Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reading Notes - Trusting books again

(This post is adapted and updated from one I wrote for my private blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis, in 2004).

I am a Terry Pratchett fan. I like the Discworld novels a lot, and have found most of them highly enjoyable. My favourite Pratchett novel, however, is one that's rarely seen on most Pratchett fanciers' lists of Top Ten Super-Best DiscWorld Books. It's called A Hat Full of Sky.

It is, it should be said, very good - a typically witty Discworld story, featuring some of the witches (who are among my favourite characters). It isn't perhaps as hilarious as some of the books, and it is curiously short on double entendres and what the TV guide likes to refer to as "adult concepts". However, it engages in much more potent philosophical musings than most of the Discworld books. Tiffany's journey through fear and confusion to understanding herself and the monster that pursues her is really very cleverly written, and delves into a lot of deep concepts, like Death and Guilt and Self-Control and Human Volition and The Nature of Fear. So although it is less funny, it is also more worthwhile (in my view) and I'm likely to re-read it again and again, whereas most Discworld books get read once and put aside.

The first time I read this book, I flipped to the back flyleaf and discovered why the lack of sniggerable jokes: A Hat Full of Sky was written for "younger readers" (I'm guessing early teens). Which gave me pause - does that suggest that I liked the book because I'm effectively mentally 13? Do I lack the maturity to deal with adult literature?

Further evidence for this interpretation can be advanced with the following three facts:

1. My absolute favourite book of 2009 was Suzanne Collins' Catching Fire, the second in the Hunger Games series - a YA novel.

2. I recently permanently abandoned my futile third attempt to plow through A S Byatt's The Children's Book, which is without doubt one of the most literary (and adult) works of fictions I've attempted recently.

3. My all-time top 10 books contains 6 titles that were ostensibly written for middle-grade or YA audiences.

Well, it may be the case that I am mentally immature, but I think I've also pinpointed another factor in my enjoyment of these YA book and my increasing wariness of "proper" adult storytelling. It was such a huge relief to me to read stories where real, substantive concepts were engaged, where drama is built and sustained, where characters are tested and some of them bruised, but where none of the viler side of human behaviour is on display in explicit, technicolor detail. Lots of people get harassed and threatened, but not assaulted, abused, maligned or murdered in horrific ways. There are deep relationships, but not messy and dreary interpersonal ones. No-one lets off strings of expletives as a substitute for dialogue. No-one, in short, is distracted from the deeper questions by unpleasant little surface interludes.

Don't get me wrong - lots of YA and middle-grade books contain violence, injustice, fear, terror, hostility, loss, grief, fury, and so forth. I'd challenge anyone to read the Hunger Games books and not feel at least some of these emotions powerfully emanating from it. Don't read Tomorrow when the war began if you have a weak heart, and so on. And certainly, some of the themes that appear to be dominating the YA market at the moment leave me cold. Vampires? Yeahno, if it's all the same.

But reading the best of these stories reminds me of the sheer physical pleasure I used to derive from reading when I was a child and teenager. With a book in hand, I'd dive joyfully into the world being created, absorbing every word into my skin, losing myself in the pages. I read all the children's classics, of course, but also a lot of heavier (or at least adult-targeted) stuff - I went through a significant Jane Austen worship phase around 12 years of age, I'd read Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion twice each by 11, and I lost myself entirely in Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Robot series in year 9 (around 14, I think). I still remember that feeling of abandoment, of trusting myself completely to the story, almost like flight - with my arms spread out, I'd fall into the covers of the book and disappear.

Part of that feeling was the trust that I had - implicit then, damaged now - that the book would not betray me; that it wouldn't sandbag me with awfulness that I couldn't handle, that it wouldn't gratuitously introduce violent and twisted themes, that it wouldn't make me feel sick and besmirched. I still can't happily read fiction that is violent or explicitly abusive, especially if the violence is of a particular kind. I've never been much of a fan of romantic fiction, yet as an adult I have enjoyed many books with romantic themes, but not one with violent or abusive themes. The nasty taste that those books leave in my mouth lingers, like a too-young wine, and makes me feel compromised by merely having read it.

