Book: The Mitten adapted and illustrated by Jan Brett
1989, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Day 5 moves from Sweden to Ukraine. Jan Brett adapted a traditional tale about a boy named Nicki who wanted mittens made from wool as white as snow.
His grandmother, Baba, warns him that they will get lost in the snow. But she knits them for him and sure enough, he loses one in the snow when he goes out to play.
But the mitten looks so cozy and warm that a whole bunch of animals (including a mole, an owl, a badger, and a bear) that pass by decide to crawl inside. The Mitten stretches and stretches, but the last animal (a little mouse) is one too many. The bear sneezes and the Mitten shoots up into the sky.
The story is fairly simple, but the best thing about this book is the illustrations. All the pictures are surrounded by birchbark and embroidery in folk art patterns. To the left of the main picture we always see a smaller picture of what Nicki is doing (inadvertently scaring the animals towards the Mitten), and to the left we see the next animal coming along. They are very pretty illustrations, and full of fun little details.
Hopefully this story will inspire you to go play in the snow — or just seek out somewhere warm and cozy to eat something hearty and do some knitting.
Book: Peter and Lotta’s Christmas by Elsa Beskow
2002, Floris Books
Day 4 is Peter and Lotta’s Christmas. This book is by Swedish author Elsa Beskow. It’s about two children named Peter and Lotta who go to live with their aunts and uncle. While there they experience their first proper Christmas.
The story is actually quite long for a picture book and covers two Christmases and the year in between. On their first Christmas Peter and Lotta don’t know anything about the holiday or its customs, so they are very excited about the Christmas tree, getting gifts, etc. They are, however, very frightened by the Christmas Goat!
For anyone not familiar with the Christmas Goat or Yule Goat, you can read about it here. It is certainly nice to have a story which examines Christmas traditions which are somewhat different from the ones we usually see portrayed. Because Peter and Lotta don’t know that the Christmas Goat is actually just their Uncle Blue dressed up, they are told a fairytale which causes them to go on some interesting adventures over the next year.
By their second Christmas the children have learned a lot. They are no longer afraid of the Christmas Goat and learn who he is. However, they enjoy this Christmas even more than the first, because this year they got to give gifts as well as receive them.
Peter and Lotta’s Christmas is a real treat, especially for Elsa Beskow fans. It has her classic illustrations and lots of lovely details about rural Swedish life in this time period. Because of this it is not a quick read, and is a bit like the Little House on the Prarie Books in that it is a detailed depiction of daily life. The description of how the children made presents for their family is particularly nice.
As you can see from the illustration, Peter and Lotta have cake, saffron buns, and pepparkakor at Christmas. We only had some zimtsterne, which are not Swedish but have all the right spices, and really any gingerbread would do. Yule Goat is optional.
Book: The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg
1991, Penguin Books Ltd
Day 3and we are still in full festive mode. We ventured out once to play in the snow, but the rest of the time is best spent snuggling up with hot chocolate and books.
The Jolly Postman is a deserved classic, and the Christmas sequel is just as fun. For anyone unfamiliar, the Jolly Postman delivers letters to various fairytale characters, and all of the letters come in “envelopes” in the pages and are removable.
The Christmas version allows for the addition of Christmas cards (such as one from Goldilocks to Baby Bear) and gifts. Humpty Dumpty receives a puzzle from all the King’s horses and all the King’s men. The Gingerbread Boy receives a tiny book with an even tinier book inside it from Pat O’Cake Bakers. Red Riding Hood receives a board game from Mr Wolf. All of these are removable and playable.
Part of the fun of this book is all the careful little details that make up the mix of fairytales and English village life, such as the Cat and the Fiddle pub, or the milkman delivering to King Cole’s castle. The illustrations are very lively and fun to pore over.
The Jolly Postman’s Christmas Mince Pie Tally
2 mince pies
24 miniature mince pies
1 cup ginger beer
1 miniature bucket of tea
1 cup of tea
1 glass sherry
1 slice Christmas cake
The Postman finishes his day with a Christmas cake and sherry, but you could just as well have tea and mince pies, or hot chocolate. Anything that makes you feel warm and snug!
Book: Bertie’s Escapade by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard
1949, J.B. Lippincott Company
For Boxing Day we have Bertie’s Escapade. While The Wind in the Willows is obviously far more well-known, this more obscure work by Grahame is also interesting in its own right. It’s a much shorter book, originally published in First Whisper of the Wind in the Willows.
The story concerns a pig named Bertie who decides he is going to go carol-singing on a Winter’s night. He convinces a pair of rabbits to come along. Their names are Peter and Benjie, but I don’t think they are meant to be Beatrix Potter’s rabbits, just named after them.
Bertie isn’t actually a very nice pig. He’s extremely bossy and even threatens to bite Benjie when the rabbit is reluctant to come along. But Benjie is right to be cautious, as Bertie’s plan doesn’t really work out at all and the carol-singers end up being chased off by dogs.
Bertie makes the best of it, however, and he, the rabbits, and a mole (probably not Moley, as he is married, has a job as an elevator operator, and a somewhat gruff personality) have a supper party by stealing a bunch of food from a Mr Grahame. I don’t know if Kenneth Grahame really did have a pig named Bertie and rabbits named Peter and Benjie, but it is an interesting way to end the story.
Bertie’s Stolen Midnight Supper Menu
This is definitely a fun little book, notable more for comedy than sentiment, but reading something funny while eating far too much indulgent food is a very good way to spend Boxing Day.
Book: The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
1987, F. Warne Publishing
Christmastide again! I have no excuse for the long hiatus I’ve had from here. I’m just sorry that I’ve yet again let everything else get in the way!
But I’ve still got a massive amount of books in mind to discuss. I thought that this year we could do something a little different, and have a series of mini posts for the 12 Days of Christmas.
Today’s book is The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter. It’s the story of a poor tailor who is commissioned to make a coat and waistcoat for the Mayor of Gloucester, who is getting married on Christmas Day in the morning. While suitable for all ages, there is a lot of vocabulary which children may not know. However, I think it really does not matter, as most of it is there to create atmosphere.
But the reason I would recommend this book for Christmas Day (or perhaps even more appropriately, Christmas Eve) is for the peculiar section near the end where the tailor’s cat Simpkin goes walking in the snow at night on Christmas Eve. He goes through a series of little vignettes which act as a sort of morality play, or perhaps his own personal Christmas Carol experience.
It is all full of the particular atmosphere, mystery and melancholy which are so suited to a cold Winter night. The illustrations, which are more detailed and emotional than usual for Potter, reinforce the impression.
If that is the kind of mood you are looking for, then this is a great book to curl up with on a bleak Winter night. Tea is optional, but recommended
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!