Op Shops Rock!

Ever since my first Oxfam shop browse, I’ve been well aware of the amazing potential for unearthing once-loved gems among the mountains of kitschy gimcracks. All for a pittance and for a good cause as well! I don’t go in for clothes, shoes or bags so much but I love my vintage tea cups and saucers, furniture, housewares and most of all, books. If there is one thing that people have no qualms about getting second-hand, it’s books. So much more so if they are beautiful editions with hardly any wear. My most prized find? A boxed set of Jane Austen works by the Folio Society, which I got for $10 at a church book sale and that I saw in an antique bookshop for $150. ‘Nuff said.

This particular find is not quite as financially magnificent but definitely above average in awesomeness. A wonderful friend found it and thought of Iris (thank you Aunty J!). I have to say, with my amazingly vast and stupendous experience of books, I have never come across a carousel book. *GASP* Yup, it was the first time for both Iris and me to open the book and find it transformed into a house, ballet studio and theatre stage! And with cardboard dolls to play make believe with. Even though it’s been pre-loved, this copy of Angelina Ballerina’s Pop-up Dancing School by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig is in really good condition. There are no tears, most of the paper characters are accounted for, with a couple of guest fairies from some other book, and only a little spinal wear.

Angelina Ballerina's Pop-up Dancing School

The second she opened this up, Iris was enraptured. She played for hours, on her own! So parents of pre-schoolers who are into make believe, this could be a God-send for you. The ribbon you see above works also to keep the book open and you’ll see below why it’s called a carousel book. Is this amazing or what?! Where were you when I was left playing village with my mother’s cosmetics bottles?

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The attention to detail in this book is seriously fantastic. In the pic below you’ll see a mirror, stairs and doors leading onto the other two dioramas. 20150401_141445

There are even working bed covers that Iris never fails to use to put her friends to sleep!

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There is a story preceding the pop-out sets but really, you hardly need one. In fact, I’ve only read the Angelina book to Iris once because she hasn’t asked/needed me to!

They are not that easy to find though. I know because naturally I had to go out and find more! I’ve bought another Angelina Ballerina one, which I am saving for her birthday and found Maisy’s Castle by Lucy Cousins. It’s not quite as detailed but still great!

Maisy's Castle

And you can combine it with other types of make-believe toys. Here you see the lego Disney princesses cavorting with Maisy and her pals.

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Obviously, these are not books for littlies who are still in the mouthing/destructive phases of development.

So what are you waiting for? Go do some op-shop treasure hunting! (Or buy these on Booktopia.com.au, easier but less satisfying.)

Guess How Much I Love Winning?

I have never, ever, ever, ever won anything. I’m not talking about for sports, because I had to work, a little, for those. I’m talking about those supermarket lucky draws, travel draws, the hundreds of Frankie magazine giveaways, etc. Zip, nada, zero. This changed in the most appropriate and wonderful way possible last Tuesday.

It was not a great day for me and I was as cheerful as a baby breaking molars. Then I received an email saying I’d won a 20th anniversary edition of Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram’s Guess How Much I Love You from Walker Books Australia.

This was one of those competitions where you have to write something related to the prize. This one was to write 25 words about “Who you love to the moon and back”. Now I’d seen the tweet for this on February 11. I dithered about it until the weekend. Then finally I took about 10 minutes to write: A monkey. A drama queen. A wet kiss. An adorable cackle and guffaw. A marshmallow and chocolate nut. A performer. My four-year-old daughter, Iris.

This is how excited I was. I took a photograph of an envelope.

This is how excited I was. I took a photograph of an envelope.

I absolutely did not expect to win. Particularly not on a day like the 17th of February, which is what made it all the better. I see it now as a special message from the Guy in charge to me.

First published in 1994 and coming it at about 400 words, this timeless story pretty much encapsulates the most important and really the only thing we need to do as parents – let our kids know how much we love them. Jeram’s illustrations are so perfectly matched, they make you feel like you’re reading honey and warm milk. No review necessary. The title says everything, but to fully appreciate this book, you have to read it yourself.

