Magical therapy transforming the lives of disabled children

5 Sep
Sam practicises his vanashing ball trick at Breathe Magic camp

Sam Loveridge with Breathe Magic therapist Emma Cahill. Photo by Gabriel Larmour.

Last week I was privileged to witness an innovative health project which is transforming the lives of disabled children. Unlike your average NHS experience however, there’s wasn’t a uniform in sight or a whiff of surgical spirit and the practitioners’ tools included sponge balls, playing cards, seemingly bottomless Mary Poppins’ bags and spinning tops.

Breathe Magic is the result of an inspiring collaboration between Magic Circle magicians and occupational therapists and comprises an intensive programme of therapy – packaged as a two-week magic camp. The intervention, delivered by Breathe Arts Health Research, has been designed to improve the motor skills of children with hemiplegia (a weakness or loss of control affecting one side of the body). Each magic trick taught has been carefully selected to incorporate a series of precise exercises that help develop essential movements – such as reaching out the arm, rotating the hand, or picking up a small item using the thumb and forefinger.

The impact has been astonishing, with many of the children being able to do every-day tasks for themselves for the very first time (and using both hands), such as getting dressed, or cutting up their own food. The testimonials of the children who have taken part in Breathe Magic show that the programme not only increases children’s motor skills and independence, but also their communications skills, self-confidence and self-esteem – which makes a big difference to those who have had problems socialising or worse still, have suffered bullying at school.

The strong anecdotal evidence is backed by a formal clinical evaluation which showed that after taking part in the camp participants could do more than 85% or everyday tasks independently, compared with only 25% before the camp.
A total of twenty one children participated in two Breathe Magic camps this summer and they will now attend monthly clubs (for six months) to maintain their skills and motivation. Funding from NHS Lambeth Clinical Commissioning Group enabled children from Lambeth and Southwark to take part in the 10-day camp in London and an earlier camp at the Stepping Stones School in Surrey was made possible with support from the COINS Foundation and parental contributions. Data from these camps will inform the ongoing clinical and economic evaluation.

The initiative initially received funding from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity to test the effectiveness of embedding magic into therapy for children with hemiplegia. Breathe Arts Health Research is now tailoring the intervention for other patient groups, including a programme for young people with mental health at Great Ormond Street Hospital and a project for people who have had a stroke is in the pipeline.

The success of the approach is all down to the fact that the focus is on having fun and learning magic. The participants are so engrossed in learning tricks they are distracted from the frustration of practising repetitive therapeutic exercises.

“The children are just so determined. They are supposed to practice their tricks for 20 minutes every evening, but instead, they’re practicing for up to an hour,” said Richard McDougall, one of the Magic Circle magicians involved with the project. “Seeing the satisfaction and pride on their faces when they master a new trick, or perform a task on their ‘wish list’, is such a privilege,” he added.

Shanakay with magician Richard McDougall. Photo by Gabriel Larmour.

Shanakay with magician Richard McDougall. Photo by Gabriel Larmour.

The enthusiasm of the Breathe Magic team is infectious and the energy and excitement of the children at the camp is palpable. The ethos of the programme is about empowerment, so parents are reminded not to help with taking off coats when they arrive in the morning and children are encouraged to cut up their food using both hands at lunch time. Each day brings with it a moment of celebration when a child accomplishes a new task for the first time, be that opening out their fingers from a clenched fist, or doing up their shoe-laces on their own.

Elspeth Burnett’s Mum, Seonaid, told me: “It’s been a really pivotal moment in Elspeth’s life. When Elspeth was very young we were advised that after the age of seven her ability to increase the functionality of her affected hand would be greatly diminished; but here she is, at eight, after just 10 days of Breathe Magic and she’s pushing herself to do things now that we thought were beyond her capability.”

The final performance of the London camp, in the hallowed surrounding of the Magic Circle, was inevitably an emotional event. The culmination of two weeks’ tireless practice showcased before an audience of proud family and friends. An uplifting speech by patron Bethy Woodward, the award winning Paralympic athlete, about her own experience of learning to embrace her hemiplegia and I am sorely regretting wearing mascara.

