the 50 states – a review

I’m finding that my 6 year old is increasingly enjoying a range of non-fiction books in addition to the usual diet of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton. With this in mind, and my ideal of hoping that my children develop ‘proper’ research skills as they grow up (without constantly resorting to Wikipedia), it’s become my aim to build up a sizeable collection of good-quality, accessible non-fiction books. So when I was sent a new release from Wide Eyed Books to review, I was over the moon. What had come through my door was this beautiful book:50statesThe 50 States is a non-fiction book like no other. Using America as its theme, it takes us on a wonderful tour of geography, history, politics, sports, music, ecology, tourism, languages and more. Each state fills a two-page spread of fascinating but concise facts about everything from famous people who were born there to places of interest to important historical events. The generous size of the book makes it possible for two or more children to read it at once, each picking out what interests them, and thus dissolving many a sibling argument.

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There’s a separate section for all the state flags, and a comprehensive list of all the presidents. An extensive index makes this book very accessible, enabling you to look up an American person, landmark or phenomenon that your child has heard of, giving you a starting point within such a hugely eclectic book.

An important thing to say about this book is that it is BEAUTIFUL. I thought I’d hit the jackpot when I discovered we could keep this incredible tome of gorgeousness. The illustrations and text are so invitingly laid out on durable matt pages that you can’t help but dive in, reading fact after fact about all sorts of subjects.

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Age-wise, my fact-loving 6 year old, albeit with a little persuasion, was interested in this book and quickly found his ‘favourite’ pages/states. My 4 year old was less keen (although she does, inexplicably, have a strange fascination with the pages listing all the presidents). Both kids perked up their ears when I read them something about a person or place they’d heard of. The book is clearly aimed at primary-aged children, with 6 probably being the youngest recommended age, unless you have a younger child who’s a particularly keen non-fiction addict. And I would suggest that children would love this book well into later childhood/early teens. There’s just so MUCH to discover. Whilst my kids were maybe on the young side to review this book, I know we’re going to get a lot of mileage from it as they grow up.

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The Wide Eyed website states that their books aim to “encourage curiosity about the world we live in, inspiring readers to set out on their own journey of discovery”. The 50 States certainly does that, striking a careful balance between providing plenty of information for the money (£20, if you’re asking) and not overloading its readers with too many facts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t yet seem to be available to buy, but the Wide Eyed website gives hope that it won’t be long before their online shop is up and running. Watch this space…

Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of ‘The 50 States’ by the very generous Wide Eyed Books, via Mumsnet Bloggers, in return for my review. I received no payment, and all views are my own.

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what happened at ‘that’ school, part 2: setting up a scholastic book club

Last year we sent our son to a school in special measures, then this summer I blogged about how it had gone, intending it to be the first of a mini-series.

Errr…here I am, with the second installment, nearly three months later. NINETY FLIPPIN’ DAYS. Oops. Regular readers will know that this blog has gone a bit haywire recently, so if you need a recap, click on the above links then hopefully the following will make more sense.

One thing I may have mentioned in passing is that, soon after my son started school, I became a parent governor. It wasn’t something I intended – I thought governors did the boring paperwork, and I wanted to be more hands-on – but, after observing that parental involvement in school life was – let’s be kind – not that great, and after hearing the Chair of Governors say that the role they were looking to fill on Governing Body was that of being a link between parents and the school – well, I couldn’t say a quick enough ‘yes’.

In my role I’ve organised parent forums, socials, a toy donation day, and a school disco; I’ve set up second-hand uniform sales and ‘Audio News’, a pupil recording of the school newsletter. Basically anything which encourages parents to see that their input into school life has a direct impact on their child’s aspirations.

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So, when Scholastic were looking for schools to try out their rather marvellous book clubs, I gave another enthusiastic ‘yes’! Vaguely aware of Scholastic from my own childhood, I quickly saw that what they were offering was just what our school needed: a wide range of books from tots to teens, great prices, and the opportunity to earn rewards for the school with every purchase.

