Saturday, 8 August 2015

Can Super Tato Save World Book Day?

World Book Day  March 2015

World Book Day/Week/Month (WBD) is the time of year when our streets and Facebook news feeds are crowded with little people dressed as Harry Potter, Mr Stink, and Matilda. The event intends to get children really thinking about their favourite books and the characters they most identify with or enjoy reading about. What is not to love? Well, can we take a moment to address annual the appearance of dubious book heroes such as Frozen and Minecraft characters? Are they really the most fitting tribute to a child's interest in books? Does it matter if they arrived at their character via another media? The traditionalist in me screams YES. The book snob in me would have judged the parent's commitment to their child's literacy and questioned the scope of their child's imagination. 

HOWEVER, rest assured, the well-worn parent sees things slightly differently. Firstly, you can't judge a child based on their outfit- book day or not. Seeing a child dressed as a Disney Princess in wellies now elicits a sympathetic nod and the thought- yup I understand. I had a morning like that yesterday. Took a cowboy to the supermarket. Just go with it. The mornings we spend battling over clothing are getting more frequent. I fight for decency, dignity and temperature. Matt fights for whatever makes him look like a farmer or a lad (stable lad not Magaluf). So I guess, if it is a dalek day it is a dalek day. Secondly, the parent-reader in me also understands the book struggle. I wish I could say that we are working our way through the top 100 children's books but sometimes we are get stuck reading the most random books. If you happen to have a book featuring Spiderman and your child identifies with it then go for it. Read every bloomin' Spiderman book there is. Let's not be snobbish about their book choices. The day is a celebration of the books they love not what we want our children to love or what we want other people to think we love to read! Maybe it is even a positive thing to have a broad range of books represented and a host of characters to be our children's heroes. So in the spirit of this open minded introduction please do not judge our future WBD decisions.

This year was the first time that we officially and publicly took part in the tradition. We didn't have to dress up but I knew from a friend that Matt's nursery would ask for parents to read and I knew I would have to do it: the opportunity to choose a book, to read it to small people, to offer them a new story, to show how much I love children's books and reading. This required serious preparation. However, I was not prepared for how it would turn out. I had imagined that World Book Day would be deeply satisfying and edifying; but it left me feeling like an amateur.

Stage One: Child-led Book Selection
Me: Matt, who is your favourite book character?
Matt: Robin Hood.
Me: Ah. He is a great character but we don't actually have a Robin Hood book.
Matt: Yep we do.Robin Hood is in my book. And his baby. 
Me: Hmmmm. Robin Hood has a bow and arrow. Not so much a baby.
Matt: He does. Baby Bunting. Hang on and I will show you...
Matt: Ta-Dah!
Boy presents Robin Hood holding Baby Bunting in Each Peach Pear Plum

Stage Two: Scrap Stage One
Each Peach Pear Plum is easy to read for the grown up and entertaining for the non-reader but it is quite a small book so it would be difficult to read to a group. I asked Matt to choose another and he chose Seabiscuit: The Wonder Horse by Meghan McCarthy. I bought the book as Matt took a great interest when I was reading the adult version. This book offers a short and concise insight into how Seabiscuit was trained and features the crucial race of his career. The illustrations are cartoony and the text is simple to read.  Great stuff. However, I did have worries: I was concerned that not every preschooler would be interested. Also, the book also touches on the Great Depression which is a bit extraneous for this situation. Furthermore, after a trial run, I realised that I would have to give the race some welly to make it work. I wasn't too sure I would have the energy or confidence for a full on race commentator performance. What if the audience did not get involved and I was the only one romping on home with The Biscuit?

Whilst I was pondering what to read, inspiration came from an unlikely source. One rainy afternoon, we were watching CBeebies. I have no idea if it was actually raining but I wanted to justify having the telly on. It was time for a story and Andy (taking a break from adventures of Wild and Dinosaur natures) read Supertato by Sue Hendra. We loved it. It caught our attention straight away and we ordered it immediately. The story is based on a super hero of a potato variety who saves other veggies in a supermarket from the villainous pea. We read it a couple of times and both agreed that this should be the story because it is colourful, funny, and exciting (depending on your definition of exciting). Could Supertato be our Preschool WBD hero?

