Books: i-SPY Creepy Crawlies and i-SPY Trees
2016, Collins Poem: A Calendar of Sonnets: March by Helen Hunt Jackson
How is Spring where you are? Here it is in full bloom and today we finally had a properly warm day. It’s so nice to be able to hang the washing on the line again!
Here is what we’ve been up to lately.
Currently I’m reading a couple of mysteries, but we’ve also been going about looking for signs of Spring with some i-SPY books.
These are particularly fun because you earn points for each species you spot, but there are many nature guides/books out there. The RSPB Handbook of British Birds comes out whenever we see a strange bird on the feeder. If you want a book to read rather than use as a field guide, my husband has been reading The Wood for the Trees: The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood by Richard Fortey. I’ll get back to you if he has any thoughts on it. So far this Spring I have spotted, among others: a wren, dunnocks, robins, goldfinches, honey bees, bumblebees, snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, violets, primroses, and various flowering trees including cherry, apple, and blackthorn.
It’s a great time to go for a walk and see what you can spot! Even small spaces like lawns, hedges and flowerpots will have an amazing world of minibeasts waking up and starting to roam about. And even if you are still snowed in, if you look closely the trees should be budding and birds returning.
The other day my husband made marmalade, which we have never done before. It was quite a production, but now we have a row of gleaming jars full of citrusy goodness. I personally don’t like marmalade, but if you, like my husband and Paddington Bear, are a fan, it’s one of the easier preserves to make.
Marmalade is nice on a toasted tea cake or even hot cross bun on one of those still-chilly mornings. And if you don’t like it, you could have lemon curd instead. Citrus fruits are really nice to have in the colder months, when there are fewer fruits around.
Right now our windowsills are just covered in a variety of seedlings, gathering their strength indoors before they face the cold. There are rows of dahlias, citruses, Black-eyed Susans, and even a little maple grown from seed.
No doubt it will be cold and blustery again tomorrow, but the seedlings are a cheerful sight and fill us with expectation for the Summer.
What have you been reading/eating/doing this March?
Book: All Join In by Quentin Blake
1998, Random House
March is a funny month. It’s still cold (and, in some places, snowy), but the daffodils and crocuses are pushing up, the snowdrops are already blooming, and the trees are all covered in catkins and buds.
Now is a great time to put on your wellies and go for a muddy walk to look for signs of Spring.
Today’s book is All Join In, a book of seven poems written and illustrated by Quentin Blake. They are loosely related in theme, but all relate to a motley group of family/friends who get up to all sorts of activities, usually noisily and messily, but with great enthusiasm. All Join In is all about making music…or just noise.
‘The Hooter Song’ concerns a pair of children who thoughtfully ‘help’ various adults by surprising them with bicycle horns.
‘Nice Weather for Ducks’ is about a muddy walk and joining in the duck song.
‘Sliding’ concerns various means of going downhill quickly: banister, sled, etc.
‘Sorting Out the Kitchen Pans’ is about some more helpful children who take up the noisy task of…sorting kitchen pans.
‘Bedtime Song’ is not a lullaby, but about joining in with yowling cats.
‘All Join In’ (part two) is just about all the various ways the family and/or friends all join in, whether with cleaning, painting, or eating a chocolate fudge banana cake.
These poems are fun for anyone, but they would be particularly fun for younger children, because they are meant to be read aloud. Little children love repetition that they can join in with, and each of these poems has that. They are often fun things to shout out, as well, such as BEEP-BEEP or QUACK QUACK QUACK! They also have the benefit of a simple but effective rhyme scheme which is good for demonstrating how rhyming and poetry work. I certainly know what I will be bringing to class for World Book Day.
The illustrations, of course, are typical Quentin Blake: very lively, fun, and fluid, with lots of funny little details to find. They complement the messy, noisy poems very well and make the characters seem like people you’d love to hang out with.
