A food-writing prescription to cure clean-eating

 

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Not ‘clean’ but fun. And we’re in danger of losing that.

The concept of clean food is a crock, posing as wellness when in fact underneath lie some pretty disordered ideas about food and eating, denial and body image. Clean eaters often demonstrate extremist beliefs and magical thinking about food and they tend to be obsessed with their physical appearance (their rhetoric exhorts us to eat clean in order to gain a flat stomach, a lean physique) at the expense of their psyches. The term is meaningless, its context weak, narcissistic and stripped of indulgence, pleasure, and love. Their locus of control is firmly centred upon the external because everything is a potential threat: food can harm them; food will make them fat; food will make them sluggish; they cannot rely on their lymphatic, hepatic and renal systems to detoxify- indeed they do not trust their own bodies at all.

The real problem with clean eaters is their lack of an internal locus of control. They seem to believe they are at the mercy of food, their appetite, and their desires, and the sense of agency and self-determination which are both necessary for a healthy psyche have become quiescent. They blame their food instead, as opposed to their own thought processes, yet food cannot be dirty or clean unless you are in the habit of rolling your weekly shopping through the mud or putting it through a hot wash. The moral value of a foodstuff lies in the method of its production, not in its inherent nature, taste or effects. If you really aspire to eat well, cut out battery hen eggs, eat meat from animals that are treated in a more humane manner and buy your fruit and vegetables from local producers who don’t use horrid pesticides or cut down their hedgerows. Shop for ingredients when you need them, cut down on food miles where possible and learn to scratch-cook using fresh and seasonal ingredients where possible. This is good food, not clean food.

If you want to learn how to take greater pleasure in what you cook and eat then I’ve compiled a reading list by authors whose love of life is expressed in the way they write about food. If eating has become a bit of a minefield, their words might help you see how rigid boundaries and self-denial can suck all the pleasure out of life. Nobody should be telling you that you can achieve via puritanical restraint and self-denial: it’s a mean old message. Publishers and commissioning editors bear much of the responsibility for turning odd, crackpot nutritional ideologies into a multi-million-pound industry as do food writers who don’t consult or quote state-registered health professionals when offering dietary advice but I’ve yet to see anyone else daring to say this. But that’s a subject for another post in the future.

If you seek order and routine in the kitchen, learn how to bake which is a discipline full of science and precise weights and measures. Chuck out the scales in your bathroom and buy a gorgeous set of scales for the kitchen instead. But please don’t be afraid of food and don’t be afraid of your appetites.

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Rachel Roddy’s zingy and warm exposition on lemons and lemon spaghetti is utterly divine. I could read this over and over again and never tire of it. Simplicity can be indulgent although Rachel is not the new Elizabeth David as many claim. I think she will be even better.

Some Like It Extra-Hot: David Ramsey’s eye-wateringly good account of eating at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in the Oxford American precipitated a rush on this much-loved Nashville chicken joint. Ordering the extra-hot became a culinary rite of passage for (mostly) male food writers- especially British ones -and triggered the opening of copycat establishments everywhere. This is the original, and best article.

Susan Hill on mushrooms, taken from Through the Kitchen Window (Penguin books)… “girolle mushrooms, apricot-coloured and apricot-scented, with fan vaulting below the cap, as in some ancient cathedral.”

An Encyclopedia of Seafood Cookery by Molly O’Neill, taken from her memoir, Mostly True, in which she comes of age as a chef and moves beyond her landlocked American culinary horizons. O’Neill is such a warm and wise writer and addresses her own body image issues, which were, in part, triggered by her mothers need for perfection through her daughter’s body shape.

Back to the Old World, 1962-1967 by Marcella Hazan is a chapter from her memoir L’Amarcord. It is a masterclass in how to cook from fresh market produce as Marcella distills the guidance of the stallholders into mini cookery lessons.

Gardens on the Mesa by Eugenia Bone is an excerpt from her book, At Mesa’s Edge and is a perfect little explanation about how growing one’s own food helps us develop a more grounded attitude towards cooking and eating. She peppers her text with recipes and delicious suggestions for what to do with ingredients: “With the first home-grown tomato of the season, I am transformed into a novice gardener cliché: amazed that it grew, astounded by the taste, proud as a new parent.”

Norwegian Wood by Margit Bisztray was first published in Gourmet, back in 2004 and this deceptively simple account of the foods the author enjoyed as a child during Norwegian summers draws you in until you find yourself recreating her recipes: smashed wild-strawberries on whole-grain, the amber sun-warmed plums, and blueberries harvested from the timberline. In Best Food Writing 2005.

