I wonder if books are not much like lovers. There are some which you read once, thoroughly enjoy them but then you move on. No regrets, no lingering feelings. Others are more persistent, they keep coming back to you. Each time you are a little different, the book is too. Each time you take something new from the experience and look forward to the next time you will come together.
‘The Red Tent’ is, for me the book that is closest to a marriage. I first read it in my early twenties (It was first published in 1997). Pre-marriage, pre-children, what did I know of love or loss? But the book stuck with me and I must have read it 10 times since. It was the book I grabbed to pass time in hospital waiting for a miscarriage to be confirmed. It was the book I turned to after my daughter was born and I had forgotten how to be myself, and how to read. I have read this book so many times that Diamant’s language is irrevocably intertwined with my own. I might not share my daily life with sister-wives but I have formed a group of women around me who are as close as kin.
The story is ancient but entirely relevant today. Telling the story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob and of Leah’s sisters Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah. Described on the cover as ‘The oldest love story never told’ it celebrates the love between mothers and daughters, aunts, husbands. It elevates Dinah from a footnote in Genesis to a feisty, articulate young woman, charting her journey from a child, to a grown woman, from mother, to midwife and widow. I cannot read the chapter on Shalem without weeping, nor the final pages.
It is no surprise that in the wake of the book has sprung an almost-global movement. Women all over America and Europe have started to come together to empower and support each other, to celebrate the new moon and find nourishment and succour in each other’s company. This companionship, this sense of belonging to a tribe which is so eloquently articulated in the novel is something many women have felt is lacking in our own lives.
For me ‘The Red Tent’ is the best parts of feminism and the best parts of womanhood. It does not shy from great grief; the distinctly female agony of losing a baby you’ve carried, or of not being able to carry one at all. However with your tribe you don’t have to carry the grief alone and the same with laughter. The book is so full of humour and warmth that I often read far longer than I mean to as I am immersed in the lives of these women whom I now love.
When I was born I had never seen anything,
Only the darkness of my mother’s tummy.
When I was born I had never seen
The sun or a flower or a face.
I didn’t know anybody
and nobody knew me.
When the lights go out everything is black
Regular followers cannot have failed to notice that I haven’t posted to this page in quite some time. This is primarily because I have been falling asleep shortly after (and on more than one occasion during) bedtime stories. The reason I have been so tired is that all my energy is being expended building a tiny new person and we couldn’t feel happier.
And what is a new baby if not an excellent excuse to share books with my firstborn?
So the second thing I did after that little pink line appeared was to drive over to my favourite indie bookseller (Simply Books in Bramhall if anyone is interested) and stock up on stories featuring a new addition to the family to help my little girl get ready for the biggest shake up of her short life.
Our absolute favourite of the large pile we bought has to be ‘There’s A House Inside My Mummy’. Illustrated in comfortingly warm tones, this explains in entirely toddler-friendly rhyme how a mummy can feel tired or want to eat funny things when she has a baby growing inside her. It covers the Mummy heading off to hospital and then coming home with a small, cuddly bundle. I love seeing the bump growing and the gentleness with which the child in the story talks to their new sibling through the ‘tummy telephone’. I don’t particularly love the image of the baby taking a while to get out because the ‘door is rather tight’.
My baby loves – cuddling up, looking at the bump in the book and pointing at my bump.
I love – ‘Look who Mummy made for us, a lovely little brother
There’s noone in her tummy now, until she makes another!’
I am forced to break with convention and blog these two books together because in our household they are inseparable. Thanks to Orchard Book’s cunning ploy of including pictures of their other publications on the inside rear jacket my toddler delights in pointing at the next book and demanding ‘read next!’.
So, two rhyming books, completely different stories, settings, rhythmic syntax but enough similarities between them to make a combined post possible.
Both feature bright, cartoonish animals, strong driving rhymes and sneaky clues on each page as to which animal is going to be next. Both encourage action and movement and Farmer Joe positively demands to be sung in a bluegrass ‘Ballad of Jed Clampett’ style. My toddler loves to dance and act out the actions of both books and neither would appear to be a calming influence before bedtime. However they do wind down nicely and ‘Cool of the Pool’ in particular ends with the previously giddy frog drifting off into the sunset on a lily pad before hopping into the pond leaving only ripples in the water behind him.
If I had to pick a favourite it would be Cool of the Pool, mostly because I don’t have to sing it, but also because I love to act out the different actions ‘Pig went waggle, Duck went flap, Frog cried Weeeee!’. In our house frogs don’t just ribbit, they fling their arms out in a rather flamboyant fashion.
I like – reading books so many times that I know them off by heart.
My baby likes – asking ‘Where frog gone’, pointing squeakily to the ‘Baby Pig’ on Joe’s farm.
