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Monday, 29 May 2017

Puddle Lane: The Magic Box

Written By: Shelia McCullagh
Illustrated by Gavin Rowe
Publisher: Ladybird Books, 1985

Weird books stay in children's imaginations, or so I'm concluding. Associations around feeling slightly afraid seem to impinge harder, more deliberately in the memory. I don't proclaim to know anything about the psychology behind this, 'fight or flight' related I'm tentatively guessing, but from my own experience, when I saw this book in the charity shop last year, I smiled, picked it up, flicked through the pages with trepidation, put it back - should I buy this? It freaked me out as a child...the Griffle, a vanishing green monster, the mice, they come to life, a magic box... 

Puddle Lane was a popular British pre-school reading scheme in second half of the 1980's, that accompanied a part- animated children's television series made by Yorkshire Television in Leeds for ITV. In the television programme the main character, the magician, who lived in the big house at the end of Puddle Lane (see picture above), was played by Monty Python actor and musician, Neil Innes. In the reading scheme, published by Ladybird (but incidentally not adopting the classic 52 page Ladybird standard), the magician comes and goes as a plot device, and is sometimes absent from the stories altogether. 

Now Puddle Lane seemed quite dated, and stiff in style, even back when I was using the scheme to learn to read in the 1980s. The dress sense, toys and townscape were all very Victorian, and certainly the children's expansive right to roam (and walk purposefully into an old man's garden when they know he's away) and talk to strangers and busy-bodies in the street, indeed sat very uneasily with me as a four year old, but I did remember this all, vividly, well. 
Now thirty years later I'm sharing the same small, hardback books with my daughter, and she equally delights in them, holding her breath, worrying where the strange little stories might be going.  

In this particular title, The Magic Box, which was on stage 1 of the scheme (each stage had a different cover colour), the children fend off the unwanted advice of Mrs Pitter-Patter, neighbourhood nosey-parker, and head to the magician's garden to pick up a birthday present left by the magician for Sarah. When Sarah and Davy arrive they find a big box in the hollow of a tree with a message attached saying, 'Don't open the box. Push the red button.' Bizarre indeed!  The children press the button, music plays from the box, and the children uncontrollably dance. The music box is of course magical, and casts a spell on anyone who hears the music to dance along. The children then try out the box on sleepy Mr Gotobed, and then who should return, but interfering Mrs Pitter-Patter. The box plays a further trick on Mrs Pitter Patter, singing a silly rhyme about her, and forcing her to dance despite as she tries to protest. The outcome is as implausible and fantastical as the rest of the story, but funny and unexpected.  

Over the past year I've managed to acquire a good collection of the Puddle Lane series from charity shops, exclusively of the titles I remember, such as The Vanishing Monster, and The Wideawake Mice, and my all time favourite, Puddle Lane at Christmas. My daughter, surprisingly I think, given that this is a generation being taught to read through phonics,loves to try to read (or more appropriately try to remember) the emboldened key words on the right hand page of the double page spread. The reading notes page in each Puddle Lane book seems archaic in some respects, instructing parents to read aloud first following with a finger, but the satisfaction my daughter gets from committing these short sentences to rote, surprises me more. She loves the pictures in the books, especially all the British mammals and birds, such as mice and owls, with their human characteristics. Edie also likes the characters, slightly wayward children, but always doing something kind, helping out animals in crisis, thinking about others. She's captivated by the eeriness, the weirdness of the stories, the fear, just as I was. 
All in all then, Puddle Lane is a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and well worth a revisit. 

And if you like this, you might also like The Tale of the Tooth Fairy, based on a shared eeriness and fear. 

You might also remember the television series (I have only a vague recollection of this myself, though watched a lot of ITV children's programmes as a child!):

Sunday, 28 May 2017

King Jack and the Dragon

Author: Peter Bently
Illustrator: Helen Oxenbury
Publisher: Puffin Books, 2011

Here's a fun, spirit rousing book depicting the power of children's imaginations. My daughter (nearly 4) asked for this book in the week as 'the book about fighting dragons all day long and then thinking you'd like to fight them some more', which I thought was a pretty accurate description of the whole narrative. 
Here we have 'King Jack', his friends, and what seems to be his baby brother, playing out in a makeshift fort in the garden, made from 'a big cardboard box, an old sheet and somesticks, a couple of bin bags, a few broken bricks.' We love this, it's very playful, very everyday, and to a child, very real, tangible. Helen Oxenbury does a lovely job with the illustrations, pen and ink in simple black and white, and then pen and watercolour, roughly one drawing per line. My children have enjoyed this book from about 2 years old onwards, and I think this is because of the high ration of picture to line, it's punchy, easy to read aloud, and leads in to the excitement straight away.  

