Using books to speak to children about death and grief

I watched the Rio Ferdinand documentary about grief and family life after a parent/partner dies last night, and it was heartbreaking. His major concern was his 3 young children, and how to talk to them about their Mother’s death, he was finding it extremely hard to talk about himself, but he was very concerned that his children were ok, and able to talk and grieve as much as they needed to.

Death is a part of life, but it’s not really talked about in day to day life, and when a death occurs it can be shocking, painful and sad for everyone, but also perhaps difficult for little children to understand. My 2 grandmothers died within a few months of each other when my daughter was almost 2. She had seen one of them very recently, so it was easier to explain to her why I was sad and what had happened. It was hard to explain she was gone and we couldn’t see her anymore. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and had found it comforting to hold cuddly toys, my mum had got her a guinea pig toy which my daughter had loved so we gave it to her when my grandmother died – which was helpful to explain that the guinea pig used to belong to Nana Julie but she was gone now and she wanted my daughter to have it. She did understand that Nana Julie was gone and would say “Nana Julie give to me, she died so she’s not here anymore” I’d say “yes it’s sad that she’s gone but lovely we have things to remember her by”. My daughter is now 7 and has been reading Anne of Green Gables which she loves – on Friday evening she called me and said Matthew had died (Anne’s lovely guardian in the story) she was very upset, but we spoke about it together. Matthew was old and had a lovely life, Anne loved him and he loved her. It was very sad that he had died, but Anne could remember all the good times they had together. I read it to her for a bit as she was so upset, she started to feel better and we spoke more about it. I think it’s not a bad thing to expose children to the feelings that surround death – and for them to explore them. Books are a wonderful way of allowing children to do this they can understand the feelings and are able to feel empathy it also prepares children for the times in their life when they will have to deal with death close to them. Please see below a list of books to help your child understand death.

  1. Goodbye Mog / Judith Kerr – This is an excellent book for helping younger children understand death – the character is a well-loved identifiable one for children so they are able to understand what Mog’s death means to them and parents can use the story to talk about death that may be closer to home
  2. The Sad Book / Michael Rosen – A lovely book that shows it’s ok to be sad sometimes – being sad is part of life
  3. A Monster Calls / Patrick Ness One for older children – but beautifully written and full of emotion – evoked even more powerfully by Jim Kay’s breath-taking illustrations
  4. Badger’s Parting Gifts / Susan Varley – Badger knows he is going to die, so he gives everyone gifts to remember him by. A good story to show children it is good to remember their loved ones
  5. Anne of Green Gables /   Though this book isn’t specifically about death it is good for helping primary school age children understand and come to terms with death. We see the relationship between Anne and Matthew develop throughout the story and his death comes as a shock – we see how it affects Marilla and Anne and how they cope. This helps children to think about and understand death, and as the story is over 100 years old it engenders discussion about attitudes to death then and now.


For the love of libraries

I LOVE libraries, I love them, I always have. I remember going to the local library on the bus when I was a child, I would be so excited. My local library was Poole library and it was upstairs, it was always sunny when we went; the library smelt of warm lino and dust – it felt like home. The children’s library had low wooden boxes full of children’s picture books and I would flip through them with the same interest and joy as a vinyl lover in a record shop. I could choose 4 books, we take them to the counter, exchange them for our cardboard tickets, and the librarian would stamp the books with the date we needed to bring them back. I remember thinking that job looked quite fun.

William Sieghart has said that libraries are a golden thread that run through our lives – this is especially true for me. There has never been a time when I’ve not gone to a library of some description. I went throughout childhood, when I was a teenager I read through all of the Sweet Valley High and Judy Blume books and these led me to more teen fiction. The library was on the way home from school so I would go with my friends and we’d read the teenage magazines together – going straight to More and the position of the fortnight! I would visit my school library too, I remember when the school library got Encarta on CD rom and the librarian was so excited – a whole encyclopedia on a disk! I wasn’t so excited – I thought I’d still look up things in the real books! Always the bibliophile!

