Monday, 28 September 2015

No Such Thing As A Gruffalo

During the snatched chinwags I get to have with my friends regarding reading to our little dahlings (what a top book pun) one name keeps coming up. It would seem that a children's book blog is incomplete without a reference to Julia Donaldson. So let's get started. 

Let me declare my position from the outset. I am, like most of you out there, a fan of Julia Donaldson's books. The former Children's Laureate deserves her huge popularity. Her many books are probably lining your shelves right now. You can find them in any bookshop or supermarket for that matter. Whilst JD's books retain their high standards we are happy for her to keep churning them out. 

I was first introduced to JD when I bought Room on the Broom for my niece and nephew. We all loved it straight away. I gave the narrator a Scottish accent for no reason at all and whoosh we were gone.  This book, like most of JD's stories as I was to discover, reads like a timeless tale and is delivered in her trademark tight rhymes. Where my favourite author Aggie C was the Queen of Crime so JD should be crowned the Queen of Rhyme. Few can maintain her quality of rhyme and interesting storyline so well in one book nevermind in so many books. We could discuss our growing collection of JD books for hours: from the delights of lifting the flaps in the glorious Tales from Acorn Wood to the lovely climax in Monkey Puzzle to feeling Christmassy in Stick Man. And we cannot avoid The Gruffalo. Although, actually, we very much do.

There's No Such Thing as The Gruffalo in Our House.
Allow me to defend our controversial position. The Gruffalo, why didn't you know?  He started as a creature with terrible teeth in terrible jaws and now is a much loved beast with his own website. Again, I first met The Gruffalo as a fun auntie. I thought that the rhyming, the illustrations, the tale, and the twist, all created a masterpiece. But the master will not have a piece of it, reading wise. Matt has the slippers, the pyjamas, and the proverbial cuddly toy. But he will not read the book! He is on board with the paraphernalia attached to the Gruffalo but he also feels that way about Spiderman and other popular characters.  I know we are very much swimming against the tide with this but that is pretty much the story of our life together so far.
Wish they did these for grown ups
If you have had the huge pleasure to meet Matt you will know that he is a character. He walks his own path. He likes to cut the dash in cords and flat cap. He is intent on riding a shire horse in the Grand National. He is his own mini man and knows his own mini mind. So, try as I might, the book stays on the shelf. The world famous tale of the mouse walking through the woods has not made it into his heart. It could be that my impeccable acting skills have gone too far again and I have made the story too frightening! But I think it all went to pot when we tried to make The Gruffalo more real. Too real. In the context of a journey through the real woods it all became a little too frightening for this little boy with a big imagination and a formative understanding of what is fact and fiction. The Gruffalo Trail became our Gruffalo trial.

                           One of these boys is hugging The Gruffalo. The other one is not so much.

Despite his excitement at spending the afternoon in the woods with Jack, Matt constantly had to check that it was still cardboard cut outs we were searching for and not real beasts. He never really relaxed into it. Since that day Matt has not wanted to read the book. His fear of The Gruffalo has developed in conjunction with his need for a stick sword every time we enter the woods. So what appears to be a rather boisterous little boy roaring through the trees is actually a very brave boy trying to protect us all. Matt is too distracted by the Gruffalo and the deep dark woods to follow the story and the boy certainly does not appreciate the mouse's trick at the core of the book. I think it is a book that we will revisit in the future. So, whilst I like the book it is not big on our list. And that is ok. JD and The Gruffalo will not suffer from our opting out and neither will Matt. Maybe if my pal (don't worry I won't name you, Elyse) can write a spin off based on her dad's invention of a wife for the Gruffalo we will get back into it. I am sure that 'The Muffalo' would fly off the shelves!

The reverse effect of The Gruffalo trail was experienced after watching a performance of The Scarecrow's wedding at the Lyceum Theatre by Scamp. We were invited along to see this show with our good pals. I was worried how Matt would cope for three reasons: he had not read the book very much; he does not like the dark; and he does not like people in costume (oversized cartoon costumes. He loves a Victorian as much as the next person.)  The book had the potential to win Matt over as it is set on a farm but for some reason it had failed to hold his attention. It is the tale of two scarecrows planning a wedding and Harry does his all to get everything they (Betty) want for their big day. I think Matt was initially disappointed with the equine absence in the book. Only today (as I type- who knows when you will read this) he showed his disdain for a rendition of Old MacDonald (Old MatDonald as he calls it) in the library because there was no horse.(Sorry about all the brackets. I will try to stop with the asides). I personally like The Scarecrow's Wedding- except for the ending. I find the resolution a little too bridezilla! Betty is saved from a fire and her reaction is phew we have everything on our list now let's marry. Surely a nicer and wiser ending would have been for the long sought after flowers to get ruined and for Betty to realise that the list wasn't important after all and only her love for Harry matters? Just a suggestion. Back to the show.

Ooh the excitement
                The boys were excited in the stalls. As were the fuzzy people in the background.

Matt looked a wee bit perplexed when the lights went out but the stage lit up, a banjo played and all was fine. He did not need my hand to hold although did take up my offer of a knee when a big head got in his way. The play was performed by three people and there were no hideous costumes. Phew. The humanization of the scarecrows as a love struck, giggly couple worked well. The boys were enthralled. The youngest of our posse, Eli, got so far into it he kept heckling the stage. The show gave a risky interpretation (depending on your definition of risk. Sorry more brackets). They used an armchair for a tractor, bells to represent cows, and the geese were portrayed with glove puppets. The one actor played a variety of roles as well as narrating. The shock of the day was that the boys were neither confused or disappointed by this approach. They accepted it and embraced it. Although Matt did cover his eyes at the kissing parts. They clapped along at the end and were both disappointed when it was over. Mrs S was relieved as Noah had been doing a wee dance for about twenty minutes. Over cake at an M&S cafe (the theatre cafe had closed after the performance- shame on you) we all agreed that it was a successful trip and that the show gave a great rendition of the book. Since then Matt has acted out a wedding with his Bruder figures and has showed a greater interest in the book. So a great result- that's culture for you, innit? 