The little boy in the book, Jack, is leading his troops into battle, defending his castle from 'dragon attack'. The depiction of the dragons and beasts is very fantastical, echoing this theme of the story being a lift from Jack's imagination. The 'creature' pictures certainly have lots of detail ( smoking nostrils, scales, dangly tongues), but might be slightly scary for very young children; they're reminiscent of those in Where The Wild Things are, and of course Oxenbury's own earlier, dream-like creatures in Edward Lear's The Quangle Wangle's Hat

With his wooden sword and fists punching the air, the gung-ho adventure culminates in the beasts being chased away by the band of boys, but then there's a really nice, endearing twist in the story where the adults start intervening in the days activities, bringing the playtime to a close. Jack can't except that his lovely day outside is over, so sees that brave knight 'Sir  Zak' has been taken away by a giant (his friend Zak appears to be collected by his dad), then Baby Caspar (his brother) is taken off to bed. Determined to stick it out, despite his growing fears as the garden gets dark, Jack holds fast in his box-fort, until he gets a fright of his own from a 'thing with four feet.' As the shadow lifts and his parents are revealed, reader and character share the same sense of relief. The story ends beautifully with Jack very much a 'boy' being carried in his dads shoulders, and the finale illustration of Jack happily asleep in bed with knight's sword still in hand. 
The book paints this really comforting story of safe imaginative play, content days, childhood fun, friendship, brotherhood and days out in the garden. The soft greens in the book almost smell like summer, and Oxenbury's characteristic close knit hatching make the pictures feel intimate, deep in  perspective, and warm and rich on the eyes. 
A lovely enchanting story that sums up happy childhood and adventure play, all cleverly recalled by Bentley through a child's perspective. 

Sunday, 21 May 2017


Author: Anthea Simmons
Illustrator: Georgie Birkett
Publisher: Andersen Press Ltd, 2010

This is my favourite picture book for preparing children for gaining a sibling. It's sweet, heartwarming and leaves me with a wry smile- everyone's happy, content siblings sharing all- what a dream!

So the story is a real repetitive mantra; little girl (preschool looking) has a number of possessions she loves, including a teddy, book of animals, number puzzle and snugly blanket, for each item, 'baby wants it too', and the reply on each page is, 'share' says mummy, cue to turn the page, 'so I do.' Following every incident of sharing, the baby messes up the item, have bent it, having chewed it, having 'soaked' it  'right through'. Expressions on the faces of the child and baby constantly change, with the baby upset, wanting the possession, becoming content or appeased when he has the item in his hands. The girl whereas, looks intent on keeping her possession or sceptical at handing it over, then annoyed with the baby's response to the item.    

The mantra then adjusts, with the little girl taking mummy's command to share literally, sharing her 'favourite treat for teatime', jam waffle, with baby, who, oh dear, 'has no teeth to chew.' The resulting sharing incident now, backfires each time on mum, with baby getting soggy after pouring milk from 'the cow mug' on himself, and paint chaos ensuing from sharing the easel. the big sister has an impish smile of her face in this section, with baby looking eager. 

The story then takes a final (cute) twist, with the siblings clearly enjoying sharing a bath, and their bedtime routine, and with baby now instigating the agreement to share. In the closing pages of the book the siblings are now 'laughing, laughing, laughing' together, and agree to share their mummy. It's a very happy (sugary yes!)  ending; my children love it and I like the sentiment and appreciate the subtle humour here. 
We've read this book so many times (being a family where a new sibling has arrived consecutively every two years) that the mantra is unbelievably well-ingrained, that the book has reached legendary status in our house and is now simply referred to as 'the share book' and gets suggested by the children for a book at bedtime if we've had a day of troubles, 'oh, mum, Alf is being mean- I think we need to get the share book out!' (like its a key reminder, a cure for all ills). 'Share says mummy!' has become my stern warning, constant reply, sarcastic response to all manner of sibling squabbles, nearly always receiving the same humorous reply, the children echoing (rather begrudgingly, despairingly) the other side of the mantra, 'so I do!' I've bought this book for countless friends who have had second or third babies. It feels like a rite of passage; pregnant for a second time? need this book!   

