Placards and Novels

There are books for certain weather, workloads and moods.  There are books that satisfy our need for a high body count, or for the tilling of the land. We need to escape, sometimes, from the news and from scrolling social media feeds.  We escape to Three Pines or Port William or Baltimore.  What a gift!  There are so many reasons to read and so many ways that books can reset and refresh us.

I have needed that in 2018.

In between my favourites (old and new), there are a few novels that I read this year that have been a different kind of gift. Not so much an escape, more an invitation.

I have muttered at the radio a lot in 2018.  I have wondered at the certainty expressed on placards and in memes.  How could I ever fit all my complicated thoughts and conflicting emotions on a topic on to a placard?  How could I ever have the certainty to wave it in the air?  These 3 novels, however, have invited me into the kind of issues I sometimes want to escape from.


These novels have simultaneously calmed me down and got under my skin.  I think this is because instead of headlines and soundbites they offer story.  Deep, wide, nuanced story.  We don’t have to align ourselves with a slogan after all, we can read many more words than that.


Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Is it better not knowing the ugly truth, and pretending it doesn’t exist? Or is it better to confront it, even though the knowledge may be a weight you carry around forever?

I hadn’t read any Jodi Picoult books for a few years and had forgotten how well she tackles controversial issues in a nuanced manner.  She thoroughly educates herself on her subject matter and then puts a very human face on it through her novels, giving voice to both sides. Small Great Things was recommended to me by my friend Tory and explores prejudice, race and justice.  In trademark Picoult style – ordinary lives intersect in this novel which is written from the point of view of a black nurse, a skinhead father and a well-intended white lawyer (who would never consider herself racist).  It is a powerful and provocative book and it encouraged me to pick up a few more Picoult books this year.  Her latest novel, A Spark of Light, which centres around an abortion clinic, is on my TBR list for 2019.  I really appreciated her conversation with Jen Hatmaker about it on this podcast.


Beartown by Fredrik Backman

The first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.

On the surface this is a story about ice-hockey, although it is much more than that.  This book is a very different style to Backman’s other books, which are uplifting and quirky.  There are many characters and dimensions to the story which make it slow to get into, but which work powerfully  in the end. The subject matter is difficult (trigger warning), but timely and necessary.  The injustice that surrounds what unfolds feels both unbelievable, yet sadly, believable.  I found myself thinking about this story for a long time afterwards and am looking forward to reading the sequel Us Against You.


This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Our first concern is his happiness of course; but not just today.

Because it wasn’t that  simple was it? Raising children was the longest of long games.

This is the story of an endearing family navigating hard questions that turn into even harder ones. The title of the book comes from the idea that parents often make huge decisions about their kids that feel like guesses. In this sense the book helps us relate to a situation that many of us have no experience of.  Yet the decisions faced by Rosie and Penn feel truly impossible, with far-reaching consequences.  The book gives such insight into the struggles faced by this family.   It lets us eavesdrop on the conversations in the kitchen between 2 parents as they go around in circles trying to decide on behalf of their child.  It captures the depths of their fear and their love.

I think, perhaps, before we ever take a ‘position’ on an issue, we should eavesdrop on these kinds of conversations.  A book that can capture them is truly a gift.


What about you?  What books are you grateful to have read in 2018?


(All Amazon links are affiliate links which means I get a few pennies from your purchase, at no extra cost to you!)


Get Cosy – Our Favourite Christmas Books


After we got our tree and put up the decorations last weekend, Imogen walked around the house in confusion, finally demanding “WHERE ARE THE BOOKS?!”

Daddy was sent back up to the roof-space to retrieve the most important bag – the Christmas book collection. In our house it is added to at the start of December with a new Christmas book from Nana.

