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Worries Go Away!

There’s a place where I go

When things make me sad.

There’s a place where I go

When good turns to bad.

Kes Gray and Lee Wildish are the writer and illustrator responsible for this 2014 book about dealing with fears and anxieties.  Written in simple rhyming stanzas and making its points through metaphors, this is a heartfelt offering that may be genuinely useful to children and parents in a difficult place and will have some relevance at least to almost everyone.

The little girl pictured throughout has her own place to go when she is sad.

You can’t get there by bike,

You can’t reach it by phone.

The place where I go

Is a world of my own.

Now I confess my first response was to think this was going to be a book about using visualisation to solve your problems but as I read on I realise that (not for the first time) I had missed the point.  Her mental world is indeed idyllic –

there are flowers and trees,

There’s birdsong and blue sky,

There’s honey and bees

– but the worries – yellow, spotty, amorphous blobs that turn into monsters – pursue her there and start to take over.

The metaphor then develops as she finds herself backed against a door, outside which her family and friends are gathered.

They’ve been trying to reach me.

They’ve knocked and they’ve knocked.

But the door to my world

Has always been locked.

(I’m pleased to say I had got the point by then).  Eventually she is able to make her way through the door and finds her worries disappear.  The book ends on the message that it is better to share problems with people who love you than to try to tackle them alone.

The next time I’m troubled,

There’s a place I will go.

Not a world of my own.

But to someone I know.

It’s a lovely concept and very well done.  The pictures are bright and fun and the use of colour to convey the girl’s moods is effective.  The moment quoted above, where she describes her family knocking to get through to her, is genuinely moving.  The rhyme is effective in its simplicity and it’s an excellent means of conveying the desired message.  The use of metaphor too is entirely appropriate and would help communicate the idea clearly to a child.

The only thing I don’t like is the moment of transition, because for me it is just a little too much.  “I stare at the door. The door stares at me. Suddenly I realise I AM THE KEY!”  Whilst the idea that she herself has to open her heart to her family is of course appropriate, the explanation feels over-stressed and slightly illogical.  This is probably a pedantic reaction but it just jars enough to spoil an otherwise elegantly subtle text.

Overall though this is a great concept and well-executed.  It’s moving and genuine and could easily help a child be comfortable about opening up about their emotions.  As such it’s probably more suitable for over-threes but then probably has relevance for children up to about seven.

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Learning to Get Along: Join In and Play

A slightly different book in this post, as it is one of a series specifically designed to aid with the development of children’s social skills.

The vast majority of children learn social skills naturally, almost by osmosis.  They have an innate sense of how to relate to others and through a natural desire to imitate those around them gradually pick up appropriate sociable behaviour.  They seek out company, enjoy play with others and form relationships with their peers very easily.  But there are a significant majority of children for whom this process is not so simple, whether through social impairments such as autistic spectrum disorders, delays due to developmental problems or emotional immaturity, or because they have been brought up in households where appropriate social behaviour is neither demonstrated nor encouraged.  This book is aimed primarily at the latter groups, but the quality of the approach is such that all children may benefit from their positive approach to social and emotional development.

Join In and Play is a good starting point for the series for shy, sensitive or introverted children who find it hard to know how to approach others.  The book presents us with a young child, speaking in the first person, who talks us through her ideas about how to be a good friend.  She explains that she likes playing, and that she likes playing alone, but that sometimes she likes to play with others.   She states how she would approach a new friend and how she might speak to them:

“When I see someone I’d like to play with, I can walk up and smile as I say hello.

The person might be looking for a friend too.

I can tell something about me, or ask a question.

“What are you drawing?” 

“A boat.”

I can listen.  I can answer in a nice way.

It looks cool.

Sometimes my friend invites me to play along.

Do you want to draw too?” ”

As you can see the style is simple and explanatory.  There is a slightly American twang to the dialogue which may sit uneasily with British readers but the overall quality of the writing is ideally pitched for children of preschool age and above.  The pictures are clear and nicely drawn and the book covers a variety of possible scenarios a child might encounter such as how to ask to join a game, supporting a child playing alone, dealing with not being chosen for a game and being challenged for a toy or turn. There is an effective balance struck between encouraging a child to stick up for themselves, to maintain optimism in the face of rejection, and in showing respect for others.  The ultimate message is that “I can make friends by being a good friend.”

