-drops and money; but we never once saw our patrons. We grouped ourselves round the farmhouse porch. The sky cleared and broad streams of stars ran down over the valley and away to Wales. On Slad’s white slopes, seen through the black sticks of its woods, some red lamps burned in the windows.

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Everything was quiet: everywhere there was the faint crackling silence of the winter night. We started singing, and we were all moved by the words and the sudden trueness of our voices. Pure, very clear, and breathless we sang:

‘As Joseph was walking
He heard an angel sing;
‘This night shall be the birth-time
Of Christ the Heavenly King.
He neither shall be bored
In Housen nor in hall
Not in a place of paradise
But in an ox’s stall.’

And two thousand Christmases became real to us then; The houses, the halls, the places of paradise had all been visited; The stars were bright to guide the Kings through the snow; and across the farmyard we could hear the beasts in their stalls. We were given roast apples and hot mince pies, in our nostrils were spices like myrrh, and in our wooden box, as we headed back for the village, there were golden gifts for all.”

Food at Christmas carries all the richness and exoticism of the gifts carried across far away lands by the Three Wise Men although frankincense, gold and myrrh are symbolised by sweetly-plump preserved and dried fruits from Israel and Egypt, Southern Spain, Italy and the Levant. We eat ‘foreign born’ sultanas and raisins in minced pies and cakes, in yeasted stollens from Germany and steamed puddings crowned with a sprig of holly and spiked with gold coins, representing the wealth of the kingly coffers. Our wines are fortified and sweetened and spirits are drunk in generous measures: three fingers or more of golden raisin-y liquids are released from their wooden casks after years of quiet and solitary maturation, swirled and appreciated as their vapours rise up to join the spirits of all Christmases past and present.

No matter how poor, the household does its best to proffer these sweetmeats to visitors and when it cannot, families improvise with their own music and seasonal cheer as did Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford:

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“There were still bands of mummers in some of the larger villages, and village choirs went carol-singing about the countryside; but none of these came to the hamlet, for they knew the collection to be expected there would not make it worth their while. A few families, sitting by their own firesides, would sing carols and songs; that, and more and better food and a better fire that usual, made up their Christmas cheer.”

Thompson reminds us that extravagant Christmas festivities in grand country houses will mean that other families must do without their loved ones, who work tirelessly as servants for the local landed gentry: “ There was little visiting of neighbours and there were no family reunions, for the girls in service could not be spared at that season, and the few boys who had gone out in the world were mostly serving abroad in the Army.”

The day passed in an understated way, with some seasonal and religious markers:

“Christmas Day passed very quietly. The men had a holiday from work and the children from school and the churchgoers attended special Christmas services. Mothers who had young children would buy them an orange each and a handful of nuts; but, except at the end house and the inn, there was no hanging up of stockings, and those who had no kind elder sister or aunt in service to send them parcels got no Christmas presents.”

We’re not deprived of descriptions of tempting food though:

“Every year the farmer killed an ox for the purpose and gave each of his men a joint of beef, which duly appeared on the Christmas dinner-table together with plum pudding – not Christmas pudding, but suet duff with a good sprinkling of raisins. Ivy and other evergreens (it was not holly country) were hung from the ceiling and over the pictures; a bottle of homemade wine was uncorked, a good fire was made up, and, with doors and windows closed against the keen, wintry weather, they all settled down by their own firesides for a kind of super-Sunday.”

An old interview with Margaret Powell in the TV Times from the seventies
An old interview with Margaret Powell in the TV Times from the seventies

Margaret Powell was in service and in the first of her three memoirs, Below Stairs, she shines a little light on Christmas from the perspective of servants in grand houses where every task was strictly delineated and decorating the tree was delegated to the Nanny. Powell found having to line up in the servants hall to receive a gift from the family very humiliating, noting that the servants were not given anything deemed frivolous. Instead of perfumes, silk stockings or delectable chocolates they got lengths of uniform material, aprons and black lisle stockings. They had to suffer what she referred to as their employers’ ‘social welfare expressions’ with the children looking at them as if they were ‘beings from another world, which I suppose we were to them’ and then spend twelve hours slaving away producing a feast fit for kings. “If we were to have perfumes or silks we would go astray, they thought” she wrote. “So I hated this parade of Christmas goodwill and the pretence that we also had a good time at Christmas.”

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The Victorian Christmas fascinates me for many reasons. During this period, there was the redefining of Christmas as a private family time although a previous obsession with Stuart style public, baronial feasting was reinterpreted as the family table groaning under the weight of home-produced meals. What was eaten during national festivals gained a totemic significance with certain foods depicted as British and imbued with nationalistic qualities, such as plum pudding. I’m  also interested in the contrast between religious prudence and more earthly pleasures and appetites in the farmhouse Christmases depicted in literature. It seemed to me that a Victorian Christmas had the potential to become a spiritual battleground in the minds of the devout, torn as they were between sparing the rod and spoiling their children with gifts, stories and the gift of un-boundaried time, versus the drudge of a farm and their own daily religious rituals – and the need to protect their livestock from any changes to the routines that keep them healthy and productive.

This was never more obvious than in Alison Uttley’s ‘A Country Child’, a lightly fictionalised account of her own Derbyshire childhood in which she appears as Susan, a ‘most fanciful child’, never happier than when she is head down in a book, and born a ‘snow baby’ in December. Her farmhouse home went all out for Christmas, described over the course of a whole chapter: cheeses with layers of sage running through the middle ‘like green ribbon’ and stone jars of white lard sat on the pantry floor, similar in shape to those which hid the forty thieves. The wine chamber stored bottle after bottle of elderberry wine and golden cowslip wine whilst great platters teetered under the weight of mince pies, slabs of fruited cake and jam tarts. Susan and her mother went into a frenzy of decorating:

”Holly decked every picture and ornament. Sprays hung over the bacon and twisted round the hams and herb bunches. The clock carried a crown on his head, and every dish-cover had a little sprig. Susan kept an eye on the lonely forgotten humble things, the jelly moulds and colanders and nutmeg graters, and made them happy with glossy leaves. Everything seemed to speak, to ask for its morsel of greenery, and she tried to leave out nothing.”

Farmhouse mince pies from Alison Uttley's The Country Child
Farmhouse mince pies from Alison Uttley’s The Country Child

The farmhouse kitchen was the heart of the home and especially during festive times when visitors would be received, fed and sometimes kissed if they were family and “everyone who called at the farm had to eat and drink at Christmas time.” The successes of the Victorian age, their colonies, trading strength and central place in global politics were commemorated too in the choice of decorations:

“In the middle of the kitchen ceiling there hung the kissing bunch, the best and brightest of holly, made in the shape of a large ball which dangled from the hook. Silver and gilt drops, crimson bells, blue glass trumpets, bright oranges and red polished apples, peeped and glittered through the glossy leaves. Little flags of all nations, but chiefly Turkish for some unknown reason, stuck out like quills on a hedgehog. The lamp hung near, and every little berry, every leaf, every pretty ball and apple had a tiny yellow flame reflected in its heart.“Twisted candles hung down, yellow, red, and blue, unlighted but gay, and on either side was a string of paper lanterns.”

The folklore behind The Mistletoe Bride began with a poem, ‘Ginerva’ by Samuel Rogers in his book, ‘Italy’ published in 1823.
The folklore behind The Mistletoe Bride began with a poem, ‘Ginerva’ by Samuel Rogers in his book, ‘Italy’ published in 1823.

Uttley told of Christmas Eve embroidered texts (‘God bless our home’), guising and folk tales: The Mistletoe Bough was read each year by Joshua, one of the elderly farm hands, as Susan sat unseen in the corner of the kitchen, frightened eyes dark of pupil, until her mother notices and sends her to bed with a candle. As she prepares for sleep, she muses upon another tale told her- that at midnight all the livestock goes down on bended knee in honour of the newly born Christ child. Similar to a tale my own grandfather told me, I lived in hope of catching the creatures outside doing the same, from the hedgehog that visited us nightly to the mistle thrushes that lived in the high trees surrounding my grandparents’ garden. Do hedgehogs have knees I’d ask and ever since,  in the minutes approaching midnight, I stand in my own garden wrapped in a blanket, looking at the stars and wondering…

Lately I discovered that Thomas Hardy wrote this: “Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock./ “Now they are all on their knees,”/ An elder said as we sat in a flock…” and published it on Christmas Eve 1915 in the London TimesThe Dorset superstition was that oxen used to kneel every Christmas Eve, honouring the holy birth so Hardy told readers that were he to be invited by a farmhand to witness this miracle: “I should go with him in the gloom,/ Hoping it might be so.”

Rose Henniker Heaton, 1932 guide to the 'Perfect Christmas'
Rose Henniker Heaton, 1932 guide to the ‘Perfect Christmas’

We are treated to a wonderful description of Susan’s Christmas Eve bedtime ritual, set in the darkness of the Little Chamber bedroom where the wood furniture lies staunch still and dour in the blue of the early morning light, reflected from the snow fields of the Peak District and the starry skies outside. We are privy to conversations between Susan and her mother as they ponder what stars are during an evening walk to church: “other worlds” according to a STEM-gifted Susan or, as her mother replies, “worlds or angels’ eyes or visions of heaven.” We discover her stocking contents alongside her as she explores by touch in the dark, pulls out a flat square object and sniffs its cardboard scent (it’s a new book!), finds an orange and crunches into a yellow apple from her favourite tree. Reaching deeper into her stocking, she shakes out a handful of knobbly walnuts from Bird in Bush farm, a tin of confits and a sweet sugar mouse. It is, what Rose Henniker Heaton, in her 1932 guide to the ‘Perfect Christmas’, would approve of: “a tangerine wrapped in gold paper, in the toe…to help preserve the shape” and Susan’s inability to wait until it is morning proper is perfectly captured by poet John Mole:

Nuts and marbles in the toe,
An orange in the heel,
A Christmas stocking in the dark
Is wonderful to feel.

Shadowy, bulging length of leg
That crackles when you clutch,
A Christmas stocking in the dark
Is marvellous to touch.

Susan’s Christmas supper is resplendent, a table piled high with the hard earned fruits of her parents labours. There is a cake iced and sprinkled with red, white and blue hundreds and thousands, topped by a union jack paper flag with a tumbling clown on its other side. A ham is handsomely cloaked with brown raspings and a paper frill and a pie stuffed with veal, ham and eggs is surrounded by brown boiled eggs in a silver egg stand which “stood like a castle with eight stalwart egg cups and eight curling spoons around the tall handle, bread and butter on Minton china plates with their tiny green leaves and gold edges, a pot of honey and strawberry jam and an old Staffordshire dish of little tarts containing golden curds made of beastings, filled with currants. “ The cream in the Queen Anne jug is so thick it barely pours out and the beestings are what we’d know as colostrum, milked from a newly delivered cow, and often used to make luxurious curd tarts after being left to set.

Almanzo Wilder was the future husband of Laura Ingalls, of Little House on the Prairie fame, and like Susan, he too found the wait for the day to start proper, excruciating. He was born into a farming family with no access to any artificial light other than candles or kerosene and they had to conduct their early morning and evening animal husbandry in the dark. Such an exhausting regime in the deep cold of upstate New York rendered those hours of warm sleep doubly precious. Almanzo awoke his family very early indeed at 3:30 am with his childhood impatience- “ children, have you thought to look at the clock?” asks Father, in Ingalls Wilder’s account of his boyhood, ‘Farmer Boy’.

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Compared to Laura, Almanzo ate very well indeed as the son of prosperous horse farmers. Take this description which reads now as the longings of its adult author, deprived of good food by the Depression of the thirties, when she wrote it: “Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham, he bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.”

Barbara Walker, author of The Little House Cookbook believes that “after a childhood filled with near-starvation experiences,” Farmer Boy became “‘her [Laura Ingalls Wilder] own fantasy of blissful youth, surrounded on all sides by food.’” As a young child Laura’s Christmas Days were full of love, family gatherings, song and religious observance but they were times of material deprivation too: she was fortunate to receive a corn cob doll, a twist of candy in a paper bag and a penny in her stocking whilst Almanzo received livestock, sleighs, clasp knives, toys, a plush store bought cap and ate oodles of doughnuts, cookies, bushels of fruit from a never empty cellar buried under a stream of thick golden cream and maple syrup from their own trees, oh and let’s not forget- popcorn and milk every night.

And yet the descriptions of Laura’s Christmas are just as compelling. Take this Christmas stocking scene from Little House in the Big Woods:

“They plunged their hands into the stockings again. And they pulled out two long, long, sticks of candy. It was peppermint candy, striped red and white. They looked and looked at that beautiful candy, and Laura licked her stick, just one lick. But Mary was not so greedy. She didn’t even take one lick of her stick.

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“Those stockings weren’t empty yet. Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar. The sparkling grains lay like tiny drifts of snow.”

Later on, when they were both approaching their teens the family moved away from the big woods and their wider family to a dug out in the banks of Minnesota’s Plum Creek. Here, times were harder and the family had to rely on the charity of the local church: Laura got the tawny gold little fur muff she coveted from the Christmas church barrel and her sister is given a delicate china dog. The first Christmas at Plum Creek came after a late Summer plague of locusts had decimated their crops and that of their neighbours and the next Christmas was riven with their fears for Pa’s life when he got lost in a blizzard on his way home to them. Yet all’s well that ends well and as readers we are heart warmed by our glimpse of the family through their lace curtain-edged dugout window as they listen to Pa play fiddle, sing, dance and they all luxuriate in the close presence of the people they love the most. At times I did wonder whether Pa was somewhat selfish in his unrelenting desire to go west which constantly uprooted the family and left Ma terribly isolated at times.

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That’s not the last time a barrel saves them from a Christmas famine either. In a later book, Laura recounts the travails of a long winter where the family slowly starves along with the rest of their small town. When the train finally gets through after months of blizzards in The Long Winter, it is not a moment too soon and it brings their long awaited Christmas barrel, filled with presents from eastern relatives and one solid-frozen turkey complete with cranberries. In a timely celebration filled with relief so tangible we can feel it, the Boast family arrive to celebrate a belated Christmas dinner and they all feast upon stewed cranberries with sugar, bread made from soft winter wheat, sugar-frosted cakes, fruit pies, bread stuffing and roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and Mrs Boast’s home-made butter. The soft breeze and spring air comes through the open windows and Mrs Boasts’ smile is lovely despite her thin face, made anxious from worry and cold.  “The doors were open and both rooms could be used once more. Going in and out of the large front room whenever she wanted gave Laura a spacious and rested feeling, as if she could never be cross again.”

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Pa sat out his first blizzard, curled up in his musquash fur coat as many other creatures do deep underground, awaiting the drip and unfurling of spring but for Katy and Clover Carr, sent away to school in eastern USA, blizzards and the severe winters there mean they must sit out Christmas Day in school and, quite possibly, without their Christmas boxes which have been snowed in. We’ve already shivered with them through pages of impossibly Arctic conditions where they wake daily to “toothbrushes stiff with ice in the morning”, “thick crusts of frost on the windowpane and every drop of water in wash bowl or pitcher turned to solid ice”. The windows have been covered in thick dark cloth to preserve heat and the Nunnery, which is what local boys refer to their school as, has become as parsimonious in nature as the most closeted of religious orders. Katy has been long disabused of her previously held idea of winter survival as ‘romantic’ and has struggled to find the part of her soul which might respond in a Christian way to Christmas deprivation when, (oh joy!), a kerfuffle in the dormitory corridor leads to the delivery of their boxes, the only ones in the school to get through.

The whole thing was declared a ‘marvel of packing’ and brimmed over with gifts, flowers and all manner of American home baked goods. Shared out with the other girls, they all sat in bed, wrapped in shawls and fingerless mittens to enjoy their Christmas food. Parcels were filled with ginger snaps and Debbie’s jumbles (circular sugar cookies in in the shape of entwined rings, originally called gemmels which is German for ‘twin’), the German crullers beloved of the Mittel European immigrants to the Midwest and a “splendid frosted plum-cake”. The second box was full of delicate flowers, slightly drooping in their bed of cotton wool which Katy set about reviving. Katy was sorry to have left this box until last although she didn’t identify with these delicate blossoms, finding the cold more bracing than depressing. “There was something in her blood which responded to the sharp tingle of frost.” Her sister Clover was not so fortunate though as ‘a chilly creature’, requiring hot bricks at her feet and many layers of blankets to stay warm and even the hated Miss Jane, a teacher at the school, was visited by Katy with gifts when she was ill in bed and ignored by all the other pupils who couldn’t forgive the cruel way she had behaved towards the Carr girls. The Christmas spirit indeed….