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Much too often these days I notice how much Iris has grown up. I catch my breath and try and take a mental polaroid of each moment. Just like with her clothes, I’ve been passing on some of her baby books and have been trying to expand her listening skills by reading more wordy books. I forget that sometimes, she still needs those books that seem simpler with less words but with such a powerful message. Just as reading it will remind me how much God loves me, enough to send me a message when I’m feeling especially low, I hope that years from now, Iris will read this book and know that I love her right up to the moon and back.

 

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me and my Love for Roald Dahl

Back when I was in primary school (don’t even think of asking when that was), I was a regular of what I remember as our tiny library. I favoured fantasy and shunned anything based on real life. I found Nancy Drew and The Famous Five irritating in the extreme, which is ironic given my current obsession with police procedurals. I just felt that the language was too dumbed down and I felt patronised. Then at eight, a friend introduced me to the fabulous world of Roald Dahl. It was love at first read. Even after my second foray into children’s writing, I have not found his equal. His special brand of slightly wicked fantastic tales, absolutely brilliant prose and superb imagination combined to give me hours and hours of pleasure, and will again thanks to parenthood.

My own set of Dahl books are pretty worse for wear and stuffed in boxes until our new house is built. We had one copy of James and the Giant Peach, highly illustrated that Iris has only recently begun to enjoy given the amount of words and her goldfish attention span. I was therefore almost hopping for joy when I encountered this copy of The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me at a Salvos (Salvation Army store) for $2.25 and in immaculate condition. And it’s illustrated by the supreme Dahl illustrator, Quentin Blake. I was in Book Heaven.

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Since I began my affair with Dahl when I was already well into reading, I’ve focused more on his novels than the shorter stories like The Enormous Crocodile and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me. Thus, I admit with shame that I’ve never read the latter. Yet, more’s the better because I get to share that unique pleasure of reading a Roald Dahl for the first time at 37 with my four-year-old.

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It is not a book for the amateur, tired or lackadaisical reader. My husband got told off by Iris for rushing and not reading it right. It has quite a lot of words and those who are familiar with Dahl will know how badly he likes to twist one’s tongue , especially when it comes to confectionery. This is the other reason I love Dahl. He obviously has a sweet tooth like me and he is second to none in making up names for things.

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The story follows Billy who has always dreamt of owning a Grubber, or sweet shop, particularly the abandoned one in his village. Then along comes a window cleaning crew, who take it over and set up shop. This is no ordinary crew……you know what, I’m not going to bother summarising this story because it is Roald Dahl and I think everyone, EVERYONE should read it themselves. Here are a couple pictures though to give a glimpse into his fabulous genius.

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Another Kind of Resolution

For Christmas 2014, as it would be just as and the gramps (grandparents), I suggested going camping. Yup, you heard right. Of course after everyone got on board I started having second thoughts. I LOVE having my own loo within five metres of my bed, which is in a house with air-conditioning. There was no backing out, however, so I had to suck it in. What we did do, was actually “glamping” because the gramps had their luxury caravan, so we had power and cooking facilities. There were shared toilets and showers, so no digging holes in the ground, and we brought our automated air-bed, quilt and my ultra comfortable contoured pillow. Even so, after 3 nights of having to unzip the tent, walk 25 metres to the toilet and being woken up at 5am by birds having a conference over our heads, I was ready to come home.

On Christmas day we had our first bona fide Aussie Christmas with a trip to the beach in the morning, lunch of the barbe (bbq) and pot luck dinner with the rest of the camp in a large shed. Naturally the person who enjoyed it the most was Iris. She made a new bestie she played with all day everyday, had a family of goats next door and a couple who walked their cat on a lead. I might be persuaded to do it again if we get a darker tent and I bring ear plugs for all of us.

One evening, as I made my way back to our camp-site from a shower, I was literally stopped in my tracks by the sunset.

WA Sunset, Dec 14, Big Valley

Like an awesome sunset, there are children’s books that have the same effect. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is one of them and so is Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius.

Alice Rumphius lived by the sea with her grandfather who inspired her with tales of his travels. She wanted to do everything he had – travel and live by the sea. He left her with one more life accomplishment – “do something to make the world more beautiful”.