What I'm finding now, more and more, is that I'm reading widely and catholically on the non-fiction side (popular science, linguistics, psychology, mythology, history, and social commentary are favourites at the moment) but that my fiction reading is becoming more limited and tentative. I'm tending to read known authors, or books recommended by friends, or books I can confidently tag as being unlikely to contain content I'll hate (for example, mysteries written in the "cosy" genre don't usually have upsetting bits), or YA stories. I'm also revisiting some of my favourites from the past (I'm halfway through Tony Hillerman's excellent Navajo mystery series, which is just as good the second time around).

I don't really admire this shrinking back in myself. I don't want to be the sort of person who sniffs disapprovingly at books, and I want to be able to take a chance on something that sounds interesting. But more than that, I want the feeling back again, that feeling of excitement and delight and freedom that reading used to give me. And I think that controlling my fiction selection, so that I don't fear the book too much to surrender to it, is key to that.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

We Play - Building leggo with Dad

A and E, my 7 and 5 year olds, have long enjoyed leggo play, but until recently, their play has been fairly free-form, involving constructing castles of the imagination rather than trying to build defined structures or follow instructions. Just lately, though, A in particular has expressed interest in trying to build leggo creations following the instructions. She really, really wanted to have a go at building a complex car / truck thing that we'd been given some time ago, which involved a thick instruction book, had an age-rating of 9 and up, and had many, many tiny little parts.

I nodded brightly when she expressed this interest, then suggested that this might be a Daddy and girls project!

So my husband and the big girls have now logged three 2-hr sessions of truck-building, following detailed instructions, working together, nutting out complicated bits, rebuilding where necessary. I've used these times (mostly Sunday afternoons) to log some paid work time while the toddler has napped. The girls have hugely enjoyed having concentrated time with their Dad and doing something so sustained and involved. (In that regard it's resembled a holiday project I do each school hols with the kids - putting together a 500 or 1,000 piece puzzle over several sessions of working together).

It's been fun for them all, doing grown-up leggo!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Menu Plan Monday - Busy

This is another busy week (quel surprise) and the menu plan is all about simple, familiar and tasty. (For example, although I do intend to try to make the Snow Egg guava dessert from the Masterchef finale last night at some point, it won't be this week!)

Monday - Red lentil dahl & steamed greens (adults); Vegetarian egg noodles (kids) (V)

Tuesday - Roast corned beef with orange mash & broccoli
This is held over from last week - due to a range of factors I didn't cook it then, but it'll do nicely for this week instead.

Wednesday - Pasta with tomato-basil sauce (V)
It is predictable, yes!

Thursday - Lamb & vegetable stew with rice
I haven't made stew for a few weeks and it's such a warming winter meal.

Friday - Family dinner out
Very sadly, my elderly grandmother died last week and her funeral takes place on Friday afternoon. Along with my parents, aunts & uncles and cousins (26 of us altogether), we are going out for a meal to remember and celebrate my grandma's 87 years of life.

Saturday - Sausages, roasted veggies and green beans
G is cooking tonight, and he has a way with sausages.

Sunday - Oven-baked pumpkin risotto with not-bacon (V)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Menu Plan Monday - Still Cold

Here in Melbourne we are knee-deep in one of the coldest winters in many years, and it is fair to say that salads and cold collations have no place on my family menus at the moment!

Monday - Red lentil dahl with vegetable curry (adults) and vegetable noodles (kids) (V)

Tuesday - Spanish frittata (potato & red onion) with steamed greens & carrots (V)

Hot and full of cheese, this frittata is very popular here.

Wednesday - Pasta with tomato-garlic sauce (V)
Standard gymnastics-night fare.

Thursday - Roast corned beef with orange mash & steamed broccoli
The great thing about this boiled roast is that it provides ample leftovers for sandwich fillings and our usual "tasting-plate" saturday lunch, wherein I spread out olives, cheeses, cut raw vegetables, cold meats, crackers, hard boiled eggs, bread for the others, and a cup of hot chocolate apiece.

Friday - Beef lasagne

I made a huge lasagne last Thursday and this is the second portion, frozen for just such an occasion.