If you are a book-buying nana/auntie/dad/teacher/friend and you would like some ideas for this Christmas, here are our very favourite Christmas books (so far!):


How Winston Delivered Christmas (An Advent Story In Twenty-Four-And-A-Half Chapters) by Alex T. Smith


It could be fun to read this story with a grown-up, or even your whole family – get cosy and read your chapter together. Maybe have a biscuit at the same time. Books and biscuits go so nicely together, I think.

I think so too, Alex Smith! This is a gorgeous, wonderfully illustrated, hard-back book with a chapter for each day in the run-up to the 25th. Each chapter features its own (simple) Christmas activity. For children, like mine, whose love language is sticky tape and scissors, this is a total winner. Gorgeous in every way and an absolutely beautiful book to give as a present.


How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss


And what happened then…? Well… in Who-ville they say, that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

Olivia’s favourite. This is a delight to read aloud, nobody does rhyme and rhythm like Dr Seuss. There is Grinch merchandise everywhere at Christmas but it tends to portray the grumpy, mean-spirited Grinch and not the joyus heart of the story. You can’t beat the book.


Christmas in Exeter Street by Diana Hendry

Everyone agreed that the house in Exeter Street was the best place of all to be at Christmas time. The little black cat, curled up in Mrs Mistletoe’s lap, thought he might stay until next Christmas and Lily-Lou, snuggled up in Uncle Bartholomew’s arms, waved her little curly fingers at the Christmas tree and smiled and smiled and smiled.

Lovely, funny and a joy to read aloud, this is probably my current favourite.  It’s Christmas eve and there are guests in every nook and cranny of the house in Exeter Street – wonderfully  illustrated by John Lawrence. My girls would describe this book as “the good kind of weird”.


Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr

One day Mog woke up and nothing was right in her house.

This was the book that introduced us to Mog, so it has a special place in our hearts. The audiobook is lovely too.


How Many Sleeps ‘Til Christmas? by Mark Sperring


WAKE UP! I think it’s Christmas Day!

Little Pip wakes Daddy Grizzle up every morning convinced that Christmas is HERE. Sound familiar?!


Song of the Stars by Sally Lloyd-Jones


The One who made us has come to live with us!

A Christmas board book that captures the celebration in all of creation at the coming of Jesus. Grass and trees, robins and bees all spread the word.


CS Lewis once said “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Our favourite Christmas books are enjoyed by the whole house. What about your house? What would you add to the list?

Thursdays are for being a Cowgirl



“I’m going to be shut on a Thursday”, Liv tells us through mouthfuls of Weetabix, takes a drink of water and explains: “Thursdays are for being a Cowgirl”.

She’s talking about her Engineering place which, it transpires, she plans to open where the car wash is, “I’m going to take it over when it’s old, you know.”

We make the mistake of calling it her company, which upsets her.  “It’s just going to be me, doing one thing at a time.’


Imogen is going to be a firefighter and work night-shift but I overhear them in the swimming changing room talking about an underground tunnel from ‘Liv’s place’ and weekends being mad scientists with their cousin Rose.

Oh, the places you’ll go!


It was World Book Day that triggered this chat, these plans.  Their school suggested they dress up as their ‘dream job’ – the idea being that reading can help us toward an exciting future career path.

And so today – a heart-warming collection of little doctors and dancers and pilots and princesses and vets and astronauts and footballers and rockstars – streaming in and out the school gates.

Among them were a happy little firefighter and engineer, but the truth is, initially they wanted to be a Gruffalo and a scullery maid.

tried not to say the words “YOU CANNOT BE A GRUFFALO WHEN YOU GROW UP!” to my insistent 5-year-old, but I was relieved when she finally let it drop.  Similarly, while I didn’t say out loud that a maid was not quite, eh, aspirational enough, I was rather more encouraging when I heard the word ‘engineer’.

I have been thinking, in hindsight, of this theme of reading and knowing and going places.  It can help us, of course, become engineers and firefighters (especially girl ones, fist pump).  But the places reading gives us access to include the Deep Dark Wood, the wild west and a castle kitchen.

