Our Advent Activity Calendar

Advent calendar activity

I loved Esther’s post last year about an Advent Activity Calendar! We have done a similar idea for a few years now (unfortunately not so beautifully designed!). I bought a Maileg Advent garland (a little bit like this one) and in every pocket the children find a sweet treat and an Advent activity for us to do. Lots of our activities are similar to Esther’s – designed to enjoy this preparation time leading up to Christmas: gathering pine-cones, sticking cloves into oranges, baking, making decorations, thinking of those less fortunate, making (and eating) gingerbread, watching a Christmas movie together, etc. But I also try and book a couple of seasonal activities to enjoy with the kids during these days. For some of them you need to book early (in October!) but some you can still do – most are in or around London.

  • The National Trust: The National Trust usually have great festive activities at their sites leading up to Christmas – We’ve been to see Father Christmas and the Christmas animals at Hatchlands Park, we’ve listened to Christmas Jazz at Ham House, we’ve done Christmas trails, Christmas crafts and visited Christmas markets and fairs – all of which have left us with that warm festive glow. This year we’re planning to visit a Georgian Christmas at Osterley House & Park.
  • Christmas at Kew: We’re fortunate enough to live close to Kew and so have always made sure we visit – it gets better and better each year – especially as now there is the Christmas illuminations trail and market. The lights lighting up the magnificent trees and plants around the garden is spectacular – the walk takes about 45 minutes but there are stopping points throughout to warm up with a hot chocolate or mulled wine.
  • Christmas theatre: I always look out for a Christmas show to go and see with the kids – I particularly like small theatre productions – We saw a wonderful adaption of Father Christmas (Raymond Briggs) last year at The Lyric in Hammersmith (which is back this year if you are nearby) and I always check the children’s theatres for their Christmas program: The Polka in Wimbledon and The Unicorn on Southbank. We have also watched the fabulous adaption of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Stickman (which is back on stage this year at The Leicester Square Theatre). This year we are going to see Slava’s Snow Show – which sounds pretty fab.
  • Christmas Carols: My absolute favourite place for singing carols is Hampton Court – the singers meet at the door to the palace at 6pm and then walk around the courtyards stopping to sing along with a brass band – it is literally my favourite Christmas Activity – we have done it for the last 6 years and every year it gets better organised; now there is a stopping point for a mince pie and a mulled wine (I think you are getting an impression of what good organisation means to me – food and drink!!). But despite having the ticket-opening date in my diary I missed tickets this year – you really need to book as soon as they go on sale. So I’m looking for a fun Christmas Caroling event, do you know any? We will take the kids to the family carol service at St. Paul’s, which is also lovely (but no mince pies or mulled wine …)

I’d love to know what Christmas activities you try and fit in during Advent time.

Mo. x

Christmas Book Advent Calendar (Updated)

christmas book advent calendar

I wrote my first post for Babyccino on 29th November 2009 (I can’t believe it – almost 6 years ago!) and it was about an idea that I had to wrap up 24 Christmas themed books to create a Christmas Book Advent Calendar. Well the idea is still going strong in our house and as I get the books out this year and dust them off ready for wrapping – I thought I’d do a little updated post on it.

We do a couple of different advent calendar ideas in our house but the book idea is still my favourite and has become a tradition that the children (and I) really look forward to. Unwrapping a Christmas story every evening before going to bed has such a cosiness about it – perfect for the time of year, when evenings are dark and cold. Reading the story – whether just fun or poignant – gives me the opportunity to slow down, even if just for a few minutes and snuggle up with my kids to soak in the magical atmosphere of Advent. I treasure those moments and I’m sure my children do to.