As well as an impressive array of tricks, the young performers also dazzled the audience with their comic timing and stage presence. By the time each of the children have been awarded their certificates, and are holding them proudly on the stage (with both hands, of course), I am a blubbing wreck.

But the magic of the experience promises to continue well after these children go home. 11 year old Sam Loveridge has thrown away his hand splint since attending the Breathe Magic camp in Surrey, his Mum, Jayne, says he’s like a ‘brand new boy’, and his friends have been asked not to help him tie his shoe-laces anymore.

One only hopes that this life-changing intervention receives further investment from other NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups to ensure that more children across the country can benefit.

Related links:

Breathe Arts Health Research

ITV London Tonight Lambeth Children Glimpse Magic Circle

By George, he’s just a baby

30 Jul
LEGO Prince George

LEGO Prince George

Congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their happy news.

Putting his blue blood to one side, we all know that there’s nothing extraordinary about HRH Prince George of Cambridge as a human being. Just like any other newborn, he needs little more than food, warmth and the love and affection of his doting parents.

The behaviour of the public and media that greeted him outside St Mary’s Hospital last week told a different story however. The first greedy flashbulbs heralded a lifetime of public scrutiny.

Of course every child brings fresh hope and new meaning to the lives of their parents, but Prince George’s arrival has understandably had a tangible effect on the wider world as the latest addition to the Royal Family – an important British commodity. In economic terms alone he’s estimated to bring in over £240 million in merchandise sales alone by the end of August. And Legoland at Windsor has even created a new scene depicting the young Prince with his parents at the gates of Buckingham Palace to enchant visitors to their inspired theme park.

Behind closed doors, as the euphoria of the first few days of motherhood begins to wane, Kate will probably be walking round in a fug, attending to her child’s every whimper, adjusting to managing on three hours uninterrupted sleep at a time …potentially contending with cracked nipples and a cracking headache, barking at her bewildered hubby.

Wills will begin to see Kate through a new lens – not only as his wife, but as the mother to their child. Surprisingly the best piece of advice offered to the Prince I’ve heard comes from that great philosopher…  David Beckham, who posits that William’s quality as a gentleman will set him in good stead as a father – a notion I couldn’t agree with more. Good manners and kindness are basic qualities which should be instilled in all youngsters, as well as going a long way in keeping your relationship on track when you’re dealing with the physical and emotional demands of a new-born.

Now one week since the birth, Kate and Wills will be in the throes of their ‘baby-moon’ period of bonding and getting to know the new person in their midst. Bravo to the in-laws for providing their family home (a Georgian manor house) as a comfortable and familiar haven for this precious time.

In the Indian culture, the post birth confinement period, allows the mother the benefit of limited household duties and being cosseted by her extended family with special meals prepared and full body massage – enabling her to focus on her baby’s needs and recovering from the birth. Sounds great in theory – although 40 days cooped up at home might not do for everyone. My regular jaunt to the local coffee shop to gossip with my fellow NCT Mums provided a much need source of support for me once the family had left me to it and husband returned to work. The main premise is that Kate should be able to do as much or as little as she feels able to, and in her own time.

Of course, the Duchess of Cambridge hardly needs to worry about keeping on top of household chores or financial worries, and there will no doubt be a queue forming outside the Berkshire pile to wrestle for the coveted position of nanny to the third in line to the throne.

Putting these privileges aside, and the prospect of one day being crowned King George VII, I hope that Kate and Wills are allowed to enjoy getting to know their son without the intrusion of long lenses. The rest of the world will just have to wait – for now, he’s first and foremost, their baby boy.

Related links:

ITV royal baby boost the economy

Royal Baby News: Prince George Mania will boost the economy by £243m by end of August

Baby Center – Post delivery confinement

NCT – Dad’s view: the early days

LEGOLAND

 

Photo courtesy of LEGOLAND® Windsor Resort

Turning 40 – What’s it all about Alfie?