The back of the book consolidates the learning with a series of questions and activities for the adult to do with the child.  It is a thorough and well-thought-out approach that would benefit all children, not just those with social difficulties.

The series is published by Free Spirit publishing and there are a number of other titles focusing on emotional literacy and the skills of interaction, such as “Listen and Learn”, “Cool Down and Work Through Your Anger”, “Try and Stick With It” and “Talk and Work it Out.”  Based on this one they would be well worth a look for children needing this kind of support.

An excellent example of didactic publishing at its best.

 

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Princess Polly’s Potty

One of the most demanding tasks faced by any parent, particularly the first time, is potty-training.  There is so much conflicting advice out there about how to go about it before you even start to deal with the practical issues of introducing a child to the potty, handling potty refusal, encouraging them to go without nagging, calming their anxieties and getting them to sit still long enough to let it out.

This book will not potty train your daughter for you, but it will help with some of the above.  It’s attractively drawn, girly without being excessively so (ok so it’s pink, but the vast majority of girls will go for that, and the gender division is obviously required by the subject matter) and sensitively and intelligently written.

Princess Polly and her baby sister wear nappies; her Mummy, Daddy and big brother do not.  “It’s ok for the baby to wear nappies,” says Polly, “but I want to be more grown-up than that.”  Princess Polly and her Mummy go out and choose some big girl pants and a potty (there is an opportunity for the potty trainee to pick their own favourite too) and then Polly learns how to use the potty properly.

The button on the front is an annoying but useful tool; you press it whenever Polly does something positive, and it works very well to help celebrate those all important early wee and poo successes.  The book sets out the rules for using the potty (hand washing, wiping etc) and shows Polly on the path to wearing pants.  She finds (like most children) that poo is more difficult that wee to handle, but eventually manages to do one on the potty.  She looks justifiably pleased with herself and shows it off proudly to the rest of the family.  Our three-year-old thought it looked rather like a brown sausage and was highly amused; something which you need when dealing with a process that many find scary and upsetting.

The book is educational, entertaining, ‘interactive’ and a good length to read whilst sitting on the potty waiting for something exciting to happen.  A great way to encourage young girls to learn – and there is also a boy’s version too.

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I Feel Happy

This is a book from the ‘little learners’ range at Parragon Books.  The tabs that stick out are extra pull-out pages that make it enjoyable for little ones to play with and give it that bit of extra interest.

It’s a very simple book that aims to educate children about their emotions.  Each page shows a different animal or family of animals and associates a task or situation with an emotion.  For example:

“I feel happy… when I’m with my family.  I feel sad… when I say goodbye to Grandma.  I feel loved… by Mummy and Daddy.”

Alternatively

“I feel grumpy… if something is hard to do.  I feel pleased… when I learn something new.”

Although the choice of emotions and reasons does not follow any obvious pattern and they seem to have been chosen at random (‘bored’ and ‘hungry’, for example, are not the same kind of feelings as ‘scared’ and ‘proud) this is none the less a good book for promoting emotional literacy and opening the door to discussions about different feelings.  There aren’t many books that focus on this exclusively and the pull-out tabs ensure this one will hold their interest.

Not perfect, but a useful book regardless.

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Splat the Cat

It is Splat’s first day at cat school, and he is not feeling particularly happy about it.  Despite his excuses his Mum helps him onto his bike and off he goes.  At school he meets his teacher, Mrs Wimpydimple, and all the other cats, and begins his lessons.  One of the things he learns is that cats chase mice.  Which would be fine, were it not for the fact that, in need of a friend, Splat popped his rodent friend Seymour into his lunchbox before he went to school.  However, once Mrs Wimpydimple has calmed everything down again it is Splat and Seymour who are able to save the day when the door to the milk cupboard is stuck, and Splat goes home a much happier cat than he arrived.

This book is obviously aimed at children starting school who may be apprehensive.  In the sense that Splat goes to school unhappy and returns full of excitement about his day, the message is a positive one.  However, the difficulties that Splat encounters are too far removed from reality to be of any real use to nervous children.  It is inspiring that Mrs Wimpydimple changes her blackboard notes in the light of what Splat and Seymour demonstate but if intended as a support book for young children there is too little of the actual problems they face on their first day, like talking to people, or finding where to eat lunch.