When I went to university and studied English Literature I would go to the library to study (maybe not quite as much as I should have though!) When I left university I started work at Shakespeare’s Globe and had a brilliant time, it was the best job ever, and I made friends for life there. After a couple of years I realised I needed to think about a career – I’d always thought about being a librarian, but it wasn’t the coolest job in the world. I realised I was being an idiot, and this was really what I wanted to do. So I looked into it – got some experience in the small library at the Globe, then did a year graduate traineeship at Kew Gardens Library – got onto the part time Library and Information Studies at University College London whilst working part time at Kew Gardens Library and also the Zoological Society of London library (London Zoo!). When I’d finished that I got my first professional job at the British Library, I was so happy! The BL is an amazing place to work, and I’ve had some unbelievable experiences here. I’m now working on the culture side and doing a lot of work with public libraries. I have been blown away by the passion and enthusiasm of public librarians whilst I’ve been doing this. They are true heroes working and providing the best service they can with diminishing resources. Public libraries are so important for all communities, they are a safe space for all where your money is not needed. How many places like that do we have? Support your local libraries, become a member, take your children, it’s not just about books. Libraries provide book groups, craft sessions, baby rhyme time, access to the internet – so much! Check it out!

Books as Birthday Presents – good or bad?

I was reading an article the other day about a woman who gave a book as a present for a child’s birthday party, the mother of the child didn’t accept it as her child ‘wasn’t really into reading’ and suggested that ‘anything else would be fine’!

I was really shocked, firstly at the rudeness of not accepting a present and also that the mother thought books weren’t a suitable present. I LOVE it when my daughter gets books  and so does she, though obviously we are both pre-disposed to actually welcome books as presents. I’m not so keen on the craft type presents which seem to be boxes full of tiny bits of glitter and feathers etc with really hard to follow instructions to make things that look nothing like the picture and usually elicit shouting and tears from both me and my child! However I would NEVER not accept a present that someone went out and spent time and money choosing to give to my child. (She on the other hand loves the craft based presents and delights in spreading the contents of the box all over the house)

I accept that not all children are into reading, but I think that having a few books aimed at them and the things they are interested in can’t hurt in helping to pique their interest. I do buy books as birthday presents for children, it was easier when they were younger as I’d fall back on a classic picture book. Now, unless I really know the child, and their reading stage I don’t always get books. Lego is good, and beany boos are crazily popular in my daughter’s friendship group. So all in all I think books can be an excellent thoughtful present and I will continue to buy them for birthday presents when I think it is appropriate!

Kindle v real book!

So, I’m a book lover, I love books, I like the feel of them, the art on the cover, the smell, I love having them in my house and seeing them in other people’s houses, I love a shelfie on Instagram. I’ve been lucky enough to come into contact with hugely rare and antique books through my work and love holding something that is hundreds of years old and has been handled by unknown people (sometimes not so unknown when dealing with books who belonged to famous people!) with untold stories.

However, for my day to day reading needs I love my kindle… I resisted getting one for years as my love for real books was so strong. When my daughter was born my reading went down to almost nothing for about a year. I didn’t have the time, or headspace for it – bed was always my place for reading and when my daughter was tiny sleep was the most important thing to do in bed!

As she got bigger and better at sleeping I started reading again, books at first, but I got a kindle fire for a Christmas present and started using it to read books. It was a revolution in the way I read. I could read one handed in bed, even no handed when I used the case as a stand! It was easier to find books, and I read some things I don’t think I would have if I’d not had a kindle i.e. older books that are harder to find such as Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham and the Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield (both great books btw!) The kindle fire is not a great way to read though, the experience of reading isn’t as easy on the eye as with a real book, and it’s quite heavy if you are reading without the case, also you can’t use it outside as the light reflects off the screen. So for a holiday in 2015 I decided to treat myself to a kindle paperwhite, I fell in love straight away! The reading experience is as good as a real book, you can read outside easily, the battery lasts for ages, it’s light, it’s backlit so you can read in bed without needing the light on. I really like it!

At the moment I’m reading a proper novel, and I’m enjoying the physical feeling of the book in my hand. But it’s made me realise how convenient the kindle is, I need to have the lamp on whilst reading in bed, I have to use both hands to hold the book so it’s not as comfy reading in bed, and if I fall asleep whilst reading I lose my page. Plus I didn’t realise how often I use the inbuilt extras like the dictionary, link through to wikipedia and x-ray when reading. I keep going to touch a word on the page to find out more and remembering this is not possible – I need to do my own research! So maybe the kindle is making me lazy, but there is no doubt that it has changed the way I read forever!

Biff, Chip and Kipper – Learning to read

My daughter started reception in 2014 and took to school fairly well. There were tears at times, but we were blessed with an excellent teacher who made the transition as stress free as possible for all of the children.

I was really excited about her learning to read, we’d read lots of books to her, and she was interested in books and looked at them on her own and at bedtime, but I’d made the decision not to teach her to read myself before she started school as I didn’t want to confuse her. She knew some words by sight and could write her name, but I’d steered clear of trying to teach her too much.

