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The Secret Garden

Major milestone unlocked: The Sleepover.

In this day and age, sleepovers can be a bit of a taboo subject. Especially with all the paedophilia horror stories running rampant in the media. However, having enjoyed sleepovers so immensely in my own childhood, I would feel a bit hypocritical to have a blanket rule of no sleepovers. As with everything, there needs to be a certain amount of caution on the parents’ part, of course, but I also trust Iris’s own instincts. Since she started toddling, I’ve noticed she has a pretty good sense of self-preservation. Whenever we went to a playground, my then 18-month-old would suss out the situation before launching herself in. She observed which rough-housers to avoid and which older kids would likely be helpful. If anything started to get a bit out of hand, she would extricate herself.

Before she turned seven, we had a few invites to sleepovers but she categorically said “no” and I believe it was because she knew she wouldn’t be able to handle it. This time it was a jumping up and down yes.

So she went and she didn’t sleep much and practically nodded off at dinner the next day, but she was happy and she had a good experience. This makes me happy because I feel I’ve accomplished something as well.

It took us three months to read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden because of the great childhood skill of dawdling. I’m fairly sure every single parent knows exactly what I’m talking about. Dinner, which used to take her as a toddler 10 minutes to eat, now takes 45 minutes because she’s too busy telling us how to make the shape of bat wings with her fingers and how those bat wings can be turned into cool spectacles. Then on the way to her bedroom, she finds a piece of fluff she has to use to play with one of our cats with. In the meantime, she has forgot what she is meant to do and meanders into her room and starts writing a novel. After asking relatively calming five times for her to come to the bathroom, I end up yelling a lecture and she huffs in saying she “was just doing something. Seriously Mama.” Cue internal brain implosion.

Anyhoo, we finally finished it at the beginning of April. I’ve read The Secret Garden at least three times in my life, but the last time was at least two decades ago. *ahem* So. With all my bedtime reading, I like to try out different accents. My best so far being, IMO, a country American cowboy-ish twang. Cue husband EBR (eyeball roll). Well. The Secret Garden is set in YORKSHIRE. Yep, ye gowt that riawt. Ok so I think my written Yorkshire is slightly worse than my spoken Yorkshire. I did extensive research (watched two YouTube videos) and tried to channel Jon Snow (played by a London-born actor). Therefore I am supremely glad my only audience has been my very accepting seven-year-old. Of course you can read this book without adopting any accents whatsoever, but where would be the fun in that?

For those who have never read it, it is not just a girl’s book, thank you very much. Although the main protagonist is a girl, I feel boys can and should get into it too. It’s about overcoming your inner brat through losing your parents who neglected you and left you to be spoiled by servants and being plonked on a dead relative’s spouse who is also a neglectful parent. One brat tells another brat off and they both find happiness, health and their life values in nursing a neglected garden back to health with the help of the lower class servants and people they once disdained. As you can see an overall heartwarming story, especially for parents as it also tells you tantrums will kill you or make you hunchbacked.

Dodgy morals aside, this has always been a story about children doing something amazing for themselves, whether it’s adapting to extreme change; discovering an old garden and bringing it back to life; overcoming their own prejudices about themselves and others; or just becoming better people. This is what makes it a classic worth rereading over and over.

Now, how to con husband into buying me that $400 special edition of The Secret Garden?

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Discovering Black Beauty

Whinge alert! A few months ago I re-entered the workforce albeit in a part-time capacity doing admin for the chaplain of a nearby private girls’ school. It is the perfect job because I can still do school drop-offs and pick-ups; it’s five minutes from home and Iris’ school; school term only; and very family friendly. Don’t get me wrong, I am immensely grateful that I could get this job and I know how blessed I am. However, I also knew that unlike when I was working full-time and Iris was in day care in Singapore, it would be my most trying period of life. This is because I still have to do most of the housework (cooking, cleaning, food prep and buying, gardening, pet care, accounts, household admin, etc, etc, etc) but now I have to fit it into the last few hours of each afternoon or give up my evening.

As a result, I have never, not even when I was in the throes of huge exams, looked forward to school holidays as much as I do now.

As expected, I’ve had to forego a lot of peripheral stuff (I refuse to call them all hobbies) — yesterday was the first time in 4 months that I stepped into a Spotlight. Yes, amazing isn’t it? Reading has been reduced to in the car before and after work and bedtime, and writing is…well it has been 4.5 months since my last post.

So I absolutely love that Iris’ bedtime reading has progressed to proper books now. Apart from revisiting my beloved Dahl, we recently finished a classic that I’ve actually shockingly not read. This copy of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty was an op-shop find and such a beautiful edition with gorgeous illustrations.