Thomas Mann, 1926
Thomas Mann, 1926

For snowbound wintry reading, little beats Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, set in a tuberculosis sanatorium during the years immediately prior to the Great War. When Hans Castorp, a young engineer, travels to the International Sanatorium Berghof high up in the Swiss Alps to spend time with his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, we’re not totally clear whether he develops a form of Stockholm Syndrome which sees him identify to the point of displaying symptoms of illness himself. He intended to stay a few weeks and ends up remaining there for years as he is diagnosed with TB and assumes his rightful place on the veranda, coughing up his lungs in the face of magnificent Alpine sunsets. Each night he would take to his room with a pile of books, and a glass of creamy evening milk with a shot of Cognac, living a dream-like life where absence from the everyday human trials and responsibilities is a given and they hear of them at a remove, via whispered confidences, letters from home and newspapers bought from ‘below’.

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In the sanatorium dining room there is much talk of snow, the start of the ski season and the onset of Christmas, the latter well before Advent, which startles Hans because he had not considered that this might form part of his conditions of treatment: his usual habit was to spend it with loved ones and tries to cheer himself up: “He said to himself, think of all the places and conditions in which Christmas had been celebrated before now!” Quite.

Hans had not yet developed the habit of seeing Christmas as a a kind of vaulting pole which he could use to leap over the intervening endless days of confinement in their visually arresting mountainous sanitorium. He could appreciate how the accelerated metabolic effects of TB might affect the way one viewed time itself and the landscape, freezing cold yet burning of breath and well upholstered with snow, is perfect metaphor for the febrile thinness of the consumptive. The “arch of the loggia, which framed a glorious panorama of snow powdered forest, softly filled passes and ravines, white sunlit valleys and radiant blue heavens above all”, the crystal and diamond world that lay near the black and white forest under the night skies embroidered with stars, all conspired to seduce patients into seeing Christmas as a state of grace and a short interlude from reality, full of frost and fire like their own fevered state. In What Katy Did at School, its author, Susan Coolidge, addresses us thus: “Do any of you know how incredibly long winter seems in climates where for weeks together the thermometer stands at zero?”…”There is something hopeless in such cold” and it is this I remember when reading Mann’s novel, a reminder to be tolerant and kind towards characters who sometimes become preoccupied with concepts I might consider self-indulgent.

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Back in the sanitorium, mail grew heavier as the festive season drew closer; marzipan, Christmas cakes, apples and spiced nuts, all “carefully packed remembrances from home” in the manner of those received by Katy Carr. Their dining room tree crackled in the firelight and spread its fragrance and these distressingly ill people wore their jewels, cravats and evening coats to dinner in a poignant facsimile of festive life back home in the grand cities and towns of Europe. They were “gay at the Russian table” where the first Champagne corks popped and Clavdia wore a Balkan style dress with tinkling ornaments on the bodice. Ending the choice meal with cheese straws, bon bons, coffee and liqueurs, it is significant that the food is represented by titbits, those little morsels that are more easily consumed by illness-affected appetites.

As the room dies down and the tree candles burn to stumps, there is an air of let-down as Christmas Day dawns misty and then was all over, leaving the holiday in the past. The sumptuous breakfasts served in the sanitorium,  “pots of marmalade and honey, basins of rice and oatmeal porridge, dishes of cold meat and scrambled eggs; a plenitude of butter, a Gruyere cheese dropping moisture under a glass bell. A bowl of fresh and dried fruits stood in the centre of the table” and a “thick, dark, and foaming brownly Kulmbacher beer” aren’t mentioned on the holiest day of all.

This same sense of anti climax permeated Dylan Thomas’s description of Christmas dinner and what came afterwards, a sated afternoon when relatives sleep off their engorgement and children attend to the gifts that were opened with giddy speed earlier on, then discarded in the haste to get to the next thing:

“For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine. The dog was sick. Auntie Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush. I would blow up balloons to see how big they would blow up to; and, when they burst, which they all did, the Uncles jumped and rumbled. In the rich and heavy afternoon, the Uncles breathing like dolphins and the snow descending, I would sit among festoons and Chinese lanterns and nibble dates and try to make a model man-o’-war, following the Instructions for Little Engineers, and produce what might be mistaken for a sea-going tramcar.”

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In a literary sense, it can be challenging to move a story on from the giddy escalation that marks the month of December. Take Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, his largely autobiographical short story first published in 1956 and eclipsed by his brasher output until it was adapted for screen and stage productions. Truman writes fondly of Sook, his cousin who befriended him in Alabama and whose mischief is central to the tale:

“it’s fruitcake weather!”

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

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Together they haul a straw buggy down to the pecan grove to forage for the nuts which go into their esteemed fruitcakes which are sent to barely known acquaintances or people they have never met at all, including President Franklin Roosevelt. They finance this operation with money that they have accumulated through the year in their Fruitcake Fund and make and gift wrap home brewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken “at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting” for relatives. They spend hours preparing the pecans they picked: “Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves.”

Then there’s more delectable descriptions of food as they settle down for the evening:

“We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home” and the next day they procur the whisky that state law prohibits from a certain Mr Haha Jones who operates out of a ‘sinful’ fish fry and dancing cafe.

The prized whisky will flavour their cakes and, as a reward for his help, Mr Jones will get an extra cupful of raisins stirred into his. The actual labour of baking thirty one cakes sounds delectable:

“The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.”

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The pair share the leftover whisky with the inevitable mild inebriation, moving two other relatives to scold Buddy’s cousin for corrupting a child. The next morning sees Buddy and his cousin search deep into the woods for their Christmas decorations, gathering wreaths, chopping down a tree and laboriously dragging everything home in their old buggy. The description of the Alabama woods are breathtaking:  “A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam.

Come Christmas Day, a good old southern breakfast hits the spot: “just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we’re so impatient to get at the presents we can’t eat a mouthful.”

But it is inevitably followed by anti climax as Buddy opens his gifts:

“Well, I’m disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year’s subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

“This is our last Christmas together,” and for a few more years, ‘fruitcake weather’ continues until the November when she does not get out of her bed to bake…

Seasonal recipes

Alison Uttleys Christmas possets from Recipes From an Old Farmhouse:

“A starved child was a very cold child and I often came home from my long walk from school starved in the winter nights. A posset of hot milk and bread cut into small squares with a dash of rum and some brown sugar brought colour into my cheeks. Milk was curdled with ale to make a christmas posset. Spices were added, cloves and cinnamon, and a grate of nutmeg and brown sugar. The posset was mulled on the hot stove, in a pewter tankard, and poured into smaller mugs of pewter when ready. The ale curdled the milk and made a froth like lambs wool, the old froth of roast apples once used in possets.

Black Cake:

I’ve written about my favourite boiled fruit cake here. It makes an excellent Christmas cake too and another recipe that I’ve made for years is Laurie Colwin’s Black Cake. Also mentioned by Nigella in How To be a Domestic Goddess, Colwin’s black cake came to her via her daughters Caribbean babysitter. Colwin  died in 1992 and whilst alive, gained a reputation as a novelist of short stories. Since her death, at the age of 48, her books “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking” have rightfully gained her a new following because of her warm and confiding manner. She encourages readers to try their hand at cooking and uses the tribulations of her own life to reassure them that failure is an amusing and life enhancing part of the process. Here is Colwin on that black cake:

“There is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak. … Black Cake, like truffles and vintage Burgundy, is deep, complicated, and intense. It has taste and aftertaste. It demands to be eaten in a slow, meditative way. The texture is complicated too—dense and light at the same time.”

The Black Cake calls for burned sugar essence which is essentially melted and browned sugar made the way you would for a caramel, but thinned down with water at the end of the process. There are many recipes for it online but Nigella substitutes molasses. This produces a lovely cake but not THE black cake so if you want to make the real thing, hunt down the technique.

Pecan tassies, inspired by Truman Capote:

Pecan tassies - http://www.thingness.org
Pecan tassies – http://www.thingness.org

These gorgeous little mouthfuls are a classic Southern holiday favourite, also popular at church socials, weddings and the like and provide, as Wendell Brock once said, “a combination of flavours that are the greatest of autumn’s comforts- butter, pecans and brown sugar”. A tassie is a Scots variation of “cup” and a pecan tassie is a small cup packed with pecan pie filling, using a nut (although technically it is a ‘drupe’) which grows abundantly across the South. In his book ‘My Mothers Southern Kitchen’, the eminent food writer James Villas includes a favourite recipe from his mother, Martha, who serves them at her guild meetings and I would be amazed if Truman and his cousin didn’t eat tassies regularly.

Villas knew Capote: in his own words, he “hobnobbed on royal banquettes with Capote, the King of Spain, Dali and a contingent of other gold plated swells.” and got “smashed after cocktails at the Plaza Hotel” with him and Don Erickson, the legendary executive editor of  Esquire. The beauty of Southerners is that no matter how rarefied the air they breathe in celebrity-soaked circles becomes, they retain a connection with the food they grew up eating and seem to countenance no snobbery towards it.

The recipe uses the US cup system but its not hard to convert.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a mixing bowl, combine butter, cream cheese and flour and mix with hands until dough can be formed into a soft ball.

Pinch off 24 pieces of dough, and press each piece firmly onto bottom and sides of two greased 12-cup muffin tins.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small bowl, beat egg with sugar and salt and stir in pecans and vanilla. Spoon filling into lined cups and bake till the pastry is golden, about 25 minutes. Let the tassies cool and carefully unmold on a large plate.

 

Give a book for Christmas- an annual gift guide

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When it comes to buying gifts, I’ve become stuck in a very pleasant rut- my number one choice will always be a book and compiling my regular biblio-gift guides will always be one of my very favourite things to do. So here’s the latest and whether you are buying for Hanukah, Christmas, Diwali or for no reason at all, I hope you’ll find something to please you from my selection of wonders, both newly published and a few older classics.

Culinary words-

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 Essential Turkish Cuisine by Engin Akin is a timely reminder of a country, culture and cuisine possessed of riches, magnificence and generosity of spirit. “Turkish cuisine marries palace finesse with rugged nomadic traditions” explains Engin Akin as she folds and pleats delicate boreki pastries and the reader is taken on a magical and thorough exploration of the way that geography and culture has influenced what is eaten, by whom and in what way. Engin owns a cooking school in Ula and this means her recipes are well tested and possess cultural veracity. They work.

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This Autumn has seen the release of cookbooks by Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, an embarrassment of riches indeed. Simply Nigella was reviewed more extensively here but, simply put,  Lawson had to ‘cook herself strong’ and this new cookbook is testimony to how she achieved this. We are witness to the rebuilding of a life and kitchen via her usual well tested, humorous and alluring recipes which are liberally scattered with useful micro-recipes and tips to help you eat well. Slater’s latest in his kitchen diaries series, A Year of Good Eating: The Kitchen Diaries III reflects the “endless delight I get from giving people, loved ones, friends, complete strangers, something good to eat” as he stated. His recipes are understated, economical of word and deeply reflective of seasonal time and place, collated into a diary form recipe per day structure.

Creole Kitchen
Creole Kitchen

Creole Kitchen by Vanessa Bolosier is fabulous in every way from the fabulous jacket design to the recipes and words which tell of joy, brightness and life. Her cuisine is drenched in history and is birthed from the ancestry and migration of island people. Starting with an explanation of the term ‘Creole’, Vanessa tells their story and then instructs us as to how best to equip a kitchen Creole style. These are perfect little vignettes in themselves and we then move onto the recipes and a pattern emerges of bold bright flavours infused with a sophistication born from the authors skill and ability. Bolosier has a Guadeloupian, Martinique Creole background, worked as a model and moved to London where she now runs a food company, cooking school and supper club so she makes a great mentor.

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Not a cookbook but containing some recipes which are closely tied to its story, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal is a mother and daughter coming of age novel set against the food and culture of the American Midwest. We meet Eva, grower of chilli peppers in her wardrobe, effectively an orphan and now looked after by her aunt and uncle. Eva is heart and soul of a story which both skewers and celebrates the emerging global food culture and plays with opposites, placing the authentic (Eva) against those who posture, postulate and pontificate about food in a totally unauthentic manner. Eva is destined to sing through food, becoming a culinary goddess and this lovely novel tells her story and that of the people she meets along the way.

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The revival of old homesteader crafts such as pickling, fermenting and smoking has resulted in a slew of books showing us how to do this safely because ignorance of hygiene (among other factors) can result in some pretty nasty consequences. And that is where Olympia Provisions by Elias Cairo and Meredith Erickson comes in because although it is an American book, the meat preserving techniques it demonstrates are universal. There’s a great balance between the European origins of a lot of the charcuterie and recipes that show the American versions of such- the frankfurters, sausage, salami and confits that have made their store and restaurant so popular.

Inspired by jägermeisters, the charcuterie makers who smoke, cure, and can animals that they’ve hunted or raised on their farm which the author met during her 4 year apprenticeship in the Swiss Alps (before the opening of Olympic Provisions, known as OP), this is a hearty, muscular exploration of the craft. Illustrated with stunning shots of places, food and people the book is not just a coffee table tome for those of us *thinking* about *one day* curing our own meats, it is a call to action because it balances the glossy aspirational aspects of food writing with the practical how to side that is vital in ensuring readers actually get off their butts and DO it.

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For those of you who like cookbooks inspired by hot new restaurants, the following books should provide you with plenty of inspiration.  Nanban: Japanese Soul Food by Tim Anderson is a sensory delight with bold recipes and unexpected flavours and ingredients by a Masterchef winner. His take on Japanese cuisine resulted in a restaurant from which these recipes are based whilst the restaurant Hartwood in the Mexican Yucatan inspired the eponymous Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry. Hartwood cooks with local ingredients over an open flame, on the grill or in a wood-burning oven. The fish is all freshly caught from nearby waters, the produce is purchased from Mayan farmers, and technique marries the eclectic with timeless ancestral methodology.

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The Brodo Cookbook was written by Marco Canora who has been the owner and Executive Chef at Hearth Restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village since its opening in 2003. After revitalizing his health by integrating bone broth into his diet, Marco began to make his nourishing broths available by the cupful to New Yorkers from a small window in his East Village restaurant, drawing sell-out crowds virtually from the beginning. No longer just a building block for soups and sauces, bone broths are now being embraced for these perceived health benefits and in Brodo, Marco shares the recipes for his flavorful, nutritious broths and shows how to serve them year round as well as incorporate them into recipes and as a daily health practice. For those people interested in perfecting technique, this is the perfect book.

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The appeal of a cookbook starts with the words and images for many of us and although it is highly likely that many purchasers of Sea and Smoke by Willows Inn chef Blaine Wetzel, Joe Ray and photographer Charity Burggraaf, might not cook from it, judging a cookbook by this kind of misses the point. The descriptions of food are wistful and beautiful: A broth of roasted Madrona bark,” “Nootka rose petals and salmonberries” and serve as jewelled treasure map to the tiny Lummi Island, a few hours north of Seattle, which can only be reached by an open-air ferry. Ray spent a year here and his words capture the four distinct seasons of Pacific Northwest cuisine without losing any of its wildness, spirit and fleeting beauty.

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If you are a fan of everyday French cooking, In a French Kitchen: tales and traditions of everyday home cooking in France by the author of the now-classic memoir, “On Rue Tatine” Susan Hermann Loomis will keep you comforted entertained and informed. Loomis introduces the reader to the busy people of Louviers, the ingredients available locally and what to do with them. Eighty five recipes and a multiplicity of stories later, Loomis learns that delicious, even decadent meals don’t have to be complicated. Definitely one to read on the darkest of winter evenings, curled up by the fire with a glass of wine: I first read her back in the very late eighties when I was learning to cook for my family and she has been a reliable and warm companion ever since.

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For the sweet toothed among you, Sweeter Off the Vine: fruit desserts for every season by Yosy Arefi will provide you with a collection of heirloom-quality recipes for pies, cakes, tarts, ice cream, preserves, and other sweet treats. From raspberry pink peppercorn sorbet, ruby red rhubarb pavlova, juicy apricots and berry galettes with saffron sugar to blood orange donuts and tangerine cream pie, Arefi shows us how to incorporate seasonal ingredients with the more exotic (such as rose and orange flower water from her native Iran), all photographed sumptuously by her.

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The publication of the Groundnut Cookbook followed a successful Guardian Cook residency where authors Timothy Duval, Folayemi Brown and Jacob Fidio Todd wowed readers with their witty, fresh and culturally intriguing collection of recipes. From Jollof Rice, Butterbean Terrine and Pork in Tamarind to Cardamom Mandazi, Yorkshire Pudding with Mango Curd and Puna Yam Cake, the clear instructions, easily sourced ingredients and sumptuous photography will ensure you’ll cook from it again and again.

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Finally, if you have a small child keen to get involved in cooking, then this lovely picture book which focuses upon all those lovely festive scents will make a perfect post lunch read. The Sweet Smell of Christmas is about Little Bear who knows that Christmas is nearly here because of all the amazing scents floating in the air. From soft gingerbread men to sweet mint candy, there are so many smells to accompany the festivities; it’s hard to choose a favourite. The book contains six different scratch-and-sniff scents, so kids can interact with the story and smell some of the things that Little Bear smells too. And for older kids, teens and adults who like a bit of GBBO style creativity, The Great British Cake Off by Harriet Popham will encourage them to put sprinkles and cake tin aside and pick up a pencil in order to tackle over seventy colouring in designs. Beautiful illustrations of favourite cakes and bakes are just waiting to be brought to life alongside colouring ‘technical challenges’ to push you just that little bit harder.