John Thorne’s food writing keeps me grounded and that’s important in a field that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new. Thorne reminds us that everything is new to someone and his down to earth essays reacquaint us with the familiar, encouraging the reader to see it in a fresh manner. His e-zine Simple Cooking is a cornucopia of food and life as is his collection of essays, Mouth Wide Open. One of the essays inside, The Marrow of the Matter is one of the best pieces of writing ever, discussing as he does, his re-acquaintance with what he refers to as ‘the soft, fatty, helplessly vulnerable vascular tissue’ that hides in the interior of a bone- the marrow. Thorne tells us about his purchase of a specialised English spoon to prise out the marrow and his preference for marrow from smoked ham bones (which he buys from a supplier who has to sell them as dog bones)- pure unctuous pleasure.

Katy Vine’s fantastic exploration of the food scene of American state fairs would definitely be in my top ten food pieces. Published in Texas Monthly, you don’t have to like fairground food to enjoy the creativity of the grandmasters of Extreme Frying whose economic drive has resulted in such creations as deep-fried coca cola, fried butter, Texas-shaped sopapillas and the recipe profiled in this piece- deep-fried lettuce.

Another wonderful piece rooted in the ‘ordinary’ foods of Texas was written by Irina Dumitrescu and uses a lovely hologram metaphor to encourage us to take a closer look at what she refers to as ‘the cheap food of a city’ which is ‘key to its soul’. Dumitrescu is Romanian and her time in Texas was spent in part exploring the liminal places where other immigrants live, work and feed others; the less expensive ‘edges and corners’, as she describes them. Our food longings may be more about habit than nostalgia she suggests, and it is the melding of the old ways with the new in a kitchen that can be the most interesting.

Food is love and never more so when you are caring for someone who is dying. Sarah Di Gregorio is a food reporter and usually focuses on the latest eating trend. But when her mother was dying, Di Gregorio saw how her magical thinking about food could have so much more meaning than she ever thought. When There Was Nothing Left To Do, I Fed Her Ice-Cream is short, pragmatic and deeply moving.

Geoff Nicholson moved from the north of England to Los Angeles and the pigs trotters he grew up with wouldn’t be left behind. So he wrote this.

Tales From the Hunt in Diana Henry’s Roast Figs, Sugar Snow has an introduction that is a perfect distillation of game: earthy, muscular and real. She writes about flesh and sinew and the focus required to bring such bounty to the pot. Buying game might mean a walk to the local butchers but there can be so much more to it as she writes and even if you do buy your game ready-prepared for the stove, there’s a connection with the landscape that eludes other meats. Her recipe for roast pheasant with blackberries and heather honey is the sweet-boskiness of the British countryside on a plate.

Modern Salt is a relative newcomer to the food-writing annals but it is already establishing itself as a source of modern culinary longform and Jill Norman’s piece about her trip to a peppercorn plantation is the kind of food-writing I like most. For the reader, the journey to the plantation is as fascinating as is her account of the pepper-harvest: “A six-hour drive from Bangalore took me past rice paddies where bullocks pull ploughs alongside tractors, past plantations of coconut and areca palms, rubber trees, cardamom and ginger, coffee and tea, through bustling villages and towns and the lively city of Mysore, with its vast palace and chaotic traffic, up into the Ghats and to Wayanad.”

I’d like to recommend every single word written by Southerner James Villas who began his career writing for Town & Country magazine but I’ll limit myself to two books. The first, called Stalking The Green Fairy, is an anthology of his food-writing and the second is a cookbook he wrote in conjunction with his beloved mother, Martha. My Mothers Southern Kitchen highlights family and tradition which are the parts of life that clean-eating neglects. When it comes to shared culinary genealogy, eat clean serves up a barren table indeed. This book is packed with anecdotes and good-natured sparring about some of Martha’s predilections and it shows how the different generations can learn from each other in the kitchen.

Read Jane Grigson on strawberries: “Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them?

And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”

In this short extract alone, Grigson shows us that food is about heritage and memory and a dash of the right kind of sentimentality although her writing never becomes sugary-sweet. Grigson is the distillation of all that is great about British food writing and I (whispers) prefer her to Elizabeth David because Grigson doesn’t do archness or snobbery and doesn’t make me feel inferior because I don’t have a stripped pine basement kitchen in Chelsea or monthly access to vine-screened terraces in southern France.

Alison Uttley’s The Country Child is saturated with vividly-written passages about food from accounts of the great farmhouse Christmas Day feasts to Susan, the book’s central character’s obsession with a ‘bloated, enormous’ chocolate Easter egg she sees sitting in the sunny window of a wealthier family. Even a few lines about the contents of Susan’s Christmas stocking tickles our taste buds: “Next came an apple with its sweet, sharp odour. She recognized it, a yellow one, from the apple chamber, and from her favourite tree. She took a bite with her strong sharp teeth and scrunched it in the dark.” Uttley writes about everyday food and makes us desirous of it. Another, less accomplished, writer would render it prosaic.

“They say it takes nerve to drink a Moxie” wrote Robert Dickinson in a letter to the makers of this soft drink from Maine. What follows is a wonderful exploration of foodways as Dickinson tries a drink that one imbiber described as like drinking a telephone pole.