I thought I’d share with you some pictures from the past years – they are all pretty bad quality I’m afraid, as we always read at night-time and I very rarely have my proper camera to hand, so they are just grainy phone-snaps but looking at them I can’t wait to wrap the books up again.

christmas book advent calendar tradition

Mo's kids at christmas

best Christmas books

Over the years, as the kids get older, we’ve added to the Christmas book collection so now I get to choose from a bigger pile – I thought to share our list with you – even if 24 advent books is a bit extreme, you may enjoy one or two of these stories over the festive period:

  • Bear Stays Up for Christmas (Karma Wilson & Jane Chapman). If you know the book “Bear Snores On” then you will recognize the characters in this book. I’ve always thought that maybe those clever advertising people who came up with that lovely John Lewis ad (with the bear and hare) may have read this book at some point ….
  • The Fir Tree (Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Sanna Annukka). This is a longer story – so needs a while to read it (maybe could be done over 2 nights?) – I always wrap it as one of the earlier days so we have more time to finish it the day after if necessary. It is a lovely classic fairy-tale, which is exquisitely illustrated (an heirloom book).
  • Snow (Roy McKie & P.D. Eastman). This appears to be out of print so currently very expensive on Amazon marketplace (but prices always change). It is not a Christmas story specifically but snow and sledging always feels seasonal. This is a good book if you have a child who is just learning to read as it is a first reader book so a good one for some subtle practise!
  • Petunia’s Christmas (Roger Duvoisin). I’m sorry another out of print one (but much cheaper at the moment on Amazon!) – I collect Duvoisin books as I love his illustrations and story-telling and this is a wonderful story of the silly little goose that we already know.
  • ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Clement C. Moore). We have 3 versions of this book – my favourite is my version I had as a child, which stays at my parent’s house and is out of print unfortunately. The version I usually wrap up is illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. I like this book to be really old fashioned and her illustrations are just perfect in my minds eye. However we do often give a small hardback version by paper-cut artist Niroot Puttapipat, which is also very special. Of course it is entirely up to you but this one is always our book to open on the 24th!!!
  • Mog’s Christmas (Judith Kerr). Quite a few of our ‘favourite’ characters pop up in our advent books and Mog is no exception – I particularly like her grumpy attitude to it all – we all know someone who is a pretty grumpy about Christmas don’t we?!
  • A Christmas Story (Brian Wildsmith). You may remember that Brian Wildsmith’s Easter Story crept up in my Easter book recommendations http://babyccinokids.com/blog/2015/03/31/6-easter-book-suggestions/. The story of Jesus’s birth is also told through the eyes of a donkey, which reminds us of the humility of Jesus being born in a stable with animals and simple people present but he uses bright colour and gold print to remind us just how special the story is.
  • Letters from Father Christmas (J. R. R. Tolkien). I have a different version of this book, which I couldn’t find on Amazon – with pull-out letters, it is quite special but actually quite fiddly to read so I’m sure this one is a bit more practical. Not only are these letters (that Tolkien wrote to his own children in the guise of Father Christmas) super magical they show what a truly awesome dad he must have been. So imaginative, so funny and inspiring in creating this fictional dialogue that I’m sure his children found quite magical.
  • Little Rabbit’s Christmas (Harry Horse). One for the little ones (having said that I think my 8-year-old still quite enjoys these stories). A story which shows the ‘other’ side of Christmas – the meltdowns, spoiled behaviour, selfishness that we have certainly seen in our own children when the excitement of Christmas finally reaches a peak and explodes. But of course … with lessons learned and happy endings!
  • Lyle at Christmas (Bernard Waber). Out of print and available super cheap at the time of going to print. We love all the Lyle stories – surreal and gentle as they are. If you don’t know them I’m sure you’d love them. In this one Lyle and his family look to help Mr. Grumps, who is suffering from the holiday ‘blahs’.
  • My Wonderful Christmas Tree (Dahlov Ipcar). I wrote about another Dahlov Ipcar book, I Love Animals, earlier in the year. I really love her illustrations and this Christmassy book is no exception. This is a counting book with different animals hiding in a Christmas tree and there are some quite unusual ones in there!