Grandfather and Alice

So off Alice goes, travelling the world and finally settling down in a cottage by the sea. Then she remembers what her grandfather tasked her to do, but she had no idea what to do.

Travelling to Asia

One summer, she plants her favourite flowers – lupines. She spends the next year or so convalescing. The following spring, on a walk, she finds  a patch of lupines some distance from her cottage. That is her “ah ha” moment.

Ah ha moment

She then spends the summer sowing lupine seeds all around the area. When the fields, hillsides, lane-ways, hollows and stone walls all bloom with the blue, purple and rose-coloured flowers, it appears she has perfectly fulfilled her grandfather’s words.

Lupines, lupines, lupines

I’ve never made a new year’s resolution. Not one. I think it’s nonsense. If you need an impetus to do something worthwhile, the new year is not going to give you enough of one. Take quitting smoking, it needs to be something personal, something that will give you enough will power to overcome your addiction. Likewise with losing weight and all the rest of it, which anyway, if you needed to do, you probably need to do it ALL the time. So not a new year’s resolution, but a life resolution – don’t sweat the small stuff.

Give Me Cake

Iris is turned four on Monday. This, I felt, called for a non-book related post. *Gasp* Back in Singapore, kid’s birthday parties have become yet another aspect of life to compete tooth and hangdog nail at. Parents splash out on venues, entertainment, cakes and photography. Frankly, it’s a little scary, because seriously, what kind of parent are you if you don’t book that playground with a balloon artist, metre-high fondant cake, photographer AND videographer?! But it is really good if you want to start an indoor play gym/outdoor water playground or any kind of kid’s entertainment. The thing I found most ridiculous to spend money on was the cake. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand why parents, who are 90% of the time, both working their poor butts off, would rather just spend the money for someone else to make a cake. After all, we succumbed to it for Iris’s first birthday. We didn’t get the fancy venue (it was at my parents’ house), entertainment (we rented a foam play structure) or even a photographer (thanks Jay!), so we got one of those cakes.

Farm Birthday Cake

The theme was, obviously, the farm. I had everything in theme, cups, napkins, goody bag treats and even the balloons. The cake, while spectacular looking, like most cakes of its kind was very average in taste. Plus you can’t even keep the figurines. Quite possibly one of the most useless $250 we spent. In fact, I’d go as far as to say if I could do it over, I wouldn’t, at all! She doesn’t remember it, nor did she particularly enjoy it as a significant day. Sure she got lots of presents, but again, she was too young to appreciate them. Take note parents-to-be! Do not bother with first or even second birthdays. Focus on the fourth and beyond and ignore later questions of why there were no photos of first and second birthday parties.

For her second birthday, I decided to make the cake myself, a tradition which continues. I’ve had a mild thing for baking since my mid-teens. This grew into a proper hobby once I moved out and had my own kitchen. My problem, however, was that I had to wait for an occasion to bake cakes (I will not, contrary to popular thought, consume an entire cake on my own). So here was my chance. I even went so far as to practice making the cake twice to get the look and taste right. It was important that I had both. My cake was NOT going to be a bimbo fondant cake.

After three and a half hours’ work the night before, I made a rainbow cake with cream cheese frosting. I lost the pictures of the inside when some #*$& stole my phone but it was a rainbow cake. A proper one with six colours/layers. It was quite humongous, not terribly well frosted and we made the mistake of waiting too long to cut it. Hence we had a lot of leftover cake, but I did receive lots of compliments.

Rainbow Cake

Her third birthday saw my technique improve as well as one of my strokes of genius. The theme was Peppa Pig, because Iris, like almost every other girl child in Australia, England and anywhere showing Peppa Pig, absolutely loves it. It’s amazing how a cartoon with such simple artistry can be so entertaining, even for adults! Big balloon, big balloon, bigger than the moon….Anyway, I copied the design of this cake from Sweetapolita, but instead of slaving away at fondant figures that would have probably looked all wrong and couldn’t be kept/played with, I ordered plastic figurines and stuck them in the top! The chocolate is supposed to look like a muddy puddle, BTW, for those familiar with the show.