In a big, big city,
in a tiny, tiny apartment,
lived a tall, tall man
and twelve babies.
All the boys were called Alistair.
All the girls were called Charlene.
A very odd start to what is a very odd, but very lovely book. It is a fairly simple tale of a lone parent getting locked out of his flat with half of his children and the cat. He corrals the babies into co-ordinating pushing and pulling to help him squeeze back in through the catflap and celebrates by kissing them all. What the simplicity masks is that this book is very very funny. The ridiculousness of the situation combined with the motif of naming all of the babies the same thing combines to create a very enjoyable feeling of absurdity.
The book is digitally illustrated (by a renowned Australian illustrator, in fact the book is a team effort by what seems to by an Australian literary dynasty, somewhat similar to the Ahlbergs in the UK) but have a hand-drawn warmth down to the subtle differences between each of the twelve babies. Of course there is a happy ending, and we are left with lots of questions, which I enjoy making up ridiculous answers to.
Watch this wonderful Australian Librarian reading the book to recreate your own authentic story-time experience at home.
My baby likes – when he feed the babies mashed potato and one of them doesn’t have a spoon. The final baby being found asleep in the cat bed (or, in her mind, on a giant cake)
I Like – My favourite expletive ever ‘Oh Pussywillow!’
This book has been something of a slow-burner for my baby and I. Initially it struggled to catch her eye when competing with some of the giddier books on her shelf (although I feel the books which make their own animal noises are cheating, so it’s not really been a fair fight). However in recent weeks this book has become a bedtime staple (ousting ‘Owl Babies’ from Number 1 spot, much to my relief) and now my baby regularly asks for ‘Moose Book’, as well as ‘Baby Man’ (see ‘The Tall Man and the Twelve Babies’)
I expect good things from Oliver Jeffers. Actually I expect great things, he wrote Catch A Star, Lost and Found and The Incredible Book Eating Boy, all of which are whimsical and beautifully rounded stories which leave you feeling warm and happy by the end. This book is a little bit weirder, but no less wonderful for that.
“Wilfred owned a moose. He hasn’t always owned a moose. The moose came to him a while ago and he knew, just KNEW that it was meant to be his. He thought he would call him Marcel
Firstly the illustrations. They are an odd blend of pixelated vintage photographs with Jeffers’ familiar broad-stroke, slightly scribbly paintings laid over the top. I didn’t love them at first, but the mash-up of old and new has really grown on me, I love the way they feel ‘big’, like how America is big, depicting a great Western frontier that might no longer exist, but with a moose.The story is about ownership and essentially whether it is even possible to own other living thing. It is also about friendship and letting our friends do what they need to do, even if it doesn’t particularly chime with what you would like them to do. A useful lesson for all of us, and especially toddlers who are constantly being entreated to share and take turns. The language is glorious. Jeffers doesn’t do talking down and neither do I. He spatters the narrative liberally with great big words like ‘enraged’ and ‘perilous’ and ‘compromise’.
Best of all is that there’s a whole secondary narrative going on which I didn’t event notice until I had read the book 5 or 10 times (I blame sleep deprivation). The moose loves apples, really loves apples. Everything he does is because he loves apples, Wilfred doesn’t even really come into it for him.
My baby likes… following the blue thread on the end papers of the book. Pointing to the apples. Calling the moose ‘Alex’
I like…Finding out about the photographer who took the pictures Jeffers used. Spotting a sneaky Penguin.
When my baby was given this book, I knew I knew the name Margaret Wise Brown from somewhere, but I couldn’t for the life of me recall where. It was only when I peeked at the (incredibly long) ‘also by’ list that I realised it was that Margaret Wise Brown, of ‘Goodnight Moon’ and ‘The Runaway Bunny’. I must confess, I do not like ‘Goodnight Moon’, I think the illustrations are weird, and not in a good way and the rabbit who is whispering ‘Hush’ is just plain creepy. I know it is a classic in the States, regarded with the same reverence and love we might feel for Dogger and Spot but frankly I just don’t get it.
Luckily my baby is not inhibited by the same prejudice and so we have been sharing this beautiful pastel-coloured book most evenings. The combination of melodic text, gentle repetition and soft-hued illustrations creates a dreamy, trance inducing book that is perfect for bedtime. The narrative is faintly Christian, echoes of Ecclesiastes 3:1 (To everything there is a season) but the message of the turning of the seasons is delivered gently enough not to be a turn off to people who are not of that faith. I have found this book incredibly calming and soothing over recent weeks which have been testing for us as a family.
My baby likes – counting the animals, naming the ones she knows.
I like – tranquillity and rest, finding solace in my baby and the books we share together.