The downside is that many children would probably be inspired by these poems to start sorting out the kitchen pans! But that could be fun too. So get together in a group, make some noise, walk through mud, do some Spring cleaning, or go sledding, and when that’s tired you out, enjoy a slice of Ferdinand’s chocolate fudge banana cake. Peanut Butter Chocolate Fudge Banana Cake (grain-free)
Ingredients For the cake:
1 greenish banana, thickly sliced
3 cups peanut butter (or almond, cashew, sunflower or other nut or seed butter)
2 cups dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1.5 cup plain cocoa powder
⅔ cup grated coconut
1 cup maple syrup
1.5 Tbsp brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
1.5 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
For the frosting/topping:
2 cups dark chocolate, roughly chopped
2 cups cream
1 Tbsp coconut oil
1 banana, thickly sliced
2 cups grated coconut
Mix together all of the cake ingredients except for 1 cup of the chopped chocolate. Put greaseproof paper in a round 8 inch cake tin and sprinkle in some of the chocolate you put aside. Then pour in half of the batter and spread with a spatula to cover the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle over some more chocolate and then put your banana slices on top of that. Try to place them on their sides so that when the cake is cut they will be more visible.
After that, pour over the rest of the batter and top with the rest of the chocolate. Bake at 180 C/356 F for 25 – 30 minutes, checking after 20 to make sure it is not getting overdone. It’s OK (and in fact, desirable), for the cake to be a bit squidgy, like a brownie. When the cake is done, wait for it to cool and turn it out. While it is cooling you can make the frosting, which is a basic ganache.
Melt the 2 cups of chopped dark chocolate very gently in a double boiler (you can rig one by using a metal or Pyrex bowl in a saucepan of simmering water). Remove from heat and then slowly whisk in the cream and coconut oil. Put in the fridge for 10 – 20 minutes to cool — you want it to be pourable but not too runny. Meanwhile, put your banana slices on top of the cake (you could try whole bananas like Ferdinand, but I suspected that would end in disaster). Then pour the ganache over the cake. Bananas are quite difficult to coat, it turns out, so you may have to melt some extra chocolate and dip them in. Lastly cover in shredded coconut — because if we’re having chocolate, fudge, and banana we might as well have peanut butter and coconut too.
And it’s OK if it looks super messy because that’s what we’re going for, right?
Also this is only a small cake but then again I’m not feeding five adults, twenty-one children, a cat, and a duck.
This is the perfect treat to enjoy with a glass of milk after a walk in the cold March air. And although Pancake Tuesday is over, we might as well have a couple of days more of a carnival atmosphere of noise and rich food. Especially if it’s raining.
Book: Snow White by the Brothers Grimm, freely translated from the German by Paul Heins, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
1974, Little, Brown & Co.
Yesterday we went out into the fields to do our last foraging of the Autumn. We found blackberries, rose hips, haws, sloes, and damsons. Now is the time of year to finish storing up all the bounty you’ve gathered in for the Winter.
I think it’s fun to really get involved in each season. The time around Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, and their less-remembered cousins, All Saints’, All Souls’, Samhain, and Winternights, are a reminder of how people used to view this time of year. It was a liminal time, when it was no longer safe to go out late, because of the spirits, elves or goblins which might be about. So instead it was the perfect time to stay in and be festive and cozy with your friends and family, and enjoy the fruits of the year.
This Hallowe’en I plan to spend doing just that. I don’t like anything too creepy, but I think it’s a nice time to read some of the older fairy tales, which certainly had their share of darkness and weirdness. If you look for the original Grimm’s tales, for example, they are a lot different from the ones we are familiar with.
This version of Snow White is translated from the original German and retains all of the darker elements from the folktale. I think we all know the basic story of Snow White, so I will focus on the ways in which it differs from the modern version.
The story opens immediately with some evocative imagery:
Once in the middle of winter, when snowflakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a Queen sat sewing by a window, and its frame was of black ebony. As she sewed, she glanced up at the snow and stuck her finger with the needle and three drops of blood fell into the snow. Since the red seemed so beautiful against the white, she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white, as snow, as red as blood, and as dark as ebony.”
