02 June 2014

2 Lovely New Kiddies' Books

As you may already have gathered, I’ve been thinking a lot about children’s literature lately... 

What’s good, what’s interesting but bad for sensitive kids, what’s local and how it compares with the international stuff… 

And just in time I received two lovely new books:

-       A Scarlet Tail (An Original African Tale) – Susan Long & Claire Norden
-       Pig and Small – Alex Latimer

We’ve read both at bedtime and had requests for repeats, so that’s a good sign. 

You'll find my reviews of these books on the JoziKids blog, www.zaparents.comEnjoy!

Good Books are Out There (And Other Stories) - Part II

In the first part of this two-part series, I looked at common, oft-repeated stories based on scary, freaky and downright depressing rhymes and tales from way back when. 

This follow-up intends to give you some alternatives, both local and international.

To begin with, remember that there are no fixed rules to choosing a good book for your child. 

Any book your child likes could be the right one. (I used to love to ‘yead’ birthday cake cookbooks as a toddler!) 

But books do fall into three basic levels:

1.     those the child can read alone,
2.     those the child can read with an adult, and
3.     those an adult must read to the child. 

Here are some basic things to look for as you help kids to choose ‘good books’:

Infants & Toddlers (birth to 2)

·       Books with big, colourful pictures of familiar day-to-day objects
·       Durable books made of cardboard, plastic or washable cloth
·       Books that appeal to the senses, with fabric, textures or scents
·       Stories told in short, simple sentences with pictures that explain
·       Poems and rhymes that are enjoyable for parents to read aloud

Note: This last one is a biggie for me. That’s why I love Doctor Seuss (the shorter ones, not the 80-page epics). Having said that, even a non-rhyming story can be fun to read, like Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, Monkey Puzzle or Tyrannosaurus Drip.

Pre-Schoolers (aged 3 to 5)

·       Main characters who are your child’s age or even slightly older
·       Illustrations and photos that are clear, colourful and engaging
·       Simple, fun plots that move quickly so the book can be read in one sitting
·       Lively rhymes and repetition that children can repeat/remember
·       Stories, about everyday life and events, that encourage questions
·       Stories that review basic concepts: letters, numbers, shapes, colours
·       Playful animals, real and imaginary, that hold a child’s attention

Note: Aged 3, my daughter is now returning to favourite books from when she was a ‘baby’, because she’s seeing things in them she never noticed before: details, jokes, aspects of her own life. They also seem to feel to her like old, familiar friends.

Young Readers (aged 6 to 11)

·       Clear text that is easy to read
·       Colourful, attractive illustrations and photos that bring the text to life
·       Pictures that give clues to the meaning of unfamiliar words
·       How-to, craft and recipe books with simple instructions and illustrations
·       Books by authors/illustrators who are already your child’s favourites
·       Books featuring your child's favorite characters – from movies or TV
·       Chapter books that can be read over a few days, not in only one sitting

Note: Yes, you should opt for books that appeal to your child’s interests. But an interesting tip I picked up is to choose books that aren’t obvious choices for your child. My little girl loves ballet, animals and birthday parties, but she likes reading about diggers, cranes and dinosaurs. She also enjoys ‘reading’ non-fiction, like the Guinness Book of World Records. And the Mr Price Home winter catalogue.

And, just in case you’d like specifics, below are some recommended book lists:

Award-winning SA books:

1.     Ashraf of Africa – Ingrid Mennen & Niki Daly / Nicolaas Maritz
2.     Fly, Eagle, Fly! – Christopher Gregorowski / Niki Daly
3.     Fynbos Faeries – Antjie Krog (& Gus Ferguson) / Fiona Moodie
4.     Just Sisi – Wendy Hartmann / Joan Rankin
5.     Makwelane and the Crocodile – Maria Hendriks / Piet Grobler
6.     Nina and Little Duck – Wendy Hartmann / Marjorie van Heerden
7.     Not So Fast, Songololo – Niki Daly
8.     Siyolo’s Jersey – Mari Grobler / Elizabeth Pulles
9.     The Best Meal Ever – Sindiwe Magona / Paddy Bouma
10.  The Day Gogo Went To Vote – Elinor Batezat Sisulu / Sharon Wilson

Proudly local children’s books:

NY Times top sellers, April ‘14:

53 of the great children’s books:

What have I left out? What’s your child’s favourite book? Do you have a book you loved as a child that you’ve read to your child? I’d love to hear from you.

[This article originally appeared on the JoziKids blog, www.zaparents.com.]

Nursery Rhymes are Scary (And Other Stories) - Part I

Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs.

It’s been one of my daughter’s favourite nursery rhymes since she started talking – (‘gooth’ was one of her first words). But my husband and I have always found it slightly macabre that there’s a song about a large bird flinging a geriatric down the stairs, in retaliation for religious apathy.

And this is one of the tame ones. 

