Monthly Archives: November 2013

Reading books to children

Charlotte's Web coverBecoming a parent has me revisiting certain aspects of my childhood and reappraising myself. This is both good and bad.

I’ve learned, for instance, that I’m no better at math than I used to be. To my horror I’ve even discovered that I’m not terribly good at my multiplication tables.

Another low point of my childhood was my artistic ability. I never got much further than stick figures and it seems that, decades later, I’m not going to discover a hidden talent for arts and crafts.

When I tried to make a rocket for my four-year-old’s homework assignment, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to stick it together. It still looks very much like what it once was, a cardboard tube for kitchen paper.

But the one thing that is a pleasure is reading books that I once loved as a child – and seeing them through the eyes of an adult.

When the kids were really small, I was reading the same books over and over again and starting to feel mildly hysterical because of it. How many times can you read the rhyme in Each Peach Pear Plum – as cute as it iswithout feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day each time his alarm went off?

One of the worst was a collection of stories about the cartoon character Dora, which I’m pretty sure was written to torture adults. The kids loved it, I hated every single badly written sentence. Secretly, I was tallying up all the grammatical errors.

rocket

My rocket looks more like a large pencil

Now, however, we’ve graduated to chapter books and I’ve read Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. Both are highly recommended. We’re currently halfway through Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

Charlotte’s Web has brilliant observations about life. It’s told through the perspective of Wilbur, a young pig, who gets a little morose when he’s lonely and asks a lot of questions. He later learns that the farmer is fattening him up only to kill him at Christmastime, which throws him into hysterics.

Here are his first thoughts on his friend Charlotte, a smart and resourceful spider, whom he discovers sucks the blood of her insect victims for meals:

Well, he thought,’ I’ve got a new friend, all right. But what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty – everything I don’t like. How can I learn to like her, even though she is pretty and, of course, clever?

Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend. In good time he was to discover that he was mistaken about Charlotte. Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.

It made me wish for a friend like Charlotte at that very moment, someone who would rescue me when I feel down.

Knowing how the story ends, I wonder if I will be able to get through it without sobbing for her and Wilbur.

A good book is a gift. You learn more about yourself and humanity in the process of reading it. A children’s book, even when read by an adult, is no exception.

What book did you love as a child? Tell me.

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A blogging festival – Mumsnet Blogfest 2013

Mumsnet blogfest programIt was a day to inspire female bloggers – a Mumsnet blogging festival with a great line-up of speakers – but there were times when you felt a little discouraged or perhaps lost.

Writing, as we all know, is an undervalued skill. So it was with little surprise that Jemima Kiss, head of technology at the Guardian (a British national newspaper), cautioned new writers and bloggers about doing unpaid work for simple exposure. ‘People don’t ask plumbers to do jobs because it’s good exposure,’ she said to the audience in a session about blogging how-tos.

There were also warnings about using your children and family for amusing (even embarrassing) stories that might one day come back to haunt you (I’m guilty of this). Most of the speakers – including writer Jon Ronson and psychologist Tanya Byron – seemed to think that you should always ask permission, especially of older children. ‘Think of me as a cautionary tale,’ said Ronson, who is the author of several books, including The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Tim Dowling, who writes a personal column in the Guardian about his inadequacies as a father and husband, uses this rule as a guide: ‘I’m never looking to humiliate anyone but myself.’

He said he has very little time for ‘ethical qualms’ about stealing fragments of conversation or using real events from his life, including those with his children, because there’s always that weekly deadline looming.

Sonya Cisco, who has a blog called The Ramblings of a Former Rock ‘n’ Roll Mum, echoed Dowling’s comments when she said: ‘Being around kids is an endless source of fascination,’ before adding, ‘but I am always the butt of those jokes.’

There was lots of conversation about Twitter and trolls, online bullies/stalkers and cute kittens (the darlings of the internet).

Radio 5 live presenter Richard Bacon chaired the opening session in a large, lecture-style room only a few minutes’ walk from the regenerated heart of King’s Cross in central London. His opening remark played to the audience of women, most of them mothers and bloggers: ‘I have read what you have written on Mumsnet [British parenting forum] and I don’t mind telling you I’m scared.’

(For the American readers who don’t know Mumsnet, it’s nothing less than a British phenomenon. The parenting website offers everything from advice, a forum for discussions, reviews on baby products and has a large network of sponsored ‘mummy’ bloggers. It recently generated a great deal of column inches for a discussion thread on penis beakers.)

I wanted to get some practical advice about making money from your blog, but this session was a little disappointing. The main message was to be passionate and to keep creating good content. ‘Content is king and that is the only thing that will ultimately make you successful,’ advised Tom Allin, who works for Skimlinks, an affiliate marketing agency.