Words of Adventure, art and history

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Oliver Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world’s most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in Atlas of Cursed Places.  Accompany him to 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death, including the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most ‘popular’ suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge.

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In Sidewalking, David L. Ulin offers a compelling inquiry into the evolving landscape of Los Angeles. Part personal narrative, part investigation of the city as both idea and environment, Sidewalking is many things: a discussion of Los Angeles as urban space, a history of the city’s built environment, a meditation on the author’s relationship to the city, and a rumination on the art of urban walking and psychogeography. Exploring Los Angeles through the soles of his feet, Ulin gets at the experience of its street life, drawing from urban theory, pop culture, and literature. For readers interested in the culture of Los Angeles, this book offers a pointed look beneath the surface in order to see, and engage with, the city on its own terms.

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Paul Theroux turns his travelling eye on America’s Deep South in his latest eponymous book and this well seasoned traveller of over five decades roams through Tennessee, both Carolinas and Alabama then wades through the slow moving bayous, low country rice fields and marshy Delta backwaters, all of them way below the Mason Dixon Line and still haunted by Mr Crow’s ugly decision. This is a place which is still chained to the past: from older people who cling to the misnomer ‘the war of Northern aggression’ to the problems with who ‘can’ use the ‘N’ word, to multiple losses of industry to ‘abroad’. The book relates the sum total of four trips over eighteen months as opposed to a single linear voyage of discovery and for that reason, the reader has a sense of thoughts revised and cumulative impressions laying on top of each other like the leaves of a book. Yet there is the other side of the South too: the literature and music which Theroux writes of; the food, and hospitality, We go to potlucks and dinners on the ground with Theroux, we see the gun fairs and football and febrile religious observances which divide as much as they enjoin. This is not an especially cheerful book but how could it be? Much of what we believe about the South is not yet a cliche but what we end up with is still a fascinating, frustrating and haunting account of one of the worlds most culturally distinctive places.

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For cycling fans, What Goes Around by Emily Chappell, is an exhilarating and well written account of the life of a cycle courier in London. We experience vicariously, her six years of pain and pleasure-both mental and physical-of life on wheels: the hurtling, dangerous missions; the ebb and flow of seasonal work; the moments of fear and freedom, anger and exhaustion; the camaraderie of the courier tribe and its idiosyncratic characters; the conflict and harmony between bicycle and road, body and mind. I feel in turns, both frightened for her and envious of her unique bikes eye view of the city.

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Near the top of Mount Everest, on 10 May 1996, eight climbers died. It was the worst tragedy in the mountain’s history and Lou Kasischke was there. After the Wind tells the harrowing story of what went wrong, as it has never been told before – including why the climbers were so desperately out of time as the rogue storm struck. His personal story tells about the intense moments near the top and these moments also revealed the love story that saved his life.

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Long evenings are pefect for getting to grips with a good historical biography and Cleopatra by Ernle Bradford takes a more balanced view of the last Ptolemaic Queen whom history has traduced and maligned as an infamous woman, given to sexual excess and capable of every perfidy. Bradford depicts her as a woman of infinite courage and political resource who, from the age of eighteen until her death, fought to free her country from the iron dominance of Rome and to secure its inheritance for the son of her first lover Julius Caesar. It was right that she should be buried in Alexandria, for in her spirit and in her ambition she was worthy of Alexander himself. The subject of biography and tragedy, Queen Cleopatra remains a subject to which historians are attracted two thousand years after her glorious but doomed life.

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What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions  is the perfect book for any science enthusiast with a penchant for big questions and a side of humour. What if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, complemented by signature xkcd comics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with updated and expanded versions of the most popular answers from the xkcd website.

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For those of you hooked on Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire is an in-depth history of the Seven Kingdoms, sumptuously detailed to clear up any gaps in knowledge. We go from one world peopled with thrones, swords and fantastical themes to another with our next choice because many of us have grown up with tales of glass slippers, evil queens, and magic spells, but where did they come from and what inspired them? Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale explores these famous stories, their origins, and their modern film, literature, and stage adaptations. In addition, if you are studying literature or have a child in the middle of an English GCSE course, this is such a useful contextual read.

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There are days so crepuscular, wet and cold that even the most dedicated gardener will baulk at going out in them: this is the time to curl up with Dear Christo: memories of Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter by Rosemary Alexander, a lovely commemoration of a book where well known  garden writers and celebrities such as Alan Titchmarsh, Anna Pavord, Helen Dillon, Hugh Johnson, Simon Jenkins and Mary Keen remark upon their memories of Great Dixter and the great man who gardened here. Or escape the cold by taking yourself off on an imaginative odyssey and literary exploration of Sicily in the capable hands of John Julius Norwich. “Sicily,” said Goethe, “is the key to everything.” It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, the stepping-stone between Europe and Africa, the link between the Latin West and the Greek East. Sicily’s strategic location has tempted Roman emperors, French princes, and Spanish kings. The subsequent struggles to conquer and keep it have played crucial roles in the rise and fall of the world’s most powerful dynasties. Sicily: an island at the crossroads of history is the first to knit together all of the colourful strands of Sicilian history into a single comprehensive study.

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If you are looking for another peaceful, meditative and thoughtful space inside the pages of a book then The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury will please: it has been one of the best books I have read all year and destined to be re-read. Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the beauty of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions and what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.

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Wood has provided a worthy subject for this years surprise runaway bestseller: Norwegian Wood: chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way by Lars Mytting, so when we found Robert Penn had written a lovely book about using ash wood to create a myriad of items, we had to suggest it as a worthy companion. Ash is the tree we have made the greatest and most varied use of over the course of human history so Penn decided to fell one and see how many things he could make from it. Journeying from Wales across Europe and Ireland to the USA, Penn finds that the ancient skills and knowledge of the properties of ash, developed over millennia making wheels and arrows, furniture and baseball bats, are far from dead. The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees chronicles how the urge to understand and appreciate trees still runs through us all like grain through wood and reading it is deeply calming.

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If you have a Wes Anderson film buff in your home then what better gift to give than this? The Wes Anderson Collection is the first in-depth overview of Anderson’s filmography, guiding readers through his life and career. Previously unpublished photos, artwork, and ephemera complement a book-length conversation between Anderson and award-winning critic Matt Zoller Seitz. The interview and images are woven together in an intricately designed book that captures the spirit of his films: melancholy and playful, wise and childish and thoroughly original. And for those of you who appreciate the art of a great interview, The Smith Tapes by Howard Smith gathers together the best of this journalists revealing interviews with the likes of Jagger, Dennis Hopper and Andy Warhol. Unedited transcripts are published here for the first time in all their counter cultural glory.

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Other people’s letters are always fascinating and in this digital age, the epistolary arts risk being lost to us all. Feast upon Letters of Note then, a gorgeously designed collection of over one hundred of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, based on the popular website of the same name – an online museum of correspondence visited by over 70 million people.

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From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower; from the first recorded use of the expression ‘OMG’ in a letter to Winston Churchill, to Gandhi’s appeal for calm to Hitler; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, to Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable job application letter, Letters of Note is a celebration of the power of written correspondence which captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that make up all of our lives.

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At a time of busy domesticity, this next book might seem like an odd and possibly even insensitive choice after weeks of gift shopping, turkey stuffing and tree decorating, but Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s by Virginia Nicholson makes riveting reading. Giving voice to women at a time when domestic politics often rendered them unheard, the pain, lack of fulfilment and frustration behind the popular image of a world where women wore little frilled pinafores and kept themselves and their home immaculate is revealed. Betty Halbreich is a legendary New York City figure and I’ll Drink to That, her amazing life story is also in development by Lena Dunham for HBO. Halbeich is a personal shopper and stylist and now in her eighties, she has spent nearly forty years at the luxury store Bergdorf Goodman, working with socialites, stars and ordinary women. She has led many to appreciate their real selves through clothes, frank advice and her unique brand of wisdom; she is trusted by the most discriminating persons – including Hollywood’s top stylists – to tell them what looks best. But her own transformation from cosseted girl to fearless truth-teller is the greatest makeover of all, best read in this wonderful autobiography.

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If you need to ramp up your personal grooming or feel you are floundering when it comes to the make up arts, then Face Paint by top makeup artist Lisa Eldridge will become your friend. This glossy history of cosmetics from the early days of bodily adornment to the present day machinations of the giant beauty industry is explored by a pro who is also known for her excellent YouTube beauty vlogs and practical down to earth assistance.

Fiction

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From Jane Lotter comes The Bette Davis Club, a madcap road adventure with Margo, a spirited woman in the prime of life whose adventures are triggered by a double martini on the morning of her niece’s wedding.

When the young bride flees—taking with her a family heirloom and leaving behind six hundred bewildered guests—her mother offers Margo fifty grand to retrieve her spoiled brat of a daughter and the invaluable property she stole. So, together with the bride’s jilted and justifiably crabby fiancé, Margo sets out in a borrowed 1955 red MG on a cross-country chase. Along the way, none of what she discovers will be quite what she expected. But it might be exactly what she’s been seeking all along.

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I’m always pleased by fiction set in less familiar places and in The Private Life of Mrs Sharma we meet Renuka Sharma, a dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law holding the fort in a modest rental in Delhi while her husband tries to rack up savings in Dubai. Working as a receptionist and committed to finding a place for her family in the New Indian Dream of air-conditioned malls and high paid jobs at multi-nationals, life is going as planned until the day she strikes up a conversation with an uncommonly self-possessed stranger at a Metro station. Because while Mrs Sharma may espouse traditional values, India is changing all around her, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she came out of her shell a little, would it? A new voice in Indian fiction, Ratika Kapur writes with an equal dose of humour and pathos and her novel is a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity.

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Secrets and family estrangement lie at the heart of Kelly Romo’s Whistling Women, set against the backdrop of the 1935 World Fair in San Diego, a city where everything went terribly awry for Addie Bates. This is all the more heartbreaking because of the tentative hopes Addie had about a new start as she arrived there from the Kansas orphanage she had previously lived in before travelling to live with her newly married sister, Wavey. Years later, Addie flees to the Sleepy Valley Nudist Colony which provided her with a safe haven for her for 15 years, until she starts to realise that the loss of her more nubile younger body will cause the colonies owner, Heinrick, to eject her. Addie must make her way in a world for which she is ill equipped to live in and following the example of some of the other colony performers, she realises that family is her best hope.

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A little bit of horror doesn’t go amiss in the Winter either and the stunning ‘lost’ horror novel of the late William Gay is deeply unsettling.  Little Sister Death is inspired by the famous 19th Century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee and follows the unraveling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to try and find inspiration for his faltering work. There’s no irony or post modern trickery in Gay’s novel: it is a classic Haunted House tale and written by a master of the genre.

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Horror and confusion of a more contemporary kind in Tim Washburn‘s Powerless where a massive geomagnetic solar storm destroys every power grid in the northern hemisphere. North America is without lights, electricity, phones, and navigation systems. In one week, the human race is flung back to the Dark Ages. This is something many of us contemplate: can we manage without the sophisticated and interrelated technological matrixes we’ve become dependent upon? Only one man–army veteran Zeke Marshall–is prepared to handle a nightmare like this. But when he tries to reunite with his family he discovers there are worse things in life than war. And there are terrible and unthinkable things he’ll have to do to survive.

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Just out in cinemas is Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and this book which was first published by the London Review of Books has been re-released. In 1974, the homeless Miss Shepherd moved her broken down van into Alan Bennett’s garden. Deeply eccentric and stubborn to her bones, Miss Shepherd was not an easy tenant. And Bennett, despite inviting her in the first place, was a reluctant landlord. And yet she lived there for fifteen years. Altogether darker in tone is David Mitchell’s Slade House which was born out of the short story he published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabits the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks. 

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Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies. A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. More mysteries abound in the newly published The Master of the Prado by Javier Sierra as he takes readers on a grand tour of the Prado museum in this historical novel that illuminates the fascinating mysteries behind European art—complete with gorgeous, full-color inserts of artwork by da Vinci, Boticelli, and other master artists. Historical figures are brought to life and dazzling secrets, conspiracies and prophecies hidden within artistic masterpieces are uncovered in this intriguing story.

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I loved Purge, the earlier novel by Sofi Oksanen and her latest, When the Doves Disappeared ( translated by Lola Rogers) doesn’t disappoint. Her plot is fast paced and explores Estonia’s terrible wartime history of mass human displacement, collaboration and occupation, shining a light upon a part of the world which is often neglected by writings about the Second World War. The translation is superb too. Another well translated novel is A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman which became a sleeper hit over the late Summer via word of mouth. The titular Ove is a cantankerous Swedish misanthrope, constantly cross and combative with neighbours, shop assistants and everything, to be honest. But beneath this gruff exterior is a decent man with a generous spirit. Read and smile as he becomes an unexpected saviour to the unfortunates who come his way.

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Finally, 2015 saw us saying goodbye and thank you to Jackie Collins who died far too soon of breast cancer. In tribute to a writer who kept me entertained and helped to educate me about what kind of men I needed to avoid, I’ll be rereading two of her novels: Hollywood Wives and Lovers and Gamblers, both classics of the sex, shopping and backstabbing genre. The former provides hours of fun trying to identify the thinly disguised real life Hollywood people who inspired her characters and the latter is a romp involving beauty queens. a male hero who is a priapic hybrid of Tom Jones and Rod Stewart and a plane crash in the South American jungle. Enjoy.

Seasonally themed books

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Christmas themed books are a yearly tradition in our house and the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is where we recommend you start. Scrooge actively hates Christmas and he’s not shy about spreading his misanthropy. A timely visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future remind him about life, love and priorities. Another favourite of mine is A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote and set in Alabama during the great depression. We meet seven-year-old Buddy whose parents leave him with relatives over Christmas whose gift-buying imagination doesn’t stretch to much more than a religious magazine subscription. His friendship with an elderly cousin saves the day as they both get drunk on whiskey, bake cakes and decorate trees after a muddy cold expedition to find one.

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For young children, Chris Judge’s The Snow Beast is jolly Christmas whodunnit because Beast has been robbed and so has the whole village. Without tools the villagers can’t put on their legendary Winter Festival, so Beast sets off to solve the mystery. Discovering that a stranded Snow Beast is behind the robbery, Beast has to decide whether to help this odd-looking stranger.

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For both children and adults, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss tells of the journey towards love, acceptance and forgiveness which the Grinch, whose heart is two sizes too small, undergoes, after stealing everyone’s gifts because he hates Christmas. Closer to home, A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas is based on his own experiences, growing up in a small Welsh town and ideal for reading aloud. Christmas in the country provided Laurie Lee with plenty to write about in Village Christmas, a moving, lyrical portrait of England through the changing years and seasons. Laurie Lee left his childhood home in the Cotswolds when he was nineteen, but it remained with him throughout his life until, many years later, he returned for good. This collection brings to life the sights, sounds, landscapes and traditions of his home – from centuries-old May Day rituals to his own patch of garden, from carol singing in crunching snow to pub conversations and songs.

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For those in need of humour after spending hours servicing the needs of others, the writings of humourist David Sedaris might do the trick of putting you back together again (along with a large gin). Holidays on Ice boasts six humorous short Christmas stories impregnated with the sardonic and darkly dry humour Sedaris is known for. If reading about such things as the banality of life working as a Christmas elf in Macys amuses you, because life could always be worse, this is the book for you. Known for her sardonic nature in real life, Fox in the Manger by  P.L Travers has been reissued in a whimsical new edition by Virago. This charming retelling of the Christmas story by the author of Mary Poppins. Printed on board, with beautiful illustrations, this will be the perfect gift book for Christmas.

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Finally, how can it be Christmas if someone hasn’t been murdered? Bring Poirot to the rescue with  Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie or enjoy the recently reissued Mystery in White: a Christmas crime story by J Jefferson Farjeon who was highly acclaimed back in the day. Read on as heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near a tiny village, leaving passengers at the mercy of a murderer in the deserted home they shelter in. Good classic stuff.

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Holiday reading for the kids

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It’s that time when school holidays start to pepper the calendar and the terms seem to grow shorter and shorter in inverse relationship to the lengthening days. The Millers Tale has compiled a selection of brilliant activity books covering all manner of subjects from fossils, doodling and colouring books filled with magical forests to the most exquisitely illustrated encyclopaedia of animals that will enthrall adults, let alone their kids. Finally, there’s a few story books too for when they are eventually poured into bed (check out the jazz rat!) plus a great looking guide to growing up specially written for teenage boys on the autism spectrum. Enjoy!