I spent hours rehearsing my delivery. I gave Supertato a deep American voice. The pea was given a baddie Spanish accent. Perfect. Really. I did get B in GCSE drama and I had been waiting years to put it to work. I tried not to let nerves take over. They are only children afterall. Children. Plural. Argh.

Stage Three: Performance
I was ushered in to the room and it was quiet. Too quiet considering there were 20 plus children in there. Including my son. I was so nervous I forgot to hug Matt. He looked so proud of me too. (He did get plenty more hugs later). This wasn't my first mistake- stay with me. We sat together at the front. I smiled and spoke to the group of children who gave nothing back. Nowt. A sea of little faces all waiting...I opened with a highly humorous gag that Matt loves horses, tractors, and diggers so we were going to read about a potato. No reaction. Tough crowd. I looked to Matt for support but he was busy chewing his hoody string. I just had to get going. The story is fast paced and full of twists and turns and I delivered it clearly, with feeling. My accents trailed off but I made up for it with enthusiasm. They seemed to enjoy the chase scenes and liked trying to spot the pea. Matt was enjoying it now and that spurred me on. I think they were all with me to the end. However I got to that point and realised I had no idea what the moral of the story was. Eat Your peas? Put any strays back in the freezer? Watch out for peas they be evil? The End was followed by an awkward silence.
(Photo is a reconstruction only. Obviously, I am the cowboy and Matt is the pirate.)

The nursery leader thanked me and praised my upside down reading. Riding this wave of pride I did something rather silly. I offered to read a second book. Second mistake.

I had brought in a late entry, a rank outsider. In a last minute decision I grabbed it from our bookshelf. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is a funny and heartwarming tale with beautiful illustrations. The story is about a boy who befriends a penguin and tries to help him return home. I decided the message of kindness and friendship would go down well. The failure here was that I really laid it on about how lonely the penguin was. The children's expressions went from blank to a little worried. When the boy and the penguin lost each other I swear I saw a little girl cry. Well, she wiped her eyes. I am hoping it was just an allergy. Let's go with early onset hayfever. It began to dawn on me, as I neared the end of the book, that some books work better with groups and some do not. However, the problem I had was very much mine and not the book's. I think this narrator was lacking the emotional skills necessary to steer a group of children through the sad to the happy. The problem is one of momentum. You have to keep going and take them all with you to reach the happy ending. I really tried to ham up the reunion at the end of the book but I fear I left a couple of children on the island. Without a boat. I was thanked (a little) and ushered out (a little more) with the son. We got into the car and Matt really put the boot in with- "that wasn't the story I said to read." So it seems that Supertato could have saved our WBD if it wasn't for me and that pesky penguin. 
(Another reconstruction. In real life the children do not carry as many weapons as our Playmobil fleet.)

Luckily/unluckily, Mr and Mrs S had similar experiences when they read to the same group. Mrs S soon regretted taking Julia Donaldson's Super Worm to read when it dawned on her she would have to sing! 

So, dear friend, please learn from our public reading experiences. Some books are too sad for the occasion no matter how happy the ending; some books race to the end and you have no idea what the moral was; some books demand singing. Do choose wisely. But, most of all, don't forget to hug that child no matter what book they wanted, however distracted you are, and despite whatever they are wearing.  Next World Book Day, I plan to read what Matt chooses and will whole-heartedly blame him when the children get bored or develop an addiction with horse racing.

Maybe you know the perfect book for reading to an audience of the plural and preschool kind? I am thinking minimal performance requirements but maximum enjoyment. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comment box. I am off to make a Robin Hood outfit- complete with obligatory baby carrier.

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