Hospital reading, holiday reading

Unsurprisingly, one is much more enjoyable than the other!

I (rather obviously) haven’t posted here for some time. Just before our half-term holiday I had a quick children’s book round-up I was hoping to squeeze in around packing and tidying up before we went away for a week. But sometimes life happens differently and instead I ended up in hospital with my daughter who had suffered a concussion. Fortunately she is fine now but she had a very nasty and unexpected reaction to the bump to her head and so we had two rides in ambulances with sirens and flashing lights, neither of which she was aware to her lasting regret, and a short stay in the PICU unit. All the medical professionals who looked after her from the initial paramedic and ambulance driver to the mobile PICU transfer team to the doctors and nurses at the PICU were amazing and we are very thankful to them for all they did for us and continue to do for so many families every day.

Even a brief spell in hospital involves a lot of waiting or just sitting so once all the drama had calmed down and my husband went home to get me some overnight things I asked him to bring me a book to read to my daughter when she was well enough and if she was in the mood and also something for me to read if she was asleep. She and I have been reading The Betsy-Tacy Treasury: The First Four Books by Maud Hart Lovelace, an American classic which i totally missed out on when I was little but which we gave to my elder daughter for her eighth birthday. It became a firm favourite and so I am now sharing it with my younger daughter, she and I hearing it together for the first time. It is about two little girls who are five in the first book but who grow with the books. Betsy hasn’t got a special friend in her neighbourhood until the ‘bashful’ Tacy moves in opposite and, after an initial brief misunderstanding, they become such firm friends that people refer to them as though they were one girl. Like the English favourite Milly-Molly-Mandy, Betsy-Tacy and their friend Tib, who joins them in the second book, have peaceful domestic adventures and enjoy their childhood. Left alone in the house they make an ‘Everything Pudding’ and a Mirror Palace. They build a wooden house in the basement from the winter logs delivery and afterwards play the Three Little Pigs. They perform in the School Entertainment, crown a Queen of Summer, go to the theatre and cut their hair for keepsakes. Although the books are set at the end of the 19th century and the start of the twentieth there is a lot in them that feels much more modern, sometimes startlingly so. The sometimes delicate relationships between friends and sisters are explored, along with the startling shock of a new sibling or the death of one. Perhaps the most surprising was the girls’ adventures in ‘Little Syria’, a mini-neighbourhood near their own where religious refugees from Syria have made a new home in America. Some of the boys at school chase and abuse these people but, gradually, Betsy, Tacy and Tib make a friend of a little Syrian girl and her family. As they come to learn more about their neighbours and their culture, Betsy’s father tells them ‘They want to be free from oppression and religious persecution. We ought to honor them for it’.

When my husband asked me what book he should bring me, my mind was blank. I couldn’t think of anything suitable. In the end I asked him to bring Louis May Alcott’s Under the Lilacs, which I had picked up in Kim’s Bookshop, Arundel and had been meaning to get around to reading. Obviously, I was hoping for something like Little Women but I found this book about some children who have a tea party and shelter a little runaway and his dog very difficult to get into and I am afraid I only managed a few pages. The children’s diction seemed cumbersome and I kept tripping over it and having to go back. In the end I switched to The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomlin which tells the tale of Dickens’ affair with this socially unacceptable woman who has since been all but excised from his biography. I am sure that this will be worth persevering with but hospital was clearly not the right place to start it and after the first chapter I didn’t get much more chance to look at it.

