How Twitter changed my life

In November 2011 my wife Kerry attended the Stonewall Leadership Programme. A truly life changing course that taught her a huge amount about role models and what it meant to be a gay leader in the workplace. One of the things she brought home was how important it was to her and the others on the course to be in a room with their peers. As a gay woman it’s something she doesn’t have in her day to day job. She has a peer group at work but not a peer group that she can see herself mirrored in or observe obvious role models. Essentially, they are all straight. It was immensely powerful for her to be in a room of people who all had a shared core.

This came at a time when I was at home with our daughter, socialising with a small group of friends, mostly with children. I was missing the daily socialising of like-minded people I had had through work and looking to find something other than mums talking about their children. I wanted more than development milestones and cute stories. I wanted books and education and culture and politics and news. I wanted to find my peer group, my community.

And so I used Twitter. I followed journalists from the Guardian that I no longer managed to buy and read, I looked up authors that I loved and people that I looked up to. I followed their conversations and found more of the same. Suddenly I knew what was happening in the world again. I was following the news. I knew what books were coming out, even if I didn’t manage to read many of them. I found Stella Duffy and Caitlin Moran who re-politicised me. Shelley Harris who was immensely generous with her advice and encouragement to writers and readers. Isabel Costello and Zoe Toft who did all the hard work looking through all the newly published books and presented me with gem after gem on their reviewing sites. I was reading again, I was writing again, I was drawing again. I was thinking and learning and engaging with the world again.

That was when we all found out that Amazon weren’t paying their taxes. I needed to find somewhere new to buy my books, somewhere more ethical and real. I looked up local independent bookshops on Zoe’s site and found Bags of Books. A lovely children’s bookshop in Lewes, not that far up the road. It just so happened that there was an author event with Clara Vulliamy coming up that we could take our daughter to. We did just that and we had a lovely morning listening to stories, chatting with Clara and making tiny mouse houses out of match boxes. Afterwards, what better way to say thank you to Clara than to look her up on twitter? I looked her up that same weekend and we haven’t stopped chatting.

And now I feel like I have really found my peer group, that community of like-minded people that I fit with and can see myself in. I have started Rhino Reads and The Rainbow Library. I have role models and have become a role model to others. I have found friends and inspiration. I have found support and advice. I have found my place. So thank you to Stonewall for showing us the importance of peer groups and role models. Thank you to my lovely friendly twitter community, particularly those mentioned above and the Rainbow Library crew of children’s book authors, illustrators and bloggers. And thank you to my wife for sharing her Stonewall learnings so enthusiastically and honestly.

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Rainbow Library week 1 update

Tomorrow the Rainbow library will reopen after half term week. I will be taking in a haul of new books for the children to explore and borrow and I’ll be organising my first reading session.
Look at the treasures that await them!

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I can’t wait to see their faces!

The library was only open for two days before the half term holidays but in those two days, seven children took home eleven books. Not bad! I also had my first mini-breakthrough. A wary mum admitted that she was worried about her child ruining or losing a library book and I was able to convince her to take a risk and take a book. It might not come back but thanks to all the generous donations received I could tell her it didn’t matter.

In the two days of library fun the children were straight in and exploring the books. They were immediately attracted to the TV tie-in books – Fireman Sam, Toy Story and Bob the Builder. They also chose books with animals on the cover – Sylvia and Bird, Ouch in the Pouch, Blue.

Grandparents seemed more interested and involved in the children’s choices than the parents were. Perhaps they have more time to spend playing with and reading to their grandchildren, more time to linger at nursery at drop off time or more respect for books and their value? It will be interesting to see how that develops.

There were quite a lot of parents that looked down their noses at the books, pushed their children past and were generally dismissive. Although it was disheartening, I was interested to notice that sometimes their children tried to pull back and look. It confirmed that the children are attracted to books despite their parents’ attitudes, that it’s never too late to interest them.