Saturday - Stephanie Alexander's Chicken & leek pie
This is kind of fiddly and time consuming but the kids & I have an open day that day while husband has to work, and they want to help cook something a bit hard, so we'll give this a whirl.

Sunday - Breakfast for dinner - poached eggs, bacon, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, hash browns, sausages, toast...
This may be my husband's favourite meal evah ;-)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Kangaroo bones & animatronic bushrangers: Our Odyssey in the Odyssey, Part 2

(Continued from Monday...)

With the arrival of the kids back from their bush walk, much fun was had by all as they spread out their finds (3 cockatoo feathers, an owl pellet, some seed pods, a few interesting rocks and the partial kangaroo skeleton) for examination. My husband and his friend helped them lay out the bones in their approximate positions (our friend is a zoologist by training so that came in handy!) A, my 7 year old, was delighted to find that she had three vertebrae, a skull, a hip, and two long leg bones in her collection. Our friend explained why the bones looked different to the beef bones she's seen before (dog's treats) and the plastic human skeleton that another friend, the physiotherapist, has in her clinic. A and 5-year-old E were fascinated.

The late-coming rain had set in by this stage and the girls settled down to learn table tennis with our friend, while G took over chasing-the-baby-up-and-down-the-steps duty and I had a cup of tea and read food magazines. Pure luxury!

By 5pm the kids were starting to get a little scratchy. A long, busy, active day, and the challenge of learning a new game, was leading to moodiness for some.

It's not always easy being younger and shorter than your adored older sister! Rather than courting disaster further, we decided to repair to the Thoona Pub for dinner.

Matt Preston (yes, *that* Matt, for Masterchef followers) reviewed the Thoona Pub for The Age in March 2009 and talked, albeit slightly ironically as is his wont, about the friendliness of the place and its owners. He's right - the Thoona Pub is a very welcoming place, especially for families with children. And Matt might have been taking the p when he wrote "As well as offering ice-cream with sprinkles and chocolate sauce (which is always a big plus as far as I'm concerned), their handy wipe-clean laminated menu also uses such words as "scrumptious", which, quite frankly, is not seen enough on the leather-bound cartes of Australia's three-hat gastro-temples", but let me tell you, ice-cream with chocolate sauce and sprinkles is a MAJOR plus when dining with children, and so is a simple, familiar and cheery menu.

Aside from the tasty food, chatty owners and warm fire, the Thoona Pub offered our kids another cherished experience - an outdoor jukebox, in the covered beer garden. To the adults, the weather was far too cold to favour being outside, but as soon as the kids became aware that dancing was an option, the cold wasn't a relevant consideration anymore. When a family of five children, aged 10, 8, 6 and 2-year-old twins, joined them on the dance floor, the lives of my 7, 5 and 17 month olds were made complete. The eight kids boogied energetically and long to ABBA, the Black Eyed Peas, Cyndi Lauper, Pink, Smashmouth and a bunch of other stuff. The 6 adults (us & our friends, and the other family's parents) took it in turns to stand outside as Dance Floor Police, changing guard when we got too frozen. By the time we left the pub to head for the motel at 8:30, the kids were absolutely beat (the toddler was asleep on my shoulder) but they were glowing with happiness. As I strapped her into her car seat, located in the boot of the Odyssey, the 5-year-old sighed and said, "What an absolutely perfectamundo day."

Part 3, in which we decide to go home via Glenrowan, coming soon.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We Play - Vegetable Art and Peace

When I'm preparing dinner, the girls sometimes play among themselves, especially if the weather is conducive to them being outside. Sometimes, though, they like to be with me in the kitchen. With the older two, I usually give them age-appropriate jobs to do - the 7-year-old can measure, peel, and mix quite competently, while the 5-year-old is great at gathering up ingredients and adding seasoning.

Sometimes, though, they just want to be creative, unwind, chat, and play. And that's OK too.

That's when they make their vegetable art with the peelings.

They make faces, and shapes, and pyramids.