The story carries on with the birth of Snow White, the death of the Queen, and the introduction of the evil stepmother Queen and her obsession with being the fairest in the land. When she sends the huntsman to kill Snow White, however, she asks for her lungs and liver. And when she receives what she believes to be them (the huntsman actually kills a boar), she eats them.
Snow White finds the house of the Seven Dwarfs, where there is a nice little reverse Goldilocks sequence where she eats and drinks a little bit from each of the seven plates/cups because she doesn’t want to take too much from any one person. She then tries out several beds before she finds one the right size for her. The dwarfs come home and perform the three bears part of the sequence by exclaiming “who has been eating from my little plate?” and “who has been lying in my bed?” It would be interesting to find out whether this influenced The Three Bears, or the other way around, or if it was a common story trope at the time. After that the evil Queen comes after Snow White, of course, except in this version she does it three times. The first time she comes selling lacings for corsets. She pulls the laces so tight that Snow White cannot breath and falls down as if dead, but when the dwarfs loosen the laces she is fine again. The second time the Queen comes selling combs, which are poisoned so that when it is stuck into Snow White’s hair she again falls down as if dead. But the dwarfs remove the comb and she is fine. Each time the dwarfs warn Snow White to never, ever let anyone in when they are away, and to not take anything from anyone. It makes Snow White seem not too bright that she keeps doing this, but the story emphasises that she is young and trusting.
Evil Queen, beein’ spooky
The final time, the Queen makes the poisoned apple. This one is more clever though, as she predicts that Snow White will be more cautious after being nearly murdered twice. So she makes one side of the apple red and poisonous, and one side white and harmless. She shows Snow White that she will eat half the apple herself, so it must be safe. Of course Snow White gets the red half, and falls down dead.
This time, although the dwarfs try everything, they cannot wake her, so they make the glass coffin for her and keep watch over it.
Interestingly, in this version the Prince does not wake Snow White with a kiss, which is good, but instead asks the dwarfs if he can take her away with him so he can always look at her, which is also a bit creepy, but then again she’s dead so it hardly matters to her where her coffin is.
Except when the Prince’s men are carrying the coffin away, they stumble and jostle it, and the piece of apple is dislodged from Snow White’s throat. She wakes up, the Prince immediately proposes, which she is apparently perfectly happy with, and the wedding is arranged. There is a bit of a different ending, however. The Queen is invited to the wedding, but when she arrives, she is made to dance in red hot shoes of iron until she is dead.
Obviously this book is not for very young children, even though it is a picture book with fairly simple text. But older children can enjoy the creepiness and discuss why tales like this were told long ago. It is clearly a cautionary tale for young people about letting in strangers or accepting gifts, but also an aspirational story about being rewarded for kindness. It perhaps also is about the perils of being obsessed with physical beauty.
The illustrations, by Trina Schart Hyman, have a great moody, dark quality to them which complements the story. They are fun to pore over on a gloomy evening, to see all the details she put in.
To go with a dark story, I have made a dessert which is both red as blood and dark as ebony. It is not made with apples, but with damsons. If you cannot find damsons, you can use any other dark fruit instead, but you may have to thicken it more and adjust the sugar (as damsons are very tart). Kissel is a sort of syrup, popular in Eastern Europe and Russia, which can be either a drink, or a dessert with pancakes, ice cream, or cream.
Wash the damsons and put into a pan. Cover with water and bring to the boil, then simmer until the fruit is soft. Push through a sieve or squeeze in a cheesecloth or jelly bag to remove the stones and skins. At this point I had about 2 cups of purée. Add the sugar and warm in a pan until the sugar is dissolved. Put the cornflour or substitute into a bowl and dissolve in tablespoon or so of warm water, add it to the fruit puree and stir over a low heat until it is like a thick syrup. Pour into bowls and serve at room temperature, with yogurt, cream, pancakes, porridge, or milk kissel, which is pretty much the same thing but made with milk instead of fruit.
If you use a bit less cornstarch, this would be a very fun, slightly gruesome-looking drink for Hallowe’en! And as a syrup there are so many uses for it.