642 Places to Draw by Chronicle Books.

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A follow-up to the hugely popular 642 Things to Draw, this esoteric assortment of locations to sketch will send casual doodlers and serious artists on a creative adventure, be it to remote locations (Mt. Fuji wrapped in mist), just down the hall (under your bed), or to the height of their imaginations (over the moon). One for the older child and a little bird tells me that adults are obsessed with it too. Yours won’t be the first kid to come down in the morning and find their parents have already ‘contributed’.

Maps Poster Book by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinska

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Quite simply one of the loveliest designed map books I have ever seen, the large-format maps printed on gorgeous textured paper will bring the world alive. The authors and designers, Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 2007 and were nominated for the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2010. Previously available as a best-selling children’s style atlas simply called ‘Maps‘, this new compilation includes detailed maps of countries, along with a map of the world too that will brighten the bedroom (and indeed any room) of your child’s home. Twenty eight maps cover national costume and monuments, natural features and food; right down to the tiniest of insects.

Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom

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Marketed in the blurb as a ‘stunning colouring book for adults’, I’d happily give this to a child aged from 10+ who likes intricate and finely wrought patterns, is patient and able to cope with not finishing in one day. Millie Marotta is a very popular illustrator and here she offers delicate outlines of forest scenes, birds and jellyfish trailing intricate tentacles printed on thick pages although I would avoid alcohol based felt pens to minimise bleeding through. There are composites of flowers that add up to a giant grizzly bear and other outlines that aren’t all they seem with ! A non prescriptive approach allows the artist to make the designs their own in what could turn out to be one heck of a trippy book with authorial suggestions for things to add when your own imagination starts to fade.

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Superbook for Superheroes by Jason Ford

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Here we have a ‘compendium of ideas’ from simple drawing and colouring to activities that allows you to create your own crusaders for justice who do battle with super villains and unravel their crazed schemes for taking over the world. Children will learn to draw villains such as the Mad Scientist, Bog Creature and Evil Robot, while also creating superheroes, their sidekicks, secret hideouts, outfits and super gadgets. And there are superpowers to discover such as invisibility, super strength, speed, flight, heat vision, teleportation and X-ray vision. A brilliant primer for the child who finds existing superheroes lacking and wants to invent their own.

Creaturepedia by Adrienne Barman

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There are no words for how much I would have wished for a book like this as a child, both in design and contents (my tastes haven’t changed that much).  A collection of best-loved animals from all over the world are chosen for their special talents and characteristics, made vivid and characterful in the illustrations by the author. Divided into witty and inventive categories such as ‘the architects’, the ‘noisy neighbours’, the ‘homebodies’, the ‘forever faithfuls’, the ‘champions of forgetfulness’ and more, including animals ordered through colour and habit too, this fact stuffed book will keep young explorers busy for hours.

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Usborne Step by Step Drawing Animals

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All these beautiful books packed with critters means your kids will want to learn how to draw them, an exercise that can often lead to frustration when the creatures in their minds eye do not match those they put down on paper. This book can help bridge that gap with its clear, easy to follow tricks and techniques that help kids create a lively and personality filled sketch.  The double colourful pages have step-by-step drawing instructions, space to practise and doodle in, and ideas for colouring in or adding backgrounds to help develop imagination- a useful counterbalance if your child baulks at following too many instructions. This is part of a series of books; others have mermaids, people, comics etc.

My Pop Up Body Book by Jennie Maizels and Will Petty

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A bright and bold interactive book that shows kids how it all works and takes them on a journey of discovery right from the very start- conception. There are pull tabs, lift flaps, turn wheels and pop ups plus tiny windows that show what happens internally, including the journey food makes along your alimentary tract in all its wonderful, kid friendly grossness. Useful as a visual guide for tinies and a jumping off point for more detailed explanation to the olders, the book is fun and funny, versatile and relatively hard wearing compared to a lot of interactive books which can make the mistake of sacrificing sturdiness for a design that sadly appeals more to a parent than it does to a child. This book doesn’t make this error.

Holiday Pocket Puzzle Book by Alex Frith

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Costing less than £1,50, these little portable books are ideal for backpacks and jacket pockets. Even the meanest of airplane carry on allowances shouldn’t preclude taking one of these for kids aged 6+. Featuring mazes and logic problems to solve, wordsearches, codes to crack, number puzzles and more, this book is a boredom-buster, ready to use any time you have a spare few moments.

Pirates Maze: Maze Craze Boon by Don- Oliver Matthies

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Priced at less than a fiver, this maze and puzzle has been very well received by the five and overs. Taking readers on a pirate themed fantasy where they board Captain Silver’s pirate ship, encounters with fish, mice, an octopus, a map in a bottle, and a super treasure hunt in an ancient Incan pyramid will keep them interested. Finding the lost gold and jewels whilst negotiating barriers and blocks to bewilder you and your gang of pirates challenges in a safe and non frustrating manner- handy if you need a few child free moments yourself.

Secret Garden: an Inky Treasure Hunt & Colouring Book by Joanna Basford

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An absolutely divine book that most adults would covet. Tumble down the rabbit hole and find yourself in an inky black-and-white wonderland where interactive tasks take you on a ramble through a secret garden created in beautifully detailed pen-and-ink illustrations. The pages beg to be brought to life through colouring and reward the child who is prepared to explore and pore over each page as each drawing also shelters all kinds of tiny creatures just waiting to be found. And there are also bits of the garden that still need to be completed by you. Appealing to older children and YA’s, the intricately-realized world of the Secret Garden is both beautiful and inspirational and pretty much a modern day meditative activity.

Minecraft: the Official Construction Handbook

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Again, costing only a few pounds, this is the handbook to expand Minecraft addicts abilities. This official handbook is packed with tips and step-by-step instructions from master build team FyreUK. You’ll learn how to construct houses, bridges, ships, floating islands and rollercoasters of the highest quality. There are guides to wooden houses, n impressive tower bridge build, a Nordic hall, palace gardens, mage city walls but whilst some designs have some step by step instructions (galleon ship, fortified wall, rollercoaster), others such as the Steampunk City serve a more inspirational role and don’t have instructions.

Stone Bone Girl: the Story of Mary Anning of Lyme Regis by Laurence Anholt

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History is not littered with tales of great female derring do and not because women (and girls) didn’t actually do anything. Here, the story of Mary Anning, who is probably the worlds best known fossil hunter, acts as useful counterbalance and is a well loved heroine of mine as a result. As a little girl, she found a fossilised sea monster, the most important prehistoric discovery of its time and in this lovely book, best-selling author Laurence Anholt turns her fascinating life into a beautiful story, ideal for reading aloud. Sheila Moxley’s luscious pictures vividly evoke the coastal setting and the real-life dramas of this spectacular tale. Mary Anning is a role model, inspirational especially because she came, not from a wealthy family that could afford to indulge its cossetted offspring, but from a family that actually had to live off her earnings from her beachcombing finds.

Sticker Activity: Fantastic Fossils

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Packed with over 250 easy-peel, re-usable full-colour stickers, this inexpensive book costing less than £4 takes you around the world to unearth the weird and wonderful creatures of the past and offers lots of fun activities. Become a fossil hunter: discover the most famous fossil finds, put together an Ichthyosaur, build a museum exhibit, match the fossil to the animal, go collecting fossils and put them on display. This is a book I’d recommend buying in conjunction with the story of Mary Anning featured above.

 Big Top Burning by Laura A Woollett (pub 15 June 2015)

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Big Top Burning investigates the 1944 Hartford circus fire and invites readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence, helping develop their ability to pay attention and detect from the evidence presented. On July 6, 1944, thousands of fans made their way to Barbour Street in Hartford, Connecticut, to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performance. Not long after the start, a fire broke out and spread as panicked circus-goers scrambled to escape. Within 10 minutes the entire big top had burned to the ground, and 167 people died. The book recounts the true story and follows the tragic stories of the Cook family—including children Donald, Eleanor, and Edward, who were in the audience that day—and 15-year-old Robert Segee, a circus employee with an incendiary past. Drawing on primary sources and interviews with survivors, author Laura Woollett guides readers through several decades of investigations and asks, Was the unidentified body of a little girl nicknamed “Little Miss 1565” Eleanor Cook? Was the fire itself an act of arson—and did Robert Segee set it? Young readers are invited to evaluate the evidence and draw their own conclusions. Combining a gripping disaster story, an ongoing detective and forensics saga, and vivid details about life in World War II–era America, Big Top Burning is sure to intrigue any history or real-life mystery fan.

The Growing Up Book for Boys: what boys on the autism spectrum need to know! by David Hartman

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The Growing Up Book for Boys explains the facts behind the growth spurts, body changes and mood swings of adolescence for boys aged 9-14 on the autism spectrum, a time which can be very confusing for all adolesecents. Using direct literal language and cool colour illustrations, this book tells boys all they need to know about growing hair in new places, shaving, wet dreams and unexpected erections. It’s full of great advice on what makes a real friend, how to keep spots away, and how to stay safe online. Most importantly, it explains that every body is amazing and unique and encourages young boys with autism to celebrate difference!

The Black Dog Mystery by Ellery Quenn Jr

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A gang of young sleuths and a trusty terrier put their noses to a bank robbers’ trail in this adventure packed with thrills, danger and suspense.  Ellery Queen’s young apprentice, Djuna, is preparing for an afternoon of fishing when a stranger leans out of his car window and asks for directions to Canada. A few minutes later, Djuna watches as the man’s friends come running out of the local bank and into the getaway car, guns blazing, before taking off for the Canadian border. It is a mystery that could baffle even Djuna’s famous boss, but with the help of a ferocious black Scottie named Champ and a few crime-solving friends, he will find the culprits. It will be the greatest adventure of his life.

The Hungry Toilet by Jason Hall

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Not a new release but who cares when a book is so witty and perfect for scatologically inclined children?  There’s rhymes, gruesome-ness and a few questions at the end plus a mystery to ponder…There is a mystery surrounding Cresington Town. People are going missing and no one knows how or why. Your will meet some fantastic and hilarious characters on your way to solving the mystery. Includes the bonus story – Going on a Bat Hunt.  The Hungry Toilet is a Top 10 Best Selling book with the author being described as the “New Roald Dahl of Rhyming.” If your children enjoy Dr Seuss, Roald Dahl and David Walliams they will love this book too!

Oh! The Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss

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Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a wonderfully wise and joyous ode to finding one’s path through the maze of life. In celebration of its 20th anniversary, this classic bestseller has been transformed into a popup book by master paper engineer David A. Carter. Filled with glorious pop-ups, detailed pop-up booklets, special effects, and the complete original text, this classic bursts with vibrant new energy. It’s the perfect gift for kids of all ages, and an ideal gift for anyone starting out on a new adventure- why not buy for a child embarking on his first overnight school trip or as preparation for a first holiday?

Kids Made Modern by Todd Oldham

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Fashion designer Todd brings us a thoroughly up to date take on children’s crafts books, weaving in examples of grest design such as Mid-Century Modern as a point of inspiration. Packed with craft ideas such as decoupage, the book assumes that no child is too young to have their own aesthetic. Crafts are integrated with a first rate modern art education but kids can shoot straight to crafting if that doesn’t interest them so much.

Cool Daddy Rat by Kristyn Crow

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Bursting with potential for parental scat accompaniment, in this divinely cool story a young rat hides in his father’s bass case and tags along as he plays and scats around the big city. A celebration of NYC, of fatherhood and jazz,  the lively rhythmic text is perfect for young kids and fabulous illustrations give that cool cat (or rat!) feel that lends itself so well to the slow winding down that a bedtime should be. Accompanied by some slow bluesy jazz, what better way to send them off to sleep?

Five Wounds by Katharine Edgar

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I recently interviewed the author for The Bury Spy books page and having read this wonderful book, I came away feeling educated and entertained,  Young readers will find the books sixteen year old heroine, Nan, a relatable character and one who offers an important alternative to some of the inane role models they are currently exposed to. Fans of books such as ‘The Hunger Games’ with its dominant female heroine will also find interesting parallels in Nan- parallels that transcend time and remind us that human emotions and motivations have remained fairly constant. It is 1536. The north of England has boiled over into rebellion against Henry VIII. Sixteen year old Nan Ellerton must choose – help the rebels, even though it could mean paying the brutal penalty for treason, or betray her beliefs and risk eternal damnation. A stunning historical novel for teenagers from debut author Katharine Edgar, Five Wounds tells a story of adventure, passion and courage, set against the background of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

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This was hugely popular in the sixties and has stood the test of time as a wacky tale of childhood boredom and a boy who ends up in a fantasy land of words and numbers. It operates as both corrective to and depiction of adult boredom and through alliterative rhyme and gentle wit, it encourages readers to reconnect with the wonders that exist in our world.

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For those of you reading this in Suffolk and Norfolk and surrounding counties, here are a selection of local book shops who, if they don’t stock these books, will be happy to order them in. Shop local, shop in real time as there’s nothing like stepping through the door of a book shop.

Harris & Harris books, Clare

Landers Books in Long Melford

Kestrel Bookshop in Friars St, Sudbury (no website)

Ketts Community Bookshop in Wymondham

The Holt Bookshop

Aldeburgh Bookshop

Waterstones in The Arc, Bury St Eds (and there is also a Buttermarket branch too with cafe)

Norfolk Children’s Book Centre

Jarrold Books, Norwich

Book Hive, Norwich

Beccles Books

Topping Books, Ely

Bertram A Watts, Sheringham

Diss Publishing Bookshop 

Browsers, Woodbridge

Heffers, Cambridge

The Angel Bookshop, Cambridge (no website)

 

 

 

Cambric tea and turkish delight- food in children’s literature.

Books we love as children can date and grow out of kilter with our modern mores and beliefs – we still enjoy them, albeit with a more knowing heart and mind. We haven’t checked the Law of Books as to what delineates a classic as of late but these are some of our candidates- both niche and mainstream, for kids which feature fulsome or whimsical descriptions of food in their pages. Some are based around food and others use it to enhance the narrative or as a theme or metaphor but they are all compelling and have stood the test of time, ready to be rediscovered by each new generation of children.

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Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban

The moral of this story is “Be careful what you wish for.” Frances loves bread and jam so much she wants to eat it every day. Frances is a fussy eater too. She won’t touch her squishy soft-boiled egg. She trades away her chicken salad sandwich at lunch. She turns up her nose at boring veal cutlets. Unless Mother can come up with a plan, Frances just might go on eating bread and jam forever! Mum Badger in her infinite parental wisdom knows the best way to deal with this is to let Frances learn that some things are made less special by over familiarity. Adventures with food and fussy eating is addressed with a light non moralising hand as Frances learns to try new things to eat and more importantly, works this out for herself. Richly descriptive in word and illustration, Hoban creates a prose masterpiece about a childhood life experience.

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Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss

“Not in a box. 
Not with a fox. 
Not in a house. 
Not with a mouse. 
I would not eat them here or there. 
I would not eat them anywhere. 
I would not eat green eggs and ham. 
I do not like them, Sam-I-am”

(From Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss)

Do you like green eggs and ham?” asks Sam-I-am  and Sam keeps asking persistently (like very young child we have ever met). With distinctive characters and unmistakable rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s beloved books have earned a place in the cannon of children’s classics. Growing cumulatively longer and longer, the list of places to enjoy green eggs and ham, and friends to enjoy them with, grows. Follow Sam-I-am as he insists that this unusual treat is indeed a delectable snack to be savored everywhere and in every way then cook Nigella’s famous riff on the meal- Green Eggs and Ham.

“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.”

 This description of Turkish Delight by CS Lewis in the ‘Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is the one that tantalised, confused and ultimately disappointed me the most when I finally got to try it for myself. Bouncy, jellified and perfumed, the texture and taste of Turkish Delight was so far removed from the candy of my imagination that to this day I wonder if CS Lewis actually muddled it with some other, lovelier candy. The magical description allied itself with a magical world during my childhood- a time when I so very desperately needed to be taken out of my own unloving and bleak home and my disappointment after trying Turkish Delight for the first time was bitter indeed.

How to make Turkish Delight

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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi & Ron Barratt

Once upon a time there was a town called Chewandswallow, devoid of grocery stores. Food is provided by the weather and comes three times a day. It snows mashed potatoes, has split pea soup fog, and rains orange juice. It begins to storm and flood making the food become giant. This forces residents to build boats made out of bread and sail away in search of a safer place. Imagine super sized donuts rolling down the streets and wondering if a pancake could really be bigger than a house? It’s a great story that opens up questions about the weather and how fun the imagination can be, facilitating mind bending feats of creative thought. Read this with your children, get them drawing their own imaginary foods then click here for some surreal Cloudy inspired recipes to make with them.

Matron: “You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork-pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger-beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.” (From the Malory Towers series of books)

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One of my very favourite things to read as a child was any of the Enid Blyton boarding school tales from the cliff top Malory Towers to the less striking St Claires, attended by the O’Sullivan twins. Despite being set around the time that war would have resulted in serious privation, we are kept insulated from the vagaries of this and other historical event- indeed Clive of India was one of the only historical figures I recall being mentioned (as the groan-worthy subject of revision). Despite the broadest of plot and character brushstrokes, I still read them as an adult. As Jane Brocket writes in ‘Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer’, a Proustian revisiting of the world of food in children’s literature with its recreations of famous meals and recipes, Blyton is especially gifted at depicting amazing scenes of food. Consider that these books were written during a time of rationing, surely Blyton must have been gripped by the throes of wish fulfilment as she wrote? Either that or she had great contacts in the world of black-market foodstuffs.