20 Jul

40th birthday

It seems I’m in good company – recent celebrities to hit the big 4.0. include Heidi Klum, Gwen Stefani, and Jennifer Aniston; and what a fine stable of fillies they are too. Back in the real world, I know I need to put some effort into getting into shape; my excuse of post-baby muffin top some two and half years after giving birth is stretching it a bit.

Of course, keeping fit and healthy isn’t driven by vanity alone. (Although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about my appearance. Then again, life’s too short to spend time worrying about the circumference of your thighs). It’s more that I’m daunted by the fact that as an older mother I’ve got a heck of a lot of running around ahead of me in my 50s and, eek, 60s.

But what are my long term health prospects (assuming I don’t get run over by a bus, or more likely a tractor, here in rural France)? Well, the UK average life expectancy for women is 82 years, but of course old age is likely to bring with it a variety of ailments, typically osteoporosis, arthritis or heaven forbid, dementia. That’s assuming one of the five big killers: heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung and liver disease (which account for more than 150,000 deaths a year among under-75s in England) don’t get me first.  As such, a healthy living regime of a sensible (preferably Mediterranean) diet, regular exercise and daily flossing is a must – it’s not exactly rocket science. As long as I can still indulge in a cheeky vino a few times a week and the occasional devilish dessert, I think it’s a reasonable ask.

But my physical decrepitude is not the only thing worrying me about entering the dreaded mid-life phase. What do the next 40 years hold? How can I live a happy, healthy and fulfilled life knowing what I know now: that ‘the best laid plans [of mice and men] go oft astray’?

Financially, I’m neither destitute nor financially buoyant, but with no mortgage and little savings, a ‘secure’ future seems like an abstract concept. Currently living with my mother and venturing into the world of self-employment, I am undoubtedly at an interesting crossroad in life – but which direction it will ultimately take, I just don’t know. A full time job may well be necessary (and practically, more possible) when my daughter begins statutory education, but the astronomical cost of paying somebody to look after my child whilst I work full time seems nonsensical when there’s an alternative to be explored. And with 1.52 million people claiming job seekers allowance in the UK currently, setting myself up as a sole trader until the economy improves is probably not a bad option. In addition, the process is sure to be a valuable, if not personally fulfilling, learning curve.

On a more philosophical level: What’s it all about Alfie? Really, what should I be doing to ensure that my middle years make for a ‘good life’. How do I ensure that I meet my own need for friendship and love, while retaining my re-established sense of self? When I’ve provided a roof over my head and food on the table, how do I go about meeting that burning desire to see more of the world and feel I am making my mark (remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from school?). I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that money isn’t necessarily the route to achieving these simple goals (although boy, can it help!).

Although I’m far from being a wise old crone yet,  the most valuable lessons about life, I’ve learnt thus far are:

don’t sweat the small stuff;

be kind to yourself;

true love is a ‘doing’ word;

and laugh, sing and dance at every opportunity

So, I’ll try my best to eat my five a day, while working towards a secure future and looking after those I love. I’ll also be celebrating entering my 5th decade by doing some unashamed ‘mum’ dancing with a few friends, and looking forward to another 40 years filled with meeting new people, seeing the world and creating more happy memories, because, although it’s a cliché : life really isn’t a dress rehearsal.

Related links:

European men lag behind in life expectancy

ONS – Measuring National Well-being – Older people and loneliness, 2013

Unhealthy Britain: nation’s five big killers

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Gingerbread – Campaigning for single parent families

What’s it all about Alfie, song Lyrics

My old notebook and learning to be happy

5 Jul
A Banquet Piece Artist: Frans Snyders, courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

A Banquet Piece
Artist: Frans Snyders, courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

A few days ago I discovered an old note-book containing ‘thinks’ from my early 30s. Inside the cover I had clipped a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Epitetus, a former slave whose teachings focus on the path to happiness – through learning to accept one’s fate and letting go of negative ‘judgements’  which can lead to disappointment. Here’s what it read:

Behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is passed around, it comes to you; stretch out your hand, take a portion of it politely. It passes on; do not detain it. Or it has not come to you yet; do not project your desire to meet it, but wait until it comes in front of you. So act toward children, so towards a wife, so towards office, so towards wealth.