Book: Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers
2015, Clue Publishing Poem: Old October by Thomas Constable
So where have I been? Well, I’ve been moving house. We moved from one county to another, as well. As I’m sure you guys know, moving house is THE WORST, we’re still living out of boxes, and so I haven’t been reading a lot or making much food that doesn’t come out of a box or a tin.
However, I thought a little update was in order. So here is what I have been up to lately.
I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but my favourite thing to read, besides kid’s books, is a good Golden Age mystery. And while I do prefer paper books, the Kindle app can be useful during busy times. I’m currently reading this:
I’m only a couple of chapters in, and I’m not sure what I think of it yet. While it’s hugely entertaining and has a great tone and sense of humour, I’m not quite sure where it’s going. It was written in 1913, and one of the chapters seems to be anti-suffragists, but that’s a risk you run with old books. Also, that chapter is narrated by a character who may be being made fun of by the author himself, so you never can tell. I am still really enjoying it, but I am thinking of waiting to finish it until the Winter, because I like my books to be seasonal, and it has a great snowed-in atmosphere.
I do recommend reading mysteries in the Fall. They are an inexhaustible resource; even when you have got through Christie and Sayers there are so many more obscure authors to read, and you might find a hidden gem. Seven Keys to Baldpate, for example, is free on the Kindle app, and you never know what you might find cheap by having a nose around Amazon or your library book sale.
We are having to be very frugal in our new circumstances, but two things which are cheap and comforting are tea and oatmeal. If you don’t eat oats I still recommend the lovely comfort of a hot bowl of something: soup or broth, for example. And tea is the best for making you feel like you are treating yourself! It does not need to be fancy. Here I am having Good Earth Sweet & Spicy tea which is maybe the yummiest tea ever made. And for bedtime you cannot beat Sleepytime.
As I said, moving takes over everything so we haven’t had time for much. But we have made time to explore the countryside around our new house. We are so lucky to be able to live in the cutest little village now, with lots of fields and hedgerows. But no matter where you are, there is usually a field or a park or a pick your own or a community garden where you can:
It’s a bit late in the year and a lot has been picked over, but we found rose hips, haws, sloes, bullace, damsons, and of course blackberries. There will hopefully be enough to make at least one jar of hedgerow jam or chutney for the Winter. And it is just fun to do!
What are you reading/eating/doing this October?
I will hopefully be back with another post before the end of October, as things settle in. As soon as the books are unpacked I will have to have another read of Squashed, for sure!
I’ll leave you with a poem for those of us who are all about this time of year and the coziness it brings!
Book: The Willow Flute: a North Country Tale written and illustrated by D. William Johnson
1975, Little, Brown and Company.
Goodbye Winter! Many flowers are out now: snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils. The mornings and evenings are lighter. Now when I have to get up before 6 am there is a slight brightness to the sky, which makes it a lot easier to drag myself out of bed!
However, it is still very, very cold — colder than it was in December (we’ve had a very weird Winter here). So here is a book for cold weather that looks forward to Spring.
The Willow Flute tells the story of Lewis Shrew, who lives in a great forest. One March evening, Lewis puts on his “boots and his old overcoat, his muffler and his mittens” to go out into “the white woods” to gather twigs for firewood.
When he goes out into the woods and sniffs the air, the woods seem different, even though they are still covered in ice and snow. But “a hint of springtime swirled in the wind.” After gathering twigs, Lewis sits down to rest and falls asleep. When he wakes he is disoriented by the night and cold, and he longs for his house and a cheery fire.
Lost and scared to go out on the surface because of owls, he starts to tunnel under the snow. His clothes are soon torn and he loses his muffler.
Eventually he finds shelter in an abandoned cabin. There he finds a willow flute and plays it.
As he plays, the world begins to warm and thaw. Rain falls and melts the snow, and Lewis can now see his own house. It’s a very interesting moment when Lewis begins to play the flute, as the black and white illustrations begin to have color, starting with himself:
This is a strange little book. The writing is simple and straightforward:
“He paused to breathe the good air. The sun sparkled through the trees and caught on the wonderful flute; a robin landed in a pine tree and green things were thinking of growing.”
