Brilliant Books for Boys – Adventure

Having written previously about moving on from picture books and about the Fantasy books that my kids have enjoyed, I thought I’d also share some reviews of Adventure stories that have also gone down well with my eldest.

This list is shorter than my blog on Fantasy books, despite it being my favourite genre as a child.  Unfortunately, we stopped reading them when my youngest refused them on principle – perhaps a bid to assert his individuality.

Famous Five, Enid Blyton

Although Enid Blyton has been criticised in recent times for being out of sync with modern times, they’re still great stories – kids today can take Anne’s attempts at being ‘mother’ with a pinch of salt and laugh at the incessant references to pemmican and seed cake.  Yes, it is rooted in a time when people may have actually said ‘jolly hocky sticks’, but it’s got a good balance of intrigue without scary content and therefore a good bet for younger kids.

They were the first books I read to my eldest, after reading the Magic Folk Collection to him to see whether he’d enjoy books without pictures.  I loved these books as a child and it was great to read them again – they didn’t disappoint.  The plots are great as they have intrigue, suspense, cliff-hangers, goodies vs baddies… the lot… yet are really easy for young children to follow.  We read the first five books together and I bought the second five as a job-lot to continue, but then I started reading to both my kids together and switched to other books instead.

Whilst we may well come back to them together, the chances are that my eldest will end up reading them to himself.  Failing that, they’d be perfect holiday reading for me!

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

This is amazing, despite the old-fashioned language (I had to have my wits about me when reading it aloud in order to bring it to life).  However, it’s stood the test of time (having been published in 1882) because the story is so good.  In fact, if the language puts your kids off, there are various re-tellings of the story out there too (e.g. the Usbourne version).

Having said that, here’s the health warning… two years after reading it to my eldest, he still refuses to watch the Disney film because he’s so scared of the menacing character, ‘Blind Pew’.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of the knock-knock-knocking of his stick along the road is very spooky indeed…

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome

I loved this book as a child, although have no recollection about how old I was when I read it.  So I was surprised when I read it to my eldest and found quite a bit of technical sailing terminology (e.g. ‘tacking’ to describe a child running in zig-zags up a field).  There’s no way my son would have understood what was going on if I hadn’t explained it.  However, after the opening, it settles down into what is a brilliant ‘Famous Five’-style adventure story, complete with baddie, seed cakes and laissez faire parenting.  The 2016 film is lovely too (although the story has been changed slightly), it captured the romance of the bygone era perfectly and is possibly my eldest’s favourite film of all time.

I bought Swallowdale (the sequel) and intended on working our way through the series together, but looks as though this is another that my eldest will end up reading to himself!

Shorter stories…

The Usbourne adventure stories have re-told classic stories in shorter chapter books with great pictures.  Books include: Gulliver’s Travels, Robin Hood, Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe and Around the World in Eighty Days.  Their Illustrated Story Collections are also great, on Greek Myths, Tales of the Arabian Nights and King Arthur to name a few…

Real life adventure stories… 

The Ladybird Adventures from History books have great real life stories about Scott of the Antarctic, Vikings and Romans.  Having seen a TV programme about The Mutiny on the Bounty, I found this book, as thought Captain Bligh’s epic tale of survival would be right up my son’s street.

For reluctant readers…

After realising my son was put off by any books that have a small font and look too long – as well as remembering how my brother and I used to enjoy the Beano and Asterix, I tried both Asterix and Tin Tin cartoon books and he loved them.  They’ve got great pictures with just a few lines of text on each box to tell the story. My son particularly liked Tin Tin “…because he has a gun”. Hmmm…. feels a bit dangerous to him, but pretty tame really!

Another great series of easy-read, chapter books with pictures and large font is Thorfinn the Nicest Viking.  He’s not exactly inherited his father (Harald the Skull-Splitter)’s traits… instead he’s the kindest, most polite (worst!) Viking ever. However, like David and Goliath, he comes out on top, despite the best efforts of others who want to undermine him.

Recommendations I’ve had from elsewhere…

Alex Rider Series, Antony Horowitz

Although this series is highly recommended in the press and despite my son initially loving it, ultimately the plot was too complicated for him to follow when trying to read it himself. So, I think he’s going to leave it for a couple of years.  It may be more suitable for older kids (the main character is is 13-14yrs, so I could imagine it’d attract readers within range of that sort of age…).

The story is about a teenage spy, a bit like James Bond.  Although there’s been a film made of the first book, Stormbreaker, there’s now a plan to make them into a TV series.


Other recommendations

Bear Gryll’s top 10 Adventure Stories

Good Reads – List of Boys Adventure Books

Oxford Owl Adventure Story recommendations for kids aged 6-12 years



Brilliant Books for Boys – Fantasy

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you you want to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales” (Einstein)

…although the jury is out about whether he actually said this, apparently he believed it’s creativity that makes a great scientist (others have since jumped on the bandwagon to both agree and disagree).  But, I’ll come clean – I only came across this quote now.  It isn’t why I read fantasy books to my kids – they just happen to be the ones my youngest likes best.

So, following my previous blog with ideas for how to move on from reading picture books to your kids, I thought I’d share some books that my guys (5yrs and 8yrs) have enjoyed. If you’re reading this and have any recommendations for great books that aren’t listed here, then please let me know.  I will post a list of any books recommended to me to share the good-finds with all 😉.

As my youngest doesn’t want to read any of the (adventure) books my eldest used to like, I’m lucky that my mother-in-law’s house is a treasure trove of interesting books and that she unearths new gems every time we go.  Since her previous recommendations have been brilliant, we gladly borrow anything she suggests. The books have lovely stories, usually along the lines of ‘good versus evil’, where our usual way of seeing the world is turned on its head. The downside is that some of the books were written over 100yrs ago and whilst they’ve stood the test of time because of the strength of their stories, the antiquated English can sometimes need a bit of deciphering.