Let me pause on this point for a sec. You know how sometimes it takes a gazillion years to earn anything decent with loyalty schemes? The ‘buy 15 three-course meals and get a free coffee’ type scheme? Well, Scholastic rewards grow quicker than you can say ‘free books’. For every order over £10, the school receives £2 back in free books. As these build up, imagine how well-stocked your school library and classrooms become, all because YOU indulged in a bit of retail therapy. What’s not to like?

The range of books really is phenomenal, covering many different publishers, genres, interests and ages. For example, I was able to indulge my 6 year old’s love of Enid Blyton, and also buy some Tom Gates books for our 9 year old godson. Even the fussiest reader will find something to interest them in the extensive catalogue; as Scholastic’s website suggests, children are more likely to read books they’ve chosen themselves. There’s no obligation to buy anything at all, and it’s simple to set up: Scholastic sends catalogues, the school distributes them, and parents make orders. It’s a great way to get grandparents and wider friends/family involved in supporting your school as well, as they can order from a distance. Why not click here for details of how to go about setting this up at your school?

As a rapidly improving school, we stood to benefit greatly from Scholastic. The problem was, we didn’t get many orders. Perhaps this is not surprising as our school is full of low-income families, some of which perhaps don’t see the value of books, many of whom will choose to buy lesser-quality books at supermarkets.

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But I think it’s also to do with how people spend money. Personally, I’m used to transferring virtual money in exchange for things I’ve seen only on a screen. Many families at our school, however, work in cash (receiving weekly payments of benefits or wages), and don’t tend to buy things they can’t see in the flesh. And you can forget browsing the online catalogue: many parents at our school use the internet only for social media. With this in mind, if we were to run a future Scholastic event, I would love to see a sale-or-return option available so that I could set up an actual stall – perhaps during a school fair or just at the school gate – and parents and children could see just how enticing these books are.

With regards to capitalising on how lower income families tend to use the internet, I would love to see Scholastic develop their social media presence so as to reach these hard-to-reach families. The books are SO good and SUCH good value that they really need to be entering the homes of every child in the country, particularly those whose parents may not naturally buy books.

Overall, however, we’ve made a start and – like everything being done to engage parents at our school – it’s a slow but sure beginning.  The momentum will pick up over time – and, fortunately, we have plenty of years left at school.

Disclaimer: I was invited by Scholastic, via Mumsnet Bloggers, to set up a Scholastic book club in our school and blog about how it went. I received no payment, although they may give me some shopping vouchers if I can convince them that I’ve met their deadline (like, not in the slightest). All views are my own, even the good ones.

adoption is for everyone

Adoption is for me, as I’ve felt the nudge, made the call, navigated the process. Adoption is for me as I redecorate, order curtains and choose furniture. Adoption is for me as I cock my head to one side, screw up my face, and try to work out just how crazy life will be when we adopt. Adoption is for me as I make plans, write lists, add dates to my diary.

Adoption is for my family, as we explore what that means, prepare to expand and get ready to welcome our new members. Adoption is for my kids as they ask questions, make cute remarks, draw pictures, and watch the DVD of their new siblings.

Adoption is for our parents, as they research what it is to be related by adoption, as they get their heads round loving an adopted grandchild like their birth grandchildren. Adoption is for our parents as they initially hold back from the cuddles, the kisses, the care-giving that comes so naturally, yet which is the domain of us parents alone for the first few tentative months.

Adoption is for our siblings, as they read and learn, as they ask questions, as they explain it all to their children. Adoption is for our siblings who never chose to have an adopted niece or nephew, instead having it flung upon them, but who have been excited and interested throughout. Adoption is for our niece and nephews, as they come to terms with having adopted cousins.

Adoption is for our friends, who are organising to make us meals, look after our birth children and help with our housework when we adopt. Adoption is for our friends who are contributing financially towards the costs of welcoming more children into our family. Adoption is for our friends who listen, who learn about the process, who remember key events coming up in our adoption journey, who are learning the language of explaining adoption to their young children, as they prepare to welcome adopted friends into their lives.

Adoption is for the foster carers, who love and nurture and care and then give away. Adoption is for the foster carers who lose a piece of their heart each time they move a child on to an adopted family – but do it so that that child can have every advantage in life.