  • I Spy Christmas (Walter Wick & Jean Marzollo). Another chance for a second hand bargain here (hardcover was £2.81 (inc. postage) when going to print. These books do feel a little dated – they remind me of when I was a kid – the objects and styling is a bit ’80s but I like a hint of nostalgia and, more importantly they are fun – I have written about many ‘looking’ books and I think particularly young children love to solve the riddles and find the objects in the Christmassy photos.
  • The Empty Stocking (Richard Curtis & Rebecca Cobb). This book really answers the question – “what if I haven’t been good this year?” Uh oh!
  • The Little Fir Tree (Margaret Wise Brown & Jim Lamarche). The story of a father who makes his little boy’s Christmas special with the help of a little Fir Tree – a very sweet story about Christmas traditions and making sure we remember the vulnerable, the forgotten and the disadvantaged at Christmas time.
  • Paddington and the Christmas Surprise (Michael Bond & R.W. Alley). We love Paddington (books not movie, sorry!) and this one is always in our Advent line-up. Of course Paddington gets into a tricky situation but ends up saving the day and Marmalade is featured!
  • One Thousand Christmas Beards (Roger Duvoisin). Another out-of-print, another Roger Duvoisin. As usual he takes a different angle on Christmas – in the story Santa is angry with all the Santa impersonators that he sees during the festive season – it’s a great story to help you answer the inevitable questions that arise when you see Santa in every Shopping Mall!
  • The Little Reindeer (Michael Foreman). I really like this story – a relatively new addition to our collection. The story of a reindeer that gets lost from Santa’s crew and the boy that befriends him – quite magical.
  • The Christmas Wish (Lori Evert & Per Breiehagen). I love everything about this book. The photography, the story, the fashion (I’d love to dress my little girl like Anja in this story!!!)
  • The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (Susan Wojciechowski & P.J. Lynch). An old-fashioned story of love …
  • Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (Robert Barry). Ha! Ha! Last Christmas our tree didn’t quite fit into our living room and my husband had to cut about 30cm from the top and my eldest boy said – “Oh it’s just like Mr Willowby’s tree”, and that’s how the story starts …
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas (Jane Ray). Courtney bought this book for us a couple of Christmas’s ago and it is a really lovely version … I save it until quite near Christmas so we can all read it, then sing it together!
  • Madeline’s Christmas (Ludwig Bemelmans). I do love Madeline books, although often a little bit ‘odd’ – this one manages to weave (excuse the pun) a magic-carpet seller into a Christmassy story.
  • A Calf for Christmas (Astrid Lindgren & Marit Tornqvist). We have two Lindgren books in our German Advent collection but this is the only English one we have. It is a story that works for older children as well as the littles. A classic fable and beautifully illustrated so you get a cosy impression of Sweden at Christmas time.
  • Christmas Poems (Chosen by Gaby Morgan and illustrated by Axel Scheffler). If this one gets wrapped it is often in the first days of Christmas – as it can’t be all read in one night but it is nice to dip into through the Christmas days – we sometimes leave this one out in a Book basket that we keep beside the advent calendar for all the opened books so the kids can look through them during the days.
  • Father Christmas & The Donkey (Elizabeth Clark & Jan Ormerod). Another great bargain at the moment! And another story of a donkey!!! This donkey works so hard to help Father Christmas and Father Christmas rewards him with the best present he could wish for.
  • Christmas Day in the Morning (Pearl s. Buck & Mark Buehner). Warning – tear-jerker! I even noticed a tear in my husband’s eye last year. I always save this one for the last days of the calendar!
  • The Christmas Angels (Elsa Wenz-Vietor). We have this one in German (see German suggestions) – it is so gorgeously illustrated – this is how Christmas angels should look!
  • Christmas in the Noisy Village (Astrid Lindgren & Ilon Wikland). In German, the Noisy Village is called Bullerbue and we love the stories throughout the year from them. (There is a great TV series as well in German – which if you are German you will surely know already!!!). It is such a charming story of 3 families that make up a village in Sweden and the 7 children that occupy it with their stories of idyllic countryside playing and mischief-making.