As there’s so much good stuff out there, I’ve just focused on fantasy here. I’ll cover adventure, fact and ones that kids may enjoy reading to themselves another time so that it doesn’t get too unwieldy.

Fantasy Books:

Five Children & It, E. Nesbit

I can’t remember whether we first read this, watched the BBC production, or had it as an audio book.  Our guys have enjoyed it in all three forms, after it was first recommended by grandparents.

It has a simple structure, so is easy for young kids to follow, who might find longer, more complicated plots confusing.  The children find a Samiad (sand fairy) in the gravel pit behind their new home and it grants them wishes, although the moral of the story quickly becomes apparent: be careful what you wish for!

We’ve not yet read the sequels (The Phoenix and the Carpet,  The Story of the Amulet), but are looking forward to doing so at some point.

Alice and Wonderland / Alice through the Looking Glass, Lewis Caroll

We had them on an audio book from our local library which my eldest listened to on long car journeys (hence why my review is short!). Don’t be put off by a girl in the title, my son was entranced by it.  It’s on my list of Christmas presents for my youngest as we don’t own a copy, but I think it’ll be right up his street.  That is if he wasn’t totally put off by our brief attempt to watch the recent Johnny Depp film version (beautiful to look at, but totally incomprehensible to my guys)!

The Magic Woodland Triology, Beverley Nichols

(1) ‘The Tree That Sat Down’ (2) ‘The Stream That Stood Still’ (3) ‘The Mountain of Magic’

These are some of the most enchanting books I’ve ever read (the second book, ‘The Stream that Stood Still’ is my favourite).  I think they are only available now as second-hand copies through Amazon.

The trilogy is a ‘good vs. evil’ story, where things aren’t always as they seem – the witch is superficially beautiful and greed brings out the bad in people. The books describe the adventures of Mrs Judy and her Granddaughter who own The Shop under the Willow Tree.  All is well in the enchanted wood in which they live happily with the woodland creatures, until Sam opens The Shop in the Ford with his Grandfather and enlists the services of a witch (Miss Smith) to sabotage their business.  The reader then follows the fortunes of Mrs Judy’s family as they battle to save themselves (and the kingdom) from the evil intentions of Sam and Miss Smith. I know it sounds a bit cutesy, but I can’t recommend these enough – they’ll suck you and your kids right in.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce

I was suspicious of the quote on the front by Philip Pullman proclaiming that this book is ‘Perfect’.  However, the fact that it’s also won prizes drew me in.  It was slow-going in the beginning and the long descriptions of the garden (rhododendron bushes) won’t mean a lot to young kids and wouldn’t bother reading it until your kids are used to longer books. Once they are, I strongly recommend persevering though the first couple of chapters because once the main action starts, it’s brilliant.

After it picks up pace, it tells the tale of how fun can happen in the most unlikely of places when Tom goes to stay with his childless aunt and uncle, whilst his brother recovers from Chicken Pox. There’s some great ideas, mystery, spine-tingles and cliff hangers (resulting in my kids taking hum rage when I refused to read ‘just one more chapter’).

If you can get through the slow start, this would suit both boys and girls, as despite what’s suggested by the title, Hattie is the star attraction.

The Enchanted Castle, E. Nesbit

Keeping with the theme of magical gardens, I read this to my eldest when he was younger and despite the antiquated language, the ideas were fantastic.  There’s an enchanted garden, a magic ring and a lesson about being careful what you wish for.  Despite taking a little time to fathom out what’s happening, once the story is up-and-running it keeps you hooked.  Mind you, it probably didn’t help me that I was trying to make sense of it from a real-world perspective (you need to kick reality to the curb).  The story describes a series of events that happen every time someone wishes something, (anything!), whilst wearing the magic ring (written five years after ‘Five Children and It’, it echoes some of the same ideas, although it’s even crazier).

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

This book follows a bored child (Milo) on his quest to save a magical kingdom by completing a quest. During which time, he’s forced to: think differently, question everything and see mistakes as building blocks to success. Philosophy-meets-psychology wrapped-up in a very crazy caper, told through clever use of the English language.

Having written the paragraph above, I may as well have typed ‘BUY THIS NOW’, however, I also should admit that I’ve oscillated about whether it’s a book for kids or young adults (or English teachers!). The book is overflowing with clever witticisms: puns, homophones, metaphors, clichés, adages, idioms, proverbs and any other literary device you can think of, all topped off with a scattering of mathematical jokes for good measure. I can only think the author had a lot of fun chuckling away to himself as he let his mind run away with itself in the process of writing this.

Having written the paragraph above, I may as well have typed ‘DON’T BUY THIS BOOK’ to read to your kids. Yet it’s not as pretentious or clumsy as it sounds – the quirks are woven into the story so well that the tale doesn’t suffer. It was me, not my kids who was tempted to give up reading this (the chapters are long and if I missed reading to them one night, I’d then struggle to remember what was going on when I next picked up the book), my kids however were transfixed, so I kept going because they enjoyed it so much.

You do have to have a fair bit of energy to read it though – I found I struggled to make it make sense, or make sense of it when I was tired.  For instance, I had to explain lesser-used terms like what it means to be caught in the Doldrums, Short Shrift and how a lady who was a ‘which’ was mistaken for a ‘witch’.  Explaining that to a five-year-old at bedtime with no pencil nearby was interesting to say the least….

My mother-in-law showed my guys the animated film when they were half-way through the book and I think that really helped to bring it to life for them (my five-year-old ended up explaining the remainder of the book to me, when I got confused). The concept of ‘words and numbers at war with each other’ (Dictionopolis vs Digitopolis) and the need to rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason to restore peace in the Kingdom of Wisdom has seemed to stick enough for my youngest to apparently wax lyrical about it to his friend.