It was really special to experience a good book anew with Iris. We were totally absorbed by Black Beauty’s story, his ups and downs and we both teared up at the sad bits, with Iris bawling her head off.

Black Beauty has been called “the most influential anti-cruelty novel of all time” by Bernard Unti in the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. I think the fact that it’s written from the horse’s point of view greatly lends itself to this. Animal welfare is a cause very close to my heart and I love nurturing this very important value in Iris. Today’s media, however, is so focused on shock tactics and scare-mongering that I’ve avoided showing her too much of it.

Black Beauty though is the perfect way to educate a six-going-on-seven-year-old because it doesn’t disguise the cruelty but it describes it in a matter-of-fact way without any gore or too much detail. A good sign of this was that while she remembered the saddest bit weeks after we’d finished the book, it wasn’t with horror but with sadness and empathy.

It didn’t give her nightmares but it gave her lots to think about. This, to my mind, is the mark of a true classic.

We’re currently reading Finding Black Beauty, Lou Kuenzler’s retelling of Black Beauty from the point of view of a young girl. So far it’s been just as good with a slightly different focus. Will post a review soon-ish.

Lost in Wonderland

This is quite possibly the most exciting gift I have ever received, by proxy that is. Thanks to Iris’ most wonderful and almost psychic godmother, we now have one of the most beautiful books ever in our library. I was at least ten times more excited than Iris when she was presented the book.

Robert Sabuda is THE leading children’s pop-up book artist and paper engineer. Seriously, is there a more awesome job than doing cut and paste for a living?! Among his repertoire of absolutely, jaw-dropping gorgeous creations, Alice in Wonderland is one of his best. This is one post where words are basically useless and I have gone crazy with my phone camera. I still have the most ridiculous grin whenever I see it.

Disclaimer: DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, LET ANYONE WHO WOULD CAUSE THIS BOOK ANY HARM TOUCH IT BECAUSE IF ANY OF THIS BREAKS YOU WILL CRY. Or at least I will.

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Not That Kind of Mum

There are mums who never raise their voices or lose their temper. They take the time to get their children’s attention instead of yelling, then speak levelly with them and they never, ever resort to threats or bribery. I am NOT such a mum. But I try. Most of the time. Ok probably about 65% of the time. Or 60% depending on what kind of day it is.

Due to the other 35-40%, I feel the need to remind Iris regularly, that I love her no matter what. Even when I’m angry with her or when she’s angry with me. And I often catch myself feeling selfish or thinking selfish thoughts. Especially at bed time when I just want her to GO TO BED so I can do my own thing. She usually does but there’s a lot more whingeing and dawdling than I have the patience for at the end of a long day. This is where I feel I fail her most, that I don’t think of her more, put her needs before mine more. It’s as if even after five years, I still haven’t got the hang of this mum thing, which to the world at large, means sacrificing almost every aspect of your life to your child(ren). I’ve given up getting drunk, locking the bathroom door and dreams of fame and riches (as if they were a real possibility) but I’m sorry I don’t like sharing my food, especially when it’s the best bit I’ve been saving to eat right at the end of the meal.

Then again, sometimes (more than I’d like) Iris behaves in a manner, which I will plainly label – being a brat. This shames me because I feel I may be contributing to that behaviour either by example or by lack of correct parenting. I don’t want my child to be that kind of kid. The one other parents stare at and shake their heads in disgust. I wonder if I am spoiling her. I don’t want her to constantly ask for stuff, to only think of herself and not consider the feelings of those around her. Sure she’s only five, but I don’t think it’s too early to start ingraining that sense of others. Especially in today’s world where we’re bombarded with messages that “we’re worth it” and “we have to look out for ourselves”. It’s too often about me, myself and I. Isn’t that why I’m more selfish than I should be?

 

I guess right from the start, we’ve been struggling to be better human beings and while we should strive to be more selfless, we shouldn’t berate ourselves or our kids when we some times fall short.

This topic has been playing on my mind, particularly in the lead up to Good Friday and Easter.

Very often, a great picture book can illustrate the important lessons in life better than we could ever try to explain.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

There hasn’t been a children’s book, nor, I think will there ever be one, that encapsulates the concept of unconditional love and generosity more than Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I got a lot more emotional when I first read it than with any other picture book. This is more than a classic and one that every single child needs to read with their parents. In fact, parents probably need to read it more because it’s about accepting our children for who they are, continuing to love them even when they draw away from us, being there for them always and not blaming them for wanting to live their own lives. When the boy in the story grows up, he seems to be a rather selfish man, only ever taking from the tree and never giving anything back. Yet the story is about giving, not receiving. The tree is happy when she can give something, anything to the boy to make him happy. This is not how humans behave but perhaps it’s something we should aspire to. By giving of ourselves, and not material things, we show our children how to love.