I hope that this long-list has maybe given you some ideas for Christmas stories for this year!

Also, here are some of our Advent books in German for my husband to read, I thought I’d share our favourites for any German Speaking readers:

  • Weihnachten im Stall (Astrid Lindgren & Lars Klinting)
  • Wie Weihnachtelt Man? (Lorenz Pauli & Kathrin Schaerer)
  • Weihnachten Nach Mass (Birdie Black & Rosalind Beardshaw)
  • Die Leihgabe (Wolfdietrich Schnurre & Klaus Ensikat)
  • Weihnachtern in Bullerbue (Astrid Lindgren & Ilon Wikland)
  • Anton & das Weihnachtsgeschenk (Ole Koennecke)
  • Die Weihnachtsengelein (Elsa Wenz-Vietor)

Mo x

Duck, Death and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch

Duck Death and Tulip 1
Duck Death and Tulip 2
Duck Death and Tulip 3
Duck Deat and Tulip 4

It was a difficult choice to write about this book – you see my aim is to write about books that not only I love but ones my kids love too. My kids DO NOT love this book. You see this book tackles the scariest subject in all of our lives … death. There really is no way to make this topic ‘nice’ but I can’t think of a book which comes nearer.

You may remember Wolf Erlbruch for the wonderful tale of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of his Business. Whilst that book captured all of our hearts (especially kids who, let’s face it, love a mention of poo) this story of Duck, Death and the Tulip is, understandably harder for kids to love but I really, really love it.

Duck is going to die – we know that because Death has started to hang around – he is anxious and scared but as time goes on he gets used to Death. He wants to understand what will happen after he dies, he’s heard stories but wants to really know – Death can’t help but even so Duck starts to find him quite good company and when the time comes death is graceful, tender and gentle. Death is moved as he says his final Goodbye to Duck – but he straightens himself up, he is just doing his job – “that’s life” after all.

I really like this pragmatic approach – I, personally, found it comforting and it has been carefully interjected with spots of humour. I read the book with my children when there was no other theme of ‘death’ in our lives but I wonder if they might have felt differently about it if we’d read it together when someone we loved had died or was likely to die – maybe a relative or a pet? The book is available to buy from Amazon (UK and US).

-Mo x

Topsy Turvy World, By Atak

Topsy Turvy World 1
Topsy Turvy World 2
Topsy Turvey World 3

As soon as you pick up this book you know you are not dealing with your average kids book.  Atak is a German folksy illustrator and this book is like turning pages of an art piece – each page thickly covered with colour and detail. This book , with no words, just uses pictures to play the typical kids game ‘Verkehrte Welt’ (direct translation – wrong way round the World). The mice chase the cat, the baby spoon-feeds the mama, cars fly and airplanes float, firemen have fire coming out of their hoses and the Punk gives the Banker money on the street. This absurd and fantastical World is not only funny but thought provoking – when we see things the wrong way round we can question if the ‘right-way’ is really right after all? This particularly strikes me on the front cover as the Circus Lion holds up a flaming hoop for the clown to jump through. Kids of all ages (and by that I mean grown-ups too!) will really enjoy staring into this book and looking at this Topsy Turvy World .

The book is available from Amazon (UK and US), and from Flying Eye Books.

-Mo x

How Things Work, by Okido

Okido Magazines
How Things Work 1

Do you know about Okido magazines? We have been subscribers for years. Okido is an arts and science magazine aimed at 3 – 8 year olds, published every 2 months. Each magazine has a theme – recent ones include Dinosaurs, All About Me, Celebration, Hair and Machines – and the topic is imaginatively bought to life through a variety of games, stories and things to make and do. Okido is the brainchild of Dr. Sophie Dauvois (a multimedia designer and scientist) and illustrator, Rachel Ortas and they now work with a team of talented designers to teach children through bright and fun illustrations.

The Okido team have released some great factual books for kids and we recently got ‘How Things Work’ because, to be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question and my son asks me it a lot! Our guides through the book are Koko and Alex – 2 inquisitive kids who like to see how things work and try and build things. The book is really interactive with games and ideas and poses questions back to the reader to try and figure out by looking at the pictures or by experimenting themselves.

How Things Work 2
How Things Work 3

Rather then just explaining things with text and pictures the book gets children to look at things differently – to start to question: how are things made? What materials are they made from? Why are they made with those materials? How materials can change in different circumstances.