There are so many reasons that the parents might not be interested in books. Some of them might be uncomfortable with their own reading abilities, some may have been taught by their parents or peers to view books as elitist and ‘other’. The fact that the children show an innate interest and have a natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge gives me hope. I hope that I can use my volunteering time in the nursery to share books with them and show them the pleasure, fun and comfort that can be gained from books. I’ve bought some rainbow monster reward stickers to give to the children and I’ve got some specific books on order that I hope will attract, encourage and support the children who need it most.

Maybe the Rainbow library can convert a few children to the joys of books, words and pictures. Perhaps it might challenge or even change the attitude of some of the adults. We shall see.

I have been amazed and humbled by the response to my initial blog post about setting up the library. I have received books, donations, advice, inspiration, retweets and support and I am so grateful to all of you. The success of the Rainbow library will be down to all of you. Thank you.

Special thanks, and cake, are due to Team Rainbow:
Kerry Haselup for her enthusiasm and support, for her charity shopping prowess and for putting up with the piles of books taking over the house.
Clara Vulliamy for offering her long term support and for sending a wonderful selection of her books for the library. Also for creating my Rainbow Book Fairy rosette, of which I am ridiculously proud.
And ReaditDaddy for all his inspiration and support and for answering all my silly questions with kindness and patience.

On to week two. May it bring more books, smiles and breakthroughs! I’ll keep you all posted.

From now on the Rainbow Library posts will be over on my RhinoReads blog. You can find it here.

The Rainbow Library

ReaditDaddy’s wonderful campaign encouraging parents to read to their children has really caught the book blogging community’s imagination. The basic premise is to support and encourage people to read aloud to their children, and to work with other agencies to raise awareness. ReaditDaddy is busy blogging, reviewing and spreading the word and twitter seems full of positivity and commitment for the project.

I spent yesterday pondering how best to join in and support the campaign. I already read (a lot) to Mollie and we visit the library every week. I am passionate about the power of language and a strong believer in the importance of positive, quality books in childhood but I didn’t know what I could offer to the project other than a blog of support. I spent a lovely morning browsing blogs and reading around the project. I got learning and I got inspired.

Here are a few of the things that chimed with me when I read them.

The lovely Clara Vulliamy said:
“And if you hang onto only one thing:
of course they will love the books, they love the person reading them!”
And “Books aren’t ‘good for you’ like vegetables – they’re wild creatures you’re letting loose.”

I love that! ‘Wild creatures you’re letting loose.’ That really caught my imagination… and so began my cunning plan.

Catherine from Story Snug commented that
“My only New Year’s resolution (which I haven’t managed as much as I would have liked!) is also to read more in front of my daughter, I want to be a better role model so that she knows that I also enjoy reading and it is not something that I just do with her.”
Sold! Any excuse! I will read more in front of Mollie. That is something I can actively change.

And then I found this blog from Library Mice
“But I can’t help thinking that if each newborn had a book fairy, we wouldn’t face the dreadful reality of children not being able to read, and not being able to enjoy books.”

What a perfect point. So many children don’t have a bookcase of their own, don’t get read to every day, don’t get taken to the library, don’t have access to brilliant books that teach them about the world and their potential in it. What a better place the world would be if all children did have a book fairy who could perhaps resolve some of that. How could I set some books wild and become a book fairy???

So my pledge for readitdaddy’s campaign is to set up a book box library at the local nursery where children can borrow a book and take it home to read. It just so happens that tomorrow is International Book Giving Day and I’ve already bought a few Catherine Rayner books to give to the nursery. Yesterday I ran the idea past the nursery and today I raided the shops.

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The nursery has a catchment area that reaches into local deprived areas. The majority of children don’t have access to a wide range of books outside of the nursery. They don’t have great language skills and they don’t have great role models. This is where Readitdaddy’s campaign needs to be reaching. It also means there were a few things to think about when putting it all together.

• The books might not get returned.
Hey ho. I’m setting books loose into this library and if they don’t come back then a child has a book in their home that they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. I’m all fine with that prospect.

• The books might make it home but there might not be someone there who is willing, or able, to read it to them.
To counter this I have tried to include lots of books with pictures that tell a story and board books that children can explore independently.

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• The children (or parents) might not be interested.
I’ve tried to include really great books that will give children and adults a taste of wonderful language and illustration.