Think about three blind mice and their chopped-off tails, Rock-A-Bye Baby and his/her terrifying tumble from the treetop, poor cursed Humpty Dumpty, and Jack and Jill’s cracked skulls. Not to mention that freak Peter, who confined his wife to a pumpkin shell.

I looked into it and it turns out that most traditional nursery rhymes weren’t really meant for children – they began as political or religious statements, couched in enough nonsense to protect the singer from prosecution for treason and set to a catchy melody that was easy to remember. 

Take, for instance, Baa Baa Black Sheep. It’s not about black sheep or little boys. It’s about taxes. 

In the 13th century, King Edward I realised he could make some moolla by taxing sheep farmers. One-third of the price of a sack of wool went to the king, one-third to the church and the last third to the farmer. Nothing was left for the little shepherd, crying down the lane. (The original final line was ‘And none for the little boy, crying down the lane.’)

(Even the Hundred Acre Wood isn’t exempt. It turns out that Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends demonstrate a staggering number of personality disorders. I can’t say, however, whether AA Milne created the characters with this in mind. I sincerely hope not.) 

If you think nursery rhymes might be a little bit dodgy, don’t – I beg you! – google the origins of popular fairytales (like Beauty & the Beast, which is about bestiality and sororicide; The Little Mermaid, a story of agonising pain, loss and betrayal; The Pied Piper, in which an enraged madman systematically murders a town’s children; and Sleeping Beauty (a.k.a Sun, Moon and Talia, which is perhaps the worst of them all.) 

I’m more than a little convinced that the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were a bunch of bloodthirsty and misanthropic literary lunatics. 

So, what to do? 

Do we forbid our children from exposure to old-fashioned rhymes and legendary stories? Do we impose a Disney-version-only culture? (G-d forbid.) Do we audit our books, films and music, discarding anything that isn’t safe to read by virtue of an upbeat storyline, positive messaging and a happy ending?


My advice is this: 

  • We take nursery rhymes with a pinch of salt and a sense of humour, 
  • alter the words/outlines/endings of stories that don’t support our cultural, social or other comfort zones, 
  • avoid the stuff that offends us, and 
  • ensure that our kiddies are adequately compensated with ‘good’ children’s stories to keep them entertained.

How? What stories are ‘good’ for kids, and at what age?

Well, you’ll have to look out for Part II of this series: GOOD BOOKS ARE OUT THERE (AND OTHER STORIES). No-one said parenting was easy ;) See you soon.

[This article originally appeared on the JoziKids blog: www.zaparents.com.]

Just a Taste: 3 Mini-Reviews

What She Saw – Novel by Lucinda Rosenfeld

What a great idea! To write your debut novel with its protagonist looking back on a list of past boyfriends. Each chapter finishes the sentence, What She Saw... in 'The Stink Bomb King of Fifth Grade’, ‘Spitty Clark’, 'The Anarchist Feminist’. And so it goes, as Phoebe Fine struggles to unpack who she is and what she wants. The author brilliantly presents Phoebe's hilarious and sometimes frankly dreadful romantic, emotional and sexual encounters. I liked this book so much I read it twice.

The Witness Wore Red (The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice) – Memoir by Rebecca Musser

I’m fascinated by cults. Always have been. And I’ve read everything ever written about fraudster/child molester Warren Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. So this inside story, penned by 85-year-old Rulon Jeffs’ 19th wife (a child bride), was a must for me. I was fascinated by Rebecca Musser’s decision to bear public witness against the prophet of the FLDS, to protect little girls from being forced to marry. Yes, it’s long, but it’s well-written. And totally believable. 

P.S. I gave in to literary nostalgia…

I’ve only recently discovered the books of Kathy Reichs and I’m starting her Temperance Brennan (the ‘bone doctor’) series from #1, with Déja Dead. What a treat – to belatedly find an author who’s written 20-something novels for me to track down, in second-hand bookstores and on Kindle. If you’re interested, here’s a quick summary: Tempe Brennan is a forensic anthropologist (like Kathy Reichs), who investigates human remains at crime scenes where the flesh is too degraded for a coroner to obtain evidence. Her activities, and her ups and downs, are fascinating.

In Fifty Years We'll All Be Chicks (Adam Carolla)

Memoir - bought from Amazon's Kindle bookstore

I was all ready to be outraged by this book. As any self-respecting woman would be by a book called In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks (And Other Complaints from an Angry Middle-Aged White Guy)

The title actually sold me, as I’d never heard of the author. 

But as I began reading I began giggling (I never do that), reading long passages to anyone who’d listen and nodding in sage agreement with everything in the first five chapters. 

To wit, they’re titled: - Kids These Days,- Where Have All The Fellas Gone?;- Motherf**king Nature;- We’ve Built a Minimum-Wage Gilded Cage;- Airport 2010; and- That’s Entertainment?