Leading on from that, and being an adopter myself, there's nothing in here that wouldn't work for introducing adopted siblings to each other too. The 'baby' in the book is conveniently toddler-like rather than a babe in arms (echoing a likely scenario of modern day adoption regarding age of placement). The mum doesn't look suitably frazzled though, and seems to waltz in happily for a cuddle with her perfectly clean and sleepy children at the end- again this raises a dry smile with me.   
In all then, illustrations bright, bold, simple, clear and tell a full story in themselves; lovely lyrical text, with plenty of exclamatory vex- so very tongue in cheek. A really great book for helping to prepare a child for an impending sibling arrival, or thereafter for simply encouraging sharing, and seeing the positive outcomes of a sharing sibling union.    

If you like this book, you're also likely to enjoy: When I First Met You Blue Kangaroo

Monday, 15 May 2017

George and The Dragon

George and The Dragon
Author and Illustrator: Chris Wormell
Publisher: Red Fox, Random House Children's Books, 2003

Here's a picture book that stylistically throws testimony to the adage 'less is more'. Generous double page spreads throughout, very little written text, illustrations cast in a simple reddish, brown, purple hue; it feels unusual, it's preserve, endearing.

It's high time I took this book back to the library, but the children are stuck between the binary of frightened and enchanted by this one, so it's remained a stalwart of the bedtime read this week. Fans of fantasy will love this for their children; the rich red illustrations of the immense elongated hulk of the 'mighty' fire breathing dragon remind me of David Day's illustrations of Tolkien's bestiary. With two thirds of the spread devoted on each page to the picture (always in landscape profile), the story takes a comfortable slow, pace feeling nicely controlled. What's also nice about the illustrations is the room dedicated to 'scenery', so the epic mountainous skyline on one spread, the craggy rocks and backdrop of the cave in another. This sets the scene so nicely, and also supports the message of the narrative, in that everything is relative in size- 'small can be big'.  

In terms of the plot, we meet a terrifying dragon who can 'fly higher than clouds and faster than birds'. He's shown battling an army of knights, burning down a village and carrying off a princess. The depiction of the dragon's thin, worm-like body, smoking nostrils and huge claws really contrast the contemporary (tame) rotund bodies of modern children's dragon illustrations (such as Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, and The Trouble with Dragons by Debi Gilori).  There's something truly original and in so, frightening about this dragon.  

The story is initially set up as dark and scary, with the dragon appearing unbeatable and huge against the mini-scale hopeless figures of the knights (whom he could 'brush away' 'with 'a sweep of his monstrous wing'), and the protesting captured princess. the text then alludes to the dragon harbouring a secret fear, his Achilles heel, which humorously turns out to be a fear of mice. The way this plot turn is introduced, in terms of children's literature, is interesting, very dry in humour here, with the cave entrance littered in a macabre way with skulls and bones and then a mouse, turned away, reading a property sign reading ' sold' at the mouth of the neighbouring cave.  At this point the written text doesn't quite flow as well, introducing the idea that George the mouse seeks sugar for his cup of tea (how British. or should that be 'English' given the context- George and the Dragon').        

At this bizarre turn the narrative unfolds and ends speedily; the dragon, petrified, now flees, and the mouse, a hero, is treated to a feast by the princess. The story then closes with the mouse in residence in a 'cosy little hole in the castle wall' underneath a 'beware of the mouse' warning sign; the dragon, alarmed, cowers behind a mountain. In few words and vast illustrations then, Wormell easily conveys the message not to judge or anticipate on appearance alone.

This is a really delightful, moral, and learned children's picture book then. It's a masterclass in captivating a very young audience; this book being well received by ages 1, 3, 5 and 7 in my house.    