But the illustrations are idiosyncratic and striking, done in a very bold and graphic style in black & white, with the interesting choice to bring color in gradually with the arrival of Spring. Older children could explore these stylistic choices in art, with the creative use of hatching and crosshatching, detail and negative space, and other techniques to create an interesting image with just pen and ink.
Another interesting idea would be to explore the story itself, as the author makes the interesting choice to not really explain many things — whose cabin is it? How does the magic flute work? What is the meaning of the cryptic sign (“The bird, whistle please”) which is on the cabin door? Who put it there? Why? These could all be good prompts for creative writing.
This is a very interesting book in and of itself, and suitable for all ages. I myself have certainly had the experience of going out of doors in late Winter and finding that something is subtly different — a hint of Springtime is in the air. I have felt that this year already, but right now it is cold! It may well be where you are too. So here are some cold weather recipes.
Maybe my number one comfort food is beef stew. Daube is a French version, which is cheap, healthy and super comforting. I’ve added ox cheek, which is full of collagen to make it extra unctuous and amazing.
5 garlic cloves, chopped, or 2 Tbsp garlic paste
1/2 lb stewing beef
1 ox cheek (optional, you can replace it with more steak or chuck, but it’s well worth it if you’ve got it!)
1 cup carrots, chopped
2 cups onions, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 Tbsp thyme
1 tsp rosemary
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 cup red wine
Chuck all the ingredients into a large Dutch oven or casserole dish with a lid. You can brown the meat and onions first, but I never bother, because who has the time? Cover and put in the oven at about 300 degrees F (that’s about 150 C). Bake for 2 1/2 to 2 hours (but check on it now and again to make sure the liquid isn’t drying out, and top up with water if it is). Once the meat is fork-tender, it is done! Serve on its own, or with egg noodles (I had mine with vareniki).
Since we could probably do with a hot drink, too, here is a recipe for Butter Tea! Butter tea (or po cha) is common in Tibet and neighboring countries, and is a good alternative for people who want to try Bulletproof-type coffee but don’t like coffee! It is very rich and nourishing.
2 cups water
2 black teabags, or loose equivalent (I used chai)
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp butter (yak butter is traditional, but if, like me, you haven’t got it, use some good yellow grass-fed butter)
1/2 cup cream or whole milk
1 tsp honey (optional) Method
Boil the water and then steep the tea. Steep for at least 3 minutes so it’s nice and strong. Add the cream, salt, and butter. If you have a churn or a blender you can use those, or shake in a jar. But be careful — hot liquids can expand and leak! Personally, I use a tiny whisk that I can roll between my hands — almost as quick as an electric mixer and I don’t have to plug it in! I have found that the butter emulsifies wonderfully. Drink while nice and hot! Note: it may be an acquired taste for those not used to it. You can add a teaspoon of honey, which changes it from salty to salty/sweet. Not necessarily authentic, but this recipe isn’t very authentic to begin with!
Books: Mr. Putter & Tabby Catch the Cold by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Arthur Howard
2002, Harcourt, Inc. Henry and Mudge get the Cold Shivers by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Suçie Stevenson 1989, The Trumpet Club
Well, here we are again! I’m very sorry for the big gap in posts. I was so busy and tired that I just couldn’t keep up. However, I’ve since changed jobs and have much more time and energy. And I have a lot to catch up on!