I think it's beautiful, in its own way.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Kangaroo bones & animatronic bushrangers: Our Odyssey in the Odyssey, Part 1

I have decided to give Menu Plan Monday a miss today in favour of posting the first of three posts on our winter odyssey. Regularly scheduled menu planning will recommence next week!

(This post is not sponsored or commissioned by either Honda or Nuffnang, and I swear it is the merest coincidence that the current Nuffnang ad is for the Odyssey. Honestly! The views expressed are entirely my own and the post is occurring today because the weekend away has just occurred.)

I posted a while ago about my excitement at winning the use of a Honda Odyssey for a day, and $500 to make it really fun, in the Nuffnang-Honda competition. It turned out that although the competition prize was to use the Odyssey for a day, actually Honda was happy for us to take it for a weekend. (When I noted this on Twitter, I was immediately inundated with a dozen responses that amounted to "ROAD TRIP!!" To which the only possible answer was YEAH, BABY!)

Well, this weekend just gone, I finally cashed that cheque and the family & I took off in the Odyssey - luxury model to boot - for a long weekend in Wangaratta and surrounds. Wangaratta is a rural Victorian city about 230kms north-east of Melbourne. Its attraction as a destination for this road trip was basically its proximity to the 330-acre bush property owned by friends of ours, who are revegetating and restoring it under the auspices of the Trust for Nature. Our friends had been inviting us to come for a visit for a long time, but my pregnancy with C and her early infancy had just made it impractical up until now. This time, though, we decided the moment had come, all the stars had aligned, and we were going to do it. The bitterest of the winter weather had eased, we had this flash car to use, the kids were highly motivated about the notion of some outdoor exploring, G had a Friday off work for school holidays, and our friends were going to be at the property. So we collected the car on the Friday morning, G spent a happy hour configuring it to his liking, and we set off up the Hume Highway at lunchtime, headed for Wangaratta.

Thrilled with the novelty of having a 7-seater car "with seats in the BOOT!", both the big girls insisted on sitting in the two rear seats. I had reservations about this on several levels; what if they squabbled? what if the eldest was carsick? how could I pass them water and snacks? how would we fit all our gear in without the station wagon? Turns out my fears were all unfounded. They behaved beautifully to each other, they carried and managed their own snacks, no-one was carsick, and to our amazement, even with the 7 seats all in place and therefore no station wagon, our stuff fitted in easily. This car is seriously like the Tardis; well, have a look, it doesn't look like a big bus on the outside:

but on the inside, oh, the capaciousness! The ingenious little hidey-holes for stuff! The cleverness of the space management! My husband, setting it all up for the journey and fiddling with all the buttons, levers and devices, several times referred to it as The Transformer. From my severely technically inept point of view, the fact that almost all the controls are intuitive is a big, big plus. I only had to consult the manual once, and it was to find out where the control was for the seat heater so I could turn it off. Yes, you read that right - SEAT HEATER. To warm your luxury-loving bum. OTT, why yes indeedy, but as a novelty it was fantastic.

Another thing we noticed straight away is how very smoothly the car drives, and how surprisingly fuel economic it is. We have a 2003 Commodore station wagon at the moment and it doesn't do too badly on fuel, but this machine beat the pants of it. We drive around 700 kilometres or a little more altogether in it, and it only used a tank and a half of petrol. Granted, it was clear country runs mostly, but still, that is a very good result on fuel economy.

So, anyway. We spent the night on the Friday in a motel in Wangaratta and we all flaked out early, which was good as Saturday was a big day for us on the bush property. Heading out after breakfast and showers, we arrived around 10am, and we had one of the best family days we've ever had. It doesn't remotely do it justice, but perhaps these pictures might give you an inkling of why:

The property is very close to empty of signs of human habitation - our friends have a large modern barn tucked away among the trees, with a sleeping loft, cooking & showering facilities and a potbellied stove, but other than that, the 330 acres are devoid of structures, livestock, crops and any other markers of human presence. The land is being slowly revegetated with native species and our friends, one of whom is a scientist by training, were able to show us many species and plants on our walks, fascinating us and the kids in equal measure. The girls were just besotted with the high rocky walks and the lichen they found growing everywhere. G and I were blown away by the views, revived by the clear cold air, and entranced by the girls' enthusiasm for every part of this natural world. It was so great to see them engaging with our friends and asking the questions they wanted to ask, and being able to get knowledgeable, expert answers in response.

