Imagine if you asked the Zoo for a pet… And then they said yes.

There aren’t many books that were firm favourites a quarter century ago when I was a toddler, and still are today for me to read to my own son. But Dear Zoo is a classic for a reason. Bright colours, fun and educational flaps (made before flap books were commonplace or even seen as helpful to children and pre-schoolers) and a whimsical storyline, it’s almost enough to make us parents not mind reading it for the 17th time in an evening. (Almost.)

This Autumn marks 30 years of the best-loved children’s book, and I was lucky enough to be invited along this afternoon to Pan Macmillan to meet the man himself and enjoy a party in celebration of the anniversary. We had so much fun!!

Before we went, I was nervous that R wouldn’t be old enough to behave himself nicely and take part properly. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My baby boy was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a confident toddler who swiftly began colouring the adorable Dear Zoo worksheets in with chunky crayons, brought me various Campbell classics to read, (I’m Hungry, Spin and Say, and his personal favourite-Oh Dear!) and most incredible of all, joined all the other children in sitting in an ordered huddle to listen to the storyteller. Just watching him emulate the older children and join in the activities would have made the whole experience worthwhile alone.

But it didn’t need to! From scanning the room I know I wasn’t the only adult there who was enjoying the interactive storyteller’s rendition of the classic a little more than we were supposed to. (This is for the kids right?) I practically burst with pride as R got 3 whole animal noises correct as the story was told. A huge step up from the ubiquitous “ssssssss” we were being given a few weeks ago.

Rod joined us for a Q and A session, and was charm itself. Hard to believe that this man was fully trained in Science and knee-deep in research before his love of painting brought him to children’s books. Imagine how different so many of our bookshelves would look! R spent the Q and A throwing Rod a Dear Zoo anniversary balloon back and forth, probably to the annoyance of the rest of the guests. Rod however was patience personified, and for once I didn’t try and get mother of the year award by making him stop. It’s Rod Campbell! And my son is playing catch with him!

Not much has changed since I was a kid, and party bags were always my favourite part of any birthday. This one was pretty awesome, with limited edition dear zoo mugs, board books, a gorgeous photo frame, puzzles and activities galore, as well as the piece de resistance, the brand new Touch and Feel version of Dear Zoo itself. I have to say, I was very excited to see what they had done with it, and the book doesn’t disappoint. Great varied sensory ideas on each page, and very different from the original. The only thing I wasn’t expecting was R’s reaction. He was unimpressed to say the least! Because it is such a favourite in our house, he knows the book back and forward and upside down. He spent the whole time I was trying to read it to him getting more and more frustrated that he couldn’t find the flaps! It annoyed him to such an extent that he couldn’t listen to me telling him to touch the furry or sticky or bumpy bits, and he ended up shuffling off my lap and finding another book instead.
My point I suppose is that the touch and feel version is a GREAT present for someone who doesn’t already love Dear Zoo, or perhaps a slightly older child who will appreciate the coolness of comparing the two versions and getting something different from each one. For a slightly OCD partially sighted toddler who likes things to be exactly how he remembers them… don’t even go there.

Rod signed books and was happy to take photos as guests mingled and healthy snacks were ignored by children who know better than to accept carrot sticks when there is birthday cake to be had. And we had a truly fabulous time! Arming our goody bag and our balloon puppy (it is the perfect pet after all) we left the party with matching grins. This book isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, I have a feeling I’ll be itching for an invite to it’s 60th anniversary party!

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Do the French hate their children?

I’m a big advocate for children’s literacy. I believe that we all should be reading to our children every day, and that once they can read themselves, this should be encouraged with every tool a parent has to use, bribery and corruption included if it becomes necessary.

However, if I lived in France I think I would have a different opinion on the matter. I definitely wouldn’t be letting my son loose in a public library very often.  I stumbled across the following examples of literature from across the pond, and (with thanks to 22words) just had to share!

The Weight of Sorrow.

Two authors and a publishing house all agreed that this was an appropriate message to be sending to small children. If I wanted to show my son that the world is a sad and heavy place to live in, and that he could one day develop sad eyes like the half man half mountain above, I would let him read non fiction. No-one needs books describing what a miserable place the world can be. Especially not children.

Revenge of the Rabbits

What was that sweetheart? You want a pet? Sure! Mummy and I are completely supportive of that, we’ll go have a look at the pet store this weekend! I’m the best? No worries darling. … Oh by the way, completely unrelated, we got you a new bedtime story. 

Lily’s Thief

Obviously the usual “don’t accept sweets from strangers” or Topsy and Tim have a visit from the Policeman weren’t strong enough messages for our foreign friends. Instead, watch a innocent young girl get carried away in her pyjamas by a giant angry running man. Maybe your child has red hair or special blue slippers too? She can identify with Lily and be much less frightened if she ever gets kidnapped herself!