There aren’t enough dress-up outfits for the people we get to be when we open a book, there aren’t enough days of the week for the places we can go if we’re readers.

And honestly? I like the idea of being a Cowgirl on Thursdays.

Cold Weather Comfort Reads

Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

I’d had the idea, once, that if I could get the chance before I died I would read all the good books there were. Now I began to see that I wasn’t apt to make it. This disappointed me, for I really wanted to read them all.

-Jayber Crow


They say that between the pages of a book is a lovely place to be and in this long and cold winter we are currently having, maybe you need a few extra recommendations to curl up with.



I don’t know why I consider a good mystery to be the ultimate comfort read, but this is what I reach for when I’m not in the mood for anything else!  Here are my 2 favourite series:

1. The Maisie Dobbs Series by Jaqueline Winspear

A rich historical setting and an interesting heroine – what’s not to love?!  Mystery, psychology, war stories and romance combine in these gentle but compelling whodunnits.

2. The Chief Inspector Gamache Series by Louise Penny

Set is Quebec these character-driven mysteries involve the uncovering of secrets, the searching of souls and the eating of good food.  You will want to move to the idyllic fictional setting of Three Pines, you will want to eat all the food, you will even want to witness an unconventional murder so that the wise and lovely Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec might arrive and add you to his long list of suspects.  This series is hard not to binge-read.


Old Favourites

I’ve been curling up these evenings with Port William’s deep-thinking, slow-moving bachelor barber Jayber Crow (don’t tell Chris).  I am always in a happy place with Wendell Berry’s gentle prose and any of his stories about the Port William Membership. If these books are new to you then Hannah Coulter is a good place to start.


New to Me!

There’s nothing like finding a new favourite author and having a back-catalogue to work through!

I recently discovered Anna Quindlen through Blessings and Still Life with Bread Crumbs… and Kent Haruf through Our Souls at Night.  I am catching up but there are still many more to read, insert the praise hands.


Quirky Reads

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman is a charming read about the grumpy old man next door.  (It might inspire you to host a Swedish film night which I did for my Book Group – we watched the film and ate IKEA food!)

Wonder by R. J. Palacio is one of those ‘kids’ books’ that everyone should read.  I have heard it described as ‘a book that has made grown men weep’, which my husband can confirm!

In Ginny Moon, Benjamin Ludwig gives voice to a wonderful and fascinating heroine – a fostered teenager with autism.  It’s a hilarious, and deeply moving, page-turner.

The One-in-a-Million Boy (and the 104-year-old woman who saved his family) by Monica Wood is rightly described as ‘As a lovely, quirky novel about misfits across generations’.  Flawed characters, unlikely friendships, redemption… I loved this book.


What about you? What books would you recommend curling up with as we take shelter from the Beast from the East?



(All Amazon links are affiliate links which means I get a few pennies from your purchase, at no extra cost to you!)

Building a Family Reading Culture

A friend recently asked Chris why Olivia likes books so much. “Who does she take after?”, she asked. “She takes after Sharon”, he replied.

Later, he thought about this and realised she doesn’t ‘take after’ anyone, she loves books because she’s been nurtured to love them.

He’s right.

Our approach isn’t complicated, or original – we nurture a love of books by having access to them, and reading aloud, a lot.

Following Wednesday’s post and in the spirit of NI bookweek, here are a few thoughts on the simple art of building a family reading culture…


Anytime Stories

Opening a book and reading to our children is one of the easiest things we can do in our day – no preparation needed, no mess to clean up, no car seats needed to get there.  Yet, outside of the “institution” of Bedtime Stories, we don’t always think to read aloud to our kids.  But maybe, like me, your children’s bedtime is your worst time of the day and that romantic idea you bought into of reading tenderly to your snugly, pyjama-clad little angels doesn’t help.  It took a while for it to dawn on me that I could read books to them anywhere, anytime and that I was better at it (and enjoyed it) in the morning or the afternoon, on the sofa or at the kitchen table or in the car.  We have permission to decide when story time is!