           The Enchiridion, By Epitetus (born 50AD)

On re-reading, I realised how pertinent these words were to me….how often do I want some new success right now, yet fail to reflect on how far I’ve come; how often do I fail to appreciate the simple moments of pleasure and contentment, as I’m too busy moving onto some new quest for fulfilment; how often am I too eager to please others and equally, too susceptible to disappointment if my plans fail to come to fruition?

So I’m going to try change my mindset as Epitetus suggests: I shall enjoy positive feedback about my work, whilst being more pragmatic about business endeavours, and embrace the love and friendship that I am lucky to be surrounded with. I will also try to accept the ‘place’ I’m in right now, albeit putting in place stepping-stones towards a new arrangement. For therein lies the key to happiness.

Related links:

The Philosophy

An iphone obsession and leading by example

30 Jun

Staying connected

Staying connected

The dulcet tones of Olly Murs on a relentless loop on Youtube is enough to test anyone’s sanity. I owe this particular pleasure to my two year old daughter’s new found IT skill – tapping the ‘mouse pad’ to affect a repeat play. It follows on from her ability to scroll down on my iphone to find certain apps, photos and videos.

The obsession with my iphone started at an early age and was duly rewarded with her own Fisher Price ‘mobile’ for her first birthday. She now has several toy phones and a ‘laptop’ (keyboard alphabet game). Still, the sheer joy of getting her grubby little hands on the real McCoy is undeniable. Thankfully a passcode prevents her doing too much damage if I take my eye off the ball.

So where’s all this going to lead? Reports that children are unable to communicate effectively or feel comfortable in social situations because they are spending too much time online and not enough in the ‘real’ world fills me with horror. Then there’s the issue of child safety, grooming and bullying. And one poor mother recently had to fork out £1,700 to pay for her five year old’s spending spree on her Ipad.

Of course, there are steps parents can take to alleviate these risks, such as limiting time spent on technology, supervising activity and using filtering and monitoring software. And the recent pledge by internet service providers, social media companies and search engines to clamp down on child pornography has to be a good move; although I’m not sure how far their paltry £1 million will go towards this effort, and whether ‘user alerts’ threatening legal intervention will simply drive the distribution of content underground. Anyway, I digress.

As my little one grows up, I would hope to be able to encourage her to socialise with her friends in person as much as online, and ‘screen’ time will certainly be limited. But as someone who checks her email, Facebook and Twitter accounts at least twice a day and goes into a state of panic if the WiFi goes down, leading by example will be tough! In my defence, this reliance on online communications is largely work-related, and I don’t feel the need to provide daily status updates. This perceived need to have a constant online presence in order to maintain credibility with one’s peers is something I particularly fear for my daughter.

On the other hand, I fully advocate the benefits of the internet and social media for learning, entertainment, sharing ideas and keeping in touch with family and friends who are geographically out of reach. Indeed, the skills and knowledge to utilise these technologies effectively should be supported – poor IT skills are surely a disadvantage in the modern world. So, rather than be too heavy-handed about surfing the web for fear of any potential harm, I hope in future we can discuss what she’s using the internet for and how to enter the digital world safely; just as we will discuss the dangers of coming home late and the dreaded ‘birds and the bees’, at the right time.

Putting Olly Murs and my headache aside… children are lucky to have so many resources available to them through the internet, but just as we had a fear of ‘stranger danger’ drilled into us, today’s kids need to be taught a healthy disrespect of enticing online introductions. They also need to understand the importance of conducting themselves properly to protect their own reputation, and know the potential for hurt by carelessly criticising others. Most importantly, they should know when its time to log off and not fear any repercussions. Only time will tell how successful I am in promoting this attitude.