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But I’m very aware that these will be far removed from the day to day experience of a lot of the children. I’ve included some tv tie-in books to appeal to what they know and encourage the children to have a look. They might not have books at home but they’ll certainly know who Fireman Sam is.

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I have labelled all the books to say they belong to the Rainbow library and added a little notebook where staff and parents can keep a record of the books they take home. And now, the Rainbow Library is ready to rock.

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I’ve made a long-term commitment to the nursery to supply books for the library and support the running and use of it. In addition, I plan to monitor the books and see which children aren’t using the library, then I will go in to the nursery for an hour a week and read with those children.

Mission on!

How can you help?
Perhaps you could donate a book? Are you a children’s author or illustrator? Maybe you could donate one of your books. A book blogger? Maybe you could donate a review book? A publisher? Maybe you could send some review books this way. I promise that all review copies will be donated to Rainbow Library. A parent? Maybe you could sort out some books your child has grown out of and donate them?
Or… Perhaps you could become a book fairy and start your own book box library?
Perhaps you’ve done something similar and can offer me any advice or words of wisdom?

Tomorrow I will take the books to the nursery and set them loose. I’ll keep you posted!

Update: To keep up with the Rainbow Library, hop over to my RhinoReads blog where I review big books for little people.

Why did you steal my feminist pirates? An open letter to Egmont publishing

Dear Egmont Publishing and Peter Harris,

Today I bought The Night Pirates pop up book for my daughter. The pop ups are clever and unique and it is a work of art. But I am so disappointed. Because the story itself has been edited and my beloved feminist pirates have all but disappeared.

It is no secret that we are huge fans of The Night Pirates in this house, but we were reading a copy from the library and I wanted Mollie to have her own copy. The pop up book has just come out and I thought it would be a lovely present for her. It really is beautiful, but has lost a level of meaning in the editing

The original text tells of ‘rough tough little girl pirates with their own pirate ship’ who steal the front of Tom’s house to use as a disguise. It goes on to say ‘But what about Tom, could he join in?’ and then…

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And that is the bit, of all the book, that all the rough, tough little girl pirates in the making really need. And that is the bit that has been edited out for the pop up version.

I understand the need to abbreviate to allow extra space for the pop ups. (And they really are special.) But why remove what is, to me, the most important message of the book? A few days ago I sent you a message on twitter to thank you for restoring my feminist faith in children’s books.

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But now I feel as though you have taken it straight back again.

So, why has it been edited out of the pop up version? I’m genuinely interested to know. Was it purely to save space without breaking the plot? Was it a nineties feminist issue, ‘let’s not be seen to be demeaning the boys.’ Or did you just not think that those few lines were important enough?

They are important to me. They are important to my daughter. Without them it’s just a pretty pop up book about a quirky pirate ship. With them it becomes something positive and affirming for all the rough, tough little girls out there and, more importantly, for all the little girls who didn’t think they were allowed to be rough and tough.

Please, bring them back!

Preparing for the princesses

My ‘boys don’t do ballet’ post led to some really interesting discussions on twitter. This is clearly an issue that people feel strongly about and one that affects parents in many different ways. People have sent me links to brilliant articles and sites looking at gender (in)equality. These are particularly good, especially in view of the ballet issue. http://www.pinkstinks.org.uk/cgblog/10/25/What-about-boys-Part-1.html
http://raisingmyrainbow.com/

The discussion has been very timely for us as Mollie is going through a pink phase at the moment. It is partly inspired by her love of ballet and the associated pink tutu imagery but also incorporates princesses and fairies. As much as it pains us, my wife and I are letting her get on with it. Mainly because we are hoping that it will just be a phase and we don’t want to stop her exploring it. We feel comfortable that it isn’t taking over – she has asked for a pink princess doll and a fire engine for Christmas – and we believe in equality. We want her to learn that she can, and should, have access to everything.