The debate about high/low foods continues in a wonderfully polemic fashion. The writers who are able to write well about haute food and the everyday meals that result from a desperate scrabble in a depleted store cupboard are few and far between. Even rarer is the writer who elevate the most humble of foodstuffs into something that even the biggest food snob ends up craving. James Villas does it with a vignette about Duke’s mayo and a short piece eulogising the basic bitch of the sandwich world (sliced tomato, if you want to know) and he goes shopping in Sam’s Club then writes about it. Keith Pandolfi achieves it here, too, in his tribute to inexpensive coffee. From Folgers and the yellow packaging of Chock-full-o-Nuts to the sky blue cans of Maxwell House, he revises his previous insistence upon the finest of drip-coffees served by a beard in Brooklyn and gives us a finely drawn portrait of his stepfather too.

Keith Pandolfi is my imaginary food-writing husband. His talent makes me cry, laugh and twist my mouth into wry ‘I will never write like this’ shapes when I read yet another of his perfectly-crafted and often-whimsical pieces. The ‘Case for Bad Coffee’ piece (linked to above) is one of my favourites but the one Pandolfi piece you should absolutely read is Bright Lights: what the holidays taste like in Florida. The opening line is as finely drawn as it gets:’as Mom and I pull into the Publix in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she parks her silver Cadillac beside a large crepe myrtle tree so the leather seats don’t get too hot while we’re shopping’ and his description of her dressed all in white, complete with sun visor, cha-cha-cha’ing down the supermarket aisles is love, pure and simple. I once spent the two weeks before Christmas in Florida, driving across to Miami from our Fort Myers base, admiring the white lights which decorated every house on Sanibel, watching The Grinch in a little art deco cinema near Estero Beach and being drawn into the seasonal excess at Disney against my cynical ‘ole British will. Once I allowed it to happen, it was good. When we flew back it was to the news that my beloved grandfather has just three months to live and life was never quite the same again. He loved Florida, had visited relatives there several times and he’d have adored Pandolfi’s piece.

Who owns southern food is a question that many have grappled with but few as generously and eloquently as  John T. Edge & Tunde Wey in an Oxford American essay that also references a piece by Hillary Dixler, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining. The latter gave a [deserved] platform to Michael Twitty, author of Afroculinaria blog which greatly annoyed the [white] cognoscenti of Charleston. Edge and Wey write that ‘the issues Dixler and Twitty raised about authenticity and ownership and appropriation will fester if they’re not further explored.’ They are right.

Ronni Lundy’s musings on recipes and memory make the important point that how we learn to cook, and from whom, is not usually a linear process. Lundy’s mother was the culinary version of a boogie-woogie piano player she writes, ‘riffing through her songs with a deceptive ease’ and delivering ‘old standards with a daily grace that gave these recipes a subtlety and savor that was totally lacking when they were reduced to their elements and rearranged as words on a page.’

When I was given a copy of ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, I learned that the hero of the series, Michael Tolliver, hailed from the sunshine state of Florida. This state is home to thousands of acres of orange groves which helped to supply much of the juice that graced American breakfast tables. So John Birdsall’s piece about the economic boycott of Floridian OJ as a protest against Anita Bryant’s homophobic rants struck a chord with me. Bryant was crowned the Sunshine State’s official OJ sweetheart by the Florida Citrus Commission, a politically powerful consortium and appeared in many of their TV ads. The boycott of these products served as a test case for consumers and the emerging civil rights movement.

The Southern Foodways Alliance collate my go-to site, a place to forage for great writing, southern esoterica and the voices of people who live there. This essay on the indulgence of pickled baloney, ‘a corkscrew of delicious processed meat,’ as the author describes it, lacks pretentiousness or food snobbery and paints an exquisite picture of the author’s growing up. I cannot deal with food snobbery which shuts off good and clear voices just because they didn’t grow up eating rarified cuisine. Silas House is not immune to the effects of snobbery as exemplified by this sentence: ” I eat it with a strange mixture of guilt, because I know what’s in it, and delicious nostalgia for a place and time that is gone forever,” but thank goodness any dissonance was challenged long enough to commit these memories to the page.

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Steingarten since his first columns in American Vogue and as he became well-known after publishing two books of food essays, I saw how (mainly) male British food writers fell over their feet such was their hurry to copy him and his experiences. This piece, where Steingarten attempts to master K-Paul’s iconic coconut layer cake is wonderful and oh-so him. This is the man who takes an almost Socratic approach to food whilst losing none of his salt, pith, and vim.

“What the public will tolerate in terms of how badly we treat prisoners is really bad,”says Jean Casella, co-director, and Editor-in-Chief of Solitary Watch in a discussion about the problem of how we feed prisoners and whether their punishment should extend to food. If you believe that the best punishment to fit the crime is a deprivation of liberty, then the shocking state of American prison food documented by Kevin Pang in this piece for Lucky Peach will disturb you, used as it is as punishment.

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

Duck, Death & the Tulip
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

The Night Life of Trees
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

This is London
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

Cosy Classics
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.