The Library

Those purple and yellow Libraries NI cards have got to be one of the best parenting tools out there.  We are lucky to live within walking distance of our library.  (Not to mention the fact that it is serendipitously situated right beside the school gate).  We love weekly trips to return books and pick new ones, we love sitting at the little tables reading whatever they pick up and we love the storytimes and special events the library puts on.  The library for our girls is part of the weekly routine but it is also somewhere that they can go to in their jammies the first Tuesday night of every month, where they can go in Halloween costumes, or dressed up as animals.  It is like a celebrity spotting if they spy one of the Librarians out and about.  Of course there have been seasons when the particular ages of my children made library visits stressful, when the idea of the library was much more uplifting that the actuality.    In those seasons I think the sanest thing is to visit the library solo (without your travelling circus in tow) and pick the books you know they will enjoy.

Books are Special!

My girls don’t know that some people don’t like books, because according to their own experience, books are special. They are given books as rewards and as presents, so they consider books worthy (which they are!).  On their reward charts they collect stickers to get a book, which is pictured at the bottom.  (I am a big fan of the Book People and they have such good deals on collections of books which are great for stocking up for this.)  When someone gives them a little spending money we take them to a bookshop.  They don’t ask to go to a toy shop because we have never mentioned going to a toy shop.  Someday they are going to want to go, and that’s fine, but we don’t intend to give them the idea prematurely!  This week we went on a bus adventure to Belfast to have a snack and spend birthday money in Waterstones… what’s not to love?!     They genuinely do not know (yet!) that that’s not as legit a holiday activity as going to Disneyland.  We also have book traditions like their Christmas Book Box that comes down from the roof space with the decorations each December (I stole this idea from my sis-in-law).  Each year their Nana buys them a new book for the collection.  There is a lot of anticipation about these Christmas books, a lot of feel-good festive feeling, and already some nostalgia.


All I can say is that this Winnie the Pooh: Dramatisation (Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Palmer) has been the cause of some marital discord in our family.  My husband did not get the memo that we do not talk when it is playing in the car.  “YOU don’t want to miss a word??” he puzzled.

I don’t want to miss a word.  It is perfect.

We also love The Big Mog CD, The Cat in the Hat and Other Stories (Dr Seuss) (of course), My Completely Best Story Collection (Charlie and Lola), The Julia Donaldson Collection and Ladybird Classics.

We use them for car journeys and quiet time in their rooms.  A good audiobook is a simple but wonderful thing.

Choosing Books

When it comes to children’s books I have a similar attitude to them as what I have to tea:  I know what I consider to be a GOOD cup of tea, but frankly, I enjoy all tea.  I make tea with great intentionality in my own kitchen, but there is a place in my heart for a vending machine cuppa, in a crappy plastic cup.

As my girls get older I may have more to say about ‘crappy’ books, there may be more at stake, I get that.  But at this age there is usually some kind of merit in whatever they pick up at the library, or whenever someone is clearing out books and asks do we want them? (we do). Our kids have certainly brought home some random books from that beloved library… I would not spend money on them, they would not be ‘keepers’ in our house, but they’re alright.

The GOOD books then, the ones we choose with intentionality and spend money on, the ones we keep after every sort and cull – we can find out about these from all sorts of places – from our own experience, from going to bookshops and the library alone for a good old nosey, from friends, from articles.  I try to make note of any recommendations I come across that appeal to me.  I am also a fan of the Read Aloud Revival podcast (and Sarah MacKenzie’s blog which includes book lists and regular posts on books).  Sarah is an American, homeschooling, Catholic mama of 6… she may or may not be your thing.  Personally I love her, the guests she has on her podcast and the many, many book recommendations these podcasts provide.