How Things Work 4

How Things Work 5

The book covers a wide range of subjects – How is a book made? How water can change in different temperatures. What is a machine? How things are made in nature / how we can copy those ideas. Electricity. Light. Sound. How a car works? How TV works? It goes on. And there are so many ideas of how to bring these subjects to life for children – games, experiments, things to make etc.

This is a great book to dip into again and again. It offers great support to subjects kids will be learning at school and makes them fun. I learned a thing or two!

The book is available from Amazon (US and UK).

-Mo x

Jemmy Button by Jennifer Uman & Valerio Vidali

Jemmy Button 1
Jemmy Button 2
Jemmy Button 4

I think real life is usually a bit over-rated – in the fact that ‘stories’ can be so much more exciting than ‘real-life’ could ever really be. But this ‘real-life’ story is really quite remarkable.
In the early 1800s Captain Robert Fitzroy set sail from England to the islands of Tierra del Fuego (South America). He found the native people to be savages, lacking in any kind of sophistication. He believed it was possible to transform one of these wild children into a fine English Gentleman if given the right education. He brought a boy named Orundellico back to England with him. He gave his parents a Mother of Pearl button in payment – which gave rise to his new name – Jemmy Button.

Jemmy Button 5
Jemmy Button 6
Of course Jemmy flourished in England with schooling in Christianity and upper-class Victorian manners and even attracted the attention of King William and Queen Adelaide. In 1832 he returned to his home islands – where the hope was he would spread his learning of civilisation – Darwin joined him on his journey home to study him in his original habitat. What happened I’ll leave for you to find out ….
Jennifer Uman and Valerio Vidali have adoringly illustrated this real-life ‘My Fair Lady’ tale. The two illustrators met online with a shared appreciation of each other’s work – but with Jennifer only speaking English and Valerio only speaking Italian their friendship was formed using online translators to talk about their ideas. They finally met when they had the idea to illustrate this story together and it is such a beautiful partnership – one of those books where every page could be framed.

The book is available from Amazon (US and UK).

-Mo x

Use Your Imagination, By Nicola O’Byrne

Use Your Imagination 1
Use Your Imagination 2

Imagination is brilliant isn’t it? … except when its not. I have a boy who has a wild imagination and whilst that is great for games and play it can be horrible for him at night-time when his imagination starts spinning tales of robbers and monsters. With him I have to be careful what stories are read at bedtime – anything slightly scary can cause him all sorts of problems to calm down and let himself sleep. And we all know kids books, even some of the stories we learn as very young children can be quite scary. Take ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for instance – phew! That wolf is not someone you want to come across in your dreams.

That’s why Nicola O’Byrne’s book, Use Your Imagination, is so great – a book that tells kids that it is THEIR imagination and they are in control of it.

Use Your Imagination 3

Rabbit is bored and Wolf wants to help – maybe they can write story together? We can quickly see what sort of story Wolf would like to write – he tries his best to twist and turn Rabbit’s imagination into a story he’d like to eat hear but Rabbit is not so easily fooled – he realises that this story is up to him and he decides where it is going.

Use Your Imagination 4

With wonderful pictures (that, with a simple white backdrop, also allow us to use our imaginations a little) and a fantastic lift-up crescendo to Rabbit’s tale (no pun intended). This is a book that will surely delight children and maybe empower kids to change the direction their imagination sometimes goes in. The book is available from Amazon (UK and US).

Mo x


One Thousand Things, by Anna Kövecses

One Thousand Things 1

One Thousand Things 2

I knew as I approached the stand this was going to be a dangerous meeting. I had ‘eyed’ up the Wide Eyed Editions stand at last year’s Babyccino ShopUp event from across the room, and eventually gave in to temptation. I already had the Atlas of Adventures book and as soon as I looked through their catalogue I knew this would be the stand where I’d spend my Christmas presents budget.

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One Thousand Things 4

Otto (aged 3) found One Thousand Things by Anna Kövecses in his stocking. I love books that simply help encourage first words and conversation with young children. Here a little mouse takes us on a journey to learn 1000 words – split into 7 sections. The images look almost like cut-out images with flat and bold colours which are very beautiful.