Think of the writing skill it takes to make sardines pressed into slices of ginger cake sound tempting. That is what some of the girls ate during one midnight feast, as they sat by a cliff-top swimming pool carved from Cornish cliffs wearing tennis shoes and sturdy utilitarian flannel and wool dressing gowns. Then there were the unctuous sounding match tea ‘Jammy Buns’ to celebrate their Malory Towers fifth form Lacrosse win. So much more desirable than their Greggs equivalent! We read the account of the midnight feast in a St Clare music room where Isobel and Pat fry mini-sausages on a purloined camping stove and rail against the sneakiness of Erica who subsequently ratted then out to their schoolmistress. To this day I can smell those sausages…and I don’t even like them. Even the description of Elizabeth’s peppermint creams in ‘The Naughtiest Girl in the School’ books made me long to try what are actually pretty average tasting candies.

In fact this love of celebrating the food in children’s books from an adult perspective leads me onto my next book discovery, the ‘Little House Cookbook’ by Barbara Mi Walker who discovered the “Little House” series when her daughter, Anna, was four. Eight further years of intermittent reading, writing, and testing produced The Little House Cookbook, a lovingly detailed exploration of just about every foodstuff mentioned in the entire series, including the appetites of the seemingly gluttonous Almanzo- Laura’s future husband.

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 The authors bibliography is four and a half pages long and in each chapter, she locates recipes within their historical context and explains every ingredient. Did you know that at in Laura Ingalls’s day, the tomatoes available were not sweet in the manner that they are now?  There were no chemical raising agents (egg whites would be stiffly beaten and ipes to the modern day kitchen.

Take the recipe for Stewed Jack rabbit with Dumplings, “If you can’t find a hunter to give you a skinned rabbit (he will want the pelt), look for a farm-raised rabbit at a German butcher shop. (Hasenpfeffer is a favorite German dish).” There is the Mittel European influence upon American migrant cooking right there.

Horehound candy, vinegar pie, parched corn and Johnny Cakes; fried apples ‘n onions, (the favourite birthday treat of Almanzo); green tomatoes or pumpkins were used for pie when apples were not available. They ate Vanity cakes at a Plum Creek birthday, the cakes’ puffed up emptiness serving as analogy for the hated Nellie Olsen  and savoured salt-pork melting into pans of baked beans: even the loaves made from wheat hand-ground in a little coffee grinder during the blizzard racked Long Winter are researched and written about. I was obsessed with trying Wintergreen Berries, something that Almanzo (again!) and his sister Alice went ‘pawing for’ on the snow-frozen slopes of New York State where their father had a prosperous farm. The description of crunchy berries gushing aromatic icy juices into their mouths was more than I could bear. The fact that I live in an area with chalky alkaline soil, ill suited to growing the plant that bears these berries, Gaultheria procumbens is a further torture.

I have never drunk tea and detest milk but I got my grandmother to make me a Cambric tea just like little Grace drank- basically hot water flavoured with milk and a smidgeon of tea, so comforting during the cold and a hint of just how poor the family often were. I basically spent my childhood pretending to be Laura and named my first born after her too. “At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea”. (The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder).

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Another fantasy figure from my childhood (I begged for a hay filled mattress that would smell clean and sweet), Heidi lived the kind of simple life that even as a young child, I recognised as something of an unattainable fantasy. The contrast between this unctuous piece of cheese on toast and the hard rolls with the knot on top served at the formal dinners in Clara’s frigid and cold city home was painful to me. The author, Johanna Spyri was actually a resident of Zürich and thought of the story of the simple Alpine girl while she was convalescing from an illness in the Grisons, which is in the eastern part of the country and a biographical parallel with Clara’s illness:

 “Meanwhile the old man held a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork over the fire, turning it round and round till it was toasted a nice golden yellow color on each side … the old man filled her bowl again to the brim and set it before the child, who was now hungrily beginning her bread having first spread it with the cheese, which after being toasted was soft as butter” (from ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri)

Finding out what type of cheese this was turned out to be no easy task when you consider that goats cheese was actually not eaten that often in Switzerland then, even though Uncle Alp was a goat farmer who made cheese from his own animals. Cheese toasting over a fire was not restricted to people living in huts on the side of an Alpine mountain though; this method using toasting forks was also written about by Enid Blyton and by Robert Louis Stevenson in ‘Treasure Island’ but none comes close to Spyri’s description. It is THE uber cheese on toast but unlike Proust I have yet to rediscover my Heidi Temps Perdu. I Still don’t know what type of cheese it was although Raclette is the likeliest candidate, being an excellent melting cheese.

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As a young girl I read and re-read Susan Coolidge’s ‘What Katy Did’ series of books and was intrigued by the bottle of shrub they took to drink on one of their rainy day picnics in the loft at the very start of the book. Although Cece later admitted that the ‘Shrub’ was little more than vinegar and water, I was determined to both try it and enjoy it <shudder> and took a glass of what we had, Sarsons, mixed with tap water down to the orchard at the bottom of my grandparents garden and tentatively forced myself to drink it. Illusions firmly shattered and deciding that American vinegar was clearly superior to ours (or they had the stomach and constitution of goats) I shelved any ideas about this becoming my new go to summer refreshment.
 Until the latest post from the Bojon Gourmet landed in my in box that is. One of my favourite food writing bloggers from San Francisco, her Shrub recipe has about as much in common with my (and Cece’s) version as the saintly and slightly sanctimonious Cousin Helen from the books had with Mae West. Lavender, Kumquat, honey and apple cider vinegar all add a mellifluous depth that cancels out any tendency towards the tongue-sucking rasp of vinegar. The colour is amazing, the floral and citrus sophisticated enough for parties. Go on, try it. Even Katie would have been made good by this drink and would thus have avoided the back injury this, in part, morality tale visited upon her to show us what happens to naughty girls.

The ‘What Katy Did’ series are liberally scattered with references to food and to the occasions surrounding it. Here is the picnic in their version of Paradise where they built a rose bower to eat under;

“Katy, who sat in the middle, untied and lifted the lid of the largest basket, while all the rest peeped eagerly to see what was inside.First came a great many ginger cakes. These were carefully laid on the grass to keep till wanted; buttered biscuit came next – three a piece, with slices of cold lamb laid in between; and last of all were a dozen hard-boiled eggs, and a layer of thick bread and butter sandwiched with corned-beef. Aunt Izzie had put up lunches for Paradise before, you see, and knew pretty well what to expect in the way of appetite.Oh, how good everything tasted in that bower, with the fresh wind rustling the poplar leaves, sunshine and sweet wood-smells about them, and birds singing overhead! No grown-up dinner party ever had half so much fun. Each mouthful was a pleasure; and when the last crumb had vanished, Katy produced the second basket, and there, oh, delightful surprise! were seven little pies – molasses pies, baked in saucers – each with a brown top and crisp, candified edge, which tasted like toffy and lemon-peel, and all sorts of good things mixed up together”

And who recalls Debbie’s Jumbles sent in the boarding school Christmas hamper to end all hampers? I found the books faintly torturous; even the ‘thick pale slices of pudding with a thin sugary sauce’ served by the new headteacher on one of her weird food fad regimes for school lunch tempted me. What on earth was this pudding?

Katy’s trip to Europe with its ill fated expeditions to various locations associated with her favourite novels had her gravely disillusioned with our food, showing particular distaste for some disagreeable flannel blanket-textured muffins, which she described as ‘scorched and tough’. Little pan fried fish reminiscent of what she called ‘Scup’, commonly known now as ‘Porgy’ with its fine light flavour, and a light gooseberry preserve both met with her approval in what she called ‘Storybook England’.
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An old, little known book, ‘Girl of the Limberlost’ by Gene Stratton Porter, is a story of a girl of the mid western woods; a buoyant, loveable self-reliant American with a philosophy of love and kindness towards all things; her hope is never dimmed. The story and romance of Elnora growing up in the wetlands of northern Indiana is also a cautionary tale for ecology-lovers.

 Gene Stratton-Porter paints a picture of coming industry destroying nature and those who try to save what can be saved for future generations. My sigh of relief when Elenora’s mother turned her life around and started acting like a good mother as opposed to her original not so good one, was immense and of course that meant that food = love with glorious descriptions of the goodies placed in Elnora’s lunchbox- spice cookies, raisin turtles, candied pears, popcorn balls, haws, doughnuts, and hazelnuts to share with friends or feast on alone.

Turtles brand candy were developed by Johnson’s Candy Company (which became DeMet’s Candy Company in 1923) in 1918, after a salesman came into the commissary’s dipping room and showed a candy to one of the dippers, who pointed out that the candy looked like a turtle. Soon after, Johnson’s Candy Company was making the same kind of candy and selling it under the name “Turtles.” Commonly made in the American South, they are now a classic of the candymaker- as a child without the internet to do my research, my mind ran in ignorant riot over their name. You can imagine what I thought they were made from.

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Less a children’s book and more of a book that I read as a child, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘ by Betty Smith beat Jamie Oliver to the post regarding the mythologizing of Cuisina Povera with its delicious description of mother figure Katie Nolan’s pitiful attempts to make a bone with scraps of meat on it, an onion and some stale bread into what she called Frikadellen.

Frying scraps of stale bread, sending the children to cajole that bone from a butcher who would give them the one with the most meat attached (in exchange for a ‘pinch on their cheeks’), making nothing stretch to something because of her marriage to a charming yet feckless Irish singing waiter, Katie is a true heroine. Jack Monroe and her campaign against food poverty with a blog offering inexpensive ways to feed a family, comes to mind when I read this book and as an adult, fully cognizant of the hardships faced by many families, it makes me weep. Read this and see what I am referring to:

“The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it! She’d take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.

 “Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin. When this was baked brown, sugar was melted and poured over the top. Sometimes she made what she had named Weg Geschnissen, which laboriously translated meant something made with bread bits that usually would be thrown away. Bits of bread were dipped into a batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat. While they were frying, Francie ran down to the candy store and bought a penny’s worth of brown rock candy. This was crushed with a rolling pin and sprinkled on top of the fried bits just before eating. The crystals didn’t quite melt and that made it wonderful.
 “Saturday supper was a red letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added for flavor. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot ketchup. These meat balls had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.

They lived mostly on these things made from stale bread, and condensed milk and coffee, onions, potatoes, and always the penny’s worth of something bought at the last minute, added for fillip”

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The most memorable banquets aren’t necessarily the most palatable or convivial: take the very adult Oscar Wildes black banquet in ‘Portrait of Dorian Gray’ with charcoal pathways, basalt-edged ponds and baskets of purple-black violets adorning the black-clothed table. Feasting on dark olives and Russian rye bread, slices of black puddings turgid with clotted blood shipped over from Frankfurt and wild game served in puddles of liquorice-dark sauces, the guests wore black and ate off black-edged flatware whilst mourning the passing of the protagonist’s sexual potency. Not one for children although the pepper laden meal that Cruella De Vil invites the dogs owners the Dearlys. to is just as forboding and sinister. Taking place in a Dalmatian-inspired room with its black marble walls and white marble table, reminiscent of a sarcophagus or grand tomb, Dodie Smith tells us:

‘The soup was dark purple. And what did it taste of?

Pepper! The fish was bright green. And what did it taste of? Pepper! The meat was pale blue. And what did that taste of? Pepper! Everything tasted of pepper, even the ice cream – which was black. (The Hundred and One Dalmatians)

The meal become entrenched in our minds eye in a far more potent manner as it takes the staff of life- food, and marries it with death in that tomb -like room.

 

 

Books to Help Children Cope with Loss

Incomprehensible to an adult, how on earth can we expect a child to get a handle on death and bereavement, especially when their parents and family may well be struggling themselves? These books are not a substitute for loving human contact and explanations (no matter how clumsy or incomplete these may be) but what they can do is provide a breathing space for grieving adults who might be struggling to put words to their pain. The child is helped to understand that death is universal through the written experiences of others and there are a myriad of ways by which we experience and understand it. And shared reading will help both parent and child to cope.

Sad Book by Michael Rosen 

 

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The pairing of two of Britain’s former Laureates, and chronicling Michael’s grief at the death of his son Eddie from meningitis when he was a teenager, this is a moving combination of honesty, sincerity and simplicity which acknowledges that sadness is not always avoidable or reasonable. We like this book because it makes those complicated feelings plain on the page, with the illustrations of Quentin Blake expressing that which cannot be communicated verbally- whether that be through the weight of pain or there being no words. It wasn’t made like any other book either; Michael Rosen said of the text, ” I wrote it at a moment of extreme feeling and it went straight down onto the page … Quentin didn’t illustrate it, he ‘realized’ it. He turned the text into a book and as a result showed me back to myself. No writer could ask and get more than that.” And Quentin Blake says that the picture of Michael “being sad but trying to look happy” is the most difficult drawing he’s ever done… “a moving experience.”

Children and their parents everywhere have grown up with the work of Michael Rosen. When bad things happen we turn to the familiar because it makes us feel a little safer in a world that has tilted on its axis and is less dependable as a result. To read the words of an author that we love and trust brings comfort and for us, that is this books greatest strength, even if it strikes us as grossly unfair that such pain should be visited on a man who has given us so much.

Duck, Death & the Tulip by  Wolf Erlbruch, Penelope Todd and Catherine Chidgey

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This book will break your heart. I read it in the bookstore and sat weeping in the corner of the store. Death and broaching the subject with our children is always going to be difficult but this book does it beautifully. The author,  Erlbruch is a much respected man in Germany and his subjects emerge from the less cosy side of childhood, a place filled with edgy creatures and difficult themes. You won’t find a fuzzy bunny or a little bear who can’t sleep in Duck, Death and the Tulip and the story is simple. A duck notices that she is being followed. She is scared stiff, and who can blame her, for her stalker is an eerie figure in a checked robe with a skull for a head.

Erlbruch gives the impression that he is incapable of sentimentality, but his drawings are delicate, beautiful and convey a sweet humour that helps us cope with the immensity of the subject. “You’ve come to fetch me?” asks the terrified Duck. But Death demurs, explaining that he has always been close at hand, in case of some mishap.

Duck strikes up a friendship with Death which is treated as a normal part (or consequence) of life as Duck learns to first tolerate and then accept its presence, eventually finding a kind of solace in its proximity. Finely drawn illustrations and gentle leading prose means the moment when Duck grows tired and lays down is not such a shock and there is something infinitely tender in the way Death strokes her ruffled feathers into place, lifts her body and places it gently in the river, watching as she drifts off into the distance. “For a long time he watched her. When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.”

Care is needed in the telling of this story because it could inspire nightmares in the more ruminative and sensitive child. We found it difficult; the depictions of death are not cosy although the comfort that death can bring to the old, the tired, the sick and the sick of it is acknowledged. Death comforts the dying duck and is comforting to those of us who can understand that life can be a burden- whether your child can grasp this is your call.

The Bear and the Wildcat by Kazumi Yumoto and Komako Sakai

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Bear is grieving for his little friend, Bird. He has gently laid him to rest in a box lined in the softest moss,leaves and feathers and has a desperate need to talk about Bird with his other friends but they all urge him to move on. Bear doesn’t want to and is not ready to move on either. He wants to both mourn and celebrate his friendship and feels isolated by his grief from his friends and from the World.

One day Bear meets a Wildcat sitting alone next to a violin shaped box and after asking about its contents, confides in Wildcat about Bird, “You must have loved Bird very much” is all Bear needs to hear to unlock the torrent of love, longing and memories inside him; memories illustrated beautifully by the vignettes of Bird’s life- a life well lived. The celebration and commemoration continues as Bear decorates Bird’s box with bright leaves as his new friendship grows and we see those vivid memories come to life. In this, children learn that eternal life can mean living on in the hearts and minds of those left behind, irrespective of religious belief.

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The messages in this book are wonderfully pragmatic, healing and heartbreaking for both parent and child. We are slowly guided to the realisation that memories must be cherished, celebrated in an every day manner and friendship never dies. Grieving is honourable and a new friendship is not a betrayal- it is part of honouring those that have gone before. Indeed we realise that the best way to love again is to have loved before.

We would recommend this as a supervised read for a child (and adult) who have recently endured loss and it will help stimulate age appropriate chats about feelings and experiences at a difficult time. The book also serves as useful preparation for pet owners, especially of creatures with short lives who provide our children with an early experience of loss.