Finally, as it says in the wonderful book Simplicity Parenting, “Kids do not need any one magical book, the newest bestseller or an endless stream of new books, to foster a love of reading. They need time, and mental ease. They need time to read deeply, and sometimes repeatedly. They also need stories that leave some room for their imagination.”


Other NI Bookweek posts:

Our Favourite Children’s Books

The Book that Changed My Life

The Book that Changed my Life

“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”

lord of the flies

When I think of the book that changed my life (one of the books that changed my life) I think of the particular cover that was on our class set, red blood dripping from the grey pig’s head.  I think of the funny little dungeon-like classroom that we had English in that year with Mrs Tinto.  I think of sitting at the Atari ST in my brothers’ bedroom typing out an essay that had got under my skin in a new way, just like the book had.

I started high school already shaped by the stories read on a parent’s knee, by the books on their bookshelves, by my brothers’ hand-me-down reads, by an influential Primary School teacher, by the library.  I was an 11-year-old who loved Aslan and the Saucepan-Man and Nancy Drew and Gilbert Blythe.  I loved the Hardy Boys.  I loved my fair share of missionaries. Books had also introduced me to the Holocaust, to the Troubles in my own country, to poverty and to death.  My childhood is full of books that have changed my life…  or at least steered, steadied, challenged and expanded it.

In that first year of high school we read Boy by Roald Dahl, which I enjoyed, and then we read Lord of the Flies.  And *it* was a game-changer.


I couldn’t seem to get that essay finished, I kept adding bits and adding bits.  I had just learnt to use a thesaurus and I had just learnt to use commas as parenthesis and I’m sure I overused both.  But I wonder now what my 11-year-old self wrote evening after evening?  In between the ridiculous words and the  lengthy verbose sentences, what was my response to this compelling novel?

This book is the one I remember.  This book unsettled me.  This book showed me the potential of story, and of myself, and the world.

I read it and knew, from page 2, that Piggy was wise and yet the dismissal of his wisdom rang loud and true. Did I do this to others? Did I feel like others did it to me?

I felt sympathy and empathy, familiarity and discomfort. I wanted to stand up for Piggy! But I wanted Jack to like me. I wanted Ralph to stay uncorrupted.  I wanted everyone to listen to Simon.  But would I have?

I was compelled to keep reading through the whole disastrous dystopian tale that offered me no happy resolution and no redemption – only the relief of rescue and the poignancy of savages returned to little boys again.  It left me with questions that provoked me beyond the themes of war, civilisation and human nature.  It didn’t follow the ‘formula’ of the books I was used to reading and it made me look at myself, and the world, more seriously.


My 35 year-old-self has retained many things from the stories I grew up with – imagination, an attachment to gingham and ginger beer, a sense of adventure, a love of the underdog.   This book? It hollowed out a place in me that remains.  A place for discomfort, for stories that get under my skin, for stories that ring loud and true even though I don’t want them to.  I make space for these stories where everything is breaking down, even as I believe that all things will be made new.


[Reposted from the archives for NI Bookweek]

Our Favourite Children’s Books

“I was lost, I was scared, but
a STORY led me home again.”
“Oh, no, it didn’t.” “OH, YES, IT DID.”

(Tiddler – Julia Donaldson)


C.S.Lewis once said that “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

Good children’s stories, in our house, are the ones that can endure a hundred bedtime readings.  They are the ones that have Chris and I grinning or laughing out loud.  They are satisfying to read aloud (indeed they inspire us to make an effort, to add a little drama).  And as far as picture books go – they are well illustrated.  In the spirit of NI bookweek, here are some of our favourites…


Our girls are 6 and almost 4 now but we still keep our favourite board books, and probably always will.  Peepo!   Dear Zoo. The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  The “Classics” of Board Books.

We have an absolute favourite in this house though and that is Hug by Jez Alborough.

This almost wordless book is one of the Best. Books. In. The. World. Ever.


The only words in the book are “Hug”, “Bobo” and “Mummy”… mostly just “Hug”.