The Day Daddy Killed his Old Aunt

Doesn’t this sound like the title of a serial killers testimony in court? I’m not sure if this is a memoir, or whether they got actors in for the front cover… but if it’s the latter, what are the chances they told the kids parents what they were modelling for? Don’t pretend you aren’t a little intrigued as to the plot-line of this one.

 

The Visit from Little Death

What is the problem? Do French children settle too easily at night? Do they laugh themselves to sleep so loudly that it’s keeping all the adults awake? Are they so very happy with their lot in life that parents think they wont cope in the real world? How can these books get the approval of not just agents and publishers and book stores, but the writers themselves? Oh yes, I write children’s books. Mainly horror aimed at toddlers. It’s wildly popular. Why don’t you try them out on your kids and see if we can start a trend. And don’t worry about bad dreams;  the French are already a step ahead in preparing for the inevitable.

My First Nightmare

Writers Block

After suffering from writers block last week, I’ve compiled a list of ideas for those of you writey types afflicted with the same disease. We all have times when the creative spring dries up, our pencil stops scratching mid-sentence, and we are plunged into self doubt and frozen inaction.

Of course, you may enjoy staring at the blank screen, watching the cursor blink, or gazing into the semi-distance waiting for inspiration to strike. If so, carry on by all means. If not, then I give you…

Top Tips for Curing Writers Block

1. Change your topic
Writing something completely different can often help clear your mind enough to get back onto the project at hand. If you are stuck in the plot of your novel, take a break from it and work on a short story or some prose, and let a different concept fill your mind for a day or two.Coming back to it a while later, you are bound to be able to see the problems from a different angle, and carry on where you left off.

2. Keep Writing
Taking a break from writing for an afternoon is a great idea. I’m also a big fan of sleeping on it. However, taking a week off to ‘recharge’ may work for some, but is more likely to stretch into longer. Inaction breeds inaction. Even if you need a holiday from your subject matter, try to keep writing something every day, even a diary entry or a blog. (Facebook statuses dont count.)

3. Borrow
Stuck at the beginning of a masterpiece? Not sure how to even begin? Try borrowing a line from one of the greats, search for quotes online and use that as a springboard to get writing. Having never written a sonnet before, and wanting to surprise my husband, I found myself staring at the screen blankly, until I borrowed the first line from John Barlas. Note the quotation marks, as  am certainly not advocating plagurism. Sometimes the first line is all you need to inspire your own masterpiece.

4. Get out more
Get inspired. Take a trip, or failing that, a walk. Go see something you’ve never seen before, find someone new to speak to. Broadening your mind cant fail to give you new persepctives on your plot themes and your characters. It’s also a well earned break under the guise of ‘Research.’

5. Read Read Read
When reading a great authors work, it is rare not to be able to note his or her influences shining out from their own pages. Reading other people’s writing, whether in the same genre or different, not only inspires your own, but makes you a richer person with stronger ideas to present, and characters to build. It doesnt matter what you choose, but make sure your own library is fully stacked. Even a book you think shouldnt have got past the slush pile can only serve as a reminder that there is hope for your manuscript yet!

6. Don’t take yourself too seriously
No-one needs to see todays writing except you. If it isnt the best work you’ve ever done, so be it. The pressure you put on yourself to create a masterpiece is probably a large reason why you can’t even put the date on the page today. Take a deep breath, start writing, and know that if it isnt great, you’ll edit it into shape another day. 

What else have you found helpful for curing the dreaded block?

Literally Ten Minutes

Working in publishing, I obviously like books more than your average mum. Working with children, and having a 1 year old myself, I am also obviously more invested in kids and their needs than the average publisher. Loving to read myself, I am eager to instill a love of books and reading in my son. His first gift was a ‘bumper book’ to go around his moses basket or his pram, and since then he now has a plethora of board books, buggy books, sensory books, lift the flap books, story books, cloth books, musical books and picture books.

So how can it be that 1/3 of UK children do not own any books at all?

The issue of literacy in Britian has finally arrived in the papers and on our screens, with shocking statistics such as the one above, and horribly amusing stories becoming front page news. Last year, the boy who got in trouble on ‘bring a book to school day’ was famously reprimanded because he brought the wrong kind of book. He announced that it was the only book they had in his house. The title? The Argos Catalogue.