Related links:

Susan Greenfield and the rise of the Facebook zombies

Limit children’s screen time, expert urges

Kids spend too much time screen focused

UK internet providers commit £1m to eradicate child porn

An inspirational female entrepreneur and my budding idea

21 Jun

The germ of a business idea

The germ of a business idea

A business idea is forming in my mind. It’s a small seed which needs feeding with plenty of research, a sprinkling of expert advice and watering with gallons of motivation to help it germinate into a viable proposition.

With this in mind it was fascinating to watch the fabulous Laura Tenison, founder of the hugely successful JoJo Maman Bébé, being interviewed on BBC 2 by entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den investor, Peter Jones, about the story of her success.

A market leader in maternity and children’s fashion Laura’s first shop was perfectly located to appeal to the Yummy Mummies of Clapham – or ‘Nappy Valley’ as it’s otherwise known. Her success is largely down to a good concept done well – beautifully crafted clothing with a Gallic influence, marketed to aspirational and affluent parents. But where gazillions of others have failed, Laura has prevailed, and this she puts down to a blinding conviction in her business model, combined with the courage to challenge, or ignore the naysayers.

It transpired that Laura’s determination to succeed boils down to a desire to prove her worth to her mother. No major revelation there … wanting to make our parents proud is a trait instilled in many of us. Conversely, many people set out to shake off their parents’ expectations or do something in the opposite direction. The point is, the spirit of entrepreneurship must be nurtured at a young age, as we begin to formulate ideas about our own capabilities and the future person we will become. The importance of learning to pick oneself up after a fall, gaining valuable experience from mistakes and taking risks, are other vital traits for business success.

“It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”
― Lucius Annaeus Seneca

But Laura’s success came at a price, right? Peter duly probed Laura about what she’d sacrificed to achieve such heady business heights. She conceded that she often brought her babies into the office and the interview cut to a scene of Laura whipping up the kids’ tea whilst asking them about their school day. But in reality, how many tea-times and sports days has she missed due to meetings or work issues requiring her input?

I’ve ruminated about this for a few days and wonder if I’ve really got what it takes to be an entrepreneur and still achieve work-life balance?

The next step will be to get down to the nuts and bolts of developing a business plan. With this in mind, it was timely to see that Yasmina Siadatan, former Apprentice winner, has been promoting Start Up Loans via Mumsnet earlier this week. Great, I thought, advice tailored to women entrepreneuers – until I realised that at 40 years of age I do not meet the criteria!

So, lots more research for me on the horizon and for now this project will run parallel to my ‘bread and butter’ freelance PR and writing work.

In the meantime, I’m delighted to see that a report recently published by the Women’s Business Council (WBC) is promoting the notion that women should be given better information and guidance on how to pursue entrepreneurial ventures. In particular it stresses that there should be a broader definition of what an enterprise is and ensure marketing of support services is inclusive, in recognition of the differences between men and women entrepreneurs.

A recent report by Dell revealed that the UK only ranks 6th place in a study of 17 countries and support for female entrepreneurs – with America leading the way. I applaud Laura Tenison for being such an inspirational role model in the UK, but the government and employers would do well to heed the WBC report if they are to give more budding female entrepreneurs the support and encouragement we deserve.

Related links:

BBC 2 Peter Jones meets Series 1 Episode 1

http://www.startuploans.co.uk/

The Telegraph – Best place for female entrepreneurs? It ain’t the UK

BBC Business – From thought to profit: How ideas become viable
businesses

E-cigarettes – just what the doctor ordered

14 Jun
E-cigarettes may help you to stub it out

E-cigarettes may help you to stub it out

News that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency will licence e-cigarettes as a medicine by 2016 (when new European tobacco laws come into force) has been widely reported this week. The directive, which will encompass all novel nicotine replacement products, reflects a commitment to ensuring quality and effectiveness.

The premise of e-cigarettes is that they allow people to carry on smoking without ingesting the horrible toxins which are known to be responsible for cancer. Given that around 100,000 people a year die of smoking-related diseases, the availability of e-cigarettes to help people wean themselves off the odious little cancer sticks must be a positive move.