There has been a lot of discussion on twitter recently about the gender division in children’s books. This blog made me think about Mollie’s reading habits. Creating Mollie’s virtual library has been insightful in this respect. The picture books that she has enjoyed are, on the whole, gender neutral. There doesn’t seem to be much gender stereotyping or discrimination and the books are often full of lively, intelligent, strong characters of both sexes.

Sadly Im starting to notice this change. Peppa Pig is where the gender programming seemed to begin. Clearly it’s not something you can shield children from entirely. Instead, we have aimed to balance it out as much as possible and show Mollie as diverse a selection of characters and roles as possible. The Charlie and Lola books were the perfect Peppa Pig antidote.

Mollie is only 3 so the majority of her books are still picture books and therefore less gendered. However, she is learning to read and is beginning to pick up early reader books. The difference is really obvious. The fairies and princesses seem to have taken over this age range and I can see the gendering of the covers is starting to work. So Mollie will choose a flaky fairy book at the library and I will grab The Night Pirates to offset it. (If you haven’t come across The Night Pirates, I highly recommend it. Ninja girls for the 3-5 age range. It’s a beautiful book, with no pink!) In this way I’m trying to balance out the stereotypical images of little pink girls who need rescuing.

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In the interest of fairness, I should say that I don’t always have to offset. I have found a lot of the ‘pink books’ she is picking up do have strong characters in them and don’t necessarily perpetuate the stereotypical role of girl as weaker/less. This has been an important thing for me to learn. Whilst I want to stay aware of what she is reading I also want to encourage her own choices. I don’t want to stop her reading pink princess books through the assumption that they will be bad. They are often very positive. This excellent blog from the children’s book publisher Nosy Crow, discusses this and explains the reasons for the gender skew in publishing. It highlights some very good points and has some great book recommendations.

Nosy Crow’s Kate has written a follow up to her previous post that gives a more personal perspective, describing her own experiences with gendered books. It makes me think that my wife and I are on the right track. That Mollie is on the right track.

So why was I worried about the pink phase and the princess books? Because gender inequality is everywhere and it provides negative role models for our children- boys and girls. But I’m a feminist. I want my daughter to be smart enough to know what she likes and wants for herself, to have access to everything and know that she should have access to everything. And that means that it’s my job to give her access to everything*. Even when that includes pink princesses and fairies.

I’m less worried now because I’ve realised that there are a lot of people out there who are creating positive images for our children. I’ve realised that the good stuff really is out there (please do recommend some in the comments box below) and that Mollie is smart enough to know what she likes and wants for herself. She won’t stand for any rubbish and she won’t be easily sucked in by all the sickly pink marketing. And she’ll always have The Night Pirates there to rescue her if she does.

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*Disclaimer: ‘everything’ is a big word. Obviously I’m going to exclude the extremes. She won’t have access to a Barbie doll and she won’t have access to a toy tank. But you know, princess dolls and fire engines, they’re in.

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Summer survived

Eight weeks of summer holidays survived. And enjoyed! Now Mollie is back at nursery and we have all settled into new routines, influenced by our summer holiday learnings.

Inspired by the circus and olympics, Mollie now goes to gymnastic lessons every week. She is learning how to swing on the bar and balance on the beam and is loving it. In 5 weeks she has grown in confidence, strength and balance and is so proud of herself. Ballet and gymnastics have become central to Mollie’s days. She watches and recreates Strictly, puts on shows for her nursery teachers and dresses up in dancing clothes and sighs at my lack of flexibility.

In the hour between nursery and gymnastics we go to the library. We sit on the dinosaur rug and look through the train book box. We read books together and explore the pictures and discover new authors. Mollie has an Elmer book bag that is always overflowing and a new Elmer library card to match – the observant and inspiring librarians presented it to her when they spotted her bag, how about that for going the extra mile!

The library books have been sneaking into our lives since the summer holidays, inspiring and teaching us. Mollie discovered information books and is now soaking up books about the body and doctors and ballet, teaching us all with her incredible ability to remember new information.

Emily Gravett’s Spells introduced us to the Babbit. A crazy half bird half rabbit that has become a family favourite. Every family has them, the little sayings that sneak into the vocabulary and end up as part of family life. In our house they all seem to creep in from the literature we share and our playing with language. And now the Babbit, and the tickling and giggling that accompanies the word, is part of us. Emily Gravett is a genius.