3rd birthday cake

It tasted divine because I had found THE CHOCOLATE CAKE recipe. No, I’m not going to share it.

This year, we hired a Shetland pony for the party so that became the theme. It’s always better/easier to have a theme. Incidentally, we thought it would be a simple affair as the kids would be entertained by the pony and the playground and we’d only provide finger food. WE WERE WRONG. Even the simplest of parties can be completely knackering.

For the cake, I took inspiration from one of my favourite food bloggers’, my name is yeh, funfetti and pony cakes.

4th birthday cake

I am still recovering from all this birthday business. I think I might borrow my friend’s idea and only have parties every alternate year. Or maybe not. Think she’ll have outgrown mermaids by then?

Rediscovering Old Gems

Another brilliant perk of being a parent (as if you needed more), apart from being legitimately allowed to play with toys again, is rediscovering all my old favourite books and sharing them with someone else who’ll appreciate them just as much.

Dean's Enchanting Tales from The Magic Forest

Dean’s Enchanting Stories from The Magic Forest  was one of those books I kept reading over and over again. I remember how I loved looking at famed illustrators Gillian and Ronald Embleton’s beautiful illustrations waaaaaaay back when.

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Published by Dean & Son, which was famous for its “moveable books”, the book follows Hans and Gretchen on their morning walk through the enchanted forest next to their farmhouse. They encounter myriad magical creatures from flower folk to dwarfs and a talking lion. It’s divided into neat chapters should the book prove too much after a long day. Iris is really into bookmarks at the mo.

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Unlike the Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson or Scheherazade tales, which all tend toward the macabre, Dean’s Enchanting Stories from The Magic Forest is pleasantly light and happy with only one mildly scary bit when a very naughty gnome leads the children astray in a gloomy, foggy bit of the forest. Although this also helps to teach Iris about not following strange men, so still a win!

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This is one of a series of such books, all of which were illustrated by the Embletons and are all out of print. However a quick eBay search yielded copies of three of the four books. Now I need to find a vinyl record player for my seriously retro audio books!

 

Lost in Translation

White-Horse

My third foray into young adult literature has been less enthusiastically positive. Having read books translated from loads of different languages, I have to say the most difficult to get right is by far those translated from Mandarin and its dialects. Having spent 14 years trudging through the language in school, I do have some understanding of it. Perhaps that is why I feel translations from Mandarin are not as good, but I don’t think so. It’s in the structure and nature of the language. Mandarin being so, extremely different from English it is virtually impossible to capture the exact tone and lyricism of the original. I should probably read those books in Mandarin, but then that would take me about a year and I still wouldn’t understand it!

So it is with White Horse by Yan Ge. Set in a small town in China, the plot follows ten-year-old Yun Yun. Through her older cousin, she is introduced into the ways of love, while learning to live with her single father and his various love affairs. This culminates in an explosive scene of revelations and mild violence.

White Horse plunges its reader right into the thick of Chinese culture with all its complexities and societal idiosyncrasies. This can be good and bad. While you get a sense of how a small Chinese community would behave, it’s delicate nuances can be lost on those not already familiar with the culture. For example the white horse could be pointing to the one in the Buddhist story, Journey to the West, where the horse symbolises mental will. Or it could refer to Gongsun Lu’s White Horse Dialogue, reading which gives me a headache.

Yet acclaimed author, Yan Ge’s literary skill does emerge in certain aspects of this snapshot of Yun Yun’s coming of age, which is vivid and believable. How she deals with the emotional turmoil surrounding her is poignant and easily related to. The imagery of the white horse, with or without the background historical information, is powerful and well done.

With the language, it definitely does not flow as well as if it were read in Chinese (I imagine) and Chinese idioms directly translated into English always sound ridiculous and totally out of context. Also, a warning that it contains one very explicit swear word.

Despite its flaws, it’s an interesting read that makes you think and would appeal to some. Particularly those going through similar situations (single families, older siblings becoming sexually active). I would recommend this for mid to late teens.