An Action on Smoking and Health survey has revealed that 13% of smokers in the UK use e-cigarettes and they estimate that as many as 400,000 people have replaced smoking with puffing on an e-cigarette. The British Medical Association has tentatively welcomed the advent of e-cigarettes but calls for greater evidence of the safety and efficacy of the devices. Similarly, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence’s draft consultation paper on tobacco reduction highlights the lack of evidence around the long-term safety of e-cigarettes.

The reason that e-cigarettes are growing in popularity is, presumably, because they allow the smoker to enjoy the act of smoking without the associated health risks.

You see, smoking addiction is not just a physical craving, it has cognitive (I see smokers therefore I must smoke), emotional (I’m happy/ stressed) and social (let’s all be mates and smoke together) triggers.

I know this as back in the day I liked nothing better than kicking back after a hard day at work with a glass of chilled chardonnay and a fag. I finally stopped smoking with the introduction of the ban. Nothing’s that good to have to stand outside in the drizzle and cold to ‘enjoy’. Of course I relapse from time to time, usually as a result of a boozy evening out (a rarity since becoming a Mum).

But the cynic in me wonders if the manufacturers of e-cigarettes aren’t just trying to cash in on people’s smoking addiction – as nice as the people at NJOY and ahem, Marlboro are, I’m sure they don’t really have the world’s health on their conscience.

Furthermore, in Paris, apparently numerous bars are promoting the sale of e-cigarettes in various enticing colours and flavours. Now I’m no smoking cessation expert, but I would think that one of the first challenges in giving up smoking is breaking the association between holding a short stick in your hand and having an alcoholic drink…

In short, I don’t have a problem with e-cigarettes for those who need a temporary crutch to help beat their cravings. What I do take exception to is flagrantly encouraging the act of ‘smoking’ in bars and restaurants (and even on public transport). It somehow seems to go against all the progress made to reduce the visibility of smoking in public places.

I certainly hope that future generations – not least my own daughter – don’t feel the need to give smoking (electronic or otherwise) a try to be ‘in’ with the ‘in crowd‘. We’ve come so far with the smoking ban, it seems a shame to start making the act of puffing on a device masquerading as a cigarette acceptable.

Related links:

E-cigarettes face new restrictions

E-cigarettes are in vogue and at crossroads

ASH briefings – e cigarettes

BMA website – Tobacco / E-cigarettes

What’s the etiquette with electronic cigarettes?

Image credit: Copyright Piotr Marcinski / Dreamstime.com     Title: Tobacco addiction metaphor

Welcoming the new Children’s Laureate

7 Jun

Illustration by Margaret Chamberlain for My Two Grannies

Illustration by Margaret Chamberlain for My Two Grannies

Great news this week that Malorie Blackman, author of the acclaimed teenage novel Noughts and Crosses, has been appointed as Waterstones’ Children’s Laureate.

Malorie is the first black author to be awarded the title, which brings with it a £15,000 bursary and a commitment to participate in a calendar of engagements to support children’s literature and reading over two years.

Malorie has pledged to champion the survival of the local library, as well as redress the balance for teenage readers and promote diversity in literature.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Blackman’s work, she’s a best selling children’s novelist whose works feature black characters – the sort of books she wishes had been more readily available when she was a young girl. Unsurprisingly some sections of the media in announcing Malorie’s new role, have made much of this point.

I empathise with Blackman’s motive to feature black characters in her books; after all, as the mother of a mixed-race child I admit to actively searching out books in the library containing characters that my daughter might identify with. Most recently we have enjoyed My Two Grannies by the wonderful Floella Benjamin – the cover image of the two grandmas unashamedly resembling my little one’s real-life grandmas. The thing is, just because my daughter has a particular skin colour, doesn’t mean I exclusively read her books about children who look like her. As a matter of fact her favourite bedtime reading at the moment are the Tales of Beatrix Potter, in which there’s not a brown face in sight.

The question is, do we really need somebody to ensure that there are enough BEM (black and ethnic minority) characters in children’s books? There were certainly plenty in my local south London library. Of course, it may be less easy to find books depicting black, Asian, or eastern European children for that matter, in rural Cumbria – but my guess is that our wonderful local libraries pretty much know their local audience. Assuming our libraries, schools and book shops have got the balance right, surely the important thing is that the books featuring BEM character aren’t labelled as stories just for the black or ethnic minority kids.