Rob Scotton’s illustrations are distinctive and really appeal to children; they look like they were painted with a spraycan and have a modern, edgy feel.  There are some lovely details, like the window of the fish shop as they go by, and Splat’s body language expresses his mood really well.  His nervousness is conveyed by the constant problems he creates and excuses he gives as he gets ready for school and the opening of the book works extremely well in that respect.  In general however the book reads in a stilted, awkward fashion.  The text does not flow adequately well and it is hard to read it aloud, as the pace and mood of the story are not always reflected in the language.  At some points it skips too quickly through the narrative, and reading it you do feel that this is a book penned by an artist, rather than a writer.

Children will enjoy this for the pictures and for the absurdity of a cat taking his pet mouse to school, but it is a strange book with a slightly muddled story arc and disappointingly awkward writing.

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Mr Pusskins and Little Whiskers

This is the second of Sam Lloyd’s Mr Pusskins books.  Having learned his lesson and realised that his life with Emily is something to be treasured, Mr Pusskins is not quite prepared for a new challenge in the shape of Little Whiskers.

Life for Emily and Mr Pusskins is perfect. They are very happy together and Mr Pusskins is especially excited when Emily announces that she has a fabulous surprise for him.  He is less excited, however, when the contents of the enormous box turns out to be a small, white kitten.

Little Whiskers makes Mr Pusskins’ life miserable.  She ruins telly time, meal time, nap time – you name it, she interferes with it.  The final straw comes when she starts dancing on the piano in the middle of the night – and Mr Pusskins gets blamed.  What can Mr Pusskins do to get rid of the pesky kitten?  And will her conscience get the better of her?

Mr Pusskins is a great character and Sam Lloyd’s illustrations convey his personality with style and humour.  By turns perplexed, horrified, angry and distressed, he goes through all the emotions you would naturally associate with welcoming a troublesome new addition into the family: Mr Pusskins and Little Whiskers is in fact a well-disguised new baby book.  The presence of Little Whiskers destabilises Mr Pusskins’ entire existence; not only are his favourite times interrupted and disrupted but his very position in the household is threatened when he is mistakenly banished outside and Little Whiskers steals his place by the fire.  This is an honest and probably therapeutic look at what happens to a young child when they are no longer the only one.  Mr Pusskins’ bewilderment at being asked to look after and play with someone who causes him so much grief will no doubt be familiar to frustrated 2 and 3 year olds.  They may be unable to articulate their feelings but the book permits those emotions and acknowledges them, rather than pretending that this lifechanging event is an unimitigated pleasure.  Older children will identify with the unwanted responsibilty they may feel as a new big brother or sister.  In the end, apologies and forgiveness are exchanged and Mr Pusskins shows us it is possible to make a successful transition from two to three people.

A clever, funny and engaging story; one to give to and enjoy with newly appointed big brothers and sisters.

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Owl Babies

Three baby owls – Sarah, Percy and Bill – wake up one night to discover that their Owl Mother has gone.  They think very hard (“all owls think a lot”) but can’t decide where she may have gone to.  As time passes, they become very nervous about what may have happened to her.  They huddle together on the same branch (looking rather fluffy and cute) and wish.  And of course, because this is a picture book and a fox would not be allowed to eat Mother Owl, she comes home.

This is a ‘nice’ book.   There is a lovely lilt to Martin Waddell’s text – “soft and silent, she swooped through the trees to Sarah and Percy and Bill” –  and some effective patterns in the structure.  Each time they talk, Sarah says one thing, Percy says another, and Bill says “I want my Mummy!”.  Young children will enjoy the repetition and will especially like the joyful reunion at the end: “Mummy!” they cried, and they flapped and they danced and they bounced up and down on their branch.” The illustrations (by Patrick Benson) are quite realistic and detailed and the fuzzy little owls fill most of each page.

Because of the theme of separation and reunion it might be a good choice to read to a young child before they go to nursery or preschool for the first time.  The book has a celebratory feel to it at the end, after the owls’ worried little vigil.  It is a sweet book with a positive message and although it is not especially clever or memorable, it does have a certain charm.