I don’t know how much of the underlying messages click with my kids, but there were plenty of times when I couldn’t help smiling to myself. Only last night this passage came up in the closing stages of the book, where Milo is giving himself a hard time – it struck me as a lovely thing for kids to hear before they go to sleep…

Extract (p.232-233):

“It has been a long trip”, said Milo climbing on to the couch where the princesses sat; “but we would have been here so much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes.  I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them.  For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

“But there’s so much to learn,” he said, with a thoughtful frown.

“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important.  It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things that matters.”

“That’s just what I mean,” explained Milo, as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep.  “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all.”

“You may not see it now,” said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face, “but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, even in the tiniest way…. …. Whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer… … many of the things you want to know are just out of sight, or a little beyond your reach.  But one day you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”

Related content:

Moving on from picture books? What to read next to your kids…

What’s your life in books?

Dead Poets Society – my internal soundtrack

The power of imagination – use it, or lose it

Moving on from picture books? – what to read next to your kids

There are a lot of lists out there for ‘top children’s books of all time’, but there’s nothing like a recommendation through the eyes of children themselves.  Encouraging kids to enjoy books can have a lifetime’s impact on them, with experts saying it can increase empathy amongst children, improve their concentration and fire their imaginations. I also think they can learn vicariously about the trials and triumphs of others, as well as prompting chats about tricky subjects: lying, cheating, death, religion.

…Although it’s not always smooth sailing… I fell foul by trying to explain ‘the Holy Grail’ to my then four year old when it came up in a bedtime story about King Arthur. After hearing about it, he was too scared to go to sleep ‘in case God woke him up in the middle of the night for a chat’…

Some of the best books we’ve read were published long ago and whilst their longevity is testament to how good they are, the downsides are the old fashioned language and expressions.  Although there’s been a back-lash from Edith Blyton’s stalwarts that some modern versions have been produced (and that Titty’s name was changed to Tatty in the 2016 film of Swallows and Amazons), if it’s not adding anything to the story and keeps the flow, I change words every now and then they’ll make more sense to my kids.

I first did it when I didn’t want my kids copying Winnie the Witch by saying ‘Blooming’ all the time. Last night I changed ‘wren’ to ‘bird’, as I didn’t have the energy for an explanation (I was also not exactly sure what to say about a wren: ‘a small, brown bird, a bit like a robin, but without a red tummy’?!). I learnt my lesson the hard way by spending far too long trying to explain what a rhododendron bush was (as we have them in our garden, I fooled myself into thinking it’d be easy).  I ended up by saying ‘just think of a big green bush!’ (that’s all they needed to hear…).

Sometimes I google pictures of things at a later point if they keep coming up in the story (e.g. the Russian Steppes, what a peacock looks like). But I take the view that the main point is the story, not a lesson in vocabulary, so if there’s too much explaining, give the book a miss 😉.

If you’re starting to move from picture books to ones with more text, here’s some tips I’ve found useful:

  • Go with the child’s interest: fact, fiction, fantasy, or a film they’ve enjoyed
  • Try books you loved as a child: your enthusiasm will rub off on them
  • Start with shorter books that have lots of chapters: longer books with too much description will be boring for young kids who’ll find it difficult to maintain concentration and picture the scenes in their heads. Complex plots which take a while to warm up may also switch them off. The ‘Early Reader’ style books (intended for older children to read to themselves) are a good half-way house, as they are longer than picture books, have more text and a chapter format but aren’t too complex or long, so could be read in a couple of nights
  • Choose books where there are a couple of pictures every now and then. They break the story up and help kids picture what’s happening in their own minds.
  • Stop every now and then to recap on the story, ask questions to check understanding and clarify what the book might be hinting at. Ask what they think the moral of the story is? or why a character did what they did? which character is their favourite? or what they would do if faced a similar dilemma that the character is facing?
  • Every child is different. So obvious, but something that I always seem to fall into a trap with my own kids. My youngest (perhaps in order to assert his individuality) took against my eldest’s favourite books (Famous Five, or anything remotely described as an ‘Adventure’ book).  I have to describe a book as ‘magical’ to get his attention (perhaps I should try selling Famous Five as such and see whether he enjoys them once he gets over his own prejudices…?!).  The up-side of this is that we’ve branched out into other books and my eldest still wants to join in for bedtime stories and is therefore trying different books himself. Perhaps one day my youngest will discover the books he rejected…

Books you may like to try…

“The Lorax”, Dr Seuss

Although Cat in the Hat was famously created as a response to concerns about illiteracy amongst children in America in the ’50s (it uses 236 of the 250 most commonly used words in the English language), his other books are brilliant for kids.  A favourite in our house is The Lorax, with surprisingly modern relevance (including deforrestation and dangers of industrialisation!), all wrapped up in a crazy caper. It’s a slightly longer story than some of his other books, with more text, but still has fantastic pictures that are lovely to look at with or without the story being read.

Other books that they’ve enjoyed are One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish; Scrambled Eggs Super; Fox in Socks; Green Eggs and Ham; Oh the places you’ll go!, Mr Brown can Moo!, can you? – all of which have crazy tales, stories and tongue-twisting rhymes.

“Charlotte’s Web”, E.B. White

Despite having a girl in the title and often cutesy imagery on the front cover, my guys enjoyed this.  We have it as an audio book for long car journeys and it seemed to go down well, despite the fact that my guys aren’t massively into animals.

“Wind in the Willows”, Kenneth Grahame

An easy read, harmless waterside shenanigans, probably most suited to pre-schoolers. We also have it as an audio book.

“Just So Stories”, Rudyard Kipling

Rated highly, but found it was more suited to adult fans of children’s literature than to modern day children.  The language is difficult for them to get (I didn’t realise just how old the book is, it was written in the 1902!), I read it about a year ago to my kids and whilst my eldest (nearly 7 at the time) enjoyed it, it didn’t engage my youngest, so I gave it a miss in favour of other things they’d both enjoy.