I find it quite difficult to understand why there is such a problem with young kids and books. We are not talking about how many children eat their vegetables, or go to school without kicking up a fuss. The fact of the matter is, kids love them! They love being read to, they love looking at their own books, and they love being interactive with flaps and sensory pages, and most kids even enjoy learning to read. Once you’ve got to that age, surely the hard part is over. The kids are either used to being around books and reading, or not. Difference in personality means that obviously for some children this instills them with a love for reading, while for some it may still be a chore, but the groundwork is laid. On top of this, even if your children find reading itself hard, they would still enjoy being read to.

All I can surmise therefore, is that the literacy issues in this country are to do with parents. Whether reading is simply not important to them personally, or they struggle to read out loud accurately and confidently, or it’s just never crossed their minds, parents aren’t reading enough with their children.

For those who think reading isnt that important, I’ll summarise all the studies I’ve read right here in one easy paragraph. Reading with your child for ten minutes a day, starting earlier than the age of 2, has been proven to improve memory skills, language development and comprehension, speech patterns, listening abilities and creative and imaginatory play. Starting from a young age also gives your baby comfort, stimulation, and a better bond with you, and a bedtime story has even been shown to provide better general sleeping patterns and through the night sleeping at an earlier age.

If you’re embarassed, practice makes perfect. Your baby doesnt care if you’re the most confident reader. If you don’t have any books, or don’t know which ones to get, your local library can help with loads of great titles for each age group. If your child doesnt seem interested, persevere, and get excited about it yourself! What your kid wants most is the attention and interaction coming from you. Dont worry if they crawl or run away, their patience and listening skills will improve with time.

It’s a great time of year to make some new years resolutions, and if one of them is to spend more time with your kids, pick up a book, and thank me later.

 

Why it’s not just about pressing Spellcheck.

I’m the first to admit it, I’m an english geek. I not only like writing in it, which is self evident, but I truly love everything about the english language. Speaking, reading, learning new words, word puzzles.. you name it, I’m somewhere getting overexcited about it. I can remember very clearly a meal I shared with friends where the question was posed, what’s the longest word which is one syllable? Now I say posed, because the conversation surrounding the question may have lasted the time it took me to swallow my mouthful. For me though, it was all I could think of the rest of the afternoon. Well. It’s going to be something with some serious consonant clusters, was my first thought.An hour or so later, I’d settled on the word straight. One syllable, with an admirable 8 letters. To compare, my name has the same amount of letters, and yet 4 syllables. How can that not amaze you?!

Does this make me an insufferable nerd? Perhaps. But as I do work in publishing, it may help to explain why certain errors in spelling and/or grammar serve to drive me crazy. I may steer clear of too much grammar critique, as I know that I overuse my comma, and I also have a funny way with full stops at times… (But at least I know I’m doing it!)

Top 3 annoying spelling errors

Breath vs Breathe
I know it isnt obvious. I know there arent any set rules to make it easier for you. But learn it, and use it. If I see one more character taking “a deep breathe” or one more fictitious mother in labour being told to “breath honey breath”, I may be guilty of inflicting some ‘shortness of breathe’ myself.

Lose vs Loose
Maybe it’s because these two sound so different when said out loud? I dont know, but this one really gets my goat. And I’ve seen it used wrongly in so many places.

Any version of fair/fare/fear bear/bare/beer being misused
I’m not even going to bother explaining this one. Yes it is a word. No, it is not the right word.

I know, that at best, you’re probably thinking “she’s right, but who cares?” And unless you are sending me your literary submission or business copy, maybe you have a point. So perhaps the following examples of those who definitely suffer from bad english will get you thinking. I’m not saying that Good Grammar Saves Lives.. But it certainly saves you from becoming a laughing stock.

1. I came across this sign a while ago on the world wide web, and I love it. It shows how without proper sentence structure, your words change meaning entirely. Needless to say, I wont be stopping in Tipton, Indiana for a bite to eat any time soon.

2.This one may be slightly off topic, but I am a firm believer that if you work in a field where you have to speak to any english person, a handful of words surrounding your field is not enough. That goes for the delivery man who turned up at our house knowing only the word ‘Sign’, as well as the security guard who we asked for directions outside his health club, who was blessed with a perfect english accent for his two english words. Health and Club.
You can imagine the fun that ensued when the cake below was returned to the shop by Suzanne’s irate colleagues. Fired much?

So, as someone in the field of writing, who throws aside submissions daily because of much lesser crimes than the ones above, what should you do in order to avoid these kind of mistakes?

I can only give the following two pieces of advice:
1. Read anything you’ve written twice on screen and once on paper. If it sounds or looks wrong, it probably is.
2. Read avidly and widely. The skills of spelling and phrasing difficult words or sentences tend to seep in through your fingers as you turn the pages.

Before you know it, you’ll be writing your own blog on mistakes you find everywhere that drive you crazy. When you do, send me a link. I live for that kind of thing.

Any other spelling/grammar mistakes that drive you mad?