The joy Mollie still finds in board books has reminded me that she is still little, even though she doesn’t sound it when she is bossing me about trying to recreate the positions in the ballet book. She is still little, but she is getting over her fear of spider webs – because Emily Brown puts her hands on cobwebs in Cressida Cowell’s Emily Brown and the Thing.

Books can teach us so many things.

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Soon it will be time to start looking at schools for Mollie and asking the questions about gym clubs and school libraries and phonics tests. But I’m less worried about Mollie’s learning at school now. I’ve seen her be inspired, follow something she loves and grow in confidence. I’ve seen her love of books and words develop. And I’ve seen us embrace it all as a family and change our routines to support her.

Perhaps those eight long weeks will have a longer lasting impact than any of us initially imagined.

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Learning through play

On Mollie’s last day of nursery one of the mums asked me what I was planning over the holidays. When I told her I was going to start teaching Mollie to read, she looked genuinely shocked. “Won’t she be bored at school if she can already read?”

Her reaction surprised me.

Perhaps she has an idealised vision of children sat beautifully in a school library, or the book corner of a classroom, enjoying a diverse selection of stories and rhymes with Miss Honey. In reality, there is no school library because it has been turned into a computer room. The books from the book corner have been locked in the teacher’s cupboard because the government suggests that children shouldn’t have classroom access to books beyond their phonics level. There is no time to interact with books because the children haven’t done their Phonics session. Miss Honey is turning bitter, frustrated by a system that she knows won’t work.

So no, I’m not worried that Mollie will be bored if she can already read by the time she goes to school. I’m worried that she’ll be bored by the rote learning of phonics every day. I’m worried that if we don’t teach her at home, she might not learn to read at all. Because she might learn to ‘read’ phonetically but will be lost with the words that don’t fit the mould. Because she might learn to ‘read’ words but wont necessarily comprehend their meaning and relation to story, picture, life. Because she might be put off by the pretend words, the learning from lists, the dull dried version of learning that is currently being prescribed to our children. I want her to experience the joy of language, the magic of words and stories and imagination. And if the government have their way I don’t think that will be easy at school, even with the Miss Honeys of teaching.

This letter from an Early Years Consultant to Michael Rosen shows how sad the situation has become.

I believe that children learn to read through immersion in words and language and books and drama and songs and stories. Through play. Through having fun.

In the first two weeks of the summer holiday we have had fun. A lot of this fun has helped Mollie learn to read. Without her even noticing. And that’s how children learn. No need for huge budgets and plans and rules, restrictions and tests. Just fun.

We turned a dog walk in the field into a Bear Hunt. And then into a trek through Our Jungle. We spotted strange beetles, took pictures and looked them up – in a book! We read books of poems and laughed at the silly ones and made up songs and nonsense smonsense rhymes. Mollie noticed that the words in the worm poem were written down in a wiggly worm line. We read stories together and Mollie pointed out that the word ‘splash’ in The Pig In The Pond sounded like a splash.

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We went to WHSmiths to choose new books with Mollie’s birthday giftcard (Thank you Lucy and Charlie.) There was only half a shelf of children’s books and they were too high for Mollie to reach. (Well done ‘Smiths!) But we didn’t let that put us off. We got lots down and looked at them on the floor. We looked through the pictures and talked about titles and authors and what the books might be about and what other books the authors and illustrators had created. Mollie chose three to buy.

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One of her chosen few was The Singing Mermaid. It is about a mermaid that goes to sing in a circus. We had seen the circus arrive at our local park just days before. So we went to the circus and had a magical time. Then we bought a programme and we spent time looking through it together and used it to explain all the fun of our circus trip to Mummy K and Grandma and Grandad.

We went to a charity shop and found a book of fairytales that another little boy or girl had loved before. We played shops and Mummy K made the big bottle for collecting copper coins into Mollie’s book money bottle, for the next charity shop trip.

And in two weeks of fun the closest we got to a phonics lesson was playing with foam letters in the bath.