I may give it another go in future, as the idea behind the collection of short animal-themed stories is great – how did the elephant get its trunk? Why does a camel have a hump?  I’m sure there’ll be revised editions which re-tell the stories in language kids of today can relate to.  If you come across one of those, then it could be just the ticket, the concept is nice and they are gentle ideas which will be the prelude to sweet dreams.

“The Magic Folk Collection”, Enid Blyton

Someone in a bookshop recommended this to me as a good book to read to my eldest who was growing out of his picture books.  It’s a collection of short stories and has pictures every now and then.  My suspicions in the shop about the suitability for a modern-day boy were unfortunately founded.  It has lovely ideas in it, like one where it explains how a toadstool got its name. Whilst my son thought it was good, I found it a little too cutesy to be honest.  Just the ticket though for a little girl who’s into fairies!

“The Faraway Tree”, Enid Blyton

I was initially cautious about this, given my experience with the Magic Folk Collection, but it receives rave reviews and seems to really stick in children’s memories (my eight-year old niece went to World Book Day as Saucepan Man as had re-read the book herself, after being read to as a younger child).

When I describe it, it will sound ridiculous, but it has brilliant ideas, like how there are different rotating lands at the top of the Faraway Tree and how the exit of a land is like a wormhole – once you’re in, it’s pretty tricky to get out.  Even the lands which seem good initially are not and teach the children all sorts of lessons about extremes.

I know some mums of boys will think this sort of stuff won’t wash with boys, but my guys thought it was hilarious.

Children’s books by Roald Dahl

I had loads of pre-conceptions about Dahl, having only read The Twits and Revolting Rhymes as a child.  Whilst I liked The Revolting Rhymes, I thought The Twits was dark and gruesome.  So when I happened upon an old copy of George’s Magic Medicine (unearthed from a Grandparent’s house) I wasn’t convinced.  I remained unsure when I read the first couple of chapters about George’s grotesque and horrid grandmother and how he went about poisoning her (my son was prone to nightmares at the time).  Whilst my then five-year old looked a bit taken aback by the gruesome granny, he loved hearing all the horrid (and hilarious) things that happened to her.  The book also seems to be written to be read out aloud, it is onomatopoeic, crazy and ‘in your face’ – it has the right sort of ick-factor for a young boy.

It’s also the only book that I’ve read separately to both my boys and led to my youngest only wanting to have books read to him if I confirmed they were also written by Dahl. That was a reasonable plan, until we ran out of his books! I got to the point of asking our local library to reserve ‘any books by Dahl’ and ended up with a book called The Vicar of Nibbleswick which taught me a lesson in checking a book before reading it.

I don’t know if you know the story (it’s a lesser-known book, written for a dyslexia charity).  It features a vicar who said his words backwards.  It’s a pretty short book that can be read in one sitting, however the joke of the story (spoiler alert, or perhaps warning!) is that the vicar asks people not to ‘PARK’ on the pavement outside the church, except he says ‘KRAP’ instead.  I spent the duration of the book mispronouncing it as ‘Krarp’ which meant that whilst I successfully avoided teaching them a word that would be repeated in the playground, the book make no sense whatsoever.  Don’t be fooled by its size, it’s a short story for adults.  …A proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing!

My kids’ favourites are: James and the Giant Peach, Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie & the Glass Elevator, The BFG.

 “The Midnight Gang”, David Walliams

Whilst everyone says Walliams is the new Roald Dahl, I’m not convinced they’re in the same league (he’s also knocked them out at a rate which is slightly suspicious… does he have a ghost-writing team?!). Beautiful concepts like the BFG’s Dream Jar don’t really exist, but fun characters like the omnipresent Raj, the Newsagent do – and the plots are simple enough for kids to follow when reading them for themselves when they’re a bit older.

Telling my youngest that ‘Walliams is the new Dahl’ did however work to get him to listen to this.  It was a nice story and my guys loved it.  It’s about a children’s hospital ward, where they outwit the nurse in order to re-create each child’s dream.

Other David Walliams stories

My eldest has read the rest of these stories himself after getting a set of them and enjoyed them.  He says his favourite is Gangster Granny because she “stinks of cabbage and they have cabbage chocolates, cabbage soup and cabbage blow-offs”.  Now there’s an enticing review if ever I saw one!

Related Links:

’50 books every child should read by 16′ – Survey from The Telegraph

100 Best Children’s Books of all time – The Telegraph

11 Greatest Children’s Books – The BBC

seus 2 quote

School Holidays: the end is nigh!

The end of the school holidays is bitter-sweet, like the morning after a good night out.  On the one hand, it’ll bring a reprieve from the tornado of craziness that’s been fuelled by lax-living and late-bedtimes. On the other hand it heralds the start of the longest term of the year and the need to ** get organised ** once more.

We seem to have lost a general sense of law and order, along with other bits and bobs that every now and then we realise we can’t find. Our kids left structure and decorum behind when they said goodbye to their teachers and have since revelled in their decent into feral beings.

Our house now bears testament to the time they’ve spent wrestling and ricocheting around it: sand in boots and pockets (also seemingly a permanent feature of our hallway and bathroom); dens made with all the bedding they can get their hands on; more clothes being stood on than worn; cardboard boxes in every direction; and new marks on both carpets and walls.

Every now and then I move stuff from one surface to another in an attempt to create some space, but I might as well be trying to hold back a tsunami – I can’t keep up with the pace with which it is being scattered…  I’m like the mythical Greek Tartarus, forever cursed to roll a boulder uphill, only to watch it roll down again.

But it’s not just our house which is showing signs of wear and tear – everyone within it now resembles the crowd on Sunday morning at Glastonbury.  The styling can only be described as ‘fancy-dress fusion’, as evidenced by the two banana outfits lying in wait on our hall table. Even if our guys leave the house wearing normal(ish) clothes, they come back in their friends’ fancy dress costumes (we currently have a ‘sheep’ and ‘skeleton’ in need of re-homing). Yet it doesn’t stop with how they look, their humour has been transported into another dimension too – they’ve cultivated their own in-jokes and are now a double-act to rival Bill and Ted (sending themselves into hysterics and me in search of a dark room).