Adoption is for the social workers, who make difficult decisions, who put the child first, who cope with endless paperwork and bureaucracy, working long hours with little thanks, so that a child can be raised in a loving, stable home.

Adoption is for my children’s school and preschool, who are enthusiastic about the growth of our family, who are interested to know how they can best support us, who give support and stability to our birth children when they’re away from us, and who will one day give this same support and stability to our adopted children.

Adoption is for our church family, who are allowing their vicar a generous amount of paternity leave and flexible working, with people filling gaps on the rota and stepping up their commitment so that we can both focus on our family. Adoption is for our church family, who welcome troubled souls into their community on a regular basis, and who will welcome adopted children, with all their baggage and difficulties.

Adoption is for you, as you read this and remember those you know who have adopted or are in the process of adopting. Adoption is for you, as you write them an encouraging note, drop a meal round, offer to babysit, take them for a coffee or pint, understand the issues their children have as a result of their past, accept that ‘normal’ behaviour strategies might not work with children who have been so badly damaged.

Adoption is for you as you read this, perhaps feeling the same nudge to adopt as we did four years ago – a still, small voice from God which says “I set the lonely in families, I lead the prisoners with singing” (Psalm 68:6).

Adoption is for everyone. We do not all adopt – but we are all called to play our part in adoption. Adoption is for everyone.

 

minion themed 6th birthday party

I’ll be honest and tell you that this wasn’t my son’s first choice for birthday party theme. He’s known for picking quirky themes, and this year he decided he wanted a Home Alone party. Of course. Like I’m going to take on responsibility for all his little eager-eyed friends for a couple of hours and then subject them to a series of booby traps including giving them ice on which to fall over, shattered tree ornaments on which to shred their feet, and hot irons with which to permanently scar their faces.

Or, alternatively, I could come up with a series of risk-assessment-friendly traps like throwing a bucket of pom poms over their heads as they walked through the door, and everyone would think it was the lamest party ever. (Oh, and one mum would complain because her son was allergic to pom poms. Or surprises. Or buckets. Or some such bull.)

No, it was indeed right to steer Mister away from this theme – and he jumped at my suggestion of Minions. Well, I wasn’t going to make this harder than it needed to be – Minion-themed paraphernalia is all over the shops, and Minion-based party ideas are all over t’Internet, so it was never going to be difficult.

The invitations were simple – some yellow card, downloaded Minion printables and a bit of glue. Hey presto:

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Decorations were easy: yellow and blue balloons, and yellow and blue bunting made in the quick and cheap way I did for Missy’s party:

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We chose to hold the party in our church hall, because even three boisterous boys jumping around our lounge is one too many, and the Autumn birthday timing doesn’t guarantee being able to use the garden. So I set up a few activities which the kids could get involved with as everyone was arriving. Face painting and tattoos:

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a Minion photo-booth:

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Minion skittles:

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a make-a-Minion craft table:

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and a penalty shoot-out, because you can always have one of those when you’re 6, Minion-themed or not:

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I have to say that one sterling decision for this year’s party was finding a team of kind friends who wanted nothing more for their Saturday morning than to rock up to a church hall and entertain 20 or so small children. I’m indebted to my friends Izzy (go read her blog here!), Sam, Mike, Bethan, Leanne and Naomi, who did an incredible job of cooking the food, running games, painting faces, and generally encouraging the kids in the right direction.

We played “What’s the time, Mr Gru?”, which everyone was incredibly good at – good thing I’d bought shed-loads of pound-shop prizes because pretty much everyone came in 1st place. Note to self: make this game harder next year. (Hopping?)

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Here’s my grumpy husband as Gru. He makes a good Gru, don’t you think?

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We did a bean-bag toss:

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and pin-the-eye-on-the-Minion:

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We also did a scavenger hunt, putting the kids into teams where they had to find a list of 8 easy-to-read items from around the church hall and outside area:

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The kids played Traybash outside – a fantastic game where you try and knock over your opponent’s tray using a newspaper club, whilst they’re meanwhile trying to knock yours. Here’s the hubbie and a friend demonstrating how violent it can get:

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And here’s Mister having a go:

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Lunch was chips, hot dogs, burgers and corn-on-the-cob (Mister’s favourite) with a chocolate fountain for pudding. They ate fruit and they didn’t even know it. Ha.