Honestly, no summary can portray the utter wonderfulness of this book so just go and read it.

Gothic Charm

Fairytales for Wilde Girls

Inspired by my first YA (young adult) book review, I decided to pop into the YA section at the library. The first book I saw on the “recommendations” table was Allyse Near’s Fairytales for Wilde Girls. I briefly glanced at the synopsis and thought, hey an Honour Book of The Children’s Book Council of Australia’s got to be passable and popped it into the book bag.

The book sat on my bedside table for a week and a half while I finished up Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (very, very good but more for adults). The more I looked at the cover, the more doubts I began to have about it. Was it really something I’d like? Or some soppy pre-pubescent gothic romance with glowing vampires and other such rubbish? Yet, when the time came, I decided I’d at least give it ten pages. Boy was I pleasantly blown away.

I’ve always had a predilection for children’s fantasy. In my opinion, the best single, all-round novel is Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (though a cult favourite, the movies do not come within a hair’s breadth of how great the book is). And of course there is the inimitable Roald Dahl who gave me years of fantastic escapism. However, I’ve not come across anything even near their quality since. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Harry Potter series but the writing itself is just not as good. Then I read Ms Near’s debut novel.

Her prose is pitch perfect. She uses a language both beautiful and suitably challenging for a teenager. Drawing on inspiration from Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allen Poe, she manages to fabricate a vividly colourful world within a tiny English coastal village with exactly the right tones of ghostly horror appropriate for her audience. Her main character, Isola Wilde, named after Oscar Wilde’s ill-fated younger sister, is at once identifiable as a girl who stands out for being herself. Isola can see things that others can’t, including ghosts, fairies, mermaids and gargoyles. Then one day, walking through her beloved wood, she comes across a dead girl in a cage who proceeds to haunt her in a terrifying way. Isola finds herself slowing becoming possessed by this ghost despite the best efforts of her six guardian “princes”. Interwoven through this is her unhealthy relationship with her manic depressive mother who fed her on the fairy tales that seem to be swallowing her up. Can her new love interest, Edgar save her?

It’s one of those rare books that I did not rush through the end because I wanted to start a new book.

The ending is also pretty spectacular. Perhaps not the most original but still perfect in its execution. The only thing I’d change is the cover.

When I closed this book, I had a massive smile on my face. I cannot wait for Ms Near’s next work.

More than Words

Leaf - Stephen Michael King

This is the book that inspired me to start this blog.

Leaf by Stephen Michael King has no words, only “sound effects”, and is sort of a child’s comic book. We stumbled upon it during one of our weekly library visits, but I think this one warrants purchasing.

Iris is at a very chatty, curious age. From the moment she wakes up she’s yammering away, like the lovely crow/rooster that wakes us the instant the sun pops its head over the horizon, but much cuter and less grating (mostly). This behaviour is very apparent when I read to her. She has, at the age of two and a half, mastered the Who, What, Where, Why and How.

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When you’ve got a book with words to get through, this can be a tad disruptive and the plot can go wandering off in a huff in the midst of her barrage of questions. She also has a tendency to fill in the story herself when she doesn’t like or understand what she’s hearing. Thus a book without words was a very refreshing change.

Unlike picture books for infants, this one has a plot with main and periphery characters and sound effects! Avid readers for children will always appreciate books with sound effects, especially ones such as “snippity snip”, “boing”, “woosh”, “flip” and “flap”.

Being an inveterate tom boy, Iris absolutely identifies with the scruffy little boy (we all thought it was a girl at first) running away from his mother’s hair clippers with his equally scruffy dog. The happenstance of a bird dropping a seed on the boy’s head that sprouts almost immediately into a little plant injects a subtle taste of fantasy.

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Unlike with word books, Iris was silently riveted from beginning to end . Perhaps it’s because it allowed me to tell the story to her in a voice and in words that she could more easily understand. While it is necessary for children to increase their vocabulary through reading, I think there is a forgotten gap when toddlers her age can most benefit from more basic language. With most word books, she asks “What?” every other line because she doesn’t quite understand what is written and I end up having to simply the language anyway.

This is, so far, our favourite Stephen Michael King book. While the others we’ve read are enchanting in their own right, none of them compare to Leaf. It’s one of those books I really don’t mind reading again and again because after a few times, I didn’t have to say anything. We just sat flipping the pages in unified enjoyment.

Later, when she gets older, Iris can write her own story to the pictures or use it as a guide to make her own wordless book. Flutter! Bzzzz! Boing!