The time has come to lay our cards on the table and declare our favourite JD books.  Drum roll please.  This has been a difficult task but we kept going for you, dear pals. First, our honourable mentions go to The Smartest Giant in TownTyrannosaurus Drip and The Troll as these are frequently chosen to be read at bedtime. However, the following are the JD books that most appeal to us.

One book that doesn't need bells or a banjo to win over Matt is The Highway Rat. It is his favourite JD book.
The Highway Matt

It is the tale of a greedy rat who steals food from other animals. He even 'once stole his own horse's hay'. Trying saying that fast. Most of the book flows in a lovely rhythm but I do cut some of the repetition of 'I am the rat of the highway' if it has been a long day. I am not sure Matt wholly gets the crux of the story when a clever duck leads the rat to a cave and he is enticed in by an echo. This is also a difficult piece of writing to read aloud. It is also hard to teach Matt the moral of the story when the naughty rat ends up working a cake shop which most three year olds would agree is a huge career success! However Matt loves a horse (if you didn't know) and the campfire picnic scene really holds his interest. It is food based so it is not one to read on an empty stomach or a full one. But, all in all it is a winner. 

My favourite JD book and Matt's second favourite after the above is Zog. This book is the tale of a dragon attending school and the progress he makes each year. Matt is three (possibly four when you read this) and he loves dragons and knights on horseback. Throw in a Princess and this book has it all. I don't want to spoil it for you so it is suffice to say that it is a modern fairytale that will appeal to all. It has a great twist of an ending.(Ignore that- The Other Parent spent the whole of The Usual Suspects telling me to wait for the massive twist so that when it came it was completely underwhelming!) For the reader, the book follows a simple structure with consistent rhythm so it is an effortless read. The little person has much to gain from this book too. Aside from the great characters there is a moral to the tale so maybe this should be the one JD book to demand our attention. This should be the one that girls and boys want to read. This should be the one we give as gifts and make a classic in our time. I urge you to read this to your children. Have I made my point?  

Ooooh look a baby dragon

And a knight. Wahoo.
And wait oh no- there's a cameo from The Gruffalo

Finally, the one that got away. There is one more JD book that should be on this listSugarlump and the Unicorn is the story of a horse who yearns for a different life and so follows a tale of his different horse world adventures. PERFECT. This book could have been Matt's forever book.  In fact, it is the story I would have loved to have written for Matt but with one small change: the cover. The issue we have with this book is that it had all the potential to win our hearts and minds but it fell at the first fence. If the unicorn could grant my wish it would be that the book had not been sparklified in the design/production process. There is a proud sticker on the cover of the book to celebrate that there is glitter on every page!? Why, WHy, WHY? The glitter is completely unnecessary and it's presence is detrimental to Matt's relationship to this book.
Son refused to be in photo
We practice sex equality at every opportunity. Matt has baby dolls and a pink buggy for them and in many ways he is open minded but more often than not he exhibits traditional masculine tendencies. And that is fine too. He is a little man boy trying to make sense of the world; to understand the codes and plot where he fits and what his role is. Matt does not identify with the book cover or the glitter and having the lead jockey in pink sparkly silks further alienates him from interacting with the story.
Should have been our winner
I have tried to explain that the glitter represents the Unicorn's magic but he cannot connect with it. Teaching Matt that glitter is for boys and girls is like telling him that vegetables are good for him. He hears it and he sort of understands it but he just doesn't feel it.

I am well aware we may be on our own with this but the point is that Matt sees himself as horse trainer, stable lad, cowboy, and jockey on any given day and he incorporates this into most play activities. It is no coincidence that the two JD books he has taken on as his faves feature horses. It is regrettable that the one story that would truly entertain him and engage his imagination is inaccessible because of a stylistic decision. I know boys and girls who would love the glittery book. I know boys and girls who would not even notice it. But, I do not know any other child who loves horses as much as Matt and who yearns for such a story. So, can we also use this opportunity to clarify that horse books, clothes, and toys do not have to be pink,purple or glittery? Thanks for that. I feel lighter now. Anyway, this could have been Matt's mostest favouritest book ever but he judged it by it's cover and is missing out on a wonderful story about his favourite animals. Maybe he will grow out of it and discover the delights of Sugarlump at some future point. I hope so- it is a lovely read. If you have a child who is not deterred by glitter then give this book a whirl. Actually, you can borrow our's!

For us there is no such thing as The Gruffalo, and Sugarlump is stuck in the starting gate, but we have a rat, dragons, a troll and a giant to inspire Matt's imagination and adventures. Now we just need some Zog slippers and some cake from The Highway Rat and we will be all set.

Few authors know their audience so well. Few authors write so broadly, wittily, softly, sweetly, or scarily as JD. The stories entertain parents and children alike. Read them, treasure them, share them, for Julia Donaldson's books are, without a doubt, the safe bet in children's literature. But, sometimes, Matt and I also like to take a punt on an outsider and that can pay dividends too. 

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