The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic and Illustrated by Olivier Talliec

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We were most jolted by the  anger we felt when we lost our Grandfather so this book, dealing as it does with the anger of a little boy whose mother has died, is important in the way it represents a full range of human responses to death. The little boy is overwhelmed with sadness, anger and fear that he will forget his mother, shutting all the windows to keep in her familiar smell and scratching open the cut on his knee to help him recall her comforting voice. He doesn’t know how to speak to his dad any more, and when Grandma visits and throws open the windows, it’s more than the boy can take – until she shows him another way to hold on to the feeling of his mum’s love. With tenderness, touches of humour and unflinching emotional truth, Charlotte Moundlic captures the loneliness of grief through the eyes of a child, rendered with sympathy and charm in Olivier Tallec’s expressive red-infused acrylic and pencil drawings.

Read it to yourself a few times before sharing with a child; while we advocate sharing feelings of pain and loss with your children, we advise being prepared first because the rage, pain and isolation of this little boy can be very hard to bear but so many children have reported finding this book a solace and realistic depiction of their own feelings that it is worth persevering with.

Still Here with Me: Teenagers and Children on Losing a Parent by Suzanne Sjoqvist

 This book is a moving and thoughtful anthology of the experiences of thirty-one children and teenagers who have lost a parent. In their own words, children and young people of a variety of ages talk openly and honestly about losing their mother or father. They describe feelings of pain, loss and anger, the struggle to cope with the embarrassed reactions and silence of others, and the difficulties involved in rebuilding their lives. They also share happy and loving memories of their parents, and talk about the importance of remembering while learning to accept their parent’s death. The accounts cover a variety of circumstances in which a parent died, including death from cancer, heart attack and involvement in an accident. Taboo experiences which are often avoided are also covered, including death through alcoholism, natural disaster, war, suicide, and domestic violence. The book displays a courageous and insightful group of children and young people who prove that it is possible to talk openly about these subjects without stigma. Still Here with Me will be a valuable source of information and comfort to young people who are struggling to cope with the loss of a parent.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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Illustration by Jim Kay

A simply stunning book for older readers that challenges the reader emotionally and intellectually- it deals with a child experiencing the death of their mother and spares nothing in its steadfast honesty and sensitivity. The story of Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old boy who is continually visited by a monster while his mother is dying, Patrick Ness has taken an original story from the gone too soon writer Siobhan Dowd, (who died of breast cancer at the age of 47) and produced a book most worthy of her. The monster – part wild yew tree, part giant man – tells the boy three stories. These confusing tales pale into comparison to the true monster in the home- the death of Conor’s beloved mother and the mystery of death, terrible in its unknowing-ness.

The hardback copy has illustrations by Jim Kay and these amplify the beauty and emotion of the text. Although you will be sliding down a wall, sobbing by the end of the book, it is a cathartic grief and so I would recommend this book for those months when people have ceased to acknowledge your loss or expect you to have ‘dealt with it’.

Fred by Posy Simmons

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We can never know all the details of somebodies life, no matter how close we are to them. Even if we are well acquainted with a persons biography, they will always have a secret inner life, that intrapersonal relationship that they hold very close and this book cleverly reminds us of this.

Fred is a family cat with owners who think he is the laziest cat in the world, but who knows what goes on after dark? The family and children grieve for Fred after his death and night after night, hear the mewing of cats in the garden “Meaow meaow, meoooo, oh waily waily woooo….” as they mourn the passing of the Fred they knew- a cat pop star with a secret life.

Using a comic strip format, we watch as Sophie and Nick join in the funeral celebrations with his friends and fans who have come far and wide to pay their respects to a very cool cat and, in the process, we see his owners learn all about the life of a cat they thought they knew. In this, the book proves a useful jumping off point to the idea that when somebody dies we all have our own relationship with that person, our own memories and together, they go some of the way towards true appreciation of a person and their life. None of us have true ownership of another loved one and understanding that we are not the only ones to grieve might help a sad child feel a little less alone in their bereavement.

Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson

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The guilt and anger felt by children when somebody they love dies are profoundly unsettling and frightening and in this superb book, Wilson ensures that Vicky, killed in a car accident, can also show anger at her own life being cut short. Jade, the friend left behind struggles with guilt, wondering if their argument triggered Vicky’s death- a classic display of magical thinking so common in children. Wilson personifies this in the form of the dead Vicky continuing to inhabit the life of her friend, following her around, trying to remain involved inserting herself into her new friendships and hindering her attempts to adapt to the loss of her best friend. Eventually Jade comes to the realisation that as much as she loves Vicky, she also has to move on with her life, a decision which can invoke yet more guilt for any of us in a similar situation. Vicky realises that her idealisation of her dead friend denies the essential truth of her- she was a human with all of the glorious and real flaws of that condition. When she accepts this, she is set free and able to find a comfortable place in her psyche for the memory of her dead friend.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

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Award-winning picture book star Oliver Jeffers explores themes of love and loss in this life-affirming and uplifting tale. Once there was a girl whose life was filled with wonder at the world around her then one day something happened that made the girl take her heart and put it in a safe place. However, after that it seemed that the world was emptier than before. But would she know how to get her heart back?

In this deeply moving story, Oliver Jeffers deals with the weighty themes of love and loss with an extraordinary lightness of touch and shows us, ultimately, that there is always hope.

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford Smith

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With a design that is clearly influenced by the two Williams- Morris and Blake- the Fox and the Star is a children’s book which adults will be moved by and enjoy too. It is particularly inspired by Blake’s poem Eternity – “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy; / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sun rise” – and Bickford Smith’s story tells of the forest-dwelling Fox, who loses, and mourns for, his friend Star. If you hold onto something you value too tightly, you risk losing it but learning the lesson that when you love deeply, you have to let the love object go is a hard one and especially hard for Fox.

Teeming with life and haunted by isolation, the contrasts between the two and the pain this can cause us is an important and central theme to the story. Fox is an innocent creature, trying to carve a space in the world and a total opposite to the traditional depiction of foxes in literature- itself an important lesson about stereotyping.

 

 

 

 

 

A diverse world of reading for children

Finding books that reflect different cultures can be a challenge but after having a rummage through the book shelves, we’ve unearthed some really cool books for kids, showing life in all its diversity and range. Here they are.

 Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland

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A powerful graphic novel about Azzi and her family who seek refuge and shows just how dangerous some people’s home lives can be and the difficult decisions and risk involved in reaching refuge. Azzi and her parents are in danger. They have to leave their home and escape to another country on a frightening journey by car and boat. In the new country they must learn to speak a new language, find a new home and Azzi must start a new school. With a kind helper at the school, Azzi begins to learn English and understand that she is not the only one who has had to flee her home. She makes a new friend, and with courage and resourcefulness, begins to adapt to her new life. But Grandma has been left behind and Azzi misses her more than anything. Will Azzi ever see her grandma again? Drawing on her own experience of working among refugee families, renowned author and illustrator Sarah Garland has produced an exciting adventure story to be enjoyed by readers of all ages in a fresh and modern format.

Bravo, Chico Canta! Bravo! by Pat Mora & Libby Martinez

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A multi lingual mouse and his family live upstairs inside an old theatre. They love going to the plays and shouting ‘Bravo!’ when the curtain falls. But when Gato-Gato, the theatre cat finds them, Chico Canta must use his gift for languages to save his family. Bi and tri lingual conversations fall naturally into place in this book and the child will absorb them with no awareness that he is being ‘taught’.

“Let’s form a line,’ un fila por favour’- Mrs Canta who was as round as a top, liked to sing and speak many languages- English, Spanish and Italian. Mrs Canta spoke to animals too. She could speak cricket, spider and moth.”

 Umbrella by Taro Yashima

51gpsZmkP1L._AA160_Momo can’t wait for a rainy day so she can enjoy and use her birthday presents — red rain boots and an umbrella. Bright and colorful, with bold illustrations that will have your children impatient for rain and the beautiful, rhythmic song of the rain falling on Momo’s umbrella –  Pon polo, pon polo, polo polo pon polo. In addition to telling a story of a preschooler’s impatience and eagerness, the story also tells of a child’s growing independence. With the rain comes an opportunity for Momo to grow and mature. “The street was crowded and noisy, but she whispered to herself, `I must walk straight, like a grown-up lady!'” Momo also shows signs of becoming more responsible, “She did not forget her umbrella when her father came to take her home. She used to forget her mittens or her scarf so easily — but not her umbrella” The story concludes with this memorable note, “It was not only the first day in her life that she used her umbrella, it was also the first day in her life that she walked alone, without holding either her mother’s or her father’s hand”- a bittersweet moment for parents.

Yo? Yes? by Chris Yaschka

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This short children’s book is about two lonely boys, one Caucasian the other African-American, who meet on a street and become friends, speaking with only monosyllabic words. It’s a story that has happened to all of us at one time or another. The book was a 1994 Caldecott Honor book (i.e., a runner-up to the Medal winner) for best illustrations in a book for children.  Inflection is fundamental in this story and it’s something babies are attuned to even before they know words- all babies are born with the ability to make every sound in every language so childhood is sadly a process of forgetting as well as learning. The story is meant for an older (pre-school) audience, but the fun-with-language aspect of this book makes it great for even the smallest of babies.

 The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

415eaw+jY1L._SP160,160,0,T_This classic picture book, published in 1963, was the first to feature a young black hero — a small boy enjoying his urban neighborhood. No book has captured the magic and sense of possibility of the first snowfall better. Universal in its appeal, the story has become a favorite of millions, as it reveals a child’s wonder at a new world, and the hope of capturing and keeping that wonder forever. The author Keats grew up in Brooklyn and changed his name from Katz to Keats after World War II. Because of the discrimination he faced, he became the first American picture book maker to give a black child a major role in children’s books and literature.

Keats was inspired to write this book and develop the central character of Peter (a boy in this book about four) because he had become spellbound by a photograph of a small boy in Life magazine. He cut out these pictures and pinned them on his studio walls. This boy in the magazine developed into Keat’s character named Peter who would go on to become the main character in six more books until he was portrayed as a young adolescent in “Pet Show”.

This is a lovely book which has Peter waking up to a “world of snowy white” delighted with the new snow and his day of playing with snowballs, making snowmen and angels and dreaming of another new day (although he feared that the snow would have melted over night). To Peter’s delight, he woke up on the second day to even more new snow. The book is delightful. I loved the part where Peter, just being filled with the joy of being a little boy, tried to capture the day and the snow by putting it in his pocket so that he could take it inside when he has to go into his house. In this way, Peter learns about the power of the moment and impermanence.

Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges

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Ruby is determined to go to university, just like her brothers. But in turn-of-the-century China, this is an unprecedented move, something pretty much beyond the experience of Ruby’s family. This story reveals Ruby’s tenacity, passion and dedication as she works her way toward an education.  It is a beautiful book in every way, from its vibrant illustrations to its messages of respect — for oneself, for one’s elders, for one’s culture and for the never-ending gift of learning. As hard as Ruby works, she is aware that tradition will soon force her to give up her studies and marry. When her grandfather becomes aware of her unhappiness and asks her to explain, he listens but says nothing. What will happen next may not be a surprise, but the twist at the end is sure to bring a smile to the face of every reader.

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Sumptuous illustrations in the book ‘Ruby’s Wish’ and based upon the real life of the authors Grandmother

My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits

51Uo-AorKtL._SX342_Immigrant kids recognize that hesitation during the calling of the morning register when a new teacher gets to their name but the experience depends on how adults handle these confrontations with what is unfamiliar to them. If only all teachers (and immigrant parents) were as wise and compassionate as the ones in this book. Recorvits’ poetic, lyrical, spare text and Swiatkowska’s imaginative paintings explore this part of feeling “foreign” — an immigrant child’s name. In a new language and a new alphabet, Yoon’s beautiful Korean name seems foreign even to herself. Are you still “Yoon” when people outside the family pronounce your name differently? When they don’t know that it means “shining wisdom?” For a child to feel at home in a new country, she needs a non judgemental group of teachers, parents, and classmates, as well as self belief and courage.

 Day of Tears by Julius Lester

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On March 2 and 3, 1859, the largest auction of slaves in the history of America was held in Savannah, Georgia with over 400 slaves being traded. On the first day of the auction, the skies darkened and torrential rain began falling. The rain continued throughout the two days and ended as the slave sale stopped. These simultaneous events- of the rain storm and the auction led to these two days being called “the weeping time.” Storyteller Julius Lester has taken this footnote of history and written this upsetting and incredible young adults book. Julius Lester tells the story of several characters including Emma, a slave owned by Pierce Butler and caretaker of his two daughters, and Pierce, a man with an ever growing gambling debt and household to watch over. Emma wants to teach his daughters-one who opposes slavery and one who supports it-to have kind hearts. Meanwhile, in a bid to survive, Pierce decides to take advantage of his “assets” and host the largest slave auction in American history. And on that day, the skies open up and weep endlessly on the proceedings below in a powerful masterclass on the use of the pathetic fallacy in fiction. Using the multiple voices of enslaved Africans and their owners, Julius Lester has taken a little-known, all-true event in American history and transformed it into a heartbreaking and powerfully dramatic pronouncement on slavery, and the struggle to regain ones humanity in the midst of it.

Global Babies by the Global Fund for Children

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Appealing photos of babies from seventeen cultures around the globe are woven together by simple narration. GLOBAL BABIES presents children in their cultural contexts. Diverse settings highlight specific differences in clothing, daily life, and traditions, as well as demonstrate that babies around the world are nurtured by the love, caring, and joy that surround them. What our babies will love the most is the focus upon the faces, the often bright colours and the simple presentation of the images. They adore looking at photos of other babies, are drawn to them (heck I haven’t grown out of looking at photos of babies!) and this is a wonderful book.

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

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Anna Hibiscus lives in the continent of Africa with her mother, her father, her baby twin brothers, and lots and lots of her family. Join her as she splashes in the sea, prepares for a party, sells oranges, and hopes to see sweet, sweet snow. This is a lovely, simple book that does what it does very well ideed and engages readers immediately. The four chapters stand alone as stories of a child’s life too so it can be used as a chapter book also. It is not exactly easy to find English-language children’s stories set in Africa that avoid treating it as something exotic  but this is funny, sweet, and interesting whilst normalising the story and existence of the characters. What would improve it? Naming within it, a more specific African location to challenge the oft held idea of Africa as one amorphous blob of a place where national boundaries, individual cultures and differences tend to be skated over or eliminated entirely.

 Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa

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Zomo the rabbit, a trickster from West Africa, wants wisdom. But he must accomplish three apparently impossible tasks before Sky God will give him what he wants. Is he clever enough to do as Sky God asks? The tale moves along with the swift concision of a good joke, right down to its satisfying punch line and the repeating of ‘Zomo, Zomo, Zomo’ is very satisfying to parent and child when read aloud.  “Wildly exuberant, full of slapstick and mischief, this version of an enduring Nigerian trickster tale, featuring a clever rabbit, is a storyteller’s delight.”–Booklist. With vivid and detailed illustrations including Zomo the Rabbit whose cultural heritage can be seen in his garb, from his dashiki (brightly colored shirt) to his kufi (hat), even very young children will be drawn to this book.

Biblioburro- a True Story from Colombia by Jeannette Winter

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Luis loves to read, but soon his house in Colombia is so full of books there’s barely room for the family. What to do? Then he comes up with the perfect solution–a traveling library! He buys two donkeys–Alfa and Beto–and travels with them throughout the land, bringing books and reading to the children in faraway villages. Beautiful! Based upon the life of Luis Soriana who is still delivering his books via Donkey transport, we are told his story-A Columbian school teacher that loved to read. He traveled with two burros (mules) to deliver his extra books to children high up in the mountains of Columbia. Monica Brown uses vivid detail that is strong but also simple enough for children to read and understand. An example of this is when Brown writes, ” “Deep in the jungles of Colombia, there lives a man who loves books. His name is Luis. As soon as he reads one book, he brings home another. Soon the house is filled with books. His wife, Diana, grumbles.” The language is so strong, but is clean and simple for children. The story is so much fun and it is great for children to read and begin to understand other people’s cultures and lifestyles.

 When I Close My Eyes by Ty Allan Jackson

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This picture book is about a little girl named Dot with a vivid imagination which takes her away to faraway places. Filled with vivid colored pictures and wonderful rhyming words that will make children and adult smile making this is a great daytime or bedtime story for children from 2-6 years old. The message?  Imagination is the key that unlocks the door to unlimited possibilities.