One Thousand Things 5
I have also found this book great for helping to teach my older daughter to read her first words and I have ordered this book a couple of times for new babies – I always like to buy a book for newborns and the simple graphics in this book make it a lovely book to look at with very young children. The book is available from Amazon (US and UK).

-Mo  x

My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond

My Dads a Birdman 1
My Dads a Birdman 3

My kids are aged 8, 6 and 3. They still all enjoy picture books but the two older ones really like me to also read chapter books to them before bed. It can be quite a challenge to find ones they like – they really hate anything scary and are sensitive to creatures, monsters, even some kinds of wizardry – basically any stories with evil as well as good are just not up their street. It can be tricky to find stories aimed at their age-group without any baddies!

My Dad’s a Birdman is a great find.

Set in the North of England, Lizzie’s Dad is preparing to enter the Great Human Bird Competition and her Auntie Doreen is getting cross about it. You see Lizzie’s Dad is taking his entry quite literally – building wings of feathers, eating flies and feathering his nest. You see Lizzie and her Dad are getting over the death of Lizzie’s ‘Mam’ and that can be tough on grown-ups as well as kids.

The story is funny and silly but the grown-up reading this will see a sadness in this story of grief, how we deal with it and how sometimes, just sometimes, kids become the grown-ups.

My Dads a Birdman 2

Lizzie is a wonderful character with a huge empathy & understanding. Whilst she has the intelligence to understand her father’s actions she can also see the love of her Auntie Doreen condoning them. She is accepting of other people’s coping mechanisms and the book is great at demonstrating our differences with dealing with difficult situations.

But have no fear of worrying your children with stories of a mother no longer there – my children didn’t really pick up on this ‘back-story’ until we had nearly finished the book, they were too engrossed with the story of this fantastical competition.

Polly Dunbar (who illustrated the lovely Penguin ) provides soft and gentle illustrations, which make this book perfect for children (like mine) moving from picture to chapter book. Available from Amazon (US and UK).

-Mo x

A Spy Birthday Party for an 8-Year-Old

Elias Spy Party 1

This year Elias wanted a ‘Magic’ birthday party. Not being a member of the magic circle myself I was thrown a little by how I was going to pull that off – so I started to brainstorm other possibilities with him – we decided upon a ‘Spy Party’ and I immediately got Pinteresting.

There were so many brilliant ideas that I just knew this party would be fun to organize – and it really was but I did have to be more organized then I usually am for parties and with 8-year-olds I knew I couldn’t pull the wool over their eyes – the spy games would need to be good.

Elias Spy Party 2

First we sent out an invitation inviting his guests to attend Spy School. Included in the invite was a fake moustache (to ensure no one suspected them) and a Cipher Wheel to decode the secret password. I downloaded a template for the Cipher Wheel here and just ‘re-branded’ it a little.

Elias Spy Party 3

Then it was time to plan the actual party! We decided to break down the party into 8 parts – 7 tasks for the ‘spies’ to complete before the final challenge – this was the order of the day:
Arrival – Spies are given their identification tags (1) and scanned (2) to ensure they are not bringing any weapons into Spy School. They then needed to choose a Spy Name by picking one word from one jar and another from another and then this was stuck into their ‘fake’ passports – I got these ideas from this great blog post and they even had downloadable printables! – Inside the passports was a list of the tasks they would need to complete – I stickered them as they passed each level (but actually I’d recommend using a stamp for that bit – the stickering was a little fiddly!).