You see, I believe that diversity in books is important for all children, just as it is for adults, in order to help us understand that all people, whatever their race or religion, are essentially the same, whilst appreciating the complex challenges that people from different cultural backgrounds face. Certainly, in adult literature there are plenty of examples of multicultural Britain from Monica Ali’s feted Brick Lane to the modern day tragedy, Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman, about the experience of a young boy from Ghana growing up in Peckham.

Presumably, in order to promote greater multicultural representation in children’s literature, the writing industry needs to encourage people of all backgrounds in their writing endeavours; and in this respect, Malorie is a great role model. Furthermore, if we’re looking to support diversity let‘s not stop at skin colour – let’s have more books about mixed-race families, same sex parents, children with disabilities and so on, to really reflect the diverse and wonderfully imperfect world in which we live today.

Above all, excellent children’s literature must feed our children’s imaginations, provide guidance on what’s right and wrong, entertain, as well as foster a love of reading and learning about the world.

In a nutshell, I whole heartedly welcome Malorie’s appointment, but I don’t think we should obsess about her being a black author promoting black characters in children’s books. I do however, hope that she will continue the excellent work of former Children’s Laureates in promoting quality literature for children which speaks to and inspires all of our younger generation.

Related links:

Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman: ‘I’m looking forward to redressing the balance for teenagers’

Book Trust: Malorie Blackman announced as new Children’s Laureate

Bird’s Song blog (chief executive of Booktrust)

‘Franglais’ and the international sign for chicken

25 May

Our temporary sojourn in Brittany has brought with it the inevitable challenge of speaking French. My GCSE level French is rusty to say the least, and in reality I’ve not yet had to ask someone how to find the railway station, or if I can buy a kilo of bananas. I have however, mimed a chicken lying down for the night in order to obtain some wood shavings for the hen coop, and casually asked the assistant in an electrical store where I can find the weapons (‘fusiller’), only to be asked whether, in actual fact, I might be looking for fuses (‘fusible’)!

These minor embarrassments are all part of the learning curve, but there’s no doubt that some dedicated study is going to be needed to help me contribute more than a cursory: “It’s sunny today” at the school gates. My two and half year old daughter on the other hand, is becoming ‘au fait’ with basic words and phrases with relative ease – thanks to a couple of weeks at the local pre-school. Admittedly she’s not saying very much in French, but she’s comfortable uttering ‘bonjour’, ‘au revoir’ and ‘merci’ and more importantly, she’s following the teachers’ instructions and interacting confidently with the other children. Additionally, while playing on her own, she will sometimes imitate French speaking or read to her teddy in ‘French’, which is basically gobbledygook but with a distinctly Gallic melody. That, of course, is exactly how she began to speak English – by practicing different sounds until they gradually morphed into recognisable words and groups of words.

It’s well known that language acquisition is a natural part of development, much like walking; and that learning new languages comes more easily to children than adults. It is, however, a common misconception that the adult tongue somehow become less able to pronounce the sounds of another language. The key distinction is in ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’ – i.e. the gradual development of an ability in a language, through regular exchanges, as opposed to a more rigid classroom-based accumulation of vocabulary and grammar, which is altogether a more arduous process. Despite this uncomfortable truth, I must continue to try to re-familiarise myself with verbs and tenses learned by rote over 20 years ago, for fear of getting left behind as my daughter’s comprehension and vocabulary effortlessly grows.

Mulling this over, I consulted a few friends who are married to partners that speak a different language and are therefore raising children that are bilingual. Their experiences confirm the notion that learning multiple languages in infancy is a relative breeze. Their toddlers are not only learning two (or more) languages at pretty much the same rate as their monolingual counterparts, but in some cases, they actually act as a translator – taking one parent’s question and putting it to the other parent in their (the other parent’s) native language. Apparently, this ability to switch from one language to another has been proven to help the bilingual child to outperform monolingual children in cognitive tests. So an added benefit of my little one learning two languages at an early age is that being bilingual can actually make kids smarter, and I’m all for that.