Every request which diverts attention from playing, from brushing teeth to getting dressed, is met with a similar response as if they’d been asked to do a shift in a coal mine. It’s so ‘Lord of the Flies’ that I’m half-expecting a Channel 5 producer to shout ‘Cut!’ and to discover we’ve unknowingly been taking part in a ‘Summer Holiday Truman Show’. Whilst some think it’s a great idea to let kids run wild, I’m not entirely sure that this is what they meant.  It’s not so much ‘running wild’, as post-apocalyptic.

Given that things have started to run away with themselves, I’m hoping that the sight of school uniform acts as a silent cue that the party’s over. If absence makes their hearts grow fonder, perhaps there’ll be even more gains to be made from being back at school.  Like classic products of modern parenting, our guys have got a little confused over who should be making the rules and who should be following them.  They’re also not backwards about coming forwards to assert their rights – and it’s leaving me feeling the burn.

Despite this, I’m also a tad ambivalent about the return to school and the slavish routine that comes with it. The drop-offs, pick-ups, homework, forms, special projects, events and extra-curricular activities – marking the passage of time as relentlessly as a metronome. Although holidays are a chance to move at a slower pace, indulge in some family time and to throw daily rhythms out of the window, I guess you can have too much of a good thing… it’s just a shame there’s no half-way house!

Kindness – could small acts make a big difference?

It’s been heart-warming to hear about the kindness shown in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on the UK – they restore our faith in humanity and some welcome relief from the horror of recent events.  The stories have shone in stark contrast with those hellbent on destruction, restoring the phrase ‘humankind’.  By being broadcast on the news, I’m sure they’ll influence us all, as kindness breeds kindness – they’ve certainly made me think about how I can do more.

A good example of how positive vibes can be contagious was the atmosphere created by the volunteers at the London Olympics in 2012. Even away from the sites of the Games – those who wore their uniforms on the Tube were met with smiles and nods of acknowledgement from passers-by. London felt united, proud and excited. It’s interesting that five years later, the Green Party are proposing a shortened-week to enable people to lead “happier and more fulfilled lives”. It’s also been suggested that if people have more time, they may use it to do more volunteering – whilst the principles behind Cameron’s “Big Society” were all very well, it’s tricky if you don’t have enough hours in the day.

The gains in helping others do however work in both directions – in fact, the positive effect of helping others is so marked that it’s prompted some psychologists to question whether pure altruism exists at all.

But such effects aren’t limited to volunteering – Sonja Lyubomirsky’s found that those who commit to doing ‘five acts of kindness’ are happier, echoing other research which linked it to both physical and mental health. Her instructions are pretty simple:

“One day each week, you are to perform five acts of kindness. The acts do not need to be for the same person, the person may or may not be aware of the act… Do not perform any acts that may place yourself or others in danger.”

After reading this, the single ‘act of kindness’ that I included in my kids’ Christmas Challenges seems a bit pathetic.  What it means to be kind is probably quite intangible for them, so maybe it’d be better if we got them to think about what they can do on a regular basis – like some organisations are trying to get adults to do.

A lovely example of daily acts of kindness are recorded in the artist Michael Landy’s ‘Acts of Kindness’ project, which collated real stories from the public to celebrate ways in which people show each other compassion on the Tube.  It’d be nice to think that bored commuters may have been prompted to act after reading about the kindness of others. Perhaps after recent events, more of us will feel similarly motivated…?

I appreciate that some may feel that kindness should be spontaneous and by turning it into a project, it loses its charm (and perhaps even the sentiment).  But putting a bit of conscious effort in is just a well-honed approach for establishing new habits – they’ll become unconscious soon enough. Whilst I’m sure none of us would say we are unkind, in the hustle and bustle of daily life, if you are anything like me, your actions may fall short of your aspirations.

An example of this was in local supermarket a few years ago.  I was at the till with my kids in tow, trying to pack the food that I’d just bought (whilst no doubt being late for something and probably annoyed at something else). There was an elderly man behind me who was talking to the checkout girl, explaining that the food he was buying was a treat for his birthday dinner. From the items on the conveyor belt, it looked as though he was on his own, so I felt the urge to buy his shopping as a present – but didn’t.

I was struck by a classic case of negative politeness, common amongst Brits who respectfully ignore the business of others. I didn’t do anything for fear of getting it wrong: I may have misinterpreted the situation, be viewed as nosy for over-hearing, or potentially have embarrassed him. Although I went for the low-risk option of ‘do nothing’, it’s bothered me since – so I’ve resolved to throw caution to the wind if I’m in a similar situation again.

On the flip-side, I remember it making my day when I was a recipient of a free coffee from Pret a Manger. Despite it later emerging as a viral marketing plan (employees have the discretion to give a certain number away), it doesn’t make me feel differently about it.  In the hustle and bustle of a morning commute, a stranger doing something nice for me cheered me up no end. In the States, there’s even a movement to ‘pay it forward’, where you pay for the next person’s coffee in addition to your own (replicated in the UK with our very own Pay it Forward Day).

Thinking about all this has inspired me to make some kindness commitments myself – but if charity starts at home, I better start by making my husband a cup of tea…


Related Content:

Happiness is there for the taking

Growing Pains – our kids and the internet

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Interesting Links:




Happiness is there for the taking

It seems that everyone, from the Danes, Buddhists, Aristotle, to the Bolton Evening News are on the hunt for the secret to happiness.  Our enthusiasm seems insatiable with Happiness Institutes, International Happiness Day and World Happiness Reports. Despite these and the belief it lies in promotions, shopping sprees and holidays, ultimately it can only come from within.