Our pre-holiday trip to the library to stock up on reading material went by the wayside so the girls just packed some favourites and we hit the bookshops when we got to Devon. We love the children’s section in Harbour Books, Kingsbridge (a town recently made famous for being the home town of Harold Fry, and thus the start of his pilgrimage, in Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry).  My elder daughter chose Eva Ibbotson’s A Company of Swans which she and I are reading together. In the early twentieth century the daughter of a Cambridge professor who doesn’t believe in university education for girls lives a grey, stale life with her father and aunt. Yearning for something more she is dismayed to learn that her family have lined up a pretentious and pompous suitor whom she fears she will eventually agree to marry just to escape the loveless tedium of her current life. Instead, she is offered a part in a corps de ballet travelling to perform in Brazil and she seizes her chance for a different life. She also bought a copy of The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively about another girl who lives with an aunt or two in a university town but discovers adventure closer to home than the Amazon when a mysterious painted shield in the attic opens a world to another time and place. My younger daughter was, understandably, feeling rather tired and shaken and so I gave in to her request for Fizz the Fireworks Fairy but also bought her The Royal Rabbits of London by Santa Montefiore and Simon Sebag Montefiore in which a little runt of a rabbit named Shylo living under Buckingham Palace helps to foil a plot to take a photo’ of the Queen in her nightie.

We then headed up the hill to the local Oxfam where we found the Dorling Kindersley Children Just Like Me: Our Favourite Stories told by Jamila Gavin. We already have Children Just Like Me and Celebration! Children Just Like Me by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersely which, published as they were in the mid-1990s, now appear rather outdated in some ways as the main illustrations are photographs of the children in their own clothes. The information remains fascinating, however, and they are the sort of book children can dip into every now and then. Our Favourite Stories are retellings of folktales from around the world with some information about the different countries represented and some children who live there. I was also delighted to discover The Spirit of Punchbowl Farm by Monica Edwards. As a girl my mother lived these stories about horsey children who lived by the Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey and I in turn read as many as I could find in my local library when I was little. I dread to think what has happened to all those copies now! I was also pleased to find a copy of Alison Uttley’s semi-autobiographical The Country Child about growing up on a Derbyshire Farm in the late nineteenth century. I have never read it so am looking forward to reading it after my daughter!

Later in the week we dropped into the Dartmouth Community Bookshop where the staff were very kind and let us bring our shivery dog in. My younger daughter tried The Royal Babysitters by Clementine Beauvais, about two girls who become royal babysitters for a day to raise funds for an intergalactic holiday, which she found very funny. My elder daughter has really enjoyed The Sesame Seade Mysteries by the same author so I was keen for us to try this new series. But what was even better was the mixture of surprise and excitement when my daughter realised we had entirely missed a new book by Abi Longstaff, author of the fantastic fairytale retellings series The Fairytale Hairdresser and the short chapter book series The Magic Potions Shop. My daughter really loves The Fairytale Hairdresser with the distinctive illustrations and we have been to a couple of events run by Abi Longstaff who is always friendly, approachable and inspiring. My daughter even chose her a her ‘superhero’ for a homework assignment! However, she is getting a little old for these books now so something a little longer by Abi was just what she’d hoped for. Abi’s new series features Tally, a put-upon maidservant in a big old house, and her friend Squill, a little squirrel who helps her discover a magic library hidden under the manor house  and solve a mystery. My daughter raced through Tally and Squill in a Sticky Situation and was so disappointed to find that she will have to wait until May 2017 for the next installment! However, I have just noticed that Abi published another book last month, How to Catch a Witch, so perhaps Christmas will bring my daughter a nice surprise!

My elder daughter was delighted to find The Maskmaker’s Daughter by Holly Webb as she had just read one of the other Magical Venice Stories, The Mermaid’s Sister, and absolutely loved it. Children Just Like Me: Our Favourite Stories had obviously wetted her appetite for stories from around the world as she also picked out The House of Cats by Maggie Pearson, an amazing collection of folk stories and legends from countries in the EU.

If that seems like a lot of books for a week’s holiday I can tell you that they came in very handy while my daughter had to have a rest at about three-thirty every afternoon when her concussion caught up with her and especially useful when we realised that we were going to have to wait for an hour and a quarter for the next bus to Torcross from Dartmouth! Having a bag full of books is a lifesaver and reading them is the best thing to do while waiting!

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