Big Moon Tortilla by Joy Cowley

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I’m afraid Anglo children too often learn a part of our culture that says ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.’ Of course, we too often do the wrong thing. For many USA residing Southwestern Indians, chldren are taught patience as a prime virtue, even as a way of solving problems. Big Moon Tortilla illustrates in an exemplary way for non-Indian children this alternate way to face a problem. A contemporary child gets help from an old story in this bright picture book set in a small desert village on the Papago reservation in southern Arizona near the Mexican border. Marta Enos’ day is ruined when the wind blows her papers out the window and the dogs chew her homework into trash; then she trips and breaks her glasses. Grandmother comforts Marta Enos, repairs the glasses, bakes her some warm tortillas, and tells her a traditional tale about how to deal with a problem. Sometimes it is good to be a tree and look all ways at once; sometimes it is best to be a rock or a fierce mountain lion; but Marta Enos chooses to be an eagle, who can fly high and see how small the problem is. Strongbow’s watercolor paintings set the story in wide desert landscapes as the sun sets and the full moon rises, and warm portraits show the loving bond across generations.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

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So what happens when you don’t want to go along with the flow? What happens when you don’t approve of something that is very important in your cultural background? A true classic with a timeless message, The Story of Ferdinand has enchanted readers since it was first published in 1936. All the other bulls would run and jump and butt their heads together. But Ferdinand would rather sit and smell the flowers. So what will happen when our pacifist hero is picked for the bullfights in Madrid? Capturing the spirit of Spain perfectly we also have gentle humour, from Ferdinands rampaging after he is stung by a beel to his placid, under the tree sitting. The realization that even small events and our reactions to them can have a huge impact on our lives, and everything else that surrounds us in this world, is beautifully presented in this story. How Ferdinand chooses to deal with his plight at being taken away to fight is, of course, the heart and significance of this tale. His choice of poetic action is a pitch perfect and non moralising morality tale and provides the lasting appeal for this book.

The Goggle Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies

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Children love a kindred naughty spirit and in Old Al Haji Amadu’s five extremely naughty and very hungry goats, they have plenty of them. These goats gobble and gulp through whatever they find in a typical goat fashion from pumpkins to mats. Al Haji’s seven children adore the goats but to keep his wives happy he takes the goats to sell at the market but this proves to be less simple than he thought. This vibrant tongue twister of a read aloud book is joyous.

Tales from India by Jamila Gavin.

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Imagination unbounded in these tales of magic, mystery and  creation from the elephant-headed Ganesha and monkey god Hanuman to the blue-skinned Krishna.Lessons are taught lightly about love and respect for the world, framed in the context of centuries old stories that allow the natural leap and range of a child’s minds eye. How can you churn an ocean with a snake? How can Parvati make a real baby out of mud? Glorious illustrations make this a book to hand down and treasure.

Over the Hills and Far Away  By Elizabeth Hammill

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Illustrated by over 77 artists, this stunning collection of 150 rhymes from all over the world includes rhymes from First Nation people, Inuit and Maori, Great Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa and the Caribbean. The collection contains best-loved nursery rhymes, but also newer discoveries in a lively, dip in and out of book.

Ramadan Moon By Na’ima B. Robert, illustrated by Shirin Adl

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Ramadan, the month of fasting, Doesn’t begin all at once. It begins with a whisper And a prayer And a wish. Muslims all over the world celebrate Ramadan and the joyful days of Eid-ul-Fitr at the end of the month of fasting as the most special time of year. This lyrical and inspiring picture book captures the wonder and joy of this great annual event, from the perspective of a child. Accompanied by Iranian inspired illustrations, the story follows the waxing of the moon from the first new crescent to full moon and waning until Eid is heralded by the first sighting of the second new moon. Written and illustrated by Muslims, this is a book for all children who celebrate Ramadan and those in the wider communities who want to understand why this is such a special experience for Muslims.

Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins

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One of the new tiger cubs has escaped from the reserve!” This brand new book is set on an isolated West Bengali island,taking readers to a setting far removed from their own.

When a tiger cub escapes from a nature reserve near Neel’s island village, the rangers and villagers hurry to find her before the cub’s anxious mother follows suit and endangers them all. Mr. Gupta, a rich newcomer to the island, is also searching–he wants to sell the cub’s body parts on the black market. Neel and his sister, Rupa, resolve to find the cub first and bring her back to the reserve where she belongs.

The hunt for the cub interrupts Neel’s preparations for an exam to win a prestigious scholarship at a boarding school far from home. Neel doesn’t mind–he dreads the exam and would rather stay on his beloved island with his family and friends. But through his encounter with the cub, Neil learns that sometimes you have to take risks to preserve what you love. And sometimes you have to sacrifice the present for the chance to improve the future. Ages 7+.

Juneteeneth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper

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Published in February 2015 to coincide with Black History Month, this book by Coretta Scott King award winning illustrator, Floyd Cooper celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation via Mazie, who is ready to commemorate liberty and the day her ancestors were no longer slaves. Mazie remembers the struggles and the triumph, as she gets ready to celebrate Juneteenth.This beautiful story by award-winning author and illustrator Floyd Cooper will captivate both children and adults.

For ages 6-9.

Anywhere but Paradise by Anne Bustard

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Covering a rarely encountered topic, the issue of racial diversity, native origins and exclusion from a Hawaiian/White perspective, Peggy Sue Moves from Texas to Hawaii in 1960 and faces a difficult transition when she is bulled as one of the fewhaole (white) students in her school.

Her cat, Howdy, is stuck in animal quarantine, and she’s baffled by Hawaiian customs and words. Worst of all, eighth grader Kiki Kahana targets Peggy Sue because she is haole–white–warning her that unless she does what Kiki wants, she will be a victim on “killhaole day,” the last day of school. Peggy Sue’s home ec teacher insists that she help Kiki with her sewing project or risk failing and life looks bleak until Peggy Sue meets Malina, whose mother gives hula lessons. But when her parents take a trip to Hilo, leaving Peggy Sue at Malina’s, life takes an unexpected twist in the form of a tsunami. Peggy Sue is knocked unconscious and wakes to learn that her parents safety and whereabouts are unknown. Peggy Sue has to summon all her courage to have hope that they will return safely.

Ages 10 & up.

Not my Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and Gabrielle Grimard

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Margaret can’t wait to see her family, but her homecoming is not what she expected.

Addressing cultural identity, the influence of the outside world upon indigenous cultures and the pressures involved in bridging these, this is a poignant and inspiring book about Margaret’s struggle to belong. Two years ago, Margaret left her Arctic home for the outsiders’ school. Now she has returned and can barely contain her excitement as she rushes towards her waiting family — but her mother stands still as a stone. This strange, skinny child, with her hair cropped short, can’t be her daughter. “Not my girl!” she says angrily.

Margaret’s years at school have changed her. Now ten years old, she has forgotten her language and the skills to hunt and fish. She can’t even stomach her mother’s food. Her only comfort is in the books she learned to read at school.  Gradually, Margaret relearns the words and ways of her people. With time, she earns her father’s trust enough to be given a dogsled of her own. As her family watches with pride, Margaret knows she has found her place once more.

Based on the true story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and complemented by evocative illustrations,Not My Girl makes the original, award-winning memoir, A Stranger at Home, accessible to younger children. It is also a sequel to the picture book When I Was Eight.

Schooldays Around the World by Margriet Ruurs

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As a child I was absolutely fascinated by the idea of children all over the world getting up and going off to school and curious about what form that schooling took. Author Margriet Ruurs begins this engaging informational picture book by posing an intriguing question: “What is a school? Is it a building with classrooms? Or can it be any place where children learn?” The fascinating stories that follow will expand how young readers think of school, as they learn about the experiences of real children in thirteen different countries around the world. From Marta in Azezo, Ethiopia, and Luciano in M?rida, Venezuela, to Alina in Taraz, Kazakhstan, and Lu in Shanghai, China, the children who are profiled live in places that truly span the globe. Alice Feagan’s charming cut-paper collage artwork further enhances the idea of a global community by featuring smiling, enthusiastic children’s faces, which are equally joyous and filled with life in every situation. As with all the titles in the popular Around the World series, using a familiar concept such as going to school is a perfect way to introduce children to other cultures and places.

A world map at the beginning of the book shows the location of each of the countries, and a glossary contains definitions of the foreign words. These, along with a table of contents, make useful tools for familiarizing young readers with book navigation.

The Red Bicycle- the Extraordinary Story of One Bicycle by Jude Isabella

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In this unique nonfiction picture book, the main character is a bicycle that starts its life like so many bicycles in North America, being owned and ridden by a young boy. The boy, Leo, treasures his bicycle so much he gives it a name — Big Red. But eventually Leo outgrows Big Red, and this is where the bicycle’s story takes a turn from the everyday, because Leo decides to donate it to an organization that ships bicycles to Africa. Big Red is sent to Burkina Faso, in West Africa, where it finds a home with Alisetta, who uses it to gain quicker access to her family’s sorghum field and to the market. Then, over time, it finds its way to a young woman named Haridata, who has a new purpose for the bicycle — renamed Le Grand Rouge — delivering medications and bringing sick people to the hospital. This book makes an excellent choice for cultural studies classes; author Jude Isabella has provided several terrific suggestions in the back of the book for projects large and small, while a map shows the distance the bicycle traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. Award-winning illustrator Simone Shin’s digitally composed artwork includes evocative depictions of Alisetta’s and Haridata’s communities in rural Africa, creating vivid comparisons between Leo’s life and their lives. Youngsters will learn how different the world is for those who rely on bicycles as a mode of transportation, and how one ordinary bicycle — and a child’s desire to make a difference — can change lives across the world.

Fly Eagle Fly! By Christopher Gregorowski

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With a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this is a tale of fulfilment and freedom shown through the parable of the baby eagle who is reared with chickens after being blown out of his nest and discovered by a local farmer. This simply told yet dramatic story from Africa will delight children everywhere and encourage them to “lift off and soar” in expressive, evocatively  illustrated pages by Niki Daly, an internationally known artist.

Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman

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Sometimes to save the people you love, you have to go overboard”

‘Overboard,’ says Yusuf’s grandfather, ‘is an English word meaning to do something that is bold, wild, dangerous and crazy.’” Jamal’s decision to ‘go overboard’ stems from his experiences growing up in a war-torn land. He wants to change the world, his world anyway, and he has a grand plan. His passion for soccer will be the means to turn around his government, his country, and life for his family. But Jamal is about to embark upon an adventure more ‘bold, wild, dangerous and crazy’ than he could ever imagine that entails a journey from their homeland, Afghanistan where their family has upset the authorities, and a lengthy voyage overseas.

Jamal’s narration of the tale highlights his incredible strength – be it drawn from his knowledge of his ancestors or his belief in the ‘secret of soccer’ – ‘Never give up, even when things are looking hopeless’. Optimism, perseverance, courage and tenacity are the tools of survival for Jamal, his feisty younger sister Bibi and the friends they make on their journey, Rashida and Omar. These things, together with a rich fantasy life focussed on soccer and how great Australia is going to be, sustain Jamal through horrendous and heart-breaking experiences.

One question Morris Gleitzman leaves unanswered is whether Jamal’s faith and hope will be rewarded. After all Jamal and his family go through, will they be recognised and welcomed? Just how ‘overboard’ does a boy have to go?

(Un)arranged Marriage by By Bali Rai

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Unusual in its point of view- that of a Punjabi boy called Manny who doesn’t want to go through with the marriage that his father has arranged for him, we explore the issue of arranged or forced marriages from his unique perspective . Set in present day England and partly in the Punjab, it follows Manny from the age of 13 as he tries to balance the demands of his family with his own desires for his future.

An exploration of generation conflict, culture clash and the universal theme of teenagers rebelling against their parents, this book incorporates issues such as inter ethnic racism, peer pressure, violence and lighter issues around school and first love. An important book and a powerful voice that reminds us that whilst the position of women in arranged or forced marriages remains the less empowered, this doesn’t mean that the men aren’t sometimes victims too.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is a unique autobiographical poetry book where Woodson shares true stories of her childhood — growing up as an African American during the Civil Rights movement — in mesmerizing verse. Woodson shares emotionally charged yet accessible snapshots of growing up in both South Carolina and New York, sensing remnants of Jim Crow laws. This book won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Amy McCulloch on why children’s literary heroes need to be less white. 

‘We need diverse books’ calls for more representative writing for children

Piet Groblers top ten multicultural books for children

Children’s books we love

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These gorgeous books come in a series- crab cat, spider cat etc and were much loved by my daughter. Crab Cat is a cat who wants to be a crab. He imagines lurking in a rock pool waiting to pinch children’s toes (which would make my daughter squeal and curl her toes up), the illustrations are rich in detail providing plenty to point at and talk about. These tiny little books are perfect.

Aviary Wonders Inc: Spring Catalogue & Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth

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This might be the weirdest picture book published this year although its central premise- that in the future (2031 to be exact) birds will be extinct, or at least, birds as we know them- isn’t that left field, sadly. It begins, “Whether you are looking for a companion, want to make something beautiful, or just want to listen to birdsong, we’ll supply everything you need to build your own bird.” The next 30 pages are an illustrated catalog of wings, legs, tails, combs, and feathers for kids to choose from. In the back are “Assembly Instructions” (“Step 2: Attaching The Beak.”) The illustrations are serious art — full-color paintings that would look at home in a museum. At its heart the book is a warning about habitat destruction, but mostly, it will make you laugh, and children with a sense of whimsy will be delighted to imagine building a bird. (For ages 9 to 12)

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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How could we possibly leave this wonderful series of books off our review pages? Recommended by the Local Editor from Leicestershire who writes- “This book is perfect for Christmas, for children aged anywhere from 3 to 11. With beautiful illustrations, it’s the first of the famous stories of this pioneering American family. It has a wonderful Christmas scene in it that is guaranteed to make you cry. And the best last lines of all: ‘She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.’ I’m off to weep right now..”

My Big Shouting Day by Rebecca Patterson

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OK, here’s a good one for small children – and especially good for their parents. My Big Shouting Day, by Rebecca Patterson. This book tells you EVERYTHING you need to know about having a toddler and a baby at home at the same time.

Superworm by Julia Donaldson

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The wiggly, squiggly superhero is now available in paperback. Never fear, Superworm’s here! He can fish Spider out of a well, and rescue Toad from a busy road. But who will come to Superworm’s rescue, when he’s captured by a wicked Wizard Lizard? Luckily, all of Superworm’s insect friends have a cunning plan. With impeccable rhythm and rhyme, wonderful illustrations by Axel Schleffer, this book is a must for the bookshelf.

The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden

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The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden

Thankfully newly reprinted, this book was made into a wonderful yet disturbing children’s TV series in the late 70’s. Telling the story of Kizzy, a little girl badly bullied because she is half Romany Gypsy, the themes are of even greater relevance today. Full of cultural detail cleverly woven in, the book has held up well and treats its subject with dignity.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden

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Another beloved book from my own childhood with themes of being far from home both in distance and culturally, explored sensitively. When little Nona is sent from her sunny home in India to live with her relatives in chilly England, she is miserable. Then a box arrives for her in the post and inside, wrapped up in tissue paper, are two little Japanese dolls. A slip of paper says their names are Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Nona thinks that they must feel lonely too, so far away from home and Nona has an idea – she will build her dolls the perfect house! It will be just like a Japanese home in every way and will even have a tiny Japanese garden. And as she begins to make Miss Happiness and Miss Flower happy, Nona finds that she is happier too.

Doodlebugs

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Doodlebogs by Nikalas Catlo

Crammed with creepy-crawly doodles to create and complete, Doodle Bugs also includes fascinating facts about the insect world – a perfect gift for any budding ‘bugologist’. Let your imagination run wild. These doodle books are so popular with every child I have bought them for. There are every permutation of subject available (including some less appealing gender stereotyped editions ie pink for girls) so finding one to suit your child’s tastes won’t be hard.

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

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Suitable for children aged thirteen and up. Alem is on holiday with his father for a few days in London. He has never been out of Ethiopia before and is very excited. They have a great few days together until one morning when Alem wakes up in the bed and breakfast they are staying at to find the unthinkable. His father has left him and it is only when the owner of the bed and breakfast hands him a letter that Alem is given an explanation. Alem’s father admits that because of the political problems in Ethiopia both he and Alem’s mother felt Alem would be safer in London – even though it is breaking their hearts to do this. Alem is now on his own, in the hands of the social services and the Refugee Council. He lives from letter to letter, waiting to hear from his father, and in particular about his mother, who has now gone missing…A powerful, gripping new novel from the popular Benjamin Zephaniah.

Vikings Sticker Book

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The Story Of The Vikings by Megan Cullis

Delve into the past with this extravagantly designed sticker book, packed with over 100 stickers of amazing artefacts from the Viking World. An interactive way of finding out about Vikings’ everyday lives: their clothes, food, homes, weapons, culture and their legacy. For children interested in history, for reluctant readers and to back up school history, this is a great choice for over 8’s.

Duck, Death and the Tulip

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Duck, Death & the Tulip

This book will break your heart. I read it in the bookstore and sat weeping in the corner of the store. Death and broaching the subject with our children – any children- is always going to be difficult but this book does it beautifully. 

Duck strikes up a friendship with Death, a slightly sinister skeletal figure that lurks nearby. Death is treated as a normal part (or consequence) of life as Duck learns to first tolerate and then accept its presence eventually finding a kind of solace in its proximity. Finely drawn illustrations and gentle leading prose means the moment when Duck grows tired and lays down is not such a shock. The only problem with this book is wondering how on Earth you can read it without bawling.