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

First Greek Myths - Jason and The Golden Fleece

Author: Saviour Pirotta
Illustrator: Jan Lewis
Publisher: Orchard Books, Hachette Children's Books, 2009

I've been excited about reviewing this book for a while, or more so, Pirotta's First Greek Myth series from Orchard Books. These books were the first books Alf (3 years old at the time, but 7 now) requested we borrow again from the library (music to my ears). These were also the first books I found Alf trying to read himself, unprovoked (again, a really special moment for a mum bookblogger). As part of the Orchard Colour Crunchies series these books are intended as 'early readers' but personally I think they need a shout-out as possibly the best books for emerging g independent readers, they're exciting, the perfect length, great illustrations (fascinating, maybe a tad scary, but that's part of the appeal), and full of the essence of adventure: fights, swords, monsters to defeat, voyages, magic, wishes made, promises broken. I'm a fan, and testimony to the longevity of this series, when I left the featured title on the sofa last night, ready to review, Alf picked it up and said, 'ah great! I love these books! Can you read this to me now?' (Recommended reading from 3 years to 7, and upwards and counting then!)

Interestingly, and as a nod to promoting more female leads in children's literature I like to think, in Jason and The Golden Fleece, Pirotta frames the main character not as Jason but Princess Medea, who is introduced first, and whom gets the final exposition on the closing page of the book. This is refreshing, especially as a rewrite of the male-hero binary that normally dominates adaptations of the Greek Myths. Medea is even portrayed as superhero-like with the text declaring, 'At last the powerful princess was free' supported by a picture of Medea looking majestic, with hands held aloft. My three year old daughter approves, and like her brothers, requests this title specifically.  

It's worth saying that each book in the First Myths series starts with a 'cast list' displaying two of the key characters in the book, and how to pronounce their names phonetically. Again this is useful for emergent readers, and for reading adults alike as some of the Greek names are impossible sounding in appearance to say on first reading.  

As the story of Jason and The Golden Fleece is so well known I won't linger on the narrative, only to say that in this version, unlike other children's versions of this myth I've read,  Medea is instrumental in every aspect of Jason winning the Golden Fleece (how postfeminist!)Though this empowered portrayal of women doesn't always transcend in this series: in Theseus and The Man-Eating Monster, for example, poor Ariadne is tricked and left on a desert island by Theseus (in other versions she returns on the boat with Theseus (and reminds him to put the white sail up, which prevents Theseus's father from killing himself). Personally, while it's great to see a positive, strong female characterisation in Medea, I also like the darker interpretation of the Myths. The Greek Myths themselves should be essential reading for any child, they're captivating, and the cornerstone of modern narrative conventions (or so I've read before). 

Beyond being perfectly concise and full of well chosen 'early reader' appropriate vocabulary,  I also like these books for the illustrations, particularly the many head shots with expressions told in the eyes. My eldest son really dislikes drawing, but the cartoon-like nature of the humans in this book inspired his attempt at a potrait based on one of the head shots. The illustrations are simplistic, bright and effective, with the layout of each page uncluttered, and so consecutive reading passages are easily signpost. 

In all then, these are exhilarating short reads. I'm so grateful to my local library for stocking these and in so doing, introducing me and my children to this fantastic series. I think they'd be perfect for supplementing reading in school libraries for KS1.  
If you like the representation of strong female leads in children's literature mentioned here, you might also like: Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole

Here are all the titles in the series (I bought them all as I had to stop borrowing them again and again from the library):

And thanks to starting out on these really simple condensed versions of the Greek Myths, Alf (7) now loves the 1963 Ray HarryHausen Columbia Pictures production of 'Jason and The Argonauts'. This film is a great way to support the reading, and vice versa.

Watch exerts from the film here: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Monday, 8 May 2017

No Matter What

Author and Illustrator: Debi Gliori
Publisher: First published by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1999, featured board book edition, 2005

No Matter What is the perfect reassuring read after a big blow out tantrum. It's a simple story; Small, an angry fox cub, is upset (bucket over the head, sat in a room in which the furniture is lopsided, in which Small took part in 'break and snap and bash and batter'. Small's parent / carer, Large, intervenes saying 'good grief, what is the matter?' Note that both Small and Large are non gender specified, so this isn't a 'mother and son' as sometimes billed in reviews, but might equally apply to dad and daughter, grandson and grandparent, foster carer and child, so applicable and useful to many contexts here. 