The goodie bag included Harrods children's magazine, where you could find a mini Range Rover at a princely sum of £40k

The goodie bag included Harrods children’s magazine, where you could find a mini Range Rover at a princely sum of £40k

Gina Schauffer, who works for digital brand agency Zone, added: ‘Brands absolutely want to work with you [bloggers] but only when you use your own voice.’ I was sceptical of some of these comments. Let’s be honest with ourselves, most brands want you to sell something. They’re not very likely to want you writing about how bad their product is. A sponsored blog post is likely to hold back some of the truth, I feel. Who wants a full degree of honesty in advertising?

And if you are ready to sell your soul to the consumer devil, be prepared for it to be at a cut-rate price. All of the panellists skirted around the issue of money until one brave person asked straight out how much you’re likely to get for a sponsored post. The answer depends on who you’re doing it for, how big your blog is and how much influence you might have with blogging communities. To start out with, you’re looking at around £75 to blog about an ‘experience’. It could be a visit to somewhere like a theme park or baking with a new ready-made kit. This is not going to make you rich.

There was a heated debate on whether you can be a mummy blogger and still be a feminist, which nearly ended in tears or punches – it was hard to decide which way it was going.

And finally a speech from comedian Jo Brand, who managed to calm things down by talking mostly about herself. She told the bloggers: ‘Go forward with a bit of righteous indignation.’ We all then headed to the bar for some much-needed gin and tonics.

What I learned in a nutshell (top 10):

  1. If you want to make money from your blog, you need to go self-hosted and learn to back it up.
  2. Always think SEO (search-engine optimization). When you write your blog title, think about what people will be searching for – that’s what you want it to say. Don’t use puns or try to be funny.
  3. You ain’t going to get rich doing this shit and don’t expect to be a success overnight – you will need to be patient and persevere.
  4. Buy your own domain name, either from domain monster or GoDaddy (two of the most popular in the UK).
  5. Top tip for writing comedy: punch up (the big guy is fair game), but don’t punch down.
  6. If you’re blogging about your family and friends, be prepared for the possibility of a fallout.
  7. Don’t use more than one category per post. (Something technical to do with how Google uses linking)
  8. Apparently we should all be joining If This Then That (IFTTT), according to a techie.
  9. You can be a feminist and make jam and wear high heels. Just don’t try to start a discussion about it.
  10. If you’re on WordPress (and a lot of us are), get the yoast plug-in.

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All I want for Christmas is …. (and it’s not two front teeth)

Christmas card to SantaI almost dare not write the word, but it has somehow started to become part of my daily vocabulary against my will. I’m talking about Christmas, of course. Here we go again with another big helping of seasonal songs, rich food and gifts.

If you’re a parent you will know that the gifts part of the equation will essentially take over your life for the next 6 weeks, tipping you precariously close to bankruptcy and wreaking havoc on your festive goodwill.

Nothing makes me think violent thoughts more than trying to negotiate a Christmas crush of frantic people in a toy store. It might even beat taking the tube during rush hour, which occasionally makes me fantasize about wielding a deadly weapon.

With a slight shudder I learn that the Chatterbox, now seven years old and still (miraculously) believing in Santa Claus, has finally composed her Christmas wish-list, all 14 items of it.

She shows me her cute card to Santa, adorned with a mini replica of the jolly old man, while I’m frantically trying to decide what I could possibly make for dinner with half a packet of green beans, two carrots, hummus and some eggs. They’re the kind of ingredients likely to stump even the most accomplished chef, which clearly I’m not.

Later that evening – with the trauma of dinner mercifully behind me – I look closely at the card and discover that top of the list is an ‘Apple phone’.

It has me thinking nostalgically about what I wanted for Christmas when I was seven. I’m pretty sure it would have been a Barbie sports car and some new Ken, Skipper and Barbie dolls with all the accessories.Chaterbox wish-list

How have humans evolved to the stage where a seven-year-old wants an iPhone? I’m not entirely sure this is what I would call progress.

What has happened to the innocence of childhood and playing with an assortment of cheap Chinese plastic?

I say to the Chatterbox, with my serious mother face, ‘Honey, I don’t even have an iPhone.’ I lie to the kids a lot, but this happens to be true. My phone is the kind of archaic thing that still does nothing more than text or make phone calls. For some reason I’m reluctant to part with it. It could be because getting an iPhone, or one of its rival equivalents, will then mean that I spend even more time with an electronic device in my life. I just don’t need it.

So the Chatterbox turns to me, her tone just a tad sulky: ‘But Kate has an iPhone.’

Kate happens to be eight, and I’ve not seen her take the iPhone out yet. Still, it’s quite possible she has one, especially because she lives in the United States, the land of plenty.

‘Well,’ I say, trying to sound firm, ‘I don’t think that means you should have one.’

Since I’m dealing with a seven-year-old, I think I might have outwitted her. I give myself three more years before I find that I need to come up with a better argument for why my daughter shouldn’t get a smartphone.

On a parting note, the Chatterbox has actually been missing her two front teeth since last winter – so, yes, she could really do with getting them for Christmas.

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