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Of course there was a Minion cake – fortunately no biscuit towers for me this time round:

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I struggle with party bags and always have done. I don’t want to spend a fortune, but neither do I want to fill them with plastic rubbish – much as the kids like it. So this time I stuck to sweets, which will rot their teeth but maybe won’t do as much harm to the environment, which will be around a heck of a lot longer (we hope).

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Then everyone got to pick a lucky dip prize as they left – as well as the obligatory slab of cake, any prizes won from the games, and Minion craft.

And now I never want to see another Minion again.

frozen themed 4th birthday party

I am no Pinterest-able Super Mum, but I do like a good party – and, ever since I started to blog about my kids’ birthday parties, distant friends and families have started to ask what I did for the latest party. So here goes…

Traditionally, my kids have been spot-on at picking interesting, slightly quirky party themes. Not so this year. Frozen and Minions. (There you go, a sneak preview into the next blog post.) Well, at least it wasn’t hard to get party supplies – and the pound shops are all over anything current, so that helped.

To start with, I involved Missy in making the invitations – she absolutely loves any creative activity, so she and her brother helped to decorate large sheets of paper with blue and silver paint and glitter, and then I cut snowflake shapes from them. She helped assemble the finished cards which I think, although rustic, are rather nice!

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For decoration, we stuck to the Frozen colours of silver, ice blue and violet, and put up balloons in these colours, as well as simple cardboard bunting. This was so cheap and quick to make, and the beauty is that I can re-use in future years, switching colours to fit different themes.

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And let’s not forget the nostalgia bunting, still going strong. The only creative thing I ever did with Missy’s old baby vests and sleep suits.
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I always plan a couple of free-choice activities for the first half hour or so, to keep the kids entertained and happy whilst waiting for everyone to arrive. I’ve found that parties in the home don’t require so many extra activities, because of the toys which naturally provide a distraction – but parties at outside venues require a bit more thought. This party was at home, so we set up a snowflake-biscuit decorating activity in the kitchen, and a crown-making activity in the dining room, leaving the lounge free for those who just wanted to play. I got the snowflake cutters from Lakeland – not cheap at nearly £10, but oh-so-useful for all future Christmases! I ordered silver, blue and white sprinkles online, as well as the gold crowns and sparkly gem stickers.

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Then it was time for games. Pin-the-nose-on-Olaf was a no-brainer, but I’ve found in the past that kids can get bored queuing up for their turn, so we ran a Snowball Toss simultaneously, to shorten the queues. It kind of worked, in as much as small children can wait more than 3 seconds for anything.

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We then played Musical Frozen Statues (obviously) and Pass the Parcel. Argh. I swore never to do PTP again after this party. It takes ages to prepare in the first place, goes on too long when the kids are actually playing it, everyone gets bored after they’ve unwrapped their layer, everyone knows that everyone’s getting a turn, and it’s just so gah. (Am I mis-remembering my childhood when I swear that our PTPs had no more than five layers, absolute zilch between the layers apart from possibly some totally embarrassing forfeits that you never wanted to get in a million years, and if the music didn’t stop when you were holding the parcel then tough luck?)

We then did a Frozen treasure hunt – finding these ready-made clues via Pinterest was an incredible stroke of luck. I left out the harder clues, just used a smaller number of easier ones, and they led us into different rooms around our downstairs, ending up in a pile of Frozen lunchboxes in the kitchen (lunchboxes sourced from eBay).

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This was my, quote, “great idea” – to save preparation time, solve the problem of not being able to all fit round the table, and generally make food distribution easier and quicker. Not sure it was entirely successful – mainly because the fine tastes of under 5s are just about as numerous as the number of under 5s themselves, and doing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ box only really suits children like my son and his friend, who are yet to know a discerning palate (praise God), and whose one criteria for what they put in their mouths is whether it’s edible. Everyone else just ate the Hula Hoops and Party Rings.

