Monthly Archives: February 2013

Katie and the Bathers by James Mayhew

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Katie and the bathers cover
How to combine a visit to the Impressionists that adorn London’s National Gallery with a cooling dip on a summer’s day? Use your imagination, of course! Cheerful and adventurous young Katie is taken out for the day by her Grandma. Sadly, the swimming pool is full! But Grandma needs a rest, so they pop into the gallery, where Seurat’s glowing Bathers at Asnières ( lure Katie in for a swim in the river.

She makes friends with young Pierre, and they sit on the frame for a rest…oh no! it tips, pouring water into the gallery! A boat is needed, and luckily Seurat provided one in another nearby painting. Pissarro’s Woman Hanging Laundry helps to dry their clothes, and the ‘magician’ in Signac’s Portrait of Felix Feneon returns the river to the painting. Eventually Katie returns to Grandma.

Katie and the bathers
A wonderful way to introduce children to some of the world’s artistic masterpieces and bring them to life, I heartily recommend all of the ‘Katie and the..’ books. Then, take your children to the National Gallery, of course, where they can relive many of their adventures with Katie.

Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm

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Hmm. A rather cheesily told explanation of how sunlight powers all life on Earth. However, it’s brightly and prettily illustrated in an unusual dotted sort of style, making it seem as accessible as many another picture book. And, why not make this excellent point early on?


Touching lightly but clearly on photosynthesis, food webs and outer space, it introduces these big concepts to very young children, intertwining them in a way they can grasp. (Apparently. We’ll see how well it went in later, at school.) If the awe and wonder is ladled on a bit too thickly for my taste, perhaps that won’t bother everyone.
There are too few science books for toddlers anyway – why not start with this one?

Princess Florizella by Philippa Gregory

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This cheery book upends traditional princessy ideas with a not-very-pretty, not-at-all-precious heroine, who’s already got a kingdom (well, she will do) and a castle of her own, thank you. She’s got plenty of liberal, unfeudal, feminist ideas and isn’t in any rush to get married, even to a very nice prince. Entwined within a rollicking tale that includes the required elements of choose-a-bride ball, romantic picnic, attempted rescue from high windows (Florizella climbs down herself) and galloping to a real rescue from a dragon (about to eat the Prince) are some excellent points about it being important to be good company, practical and kind, and considerably less important to be well groomed.

Apparently, I read it none too soon to my almost-five-year-old daughter, who squeaked with Disney-induced excitement and sighed with undue happiness when the Prince proposed (only to be refused). The illustrations are minimal line drawings that failed to thrill my daughter, but the hilarious, heartwarming tale stands alone. Philippa Gregory, as I recall fondly, has written some other tales for children, perhaps for older readers.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams and William Nicholson

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Welveteen Rabbit

This tender, old-fashioned tale is about the imagined feelings of toys, fragile, loved for a while, worn-out and then discarded. It’s fairly long for a preschooler to listen to (at least a half-hour’s reading) but my daughter was entranced, particularly by the account of the Boy’s near-fatal bout of scarlet fever. Although it seems to end happily, with the Velveteen Rabbit rescued from the bonfire and transformed by magic into a real rabbit, for the adult reading it aloud, there is a haunting, wistful subtext. I felt the sadness of those left behind when children grow up, with the loss of each age and stage as they pass, and even the terrible fragility of a child’s life in the days before vaccinations and antibiotics. The toys interact as children do, with friendships and rivalries. Each toy wishes to become “Real”, which can only happen when a child loves it enough to wear it out, as the Skin Horse explains in a beautiful passage to the new Velveteen Rabbit. Is it an analogy for growing up, or growing old? Or just the endless loss of change? But although it is a sad book for an adult to read, I don’t think a young child would find it so, and certainly my daughter much enjoyed a play by Backhand Theatre based on the book at Harrow Arts Centre in 2012. The book is charmingly, though not brightly, illustrated.

Velveteen Rabbit

I leave you with this anecdote: when it was time for my daughter to take leave of her favourite playgroup because she’d soon be starting school, I happened to chat with one of the playgroup volunteers. “Don’t you find it sad to keep watching children grow bigger and leave forever?” I asked. “It is a little sad to say goodbye, of course”, she said, “but what’s really sad is when, occasionally, a child does not develop and grow as he should, and move on towards growing up.” That made me think about such changes in a much more positive way.