After a nice warm lunch back in the barn (bless that potbellied stove!) G and our friends took the older girls for another walk, this time lower down on the property, while I stayed with C so she could nap. Returning flushed, excited and starry-eyed over an hour later, the girls announced to me that they had found "animal bones, Mummy! Real ones! In fact, most of the skeleton of an actual kangaroo!"

(Part 2 of this saga continues on Wednesday, in which we explore animal bones, cut a rug at the Thoona Pub, and visit the Ned Kelly Animatronic Museum and Show in Glenrowan, and live to regret it).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

We Play - A Ladies' Tea Party

This is a story, with pictures, about three girls, a Mum, a school holiday Thursday, and the fun of creating a high tea for teddies, neighbours and friends. The planning, cooking, and performing of this activity kept us busy from late morning until almost dinnertime, and it turned a potentially grey day into a magical one. (The words of this post are taken directly from the school holiday journal being kept by my almost-7-year-old. Reproduced with permission ;-)

On a cold, cold day in winter, we decided to host a high tea. We wrote invitations to our teddies and then we decided to invite the neighbour kids too. Then it was time to cook the food.

Mum preheated the oven and I got all the ingredients out, and my sister and I did the steps. First we made shortbread. We made it gluten free so Mum could eat it too. We sifted all the dry ingredients, I measured them and my sister helped sift them. It was fun rubbing the butter through the flour and Mum said we did it really well.

Then we cut out the shortbread into geometric shapes and also stars.
Mum put them into the oven and we got started on the scones.

Rubbing the butter and kneading the dough was good to do with them. We got sticky hands!

Mum said not to knead the dough too much or the scones would be hard. We cut them into circles with the circle cookie cutter.

Once they were in the oven we helped Mum clean up the kitchen and then my sister and I set the table all pretty with a rose silk tea cloth and our butterfly decorations and candles. Mummy said we could be real ladies and use her good china which was her wedding present from her aunties, so she got it down from the high cupboard. It is really beautiful.

Then we went to get dressed up. I wore a dress with green and purple flowers that was one of the bridesmaid dresses in my nanna's wedding. My sister wore her Snow White dress and clip earrings. We looked like beautiful ladies. We dressed the baby up too in a pink tutu.

Our neighbours came over and we all had a lovely tea party. We drank sweet milky tea from the teacups, well Mummy had hers black and with no sugar but she's funny like that. It was very funny because Mummy kept saying "May I serve you another cup, madam?" and that made the baby giggle a lot.

The scones were nice with jam and cream but the best was the shortbread, it was delicious and scrumptious.

This was my favourite thing we did this holidays.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Menu Plan Monday - Grown-ups week

This week is the second week of the winter term break here in Melbourne, and my big girls are being collected by their grandmother (my Mum) tomorrow after lunch to go to her house for a 2-day, 2-night holiday. They'll be back after dinner Wednesday night, and although I am really going to miss them a lot, the opportunity to cook adult-only food is one I am fairly excited about ;-)

Here it is, then:

Monday - Chilli con carne
Husband and I have always loved chilli and I have a great recipe for con carne, which I rarely get to use because the kids don't fancy it. I make it hot-hot-hot!

Tuesday - Oysters Kilpatrick; Pork loin chops in spicy plum sauce with Chinese greens
Yummy, oh so yummy...

Wednesday - Roast vegetable frittata with salad (V)
The kids will eat this (not the salad but the frittata) but we like it too, and it will make lunch leftovers.

Thursday - Chicken & garlic sausages with orange mash and steamed broccoli
Back to kid-friendly tonight, and husband is cooking, so bangers it is.

Friday - Pasta & tomato-basil sauce (V)
Our requisite pasta meal, transposed from its usual Wednesday night slot.

Saturday - Takeaway
Possibly, but not certainly, fish and chips.