Then the cake. Ah, the cake. Missy doesn’t eat cake, just the icing. So this year I attempted a gingerbread tower of Frozen-ness. It kind of worked.

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For about 24hrs. Then it caved in on itself, and had to be propped up with a plastic food storage box.

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Fortunately, my kids are not yet bothered about stuff like whether a biscuit tower holds together, and I’ve given my happy husband another dinner-party anecdote at my expense, so it ended well for 3/4 of us.

I’m glad I had a couple of extra games up my sleeve, as the party under-ran, and we had a spare 10 minutes to fill after lunch. We did sleeping lions (little tip: this is a great game to pull out when you’re starting to tire of the fifteen under 5s in your home – and it requires absolutely no preparations or props – genius) and something else which must have been exhilarating because I now have absolutely no recollection of what it was.

And that, my friends, is how we party.

he turned 6: learning to mourn the past but love the future

Last week, my boy turned 6.

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I’m looking back at the last year and, as well as a huge growth spurt evidenced by the birthday-measuring tradition we completed on Birthday Morning, there are so many ways that he has grown and flourished in this last year, his first at school.

In fact, the simple reality that I spent his birthday child-free, celebrating his birthday with a keyboard and a computer screen, drafting this blog post, while he was celebrating it at school with his friends and teachers, eating Minion cakes and getting sung to by other people, shows how much he is growing up. The independence frightens me and delights me. He doesn’t need me constantly – there is so much he can do – nay, prefers to do – by himself, whether that’s choosing what to wear, making a card for someone else, or walking into his classroom of a morning. (The exception to this is Birthday Morning, when un-cool Mummy is bringing cakes, and therefore becomes an acceptable companion into class.)

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But of course there are still so many situations in which he needs our guidance, mentoring, advice and suggestions. His dad and I are still the greatest influences on his life – for how long, I wonder? He needs us to help him learn to read, add up, and understand the world. He needs us to help him cross the road, to fill in forms, take him to the doctor, make his meals. He needs us to introduce him to different creative expressions: new music, art or literature. He needs us to validate his emotions, give him language to understand them, and help him navigate the tricky ups and downs of life.

And this is the definition of parenting, right? You work hard to bring life into the world – and then, once that life has arrived, your job is to gradually encourage their independence, their moving away from you. In other words, you’re making yourself redundant. Of course, you’re never fully redundant – even grown-ups need the love, support, childcare and financial bail-outs that their parents give – but sometimes, looking at my son, I feel the quickness of the years, and the phases which have passed, and I need to remember to parent in the moment.

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This year, Mister has developed his interest in gymnastics (and can now do some pretty clever things on the bars), learnt to write whole stories, continued with his Lego addiction, rediscovered the fun of Playmobil, and (of course) continued his love of football, now attending a Football Club at school. He’s learnt to sing more-or-less in tune, and sung a solo in his school nativity last Christmas. Just as soon as I’d written this post, about how I throw away my kids’ numerous art creations, and a friend had commented “Just be thankful they’re not in 3D yet”, Mister started to bring home 3D creations. I mean – literally the day after that post was published, we started to amass a collection of shoeboxes with a variety of recyclable items stuck to them.

This year, I need to pay tribute to the teachers who have helped shape Mister’s life these past 12 months – for their unfailing enthusiasm, energy, and professionalism – always striving to give Mister (and his classmates) the best, most personalised education experience, within a communal setting. No easy task. Up until now, it was me and my husband whose influence affected Mister’s existence most strongly – now his life is entwined with all sorts of influential strands from his teachers, and we’re so grateful for all they invest in him.

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Character-wise, while Mister has always been fairly placid, increasingly we’re seeing a steely inner determination. Sometimes this manifests in competitiveness (read: he’s a bad loser), sometimes in carrying out his own ideas, asking for little or no help from anyone else. I’m so proud of him when he makes the right choices at school, free from the Parental Stares which would otherwise communicate which path he should take.

We can’t live our children’s lives for them – we can simply teach them what we know, trusting that God will make up the difference, and then sit back and watch the people they become. This year, although I might mourn the hours we now spend apart from each other, I can’t help but watch and love my boy, delighted in the person he is and is becoming.

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