Also look out for Women Hear Me Roar; God, Religious Tolerance, and Other Shit That Doesn't Exist (hilarious, even though I’m a believer); and Foods I Have a Beef With. 

In short, this book is about Americans - those strange creatures with their self-conscious national neuroses - and, as Adam puts it, “the pussification of America”. 

If I’m being honest, it’s less of a book and more of a comedic rant against assholiness. Be warned, though: it is un-PC, unapologetic, filled with horrendous swearwords, packed with sexist discourse, and pretty well-written by a functional illiterate. It’s stand up, sitting down. 

Who is Adam Carolla? Most Americans will know him from his podcast and multiple radio appearances* (he headlined something called 'The Man Show' for many years, with Jimmy Kimmel), where most of his shtick involves bitching about everything. I’d never heard of him. 

But back to the book, in which Adam bitches about everything from schools’ no-nuts policies (at which point, having spent three weeks with two kids who have nut allergies, I laughed until I cried) and weird facial hair, to airport regulations and “mediocre movies that are supposed to be great”, like Fargo, Lost in Translation, and everything by Pixar. 

He rants about passion-fruit flavoured teas and both dogs and cats. He whines about gender roles, stripper names, and both left and right wing ideologies. He moans about immigration, public schooling, Jewish food, and racism vs. assholiness. 

And then he gets a bit desperate. Because, as several other reviewers have pointed out, the first two-thirds of the book are outstanding. The last third is…filler. Definitely. 

I’ll bet that Adam had half a book’s worth of stuff to say. And the publishers said, ‘Sorry buddy. You need more stuff. We can’t sell this skimpy thing. So look around and bitch about whatever you see.’ 

And that’s what he did. Especially towards the end, when Adam starts giving bite-size advice on stuff in a chapter called Do Yourself a Favour. These include Household Tips (!), Parenting Tips, Hygiene Tips and Life Tips. 

By then I was over it. So I re-read Chapter Two: Kids These Days. 

Buy it. Not because it’ll change your life, but because you’ll laugh. A lot. Read it on the loo. 

* The Adam Carolla Show is the most downloaded podcast on iTunes, with over 2.8 million listeners a month.


The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert)

Fiction - supplied by Exclusive Books

Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love. That’s what happens when Julia Roberts plays you in the film of your zeitgeist book, I suppose.

I wouldn’t know.

(I’ll voluntarily expose myself to all sorts of ridicule by telling you that, like millions of bookclub bobbas, I adored Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve been to Ubud and Gilbert is right about all of it: Indonesia is heaven. Also, because of the book I want to eat in Italy and find my lost self in India. But Eat, Pray, Love was a deeply irritating film. Javier Bardem notwithstanding, the film should have been titled Whine, Moan, Bitch. And I can’t even talk about Gilbert’s hideous follow-up Committed. Just trust me.)

So… I am getting to the point… when I saw The Signature of All Things on the shelves, and spotted the author’s name, I moved on. Yup, I’m a judgey cow. It was only when the glorious Zoe Hinis of Exclusive Books told me she’d heard great things about this book - Gilbert’s return to fiction after a 10-year hiatus - that I took it home.

I loved this book. I love it so much that I read it at snail’s speed, to have it in my life for longer. I left the last 20 pages for about a week, to delay the inevitable end.

  1. It’s historical fiction, à la Philippa Gregory’s early work - before she became a royal fetishist. Think Virgin Earth, Earthly Joys and A Respectable Trade (three of my favourite novels of all time).
  2. It’s about genius, and its many faces.
  3. It is brilliantly, deeply, carefully, unhurriedly researched and vividly, beautifully, intelligently, compellingly rendered.
  4. It is about an amazing woman. A woman who will, I predict, become a literary heroine. A woman who feels to me like someone Wally Lamb or Pat Conroy could create: flawed, smart, complicated, lovable.
  5. There’s faith and science and evolution and slaves and passion and travel. Now some of these things appeal to me and some of them don’t, but all of them are presented in fascinating ways.
Regrettably I can’t say it better than another reviewer, who said, “Reading this novel took me back to the experience of childhood reading, the feeling of disappearing so completely into characters and worlds that your own life ceases to exist.”

So what’s The Signature of All Things about?

It’s about a 19th century female botanist, Alma Whittaker. She’s the daughter of the gruff, shrewd and successful botanical explorer Henry Whittaker who, born dirt-poor, enters the South American quinine trade and becomes Philadelphia’s richest man.

Alma inherits his vast knowledge, library and riches on his death. But her life – which begins very differently to those of other little girls – continues in adulthood to be a complex one, filled with issues of society, family, love, secrecy, fantasy and science.

The Signature of All Things takes us from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam. Along the way, we encounter memorable characters: ‘missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad’, according to the blurb. Yes, they’re all there. But the most memorable of all is Alma. She was in my head for weeks and she’s there still. Read this novel. You’ll see.