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.

I can read a rainbow

This week was Mollie’s last week at nursery for this school year.

I used my last hours of free time wisely and productively.

Inspired by Shelley Harris’ colour co-ordinated books, I decided to organise mine into a rainbow. I got this far…

And then a coffee break showed me that it wasn’t really working. My books are shelved under the stairs in the hallway. As you come in to the hall you see them gradually from the left side of the bookshelves. You couldn’t get the full joy of the rainbow.

So I tried again.

It still needs a bit of tweaking. But It’s looking gorgeous.

I learnt a lot while turning my bookshelves into a rainbow. I learnt that sequins really do get everywhere in my house.

I learnt that shelves that have been designed and built to fit my books don’t lend themselves to this level of messing about.

At one point all my pink books were by lesbian authors. I quite liked that.

I learnt that turquoise is a tricky colour.

Brown was also an issue.

At one point I was quite tempted to go out and buy some yellow books to even up the balance a bit.

I learnt that I am more anal than I thought. And that I have a lot of books. But the biggest surprise was how well I know my books. Initially I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find a book if I messed with them but it turns out that I know my books pretty well. I know what colour a book is and how creased the spine is and how faded it has become and where in the rainbow it is likely to sit.

I learnt that I appreciate my kindle and the flexibility it gives me but that I really love my books. Even more so now that I have given them a bit of love and they look so beautiful.

Next week… Mollie’s library!

Summer Survival (or using my daughter to live out my dreams)

It is nearly time for The Summer Holidays. Mollie has one week left at nursery and then eight weeks off. EIGHT! Bye bye writing time. Bye reading time. See ya sanity.

Eight weeks.

I need a project. Something that Mollie and I can do together. Something sanity saving that we can do on the inevitable deluge of rainy days. Something that wont need space or silence, ’cause there certainly won’t be much of that, but will provide sustenance for my book cravings.

I’ve got it! I will encourage hers!

Mollie has just turned three. She loves books. Hooray! She has loved books since she was alert enough to notice them. Exploring books and reading together is a big part of our family life. Mollie has a bedtime story (or six) every night and crammed bookshelves that she delves into during the day. She enjoys making up crazy and hilarious stories and songs and generally playing with words.
I think she’s got the book bug!
My wife and I both grew up with (and through) books and I want to encourage Mollie’s interest and empower her with the ability to read.

So here’s my Plan for Summer Holidays Survival

I will take her book shopping.
To real bookshops. Where she can touch and smell the books and look at the pictures and discover new authors and illustrators. Where she can see first hand the difference between new books and books that have been loved by others- and might have secret surprises scrawled inside the covers. Where she can start choosing her own books to bring home and devour.

I will take her to the library.
I have fond memories of the children’s section of the library where I grew up. It had a magical feel to it. It felt like freedom and peace and potential. It was exciting and full of unexplored words and worlds. I would devour fiction, explore craft books for inspiration, touch and smell all the books.
Our local library is small but has a wonderful children’s section. There’s a great range of books and enough space for the children to explore them. There’s a chair in the shape of a rocket that the kids can sit inside with their books. There is story time and singing time. And there are librarians who are kind and knowledgeable and passionate about books.
Libraries are incredible resources and we need to use them before we lose them. We’ve been taking Mollie to the library since she was a baby, but if I’m honest, I don’t take her often enough now that she goes to nursery. So we will go and we will see what we can learn.

We’ll read together.
I truly believe that learning to read involves more than phonics. It’s about instilling a love of words, books and pictures. It’s learning the connections between words and pictures, words and other words, words and their meanings.
So yes, I’ll teach her phonics, but I’ll also teach her about books and words and illustrations and rhymes and typography and authors and illustrators and drama and singing. Michael Rosen is very articulate about this on his blog here.
I like him. I think I’ll get Mollie some more of his books.