Architecture According to Pigeons

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Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather, Stella Gurney and Natsko Seki (Designer)

One of those books that makes me think ‘why didn’t I think of this?’ so cool and clever is its central premise – that pigeons make the best guides to the basic principles of architecture with their birds eye view. Speck Lee Tailfeather, the pigeon in question reveals that pigeons are great aficionados of architecture and delivers an account of a journey around the globe with fun facts about each of the iconic buildings he visits. The book features the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and dozens of other buildings in a non didactic and engaging manner. I loved this book and will be adding it to the list of books bought for all the children in my life.

Wow Said the Owl

Wow Said the Owl
Wow Said the Owl

This super cute little board book is a great budget buy for babies and toddlers and will help them learn their colours. The extremely alluring thought of being awake when you are ‘supposed’ to be sleeping is brought to life when Owl decides to stay awake all day, only to be wowed by the colours and sights. The idea of not taking for granted that which is most famliiar is emphasised by Owls realisation that the stars that light up the night sky are, to her, the most beautiful of all. 

Owls big eyes will be appealing to babies who tend to focus most upon these. The illustrations we felt, would be more suited to older toddlers with their melded shades and less defined outlines.

“In the belief of the Gond tribe, the lives of humans and trees are closely entwined. Trees contain the cosmos; when night falls, the spirits they nurture glimmer into life”

The Night Life of Trees

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The Night Life of Trees

Created by hand and illustrated by tribal artists of India, each page tells the folklore that surrounds a different tree. The tree artwork is silk screened onto black paper, creating vibrant  images that would make beautiful art works in themselves. 

Follow that Line by Laura Ljungkvist

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Follow the Line Around the World by Laura Ljungkvist

One single line carries you through every spread of the whole book forming the shapes for illustrations along the way. Kids run their finger along the line tracing their way around the World. By bus, helicopter and ship (among others) we discover the glories of both the natural and man made world. This is just one of a whole series too.

This is London by M Sasek

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This is London

With the same wit and perception that characterised his quirky and gorgeous little books on Paris, New York, and San Francisco, M Sasek presents stylish, elegant London in This is London, first published in 1959 and now updated for the 21st century.  Highly stylized and loving in its depiction, with some of the landmarks no longer in existence, this is still a relevant book to own and share with a child (or just for you!)

Oh, the Places You’ll Go Pop Up by Dr Seuss

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Oh, the Places You’ll Go Pop-Up Hardcover by Dr. Seuss

Or how to find your own pathway through this life… In celebration of its 20th anniversary, this classic bestseller has been transformed into a pop-up book by master paper engineer David A. Carter. Fantastical, breathtaking and glorious paper constructions  retain the whimsy and deep deep emotional intelligence of the original text. Apparently this book is bought for many a graduating young person and is then filled with written messages from family and friends. A treasure in the making.

Tiddler, the Story Telling Fish by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

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In which the tiniest fish can tell the biggest, tallest tales. Every day Tiddler’s lateness at school is explained away by increasingly fantastical tales involving flying rays, mermaids and Gruffalo fish. Children will enjoy the rhythmical flow of the story which encourages chanting of the dialogue and the ever captivating, vivid and alive illustrations of Schleffler.

The Sea Witch by Annie Stewart

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Ellie and Lucy are twins holidaying with their Grandmother in Devon; a holday which is about to take a strange turn after their discovery of a seashell on the beach. Their newly struck friendship with a sea witch called Mia comes to their assistance when another friend goes missing and is feared kidnapped. 

Full of fun, suspense, witchery and drama, this novel reflects a long tradition of child as detective aided by the mystical. As limitless in imagination as that of the children who will read it and suitable for ages 8 plus.

Shh! We have a Plan by Chris Haughton

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 ‘Shh! We have a plan’ follows four hapless characters in the woods, looking for birds. The smallest, quietest one is ignored by the other three who are determined to get the bird by brute force. The story shows that diplomacy and understanding wins the day. Chris Haughton is a fantastic illustrator and clever storyteller and Oh No George is a huge favourite of my many children. A fun story that is perfect for reading aloud, predicting events and is open ended, giving you the opportunity to explore what might happen next.

My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards, Illustrated by Shirley Hughes

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Lovely, timeless stories with great illustrations. A favourite of mine when I was young and my daughter and son loved them too. Lovely language and great stories about the naughty antics the little girl gets up to.They are quite old fashioned but this seems to add to the appeal and the description of the birthday trifle that Bad Harry and naughty sister end up devouring after they find it in the larder has stayed with me since first reading about it over forty years ago.

Read the Mumsnet webchat with ‘My Naughty Little Sister’  illustrator Shirley Hughes and her daughter Clara Vulliamy.

Cosy Classics : Jane Eyre / Moby Dick / Huckleberry Finn and others by Jack Wang & Holman Wang

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Cosy Classics

The Cozy Classics board books retell “cozy” versions of hefty stories like Les MisérablesWar and Peace, and Jane Eyre. Better yet, they’re illustrated with lovable photographs of painstakingly needle-felted scenes from classic literature. Classics never go out of style and the concept for this series of books is simple: every classic in the series will be condensed to 12 child-friendly words, and each word will appear alongside an illustration. Each word is carefully selected to relate to a child’s world, such as “friends”, “sisters”, “dance”, “muddy”, “boat”, and “leg”. The books work as word primers, even without any reference to the original stories. If you, as a parent, can fill in some of the original tale as part of the reading experience, so much the better.

 

Cozy Classics are not intended to provide babies with any kind of academic leg up and unfortunately, in the minds of many, classics are associated with academics. However, no classic was written for the classroom; every one was written to give pleasure and these books offer a fresh and simplified (but not dumbed down) take on these timeless stories.

 Haiku Baby by Betsy E Snyder

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This totally adorable board book introduces infants to the ancient Japanese art of haiku poetry, as well as key early literacy and education concepts like sounds, seasons, and nature. All in a baby-friendly format.

Haiku Baby follows a tiny bluebird, the book’s would-be protagonist, as it visits its various animal companions–from an elephant that shades the bird with a parasol to a fox in a meadow and a whale in the ocean. The little bird’s story is told primarily in pictures, and through the book’s six haiku: rain, flower, sun, leaf, snow, and–of course, it would not be a board book without–the moon, making it ideal for the bedtime line-up. Adorable collage-cut illustrations work nicely with the haiku form to give the book a whimsical, yet serene, feel. And the haiku are light and fun without being too cutesy. Index tabs on the right margin, with pictures that tie to each of the poems (leaf, raindrop, snowflake, etc.), create a unique look, and make it easy for toddlers to flip through the pages on their own without having them stick together like they can with other board books.

Babylit Series by Jennifer Adams & Alison Oliver

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The BabyLit series uses literary classics as loose inspiration to teach subjects like colors, numbers, and counting, and includes gorgeous riffs on Alice in WonderlandAnna KareninaDraculaPride and PrejudiceJabberwocky, and others. In ‘Moby Dick’ Little Master Melville teaches little ones the language of the sea: from ships and sailors to squawking gulls and moody good captains, Alison Oliver’s brilliant illustrations and Jennifer Adams’ clever, simple text will make a sea dog out of any young shipmate.

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The Tell Tale Heart

One of the most inspired adaptions of this series is Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Tattle Tale Heart’ in which the plucky, mischievous toddler Edgar the Raven is at it again in a spirited story with some important lessons. What will Edgar do when he accidentally breaks a statue sitting on a dresser? Will his sister, Lenore, tattle on him? Will Edgar tell his mother the truth? Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” little lit lovers will delight in this new adventure with characters illustrated in a most “poe-etic” way and without the appalling Gothic darkness of its original tale which is most definitely NOT for tiny readers.

Andy Warhols Colours by Susan Goldman Rubin

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In the vein of fine art for babies, Susan Goldman Rubin’s awesome board books use classic and modern art to teach infants concepts like colors and counting. In Andy Warhol’s imagination, horses are purple and golden monkeys wear pink baubles on their tails and the simple text “Big Red Dog Barks Bow-Wow-Wow,” and such is the kind of repetitive funny wording that appeals to babies and toddlers. Other featured artists in the series include Jacob Lawrence, Wayne Thiebaud, Matisse, Magritte, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Touch Think Learn Series by Xavier Deneux. 

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I really like the way the stylish die-cut illustrations in this board book series teach shapes, numbers, and colors in a hands-on, multi-sensory way — babies can experience what a circle actually feels like by touching the shapes while hearing the words and seeing the pictures. Such a clever way to translate abstract concepts.

Wiggle by Garo Tomi

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 I’m a total sucker for Taro Gomi’s whimsical, playful doodles, and was stoked to discover that he’s authored several board books just for babies. I love the interactive element ofWiggle!, which features illustrations that are incomplete without a wiggling finger — including an elephant’s trunk, penguin’s beak, chameleon’s tongue, and robot’s nose. And it’s up to young readers to help them out. Kids can finish the illustration by wiggling their fingers through suitably placed die-cuts. Children are sure to giggle at the silliness of turning their fingers into elephant trunks and chameleon tongues—and learn a bit about animal features on the way.

The Quiet Books by Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska

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What does “quiet” mean? From “Top of the roller coaster quiet” to “First look at your new hairstyle quiet,” The Quiet Book looks at all kinds of quiet with the help of impossibly sweet bears, rabbits, fish, birds, and iguanas. With its soft covers, rounded corners, and sturdy board book pages, this is a perfect addition to baby’s first library.

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis 

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 This adorable board book has received tons of reviewer and librarian accolades, and it’s easy to see why. A box is just a box . . . unless it’s not a box. From mountain to rocket ship, a little bunny stars in this story that puts an updated spin on the timeless idea that you can be transported wherever your imagination will take you. In addition, anything that encourages children to play with toys that don’t cost hundreds of pounds from Rip-Off-Parents-R-Us is a bonus. Just read this with them and then give them a big ‘ole cardboard box.

Some great book selections from Harris & Harris Books, Clare.

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The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang

The title of one story, ‘Nettle Spinner’ is enough to transport the adult imagination let alone that of a child. This book is bursting with magic castles, enchanted forests, fairies, trolls (not the Internet kind) and magic aplenty. Some lesser known tales will keep the story reader interested. This book is definitely for older children, the lack of illustrations making it perfect for independent readers or a bedtime story read by an adult. Definitely one to be dipped in and out of and to keep for future generations. 

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Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

“An utterly believable world that is very much like ours but different” in which Lockwood & Co exists as an agency set up to tackle the very real problem of ghosts. Lucy, the narrator has recently to London in search of an exciting career and she certainly finds it when she joins this ramshackle ghost management agency! For older readers, this book delivers what Roald Dahl always knew children needed- a good scaring!

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The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse

“Something was approaching the burrow. Something deadly. Something that made Sylvan’s fur bristle with fear . . . ”

Tom Moorhouse is an ecologist and it shows in his accurate and mesmerising depictions of animals in this adventure. Sylvan and his brothers embark upon an epic journey after their water burrow hole is threatened. Beautiful illustrations make this a great ‘show and read’ book and the non Anthropomorphic treatment coupled with a non preachy ecological message makes this a wonderful choice for those nostalgic for Ratty and Mole.

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Gabriel’s Clock by Hilton Pashley

Jonathon is half-angel, half-demon, and the only one of his kind. But he has no clues as to his true identity, and now a rogue archdemon wants him for his own sinister purpose….For older readers of around 10+, this book covers love and loss, issues of good and bad and of finding your real place in a World that is not what you thought it to be. Exciting, fast paced and with enough meat on its bones to challenge avid readers.

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Cinderalla- illustrated by Sarah Dennis

Using the fresh and popular technique of paper cutting, Sarah Dennis has designed an exquisite version of the old favourite ‘Cinderella’ by The Brothers Grimm. As pleasing to adults as it will be to children, this is one to keep well out of the hands of toddlers for safekeeping until they can be careful. Definitely a book to buy as a special gift- for a christening or from a Godparent although this perennial story will never tire in the retelling.

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Picasso’s Trousers by Nicholas Allan

Picasso doesn’t want to conform. Picasso has his own ideas about what his art should look like. “‘You can’t paint faces from the front and the side at the same time’ they said. ‘No, no, no Picasso’. But Picasso said, ‘Yes’. 

Full of colourful pictures and a special surprise fold out, children will be both inspired by and identify with Picasso’s need to determine himself. This book has rave reviews down to its blend of art education, fabulous illustrations, simple repetitive rhymes and themes that appeal to children. Art is for all and Allan’s book breaks down any sense of loftiness and inaccessibility. This book is fun!

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Twinmaker by Sean Williams

Set in the near future, one beset by massive tidal surges because of global warming which has forced humanity to take great steps to reduce their impact and emissions, Twinmaker follows Clair Hill on her mission to save her best friend.

Readers will confront important themes – technology; the power it wields and whether it is in itself inherently bad or the way in which we choose to apply it. The ability to use technology to ‘improve oneself is another theme which has resonance in this age of photoshopping, plastic surgery and illusion. Young Adults are increasingly exposed to and immersed in a multimedia world of instant gratification and to a certain extent this novel taps into this with its vivid chases, gunfights and action packed scenes. Yes it does ask the reader to engage in a moral process, but it does this via stealth and is devoid of that preachiness much detested by children.

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The Taming Of The Tights (The Misadventures of Tallulah Casey) by Louise Rennison

Described by young reviewers as speaking in an authentic voice of a 10-15 year old (ish), Tallulah Casey is the madcap cousin of the author’s other popular heroine, Georgia. Tallulah Casey is putting all thoughts of wild boy Cain behind her. He is literally an animal in trousers….Not like nice boy Charlie (who she’s totally not thinking about either). The Tree Sisters are chasing those golden slippers of applause at performing arts college but Dr Lightowler seems hell-bent on spoiling everything for Tallulah.

And with all her mates loved up, can Tallulah resist the call of her wild boy?

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Great Explorers by Stewart Ross and Stephen Biesty

Another exquisitely designed book that doesn’t dumb down the epic nature of the great explorations it retells. Each journey of discovery, whether it be by sea, air, space or land is inspiring and is explained by detailed technical drawings, fold out cross sections, maps and panoramic storytelling. 

The imagination of a child knows no bounds and I would argue that this characteristic is retained by many great explorers. I would have loved to own a book like this when I was growing up although there is also a market for books that highlight the great discoveries of Females too and gives some background about why women weren’t so celebrated or encouraged to be explorers. 

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Asylum by Madeleine Roux

This photo novel, described as perfect for lovers of ‘Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children’ is thrilling, unsettling and creepy, packed as it is with photographs of real abandoned asylums. This new format for fiction is one I find exciting and definitely appeals to more visual readers.

For sixteen-year-old outcast Dan Crawford, the summer program at New Hampshire College Prep is a lifeline. Finally, a chance to make some friends before college. Even if that means staying in a dorm that used to be a old asylum. Soon Dan’s hanging out with Abby and Jordan, and summer is looking up. But then he learns that the asylum was not just any sanatorium – it was a last resort for the criminally insane. As Dan, Abby and Jordan explore the hidden recesses of their creepy summer home, they discover it’s no coincidence that the three of them ended up here. And that some secrets refuse to stay buried…

Perfect for young adults and advanced readers of ten plus.

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How They Met (and Other Stories) by David Leviathan

Love is a complicated, addictive, volatile, scary, wonderful thing. Many of the stories in this collection started out as gifts for the author’s friends. From the happy-ever-after to the unrequited, they explore the many aspects of the emotion that has at some time turned us all inside out and upside down.  A collection of stories about love, full of ‘Meet-Cutes’ and other whimsy. From coming out on a prom date to being fixed up by a 6 year old, these short stories are ideal YA material and will suit readers who like to dip in and out of a book.

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The Super Swooper Dinosaur by Martin Waddell and Leonie Lord (illustrator)

“But just what can a boy, a dog and a dinosaur play together?”

True friendship transcends physical differences in this tale of a dinosaur who swoops in and wants to play. Energetic, clear and lively illustrations reinforce the can do message. We have always loved the work of Martin Waddell and in Leonie Lord, he has a fresh and lively collaborator. 

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Z Is For Moose by Kelly L Bingham and Paul O Zelinsky (illustrator)

Zebra is absolutely certain he’ll be able to direct everyone to appear on the correct page, at the appropriate time, without any mishaps, unnecessary drama, or hurt feelings. It’s an ABC book, for goodness’ sake. How difficult can it be? Oh, dear. Zebra forgot about Moose. Any parents of toddlers and preschools will recognise that sense of frustration when things don’t go to plan….

A witty and madcap reinvention of the classic alphabet book full of suspense, zaniness and anticipation- something young children adore.

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The Library by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Smalls

Elizabeth Brown doesn’t like to play with dolls, and she doesn’t like to skate. What she does like to do is read books. Now that she’s grown up, her collection is so big all the shelves are collapsing. Her front door has disappeared entirely. What in the world will she do? The reclusive Elizabeth Brown surprises everyone with her splendid solution.

How do private libraries come to exist? This book is infused with a love of books themselves. A book to treasure indeed which should resonate with every book lover contemplating being pushed out of their own home by their growing book collection…..