For me, I think it’s definitely back to the proverbial classroom if I’m going to survive the forthcoming school trip, on which I’ve boldly offered to act as a help chaperone. My ‘Franglais’ simply won’t cut the ‘moutarde’.

Related links:

Bilingual children ‘better at problem-solving skills’ BBC News

Why bilinguals are smarter, New York Times

TED talks: Patricia Kuhl on the liguistic genuis of babies

Reading for inspiration

17 May

Bathsheba Everdene - a true heroine  © all rights reserved Bathsheba Everdene on Flickr from Yahoo

Bathsheba Everdene – a true heroine
© all rights reserved Bathsheba Everdene on Flickr from Yahoo

I’m feeling slightly bereft this week after finishing reading the excellent Sea Glass by Anita Shreve. The story is both a tale of unrequited love and personal fortitude, as well as an historical account of the economic crash in 1930s America. The journey of the central character, Honora, from unsatisfied newly-wed to single mother, sustained by friendship and the sense of purpose brought about by her baby, couldn’t fail to resonate with me.

Undoubtedly, many people read simply for entertainment and escapism without a thought for whether they particularly like, or agree with the central protagonists.

For me however, a good book, and in particular the characters in fictional narratives, can rattle around my head long after I’ve turned the last page, as I try to make sense of the emotional responses, actions and comeuppances of those whose lives I’ve inhabited for several weeks.

With this in mind, here’s my list of the top five books which have influenced my thinking, or inspired me in some way, particularly when the going’s got tough:

1. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

This key A level text made a huge impression on me as a shy teenager desperate to cultivate an air of sophistication and confidence. The main protagonist is a naïve but head-strong young woman holding her own in a man’s world. The novel charts her personal growth as she contends with the trials and tribulations of running a big farm and a tumultuous love- life, each knock back teaching her a valuable life-lesson. A true heroine, flawed and yet, self-knowing. Bathsheba Everdene, I salute you.

2. The Whole Woman, by Germaine Greer

As a young woman in my twenties and in all honesty, in hot pursuit of men, the notion that I might be a feminist was faintly ridiculous – didn’t they burn their bras and have dodgy haircuts? Needless to say, as press officer for Nottingham Trent University I was required to report on a lecture she was giving and was so buoyed up by the experience I swiftly went out to buy her latest book. Although I don’t fully embrace all of Greer’s opinions, The Whole Woman made me question things I’d never considered before about women, gender and equality.

3. Lovely Green Eyes, by Arnost Lustig

This gripping story centres on a teenage girl sent with her family to Auschwitz. Using her red hair and green eyes as cover, 15 year old Hanka poses as an Aryan to gain work in a German military brothel. Her unfaltering self-preservation and cunning enable her to escape death. This was quite a harrowing read, but Hanka’s survival reminded me of the immense strength, dignity and unfaltering hope of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I can recall reading this at a particularly trying time in my early married life, dealing with family and financial problems, and realising how insignificant my woes were in comparison to those living through wars or persecution. Humbling.

4. Eat, Love and Pray, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book, which preceded the no doubt smaltzy film, heralded a fresh mind set for me during a very difficult period of hurt and confusion about what direction my life should take following my separation. Very few of us can go to such great lengths to find inner peace, but like Liz, learning to allow myself to step off the treadmill and ‘just be’ has been hugely restorative.

4. Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now, by Maya Angelou

I chanced upon this book earlier this year, whilst I was struggling to juggle my demanding job and look after (single-handedly) my young daughter. Maya’s lessons on life are poetic, humourous and forgiving of human fallibility. Her guidance is as much about loving thy neighbour, as the importance of self-preservation and dignity. Take this nugget: “Whining is not only graceless but can be dangerous. It can alert a brute that a victim is in the neighbourhood”. Sage words indeed.

So dear book lovers, now it’s your turn – which books have inspired you, helped inform your life philosophy or given you succour when you needed it?

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