Sunday - Roast chicken with roast & steamed vegetables
A roast before we return to termtime routine.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Reading Notes - Toddler books

As I have referred to before, I have three daughters at very different stages on their literacy journey. I have a fluently-reading almost 7 year old, a pre-reading 5-year-old with very sophisticated taste in story, and a 16-month-old who's just beginning to love books. Reading to, with and for toddlers is a really different experience to reading with older children, and it's both enjoyable and at times a trifle disconcerting to switch between the two modes several times daily. As I often write about the things I'm reading with and for the elder kids, I thought it was time to swivel the spotlight onto the toddler's reading habits for once and see what she's up to.

My youngest daughter is 16 months old now and, like her sisters before her, has entered a phase of great interest in books, especially certain kinds of books. Typically for the age, she loves to be read her favourite texts over and over; custom does not stale their infinite variety for her.

She also loves engaging with the books on her own, sitting with a small heap of brightly coloured texts on her lap and perusing the pages, making noises or pronouncements when she recognises a picture or remembers the accompanying words ("Upple!" as she sees an apple, "Bow wow wow!" at the appropriate juncture in Sandra Boynton's Doggies, and so forth). I see this introduction to texts as the building blocks of future literacy; certainly it's about familiarising children with the shapes and sounds of words, conventions of the book and the cadence of story, but it's also about communicating the magic of the written word and a sense of delight in it. I have seen this fascination with books grow in each of my girls from toddlerdom onwards and it is a positive joy to witness.

Each of my girls has had different favourite titles in the 12 month - 2 year age bracket, but there are commonalities that seem to me to be quite striking. All my young toddlers have loved:

- Books that engage more than one sense
Lift-the-flap books, sliding-door books, touchy-feely books, sniffy books, books with sound effects ... all are highly popular.

The 16 month old's favourites are the Who is Hiding books - little hand-sized lift-the-flap books where a variety of animals are sought in a variety of scenarios; That's Not my Princess and That's Not my Puppy from the Usborne books collection; and the Eric Carle classic, The Very Quiet Cricket (the edition we have chirps on the final page).

- Books that feature rhyme and repetition.
The 16-month-old is very heavily into nursery rhymes at the moment. Our beloved and very worn copy of Mother Goose is trotted out daily, with the toddler moving us directly along to her favourites ("Hummy Dumpy!" followed by a clicking noise with her tongue as she speeds along to the page featuring Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross and Horsey Horsey Don't You Stop). We have the Iona Opie edition and it's a treasure.

Sandra Boynton's books are popular in this category, getting a guernsey under the animal heading too.

- Books that feature animals
Most toddlers love books featuring animals, and mine have been no exception. Each had their foibles - my eldest was obsessive about ducks, cats and cows, while the middle liked exotics (especially, and overwhelmingly elephants, - my copy of The Saggy Baggy Elephant actually fell apart when she was 3), and the youngest is all about the dogs, horses, and, for some strange reason, owls. My girls have all liked to identify animals wherever they can, usually by an approximation of sound (although all three not not deign to attempt to cheep, saying "burr" for "bird" from about 15 months onwards).

The 16-month-old has a lot of favourite animal books, but I'd say the stand-out is Sandra Boynton's Doggies. (It is a charming book, as indeed are most of Boynton's). She also enjoys Lynley Dodd's Hairy Maclary books, but rarely sits still for the entire narrative (it's a little long for her), preferring instead to interject with energetic and lifelike dog noises and move the text along to her favourite pictures.

- Books that show lots of common objects / items with their names.
This is definitely an area where the pre-reading foundation that toddlers are laying down is displayed. All the toddler wants to do sometimes is to get one of her (many) books that feature pages of pictures with labels and go through them, pointing out things to me and having me (or her elder sister, often) read unfamiliar labels to her.

She particularly likes the Hinkler Books First series in this area, largely because they're a good size for her to handle, I think. "Upple!" she proclaims proudly as she grabs First Nature, firmly poking at the pictured fruit on the cover. "Burr!" as she points to the parrot. Then, "Mummy ... peese?" as she climbs up with the book for me to read her. It is rare for me to say no!

So, those with toddlers past or present, what do you think? What have your toddlers enjoyed?