As the story unfolds, Small worries that nobody loves him/ her as she's/ he's 'grim and grumpy' and Large reassures him/ her persistently 'grumpy or not, I'll always love you no matter what.' Small then suggests a series of scenarios in which he / she might not be loved anymore, so for example, 'turning into a bug' and Large's reaction is always unfathomably a declaration of unconditional love and an act of physical love, so for example, she / he says 'I'll hug you close and tight, and tuck you up in bed each night.' As this dialogue of worry and doubt met by love and reassure goes on, the illustrations show Large calmly readying Small for bed, and fixing all the fall-out from the earlier tantrum. 

This is then, an truly ideal book for building attachment and trust with a child. It is a very useful, appropriate book to give adopters, and in turn for adopters and foster careers to read anxious children in early placement. As an adopter and birth parent myself, I use the book with all my children at times when they're showing signs of needing some reassurance, at times when they've had tantrums, broken something, upset the status quo in some way, to hammer home the message that these things happen, and unconditional love stands. For traumatised children, vulnerable children, of which adoptees often are, this book has such an important message, and says it clearly, repeatively, and frankly. At one point Small questions whether love can be broken and bent, and 'can you fix it, stick it, does it mend?' Large replies with honesty, 'oh help, I'm not that clever, I just know I'll love you forever.' Again, such sincerity, admitting to not knowing as the 'responsible adult' makes much sense in terms of approaching the past experiences of looked-after-children. A board book this may be, and I'm obviously approaching this book from a certain perspective, but No Matter What packs a huge punch; it fills a big void in preschool literature that speaks to and speaks out for looked after children.  

In terms of age range, there's a nice rhyme, a little clumsy in parts maybe, but being short, bright picture filled, it increasingly holds my toddler's attention. In terms of the message, I'm still reading this after a wobble and need of a hug with my seven year old, so No Matter What has a big span. This is a really delightful book that opens emotional dialogue like none other. Highly recommended! 

If you like books that promote discussion, you might also like: Harry and The Snow King

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Diary of a Wimpy Kid - The Long Haul

Author and Illustrator: Jeff Kinney
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2015

Talk about an exercise in 'how to bond with your boys': I'd just finished reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a bedtime read with Alf (7) and Bert (5) and was looking for a 'filler' before starting another heavy novel. Alf suggested The Long Haul; he's read most of The Wimpy Kid series, is obsessed with watching The Wimpy Kid films and 
emulates the older brother in the series, Rodderick (not the greatest literary role model, but I see the appeal in wanting to be the cool older brother). The boys' eyes lit up when I agreed, and in hindsight, I think it's been really beneficial to model fluent reading of these books, as while Alf is a good reader for his age, these books, in my opinion move fast, have a lot of contemporary references and words, so require very competent level of indendent reading to read well, to follow well. Moreover, letting my son lead this, letting him share one of his favourite authors with me, made for great role reversal, and was illuminating- so this is what he finds funny, best of all, I found it hilarious, so funny, laugh -out- loud funny, that the boys grew quite fed up of me repeating extracts to my husband the following day or pausing for breath in between giggles. 

To be precise, the first part of The Long Haul is laugh-out-loud, it flags a bit once the family, who are taking a road trip as a part of mum's aspiration for family, and are repeatedly interacting with another family (I lost the gist a bit here, it turns quite slapstick). As a writer, Jeff Kinney reminds me of Matt Groening of Simpson's fame, offering the right mix of joke aimed at young boys (plenty of toilet humour, jokes about hairy bodies, junk food, mishaps) and jokes aimed at parent introspection (the mum sees life in 'learning opportunities' for her boys, playing them a Spainish language CD in the car, the dad, seeking to reclaim personal joy beyond 'the family' buys himself a boat and pays the humourous consequences). 