In spite of all the measuring, analysing and research it seems that we’re struggling to find our ‘happy ever after’. Nordic countries take four out of the top five spots in the 2017 World Happiness Report (Norway was #1); the UK and US are well behind with the latter dropping even lower from 2016 – reflecting how higher GDP is associated with lower levels of happiness.

It’s all down to the Easterlin Paradox apparently, which explains how happiness correlates with wealth within a country, but isn’t found between countries. This is because increased wealth beyond what you need only increases people’s happiness if they have someone else to compare themselves to. So, a new car may make us happier, until everyone can afford new cars and the effect is lost.

It’s the same tendency to compare that’s also responsible for the negative impact of social media; add the epidemic of loneliness amongst the elderly and it’s easy to see how the national picture is on the bleak side. But although ‘happy’ is the perfect sentiment for birthday cards, it seems an unlikely panacea for such social ills. A bit like asking Tinkerbell to do a term as Prime Minister, when reality calls for something more than fairy dust.

Understanding what ‘happiness’ really means is the first hurdle. It’s prime territory for the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate; meaning different things to different people; and is affected not only by recent experiences, but by our expectations too. Aristotle even suggested that it’s what we do rather than who we are, with the answer lying in the Golden Mean on his 12 virtues.

Yet in the age of the quick-fix, there’s plenty of suggestions listed in newspapers  and self-help books about how to find our happy place. The Danish principle of Hygge is gaining infamy – up there with bacon and Lego – and back in the ‘80s and ’90s we were even told that “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet”; or quite simply told “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and that “Everything’s Going to Be All Right”.

Surely it’s a case of ‘whatever floats your boat’ and rather than one-size-fits-all, we should instead ask ourselves what happiness means for us, as the Bolton Evening News asked their readers in 1938. Interestingly, the top three themes in the responses (peace of mind, family and home, helping others) were found to be the same in 2017. Suggestions for becoming happier from the same data included lessening our use of social media and to get out more by exercising, helping others and doing new things – the same stuff that Gretchen Rubin tried in her year-long ‘Happiness Project’.

Doing fun things is only half the story according to Paul Dolan’s book Happiness by Design. In it he suggests that happiness is a balance between pleasure-seeking and meaningfulness, which he called ‘the pleasure-purpose principle’. The example he gives for how happiness is a combination of both pleasure and purpose is the fact that people say their children bring them happiness, despite the sleepless nights and bickering which may not always make it pleasurable. However, watching them grow and helping them develop gives a sense of purpose and meaning, from which happiness is derived.

Whilst we’re all wired to be either a ‘pleasure machine’ or a ‘purpose-engine’, we can easily get out of balance. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, whereas unbridled hedonism can make us feel rudderless and lacking in purpose. Rather than operating in the extremes (such as working long hours, in stressful jobs, punctuated by a couple of weeks on a sun-lounger each year), he suggests it’d be better for us to try to create more balance on a daily basis. This puts us in the driving seat to make decisions which can increase and preserve our happiness. As Ralph Marston’s says:  ‘happiness is a choice, not a result’.

Related content:

To Hygge or not Hygge, that is the question

Growing pains: our kids and the internet

Was Aristotle right when he said ‘give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man’?

What’s your ‘Life in Books’?

Inspired by the recent TV programme “My Life in Books” on BBC2, I’ve been thinking about what mine would be – a bookish version of Desert Island Discs.  I eventually whittled my favourites (summarised below in the order I discovered them) down to five.

Back in the day, I used to ask my friends and family what their favourite book, film and song was.  Whilst the initial motivation was to get some recommendations, it ended up being quite surprising and revealing at times.  Mind you, if that’s the case, I’m not sure what this lot says about me.

Just for the record, Catcher in the Rye would get my top spot – with the caveat that I’ve only read it once in my early teens.  I’m not sure if I’d want to read it again, as it’d probably never live up to my memory.

Come Follow Me – poems for the young, anthology published by Evans Brothers (1966)

I was probably about 7 years old when I got this.  It’s a children’s poetry book and contains a poem about a dog called Jacob (the name of my family dog at the time).  I used to learn poems from this book to entertain myself.  It sounds antiquated now, but that was in the days when there weren’t even four regular channels on the TV – crazy I know.  I’ve given it to my eldest and so it now sits on his shelf gathering dust.

Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild (1936)

I loved ballet and this told the story of sisters going to dance school, which was a dream of mine at the time.  It’s a similar era to The Famous Five and Swallow and Amazons, so it may no longer be on the radar for today’s girls, but I’d read to a daughter if I had one (unfortunately, it wouldn’t cut the mustard with my boys).

I must have been about 9 or 10 when I also enjoyed A Stitch In Time by Penelope Lively (1976).  It was one of those books which whisks you off on summer holidays with a bit of mystery and magic thrown in.  Another amazing book was The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig (1968), her autobiographical account of the time she spent as a child in a World War II Siberian gypsum mine.  It’s along a similar vein to The Diary of Anne Frank, but with a less harrowing ending.  It’s beautifully written and I can still vividly remember the part where her mother washed and reused some old red wool to knit her a jumper.

The Famous Five, Enid Blyton (1942<)

I loved The Famous Five adventures and it’s been amazing to rediscover them with my son.  It’s the sign of greatness that they’ve stood the test of time and continue to captivate both adults and kids.  I also loved Swallows & Amazons (Ransome, 1930), however when I re-read it to my own son, I was surprised how heavy-going it is at the beginning and how technical it is about sailing.  I was old enough to read it to myself when I initially read it, so maybe I found it easier to follow.  In any case, I was a tomboy, so these were right up my street.

Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger (1951)

Probably my favourite book of all time because, quite predictably, I read it in my early teens and it hit the ‘coming of age’ spot for me.  I’ve not revisited it as an adult, so I’m not sure whether I’d still enjoy it. At the time though I loved it so much that it prompted me to seek out the rest of JD Salinger’s lesser-known books.  One of my kids even has a middle name in tribute to one of his characters (my other son shares his name with a character from A Room with a View (Forster, 1908)).