She learnt phonics (as I had done at school too, though I think that was pretty radical when I started school in 1982!) and quickly understood how to sound out words, first she bought home books without words and made up a story from the pictures (this was fun!) and slowly she started to bring home books with more and more words in until we got to the Biff, Chip and Kipper books. I loved them! Though wtaf were the parents thinking when they named their children? And calling the dog Floppy?! I think that was for the parents! I would look forward to Friday each week to see what amazing adventures the children would get up to. I also loved the brilliant 80’s cars, fashion and interiors that the books sported! But my absolute favourite was when my daughter started bringing home the Magic Key books, so many crazy adventures – the only problem was that we didn’t get the books in order which was ok sometimes but we read one once when Floppy gets lost and doesn’t come back with them… We never got the next book, and didn’t get many Biff, Chip and Kipper books after that. I still wonder what happened to Floppy and how they got him back. If anybody knows please do let me know! So yes, I know some parents can’t stand Biff, Chip and Kipper but I will always look on them fondly!

Suggesting books to your reading age child

My child is now 7 and an avid reader, when she first started reading on her own I suggested books that I had loved and read as a child, and she read them, and then we got to chat about them afterwards which was magical. I loved seeing what she had enjoyed and got from the story, and how it had differed from what I had got. The suggestions I made that she loved are:

  • Milly Molly Mandy / Joyce Lankaster Brisley
  • The Mrs Pepperpot stories / Alf Proysen
  • The Ramona Quimby books / Beverly Cleary (and then all of her back catalogue)
  • The Superfudge book / Judy Bloom (and all her age appropriate back catalogue – no Forever yet!)
  • My Naughty Little Sister / Dorothy Edwards
  • Famous Five / Enid Blyton
  • Roald Dahl books (she said Matilda was the best book she had ever read!)

Not everything that I had read as a child went down as well as the above, she is most certainly not up for The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe yet, which was my absolute favourite book as a child. She says she’ll read it when she’s 8 though, I hope she does. Especially as I’d love her to read The Magician’s Nephew which I read after reading the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and it just blew me away, I still think about it now! I won’t force it upon her though – I want her to think of reading as a joy and not a chore, and something that stays with her throughout her life as it has done for me.

She reads other things which she chooses herself; books that hadn’t been published when I was a child, such as the David Walliams books and the Daisy Meadows fairy books. She likes different genres to me, loves books about animals, and especially horses which I was never into as a child. I tried to read Black Beauty so many times and never got into it!

I love suggesting books and authors to her, but I also enjoy watching her explore and widen her own tastes. It’s a wonderful adventure to experience for us both.

My 2016 Reading

This year I have again only read books by women as I have said in previous blog posts. I also read my first ever Angela Carter novel… I don’t know what took me so long, but in a way I’m glad I’ve come to her fairly late as I’ve only read 3 of her novels so far and still have lots more to go. I’m resisting the urge to read them all at once in a greedy glut, and spacing them with others in between.

2016 was a good reading year for me, I’ve gone for quality rather than quantity, which I think is a good thing in all aspects of life! I started off the year with The Magic Toyshop and was just blown away by it, just everything, especially the tragedy of Melanie and the other children being ripped from their comfortable lives with their loving parents  into the cold chaos of their Uncle’s house. I was really struck by the adjustment that Melanie had to undertake especially at the age she was when if she had been able to stay in her old life she would have been able to just focus on herself and the transition from girl to women, but as she was transplanted into an environment where there was time for that luxury it had to happen along with everything else that she had to deal with. I then went on to read The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters which I enjoyed, but not as much as The Paying Guests which I absolutely loved when I read it last year. I won’t give a critique of every book I read here now, but I will rate them in order of how much I enjoyed them below!