Being so tired and stressed took a big toll on me, and I spent a long time being pretty sick. But this time of year many of us suffer from that one cold that goes around and gets everyone (especially if you have/work with kids). So I thought we’d start with a couple of books by Cynthia Rylant for sick days. Mr. Putter & Tabby Catch the Cold is part of the Mr. Putter & Tabby series. Mr Putter is an older gentleman who lives with his cat, Tabby. It would be suitable for kids of any age, but it would be good for those who are just starting to read chapter books, as it has four short, easy chapters and fairly simple text. It takes place during Winter. Mr Putter and Tabby love the snow and they love being cozy. They really know what to do on a snowy day: make tea and muffins, light the fire and watch the snow fall. Perfect! But then Mr Putter catches a cold by going out to get the newspaper funnies without a hat. When Mr Putter was a child, colds were fun. His mother brought him soup and tea and adventure books. But the plight of a grownup with a cold is different. You have nobody to look after you (and usually you have to take a lot of cold medicine and go to work…yuck). You can’t lie in bed with toys, soup, tea, and The Call of the Wild.
The rest of the story is about how Mr Putter’s neighbor, Mrs Teaberry, and her dog Zeke, help Mr Putter to get his soup, tea, and adventure book. Zeke brings Mr Putter a Thermos of chicken soup, and another with peppermint tea and honey sticks.
Mr Putter ends up having a great day, and goes to sleep “full of soup and tea and adventure”.
This book is a good read for a wintry day. The illustrations are fluid and charming. Sadly, we have not got a single flake of snow here this year, and I enjoyed looking at the pictures of the snow. If you are lucky enough to have snow, and have some time off, then light the fire, make some soup, muffins, and tea, get cozy, and watch the flakes fall. Still, even if we can’t spend the day in bed, minty tea and adventure books are something almost any of us can enjoy, at home or even during lunch at work. Another book by the same author on a similar theme is Henry and Mudge get the Cold Shivers: The Seventh Book of Their Adventures. Instead of a man and his cat, this series is about a boy and his dog. It has three short chapters and is similar in style and tone. Henry’s big dog Mudge likes it when Henry has a sick day and gets to stay home in bed. Nobody thinks Mudge can get sick, but one day he does, and he has to go to the vet. Henry is worried about Mudge, and the pages where he is sitting in the waiting room are actually quite sad.
It turns out that Mudge just has a cold, and the previous description of Henry’s sick days (Popsicles, comic books, and crackers) are contrasted with Mudge’s (ice cubes, a rubber hamburger, and crackers). Of course Mudge gets well and there is a happy ending. This is a fun book which actually does address how scared kids can be when their pet is ill. Having read this to a bunch of six year olds, they really liked it, particularly Mudge himself. The only food in the book is the Popsicles and crackers. I never had Popsicles when sick as a child, but I did have crackers in my soup. So here is my family’s recipe for classic chicken soup. Chicken Soup
1 chicken (preferably free-range or pastured), giblets removed
2 stalks celery
3 carrots Method
Put a big pot of water on the stove on high heat. You could cut up the chicken here, but I never bother. A 3 lb/1kg-ish chicken fits right in my big pot. The water does not need to fill the pot, it just needs to cover the chicken. Bring to boil and then reduce heat to simmer. As the chicken simmers, ‘scum’ will rise to the top. Get a big spoon and skim it off. This is mostly cosmetic, so I often don’t bother with this either. If you want a clear broth, you can always strain it later. Cut up carrots and celery into vaguely 1 inch pieces and add them to the pot. Cook, simmering, for about 1 to 2 hours, covered, or mostly covered. When the soup is done cooking, take the chicken out of the soup, cool chicken on a plate, then separate chicken meat from bones and skin. Put meat back into soup. Season to taste with salt. You can re-use the chicken bones by putting them in a crockpot with more water to make bone broth.
This soup should be a mild broth. It’s full of goodness and vitamins and will definitely make you feel better! You could add cooked rice or noodles, or have it with crackers.
Of course, if you are sick, and like Mr Putter have nobody to cook for you, soup from scratch might be too much work:
Lazy Chicken Soup Method
Prepare chicken and vegetables as above, put them in a crockpot with a little water, set to low, and go back to it in eight hours! Dilute the broth with water and serve as above.
Extra Lazy Chicken Soup Method
Use bought chicken broth and chicken. Whatever, you’re not feeling well!
Put on your flannel pajamas, crawl into bed with some comic books, and get some rest!