Scar Tissue, Michael Ignatieff (1993)

I remember being captivated by this book, I found it amazing, but isn’t one that I’d want to read again.  It’s pretty heavy – about someone who watches his mother decline into Alzheimer’s and the effect on her memory and character.  I came across it when it was shortlisted for an award and thought it was beautifully written, fascinating and credit it with inspiring me to study psychology.

Regeneration, Pat Barker (1991)

This was a fantastic trilogy about the first world war, which is up there along with All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque, 1929) for me. It’s fiction, but incorporates the stories of actual people (the psychologist Rivers who treated returning soldiers such as Siegfried Sassoon with shell shock).  Again, it came to my attention for being on an award shortlist and was an early influence in my interest in psychology. I see now that this book has been slated, perhaps by people who knew more about everything than I did at the time, but as a teenager, it did the job for me.

Affluenza, Oliver James (2007)

I bought this for my sister-in-law to commemorate her taking her first Holy Communion in her 20s.  I got it as an alternative gift to the usual religious fare.  It’d just come out and seemed to hit the nail on the head in a non-secular way.  Oliver James is a fantastic modern-day psychologist and one read of this book gives you instant immunity to the next sports car you see whizzing past.  Quite handy when I was living in a part of London where every other car was something that wouldn’t be out of place in Top Gear.  He’s also written amazing books on family life (They F*** You up and How not to F*** them up).

Touching the Void, Joe Simpson (1988)

This had me gripped from the beginning.  It’s memorable, not only because of the incredible true story of survival against the odds, but because I discovered it by accident on my first holiday with my now husband.  We’d gone to Chamonix for a two-week skiing holiday, only for there to be too much snow – all the ski-lifts were shut due to the avalanche risk.  Since it’s a mecca for climbers as well as skiers, I found this account of a climbing expedition that went wrong in the bookshop – I bought it because it was the only book written in English.  I enjoyed the book so much that my now husband started reading it when I put it down which led us to read it on rotation.  The other thing about that holiday was the Black Eyed Peas song “Shut Up” played on repeat on the radio (quite grating, but the sheer repetitiveness of it turned into a running joke).  Even more unbelievable, the film then coincidentally came out a week later at the local tiny cinema (because that’s where the ill-fated pair met) and we were there to see it.  ‘Every cloud…’ and all that.  Whilst on paper the holiday was a bit disastrous, I remember it fondly.

Notting Hell, Rachel Johnson (2006)

I read this book after I’d just had my first son, having lived in London for ten years, so all the money, pomp and preposterousness of life in the capital was very relatable.  A couple of years before we’d rented an upper-floor flat of a white stucco building which backed onto a large communal garden in Little Venice.  It was like living on a film set (indeed, a little street nearby was frequently commandeered as such – all very Richard Curtis).  After a stint in grey Islington, it felt like a little patch of paradise.  It was also amazing for people watching.  Our square was reminiscent to the setting for Notting Hell in which the author luxuriates in poking fun at the wealthy, privileged and self-obsessed, revealing their lives to be less perfect than their interior design may lead you to believe.  Of course, it’s all hammed-up for comedy, but that’s part of the fun.

The BFG, Roald Dahl (1989)

I only properly discovered Roald Dahl last year through the BFG, but not through the recent film as you might imagine.  Ironically, we avoided watching the film as it looked a bit scary (ridiculous I know, but I’d only read The Twits (1980) which is quite dark and the trailer for the BFG seemed quite dark too). It was only later that I plonked the book in my trolley when it was on offer at the supermarket.  It was even later still that got it off our shelf when I was trying to find a book that would be acceptable to both my kids.  My youngest still liked picture books, but he’d just decided to share a room with his older brother, so it was an opportunity to consolidate their bedtime story times.  Our copy of the BFG has some of Quentin Blake’s pictures and was also something new for all of us, so I thought I’d give it a shot.  It was lovely to all discover it together – collecting dreams in jars and blowing them into children’s rooms with a trumpet was my favourite idea.  My youngest was sucked-in by the silliness of the whizz-pops and snozcumbers and so we’ve been wading through the rest of Roald Dahl’s books ever since.

My final Five

I’m conscious that I’ve been way more indulgent than the rules of the TV show, so if I had to choose only five, they would be the following.  Probably for the associated memories as much as the books themselves:

  1. Famous Five
  2. Catcher in the Rye
  3. Regeneration
  4. Touching the Void
  5. BFG

What would be yours?

What advice would you give your younger self?

A number of celebrities were asked this question on a radio programme I heard recently and it got me thinking about what my advice would be. I’d only thought about it fleetingly before and not given it much consideration.  In any case, I’d have assumed that I’d have loads to say and that it’d be impossible to shut me up – but now I’ve thought a bit more about it, I’m surprisingly stumped for a response.  It’s not because I think I knew it all back then, or that I’ve not learnt anything since, it’s because it feels like taking bricks out the bottom of a game of Jenga.  If we’re really the sum of our experiences, we can’t selectively remove bits of our past without the whole lot tumbling down.

The question itself is from the same stable as regret and fatalism – neither of which are my bag.  It implies that if we had our time again, we’d do different things, things differently or that it didn’t matter either way, as all would come good in the end. They don’t take into account that we’re who we are today because of the experiences we’ve had. Those trials and tribulations are what made us.

But nit-picking aside, what would you say if someone asked you this? I reckon ‘worry less’ would be the most universal answer, but even that’s contentious.  No doubt our worry fueled the contentiousness that got us where we are today. However, I’m also sure there’ll be other occasions when worrying has been counter-productive, perhaps preventing us from trying something new; or when it has caused us to sabotage ourselves rather than risk facing failure. There’s also the energy we may have wasted by worrying about stuff which is out of our control – either stuff which kept us up at night, or when we sweated the small stuff.  The antidote is to take a leaf out of Niebuhr’s book and have the “serenity to accept the things [we] cannot change, courage to change the things [we] can and the wisdom to know the difference”.  Sounds pretty reasonable in theory, but sometimes it’s easier said than done.  The other issue with it is that there aren’t any short-cuts, we only gain that wisdom with age.