Except, all the “Hugs” are different because just look at little Bobo’s face!  With perfect illustrations toddlers can sense the emotions and the expressions as Bobo searches for his mama for a hug.  This was the book we heard both our girls “read” from the earliest age alone in their rooms… that one word “hug” uttered tentatively, searchingly, desperately and finally joyously as they followed the story.  They both would drop their heads and fake cry, hands in eyes, in solidarity with the monkey at the mid point.

Hug is simple, beautifully illustrated and has room for much drama and pathos… a perfect little book!


Nurture V Nature – does Olivia love Dr Seuss because she is zany and imaginative, or is Olivia zany and imaginative because she loves Dr Seuss?  Who would know?  One thing’s for sure, she LOVES Dr Seuss:


As Maria Russo wrote in the New York Times “Dr Seuss, over half a century ago, made learning to read an adventure, a club children would actually want to belong to.  And not least, he made reading aloud something parents too, could reliably enjoy”.

I feel like Dr Seuss is an American import we could more fully embrace over here.  The rhythms!  The plots!  The nonsense!  The characters!  The art!  His stories are playful, and profound.  You can discuss the philosophical undercurrents once your children are sleeping or just come downstairs, grinning widely, that you got to read about Mrs McCave who had 23 sons and named them all Dave.

There are articles out there about why Dr Seuss is good for beginning readers, for mastering phonics and making kids word-conscious.  That’s a bonus.  We just love him for the joy.  There is cause to celebrate with Dr Seuss – to celebrate our own unique selves, to celebrate others, or to celebrate by being wildly, wonderfully silly.

The Wonderful World of Dr. Seuss Box Set contains a wonderful mix of some of his best (who could choose?).



More glorious storytelling and galloping characters, near-perfect rhythm and rhyme, more wonderful illustrations.  We love the amazing worlds that Julia Donaldson, and the illustrators she collaborates with, take us to.

My daughter can bring home a new-to-her Julia Donaldson book from the library and even before I have read her the clever, rhyming story, she has figured out the plot from Axel Scheffler’s illustrations.  She has sensed what The Highway Rat does, his character, how he fares in the story and his ultimate fate.

My friend Sharon recently sparked a great “Julia Donaldson Fan Debate” on Facebook in which several of us (slightly crazy) parents of young children got a little over-invested in our critiques, preferences and defenses of  her “work”.  We each tried to pick our TOP 3.  It was impossible.  There was disbelief and disagreement and a lot of “Oh wait! I forgot about this one!”.  There was no doubt from that conversation that Julia Donaldson meets the C.S. Lewis standard.

The books we felt most passionately about were: The Snail and the Whale, A Squash and a Squeeze, Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book, The Troll, Tiddler, Zog, Tabby McTat, Monkey Puzzle, Stick Man, The Gruffalo, Tyrannosaurus Drip and The Smartest Giant in Town.  And the wonderful thing is there are many, many more.


I don’t know what it is about Roger Hargreave’s Mr Men (nostalgia? their nifty little trade-mark size? the familiar story template? the bright and bold cartoons?) but I have always loved them and I love them still.  There are reasons not to – the ‘simple moral lessons’ sometimes make no sense, are sometimes harsh, or inconsistent… “It’s a brutal existence”, Charlie Brooker writes in the Guardian, “albeit a cheerfully rendered one”.  But, I just like them.  I like the wordiness and the repetition and all those adjectives.  I like the cheerfulness of the storytelling.  I like that my girls can act them out.  And I like the cartoons.  As Charlie Brooker also says “The way Roger Hargreaves drew a shoe is still the way a shoe looks when I picture it. Same with a house. Or a hat. Or a butcher. Or a wizard. Or a cloud.”  


Honorable mentions have to go to Hairy Maclary, Mog and Dogger!  What else have I missed?  What are the favourites in your house for adults and children alike?