Written through the eyes of 'Wimpy Kid' Greg Heffley,this character's self reflections are drole, astute and full of contemporary social references (the books are undoubtedly written in American English, so occasionally takes a bit of explaining, e.g. 'Car lot' as 'car park) . There's a self deprecating storyline, in that Jeff is weedy and actively avoids trouble, while his older brother Rodderick is cock-sure and arrogant, and his younger brother, a toddler, Manny, is mollycoddled and intent. The road trip is chaotic and full of funny despairing moments when things go wrong, such as winning a pig at the farm show, the motel not having adequate sleeping arrangements, the 'hot tub' being taken by one whole family, and all the the while Greg is the one most effected by the mishap. For my boys, there seemed to be a real identification with Greg, 'the put upon' child despairing of the well intentioned efforts of his parents. As a parent, I certainly identified with the mum character, reading 'Family Frolic' magazine to better inform herself on good parenting practice. The Long Haul then, insightful hyperbole on modern family life (albeit American, and a quick, comic like, fun read to share between generations.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Snow-White and Rose-Red

Ladybird Well-Loved Tales: Snow-White and Rose-Red
Retold by Vera Southgate
With illustrations by Eric Winter
Publisher: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1969

I loved this book as a child. The illustrations stayed in my memory; fond memories, though I think the pictures have lodged there due to the combination of bizarre, haunting, and quite frightening images. I was given a copy of this 1969 Ladybird classic by a fellow vintage Ladybird fan, and debated whether to share it with the children. On reading it to the boys a year ago ( then 4 and 6), they disliked the story, finding it too long ( the book has that damp, musty hue of 'vintage old' which didn't help the bedtime reading experience). On reading it to my daughter last week, nearly 4, she was captivated. 

The story opens setting the scene on these angelic, well behaved sisters, Snow White and Rose Red, who live with their mother in a cottage in the wood. A rose bush in white and red grow outside. The children spend their days helping their mother ( by arranging flowers in her room) and romping about in the forest. Although the forest is dangerous, the creatures of the forest never hurt the children ( seemingly because they're so good and have a guardian angel protecting them). The children even wake one day to find they've been sleeping by the edge of a cliff, but it's okay, as they're angel looked over them. Bizarre? Truly. And so far removed from any story she's ever heard or been exposed to both, my daughter was fascinated.

The book continues on the classic 50 page Ladybird easy reading format; roughly three short paragraphs per page, and this Ladybird decidedly less pompous and 'wordy' than others in the series. About a fifth of the way into the story, the girls are visited at home by a great brown bear. The mother of the girls instructs her children not to be afraid (biblical angel like), and they rub snow from his fur. The bear and the children become friends, and the bear visits the children every night until spring. Strange so far, but endearing- and then the book takes an even stranger turn. The girls meet an angry dwarf in the forest, with his long white beard trapped in a log. The illustration of this grotesque, angered dwarf is quite scary, it's not like the sanitised Disney of today, more like the surreal age Disney, but a notch up from that. The light pastel pallet of 1960s Ladybird is quite insipid. The dwarf, with no way to escape, is eventually set free by one of the girls snipping his beard off with her convenient pair of scissors, which happen to be on her person. The dwarf is horrified rather than grateful, grabs a nearby bag of gold and scampers away. 

The girls then meet the dwarf twice more, once with his beard tangled in a fishing line, so again they release him by cutting his beard (he's angry and runs off witch a bag of pearls), and finally, they see the dwarf being carried away by a giant bird (a roc?) . The girls pull on the feet of the dwarf to help release him, but again, after he's free he's angered to have been 'manhandled) .No words of thanks. On seeing the dwarf for a final time, the girls stop to admire his spread-out jewels. Just as the dwarf is about to have an almighty tantrum, in bounds the bear, who kills the dwarf. The bear sheds his fur coat and is of course, a prince, trapped under the dwarf's evil spell. With the spell now broken as the dwarf lies dead, the prince brings his friends, Snow-White and Rose-Red home, surprisingly their delighted mother. And to add to all that enchantment, the prince has a brother for the Rose Red to marry! How very convenient!

Yes this book is a bit menacing, if read that way, and yes it's dated, smelly, makes no sense, pushes at the boundaries of 'fairy tale' and farce ( unintentionally), but it's so memorable, so enthralling, so bizarre. Edie has requested this every day this week, , and no doubt it will be laid out ready for me to read tomorrow. Vintage Ladybird at its best.