Even if we gave ourselves whatever nuggets we can think of, it may not have made a blind bit of difference in any case.  Experiments have found that young people are more prone to peer-influence and risk-taking – a recipe to live life on the wild side.  So, what works for us now may not have worked for us then (I wanted to do parachute jump back in the day, these days even mild turbulence gives me the heebie-jeebies).

At first I also thought this question was a proxy for the advice we’d give our kids, but I don’t think it works like that either.  Bearing this in mind, I’d probably just tell my younger self to “learn to cook and try running” (given that family mealtimes now resemble an episode of ‘Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook’ and that I only discovered I loved running when I was twenty five).

Kids have to make their own mistakes and as parents, we can only hope that their bumps in the road will be minor – just enough for lessons to be learnt without collateral damage.  The accumulation of inevitable knocks and set-backs will smooth their edges and mellow them over time.  If we snipped-out the negative bits here and there, the positives wouldn’t feel so great either.  You can’t have the highs without the lows – as studies comparing lottery winners and accident victims attest – happiness is relative.

A home-made heart and a thought that counts

The Milk Tray Man, the Diet Coke advert, The Princess Bride.  The romantic hero is always cast in a dramatic, attention-grabbing light.  Either this reflects the fact that women are hard-wired for it, or that we’re being sold a vision of romance that we’ll spend a lifetime chasing after.  Consequently we cast our unsuspecting partners in the role of romantic lead and then become disillusioned if reality doesn’t deliver the fantasy.  We’re then at risk of throwing away the good for not being good enough.

In my younger days, I was the recipient of some dubious Valentines offerings, including a pitiful bunch of reduced-priced carnations from a garage forecourt.  Slightly more thoughtful was a CD posted through my door with ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me”.  Unfortunately the thought was not enough to rekindle the relationship.  The shoe just didn’t fit and no gesture, romantic or otherwise was going to change that.

Given my patchy experience of Valentines gifts, I found it somewhat grating during the same era, when I saw others collect their expensive and reassuringly-showy roses from the reception desk at work (sometimes with a balloon or teddy bear in tow).  Whilst I would have liked something (I wasn’t immune to the pernicious desire to keep up with the others), even I could see that the balloon / teddy was a step to far.  It was just a bit weird.  These were women, not three year olds.

That V-day was topped-off by being wedged between bunches of enormous plumes on the tube home, when my nose was quite literally rubbed in the external markers of others’ supposed value.  A case of sour grapes left me wondering what the motivation for sending flowers to an office was.  If they were just for the receiver, why were they so ostentatiously sent? Yes, it’s lovely to surprise someone, but at that highly self-conscious age, it seemed to be about something more than that.  After all, in an open-plan office, an audience would be guaranteed.

Whatever the motivation, the experience was certainly good training-ground for what was to become ‘the-great-engagement-ring-display’, which is to young 20-something city workers what tails are to peacocks.  Diamonds may be “a girl’s best friend”, but my cynicism had me wondering whether the ring symbolised a life together, or the future husband’s (supposed) net worth?

More interesting was the preference for size over quality.  Someone pointed out to me that since no one can tell a diamond’s purity with the naked eye, it doesn’t really matter.  On the face of it, that may be true, but then the analogy creeps in.  Often others’ won’t know about the quality of a person, or a relationship – but you will.  Surely that’s what counts?

India knight hit the nail on the head when she recently said “Any pair of idiots can have a nice time while the sun shines. Romance is about what happens when it rains”, and that  “a real grown-up romance is built from 1,000 daily acts of kindness”.

Valentine’s certainly takes on a different focus and sentiment once you have kids. They make cards for their parents in a lovely unselfconscious way in all their misspelled glory. Whilst I’m not into the showy-stuff, nor am I one to shun the sentiment.  Dismissing the whole thing as a commercial enterprise is a puritanical step too far.

Whilst I agree ‘love’ isn’t just annual event, I’ll still be looking forward to a home-made heart and a thought that counts.  I’ll take those above any rose.

Dead poets society – my internal soundtrack

As we begin our long crawl through 2017, Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ comes to mind:

“I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-gray

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres, And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires…”

Apparently I’m not alone in remembering it at this time of year (it was a newspaper’s  ‘poem of the week’ at the end of 2009).  My recollection of it is however homage to the way in which my English teacher brought it to life.  What I didn’t realise was how long those lines would stick with me .

This soundtrack of half-forgotten lines that I once studied have punctuated events throughout the year and throughout my life.  But I only became conscious of this when school was long behind me.  Now every time I recall them, I’m further cementing them in my memory.

Each birthday, Cleopatra’s words from Shakespeare’s eponymous play ring in my ears: “age shall not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”.  Whilst I’m doing more withering these days, I’m hoping that the trade-off is the infinite variety of a life well-lived.

Unfortunately, I’m also haunted by Philip Larkin’s ‘Let This be The Verse’.  It warns:  “They fuck you up, your mum and dad, They may not mean to, but they do.  They fill you with the faults they had, And add some extra, just for you”. Here’s hoping that as a parent myself now, it’s not entirely prophetic.

So if you are an English teacher, lamenting whether your pupils will ever remember their texts, or will ever be able to relate such texts to modern times, you can also be reassured –  once they remember, they may never forget.

As I learnt so many years ago, Hardy wrote The Darkling Thrush at the turn of the century to describe how the chirping song of a thrush brought hope during a desolate winter. Whilst there was no frost on my garden on New Year’s Day, one hundred and seventeen years later, our crisp white lawn on recent mornings has evoked his words once more.

All we need is that birdsong – hurry up Spring!