I will make her a virtual library
After a Twitter exchange with Gillian Stern about her daughter’s reading progression from Maisy to Marquez, I started thinking about Mollie’s love for books and how quickly she is progressing. That led me to think about all the books she has read and loved in her little life, how she favours some and asks for others when she’s in a particular mood. I often wish I’d kept a book journal when I was younger, so Mollie’s Library is my attempt to use my daughter to live out my dream – parental prerogative!

And for me…

I will turn this…

…into something that resembles this…

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Beautiful, isn’t it. I want a rainbow bookcase!
It’s Shelley Harris’ fault. She started it! “@shelleywriter: Here’s some book porn from my blog: http://t.co/cRJyNRVe

Ok, my bookshelves are tucked in under my stairs and are currently part my books, part Kerry’s records and part Mollies ‘art stuff’, but I WILL make it into a beautiful rainbow. You see if I don’t. In fact, you can see that I’ve already had a little test at the top of my shelves. I jumped in without proper planning and had to sit back and contemplate a bit more. But I’ll get there.

Updates on The Summer Project(s) to follow.

So who am I?

Well that is the big question. Who am I, and what am I doing here?

I have never blogged before. I havent seen any relevance in it for me. Why would I write a blog when I have nothing to say, nothing to promote, nothing to achieve. Why would anyone want to read anything I have to say?

I was clearly missing the point.

I now think differently.

I am a woman. I am gay. I am a wife. I am a mum. I was a student. I was a teacher. I am still learning. I am still teaching. All these things seem very relevant now.

I am a mum to a 2 and half yr old and I am beginning to emerge from behind the nappies, the playdough and the children’s tv.

I don’t like what I’m seeing.

Before I had my daughter I was a teaching assistant in a primary school. It wasn’t the most well paid job in the world and there was a fair amount of staff room bitchiness, ineptitude and politics to deal with. But I loved it. I loved the children and seeing them achieve and benefit from a little extra help. Now I look at my friends and old colleagues and I see mass redundancies, teachers working with no assistants or assistance, budget slashing, newly qualified teachers working in cafes because they can’t get a teaching post but have uni debt to pay off, mums living on 40 pounds a week because their DLA has been cut, and endless, endless paperwork. It is clearly hurting them. Ultimately, it is the kids who lose out. Childrens centres and services are being cut, libraries are closing, schools are being forced to increase class sizes and reduce staff. If a child survives all that unscathed they make it to university where the fees are so high they are starting out in life with a debt that will burden them for years.

Do I want to go back into that environment? I don’t think so. My wife says you have to be in it to change it and I think she’s probably right. A thinking point.

When you are a parent you look at the world through your child’s potential future. I do not like what I see. Our government are tearing at society and public services whilst giving hefty tax breaks to huge companies. Rick Santorum and Margaret Court are shouting out to the world that my family is unnatural and poisonous. And yet I do see a lot of hope. The uncut and occupy movements give me hope. Stonewall gives me hope. The mainstream acceptance of gay parents like Charlie Condou gives me hope.

If last year, with its accounts of the Arab spring, the uk uncut movement, its good, bad and ugly has taught me anything, it’s that you are never a lone voice. You are always a part of a community, you share an ideology with others.

I am a woman. I am gay. I am a mum. I was a student. I was a teacher. I have read Jeanette Winterson and Caitlin Moran enough to know that there is something in that.

A good friend of mine once told me that I never finish anything (apart from relationships). She was absolutely right! I am very easily distracted. I start something and whilst working on it I come across something interesting and I follow it, abandoning the original project. I have half an open uni degree in English literature. I got distracted. (And now the course fees have gone up astronomically, I may never complete it.) But I learnt a lot in those three years and it’s all patchwork pieces.
So maybe I’ll come across a great article somewhere and get pulled in another direction, maybe I’ll never write more than this, maybe my embracing of twitter will take over entirely and I’ll never achieve anything other than laughing at pictures of cats.

But I have said this. And maybe, for now, that is enough.

I’m looking forward to finding out.