If you like this book, you might also like another Vintage Ladybird: The Sly Fox and The Little Red Hen

Monday, 1 May 2017

Mog and The Baby

Mog and The Baby
Author and Illustrator: Judith Kerr
Publisher: First published by William Collins Sons & Co in 1980, edition featured published by HarperCollins Children's Books, 2005

By far my favourite Judith Kerr book, and a twist on the 'Mog's mishaps' narrative, in that this time, it's not Mog but a human baby causing all the misadventure. The book starts quietly, with Nicky (the Thomas family's youngest) off school with a cold playing contently with family pet, the tabby cat, Mog. The day is then interrupted with the arrival of Mrs Clutterbuck and her red, screaming baby whom mum of the household, Mrs Thomas, has agreed to look after while Mrs Clutterbuck goes shopping. The excuse as to why the baby is left with the Thomas family certainly didn't wash with Bert (5), who suggested that the baby might fall asleep in the trolley; neighbourly common practice in the 1980s when the book was first written, clearly not such an occurrence in our house today.     

Now for the real humour, and certainly a more upbeat, cheeky contribution to the, at times, very dark, Mog series: Mrs Clutterbuck's baby takes a real shine to Mog, Mog is much less keen on the baby. There's some fantastic illustrations in the book of the toddling, grabby-handed baby pounding their way toward Mog; Mog's reactions are comedic, big eyes, narrow eyes, disdain- very funny. The whole book in fact, tells the story exceptionally well, in just the illustrations, so an ideal story for very young children (2+ years).  

As is convention in the Mog series, Judith Kerr uses repetition, short stanza and echo-back here, stressing a piece of dialogue or more commonly one of Mog's (usually quite misguided) ideas (for example, the famous line, 'Mog had a dream. It was a lovely dream. It was a dream about babies.' In this book, echo back is used to stress sections of dialogue, with Mrs Clutterback asking, 'Will my baby be alright with your cat?' and Mrs Thomas constantly reassuring everyone 'oh yes, Mog loves babies.'  The joke, of course, is that the reader sees the illustration of Mog looking grumpy and certainly not like she 'loves babies.' This is clearly unrequited love on the part of the baby.  

The humour continues as the baby insists on interaction with Mog. From having a big chubby arm round Mog, we then see the baby and Mog out and about, in prams - Mog in a bonnet, the baby looking-on eagerly, lovingly. 

 As per the other Mog Collection books, things go from bad to worse for Mog, with the baby eating Mog's food (and we know from previous books, food gets Mog where it hurts!)
Then chaos really ensues when the baby starts to cry. Cue another repetitious phrase in the book, with the baby saying 'Psss, Psss, Psss' in order to demand the attention of Mog, and this is followed by the usual dream-kittens sequence, so iconic of the series. 

What happens next can be initially quite frightening for children; Mog has had enough and escapes away from the baby out of a window, the baby follows. Taken as a warning that appropriates road safety, this is a highly dramatic, suspense filled moment in the book, that my children love. The Thomas' car hurtling toward baby and Mog (who, like in Mog the Forgetful Cat, gets frightened of a neighbouring dog and so runs, but just as with that book, ends up being the real hero, having this time pushed the baby away).  What a fantastically satisfying hero-and-reward ending  (just like the original). 

With all the similarities and repetitious lines of the first books in the series, this edition still really holds its own, with these lovely meaningful expressions on Mog's face, an 'in' joke with the audience and a treat for fans and those new to the books alike. This book is so simple, and yet such a delight to read-aloud. Mrs Clutterbuck, to me, is read in a loud, bossy Miranda Hart style way, becoming hysterical.  Mrs Thomas is an exasperated voice, but putting on a brave face. Nicky, as in all the Mog stories, is siding with Mog, and grumbling on her behalf: 'Look what it's done.' There's less retell of Mog's thoughts in this one, but instead the expressions say much more. 

In all then, a really funny contribution to the classic Mog series, and with really hard-hitting newer contributions to the series, such as 'Goodnight Mog' (spoiler alert* Mog dies!), this book makes a welcome balance to the collection, offering such light, amusing relief.  Mog at her best!

If you like this book, you might also like: This Is The Bear by by Sarah Hayes and Helen Craig

Also, my children absolutely loved this video at Christmas, a familiar and lovable feline hero getting into lots of extreme festive mishaps: Sainsbury’s OFFICIAL Christmas Advert 2015 – Mog’s Christmas Calamity  Enjoy!

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