  1. Wise Children / Angela Carter (LOVED everything about it my favourite Angela Carter novel so far)
  2. The Bricks That Built the Houses / Kate Tempest (I think these 2 should actually be joint 1st as I loved this so much too. But for very different reasons, I could relate so closely to this novel, the language, the people, the setting. I grew up in the same area as it is set, and Kate Tempest has captured it so so succinctly. It is an excellent book)
  3. Americanah / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Another excellent book,  this is the 2nd novel I’ve read by Adichie Half of a Yellow Sun being the first. I learnt so much, and was completely absorbed by the story and the different locations in which it took place)
  4. Nights at the Circus / Angela Carter (It took me a long time to get through this, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it’s so epic. Carter’s writing is so descriptive and dense (in a good way) that it takes time to read her novels (especially this one) I loved Fevvers and her wings and the magic that surrounded the story. Magic realism is a genre I’m new to, but I’m loving it!)
  5. The Little Stranger / Sarah Waters (as above, I enjoyed it, I liked the time period it was set in, the birth of the NHS and seeing how it affected the existing doctors was interesting. However, I read The Paying Guests the year before and loved it so much I don’t think this could have ever stood up to that for me)
  6. Hot Milk / Deborah Levy (this was on the short list for the Booker Prize this year, I read it during the summer which was good as it’s set in the summer! It was an interesting and diverting read)
  7. Loitering with Intent / Muriel Spark ( I had high expectations of this book as I loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and I also love mid 20th century books written by and about women, especially Barbara Pym. This was good, but didn’t quite live up to my expectations especially at the beginning, but I did enjoy it more towards the end)

My Christmas Reading

As I said in my earlier Advent reading post I have read Christmassy books in the run up to Christmas since I was a child. First it was Nan Goodall’s Donkey’s Glory (which I read every year!), then I moved onto A Christmas Carol, and in recent years I’ve been reading the sort of Christmas novels you see on the front table of bookshops at this time of year, the covers full of snowy scenes, and beautifully wrapped presents being held by impossibly thin, pretty women in heels standing in a snowy scene, Christmas trees, mistletoe wreaths with handsome men and beautiful women kissing underneath… You know the ones I mean! I’m a sucker for them, I love the will they won’t they love story, the preparations for Christmas, I especially love it if they are about food and have recipes in too. I devour them and often read 2 or 3 in two weeks. Last year I made excellent choices in my Christmas reading with: Bella’s Christmas Bake Off by Sue Watson which had it all, food, friendship, will they won’t they love story, and all topped off with heartwarming helping of homeless people. I loved it so much! I also read Calling Mrs Christmas by Carole Matthews which was about a women who organised Christmas for people who were too busy, lots of preparations, a love triangle, a trip to Lapland – it was amazing! I hope I can find something to live up to these novels this year!

I am going to read Matt Haig’s 2 children’s Christmas books (A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas) before I choose some adult ones, so will have a lovely Christmassy time! Just have to finish my Angela Carter first…

Read Women

In 2014 a twitter campaign was set up to read books by women only for the year of 2014. I decided to be part of this. I’ve always enjoyed and been interested in women’s fiction and thought this would be an interesting way to spend my reading year.

It was! I followed the Read Women twitter account and shared what I was reading and got inspiration for other books to read from what others were reading. It was a great, supportive community. I was introduced to authors I’d heard of but never read, I read Maya Angelou for the first time, reacquainted myself with Barbara Pym, read my first Kate Atkinson (Life after Life which I loved, I have the follow up on my to read list!) and went back to Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole – a book I’ve read many times at different stages of my life, and got so much from it each time. I also read A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam which was excellent, and about Bangladesh’s fight for independence in the 1970s (I must read the rest of those books!)

When 2014 came to an end I still had many books I’d not got round to reading, so I carried on reading books by women into 2015. I discovered Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche and was bowled over by her writing. I read her Half of a Yellow Sun and learnt so much, this led me to read more about Nigeria so I strayed from my women only rule and  read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe which also opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about. I love it that reading takes you on a journey to discover new worlds, and how reading around subjects, deepens your understanding of the world and the people around you.

I still mainly read books by women, and have had a rich experience of reading over the last few years, which has opened my eyes to new cultures and lives around the world. In the coming year I am going to try and read books by authors who are not straight white men, I have nothing against straight white men (my Father is one of them!) but I feel like I know their experience and I’m interested in finding out about a new perspective for 2017.

Advent reading!

I have a Christmas tradition that I had since I was a child. I love reading Christmassy books in the run up to Christmas. I still do it now, and I’ve passed the tradition on to my daughter. When she was smaller we would read her a Christmas/winter themed picture book each night during advent bedtimes. Now she’s older we read Christmassy chapter books, like this Enid Blyton one (beautifully old fashioned!) and we also have the much more modern A boy named Christmas on our list. I’ve heard of some people wrapping up 24 Christmas books to be opened on each night of advent. I love this idea, but never got round to actually doing it! 

I will share my fave adult Christmas reads in another post soon, so please watch this space! 

#christmas #advent #books #traditions #parenting #kidsbooks