Task 1 – Observation: My husband had a lot of fun setting up a table with a Playmobil ‘scene’ on it – he tried to make it quite detailed. The kids were told to study the scene as they would need to observe if there had been changes to it later on. We set this up in our living room were we did the arrival and it was a great game for them to be getting on with whilst we waited for everyone.
Task 2 – Interrogation: Downstairs into our cellar (usually a place for laundry but on this day it was Spy HQ!). Another idea from the above blog – each kid had a character, animal or famous person stuck on their backs – they had to walk round and ask each other questions to try and find out who they were – but the answers could only be yes or no – the kids found this one pretty hard and we had to give them some helpful tips but they all managed in the end.
Task 3 – Code Creating and Cracking: We taught them a way to write a hidden message by writing or drawing something small with a light blue crayon and then scribbling all over it with a red crayon so you can hardly see the blue message. Then take a sheet of red acetate and hold it over the message and you will see the blue message clearly. They had to create a message – then swap with a friend and try and discover what had been written or drawn.
Back to Task 1 – Now we went back to the observation table – in the meantime my husband had made 6 changes and they had to discover what as a team. They loved this one.
Task 4 – With 7 boys and a girl we knew by now they’d need some running about so this was Time Trials. I got my husband to take the kids over to the park to do some races for 15 minutes. Whilst they were gone I roped my Mum and Dad into setting up task 5 …
Task 5 – Laser maze. When the kids arrived back we made them wait outside the door and explained the next task – getting through a laser-maze without breaking it. Our hallway is a perfect corridor for this – we used red crepe-paper and washi-tape to create a maze for the kids to climb through – it looked great and the kids really enjoyed that surprise to come back to – tip if you do this: put some lasers very low down – the kids quite quickly worked out they could slide through underneath most of our maze.
Task 6 – the controversial one … Target Practise. I have never bought these ‘exciting’ Nerf guns for Elias although whenever he goes to anyone’s house who has one he really loves them. I’m just a pacifist and don’t like boys playing war but … they do anyway – my boys often take sticks or their fingers and shoot eachother. I remembered how much fun I had with water-guns as a kid and knew that I would be making my son’s day if he got to have a play with some of those ‘exciting’ guns. So I bought the littlest one I could find (3) and a second one with a laser (4) (because that seemed quite Spy like) and we set up a small target (5) back down in the cellar – they all got a go with the laser gun first and had to try and score 100 points on the target and then they had a go with the small pistol – there were strict rules to not shoot at fellow spies and actually they all really enjoyed it. Elias had about 5 days of carrying these guns around with him after his party and now they are at the bottom of a toy box somewhere and don’t seem to be too exciting anymore – maybe he got the shooting out of his system for now!
Task 7 – Bomb detonation. By now the kids were ready for some food and drink – I made chocolate brownies and ‘bomb’ biscuits and we put sparklers in the brownies to detonate them. (Whilst they were eating I sent my Dad and husband on a little mission to get something ready for the next stage).

Elias Spy Party 4
Task 8 – The final challenge. I bought out a suitcase that was locked with a 4 number padlock. The kids were told there was another bag inside this one with a 3 digit padlock on it and that their party bags were inside the 2nd bag. In order to get their party bags they would have to crack the codes. They were given a ‘Top Secret’ box with some helpful tools inside. There was:
● A clip board with a pen and paper with 7 boxes ready to input the numbers as they found them.
● A piece of fabric with 8 pins in it.
● A couple of code-crackers – A number code, an alpha code, a piece of the red acetate.
● A mobile phone – yes an actual phone (can you imagine how excited they were)
…and this is where the genius of this task was – again credit due entirely to this blog who introduced me to QR codes and this generator. It was really simple to set up; I could just input the questions to our ‘treasure hunt’ and then fix the QR codes up so the kids could scan them to get their next clue – they felt like real proper spies!!! Just a little tip – when you create the codes I copied them into a document and printed them and just wrote at the top of each code where I needed to hang it – this won’t ruin the clues for the kids as it will only say the location they have already reached but it will help you to remember which clue to pin up where! At each location the kids got a spy task to crack to get the number and the next clue where to go. Most of these clues we did as code-cracking tasks but my favourite one (and this is what my Dad and husband were busy with whilst we ate cake) was the bomb detonation – we filled our trampoline with 50 black balloons and the kids had to pop them to find the number – it was a little scary having 8 kids on a trampoline holding pins but luckily no injuries and lots of fun!
So they cracked the code and secured their party loot – each got a pair of spy-glasses, invisible ink pen, note book and some popping candy.
We were shattered at the end – it was full-on but I think it was the most fun party we’ve ever done!

(1) I bought these clips to create ID tags
(2) This scanner was not too expensive and really added to the official feel of entering Spy School – the kids have also enjoyed playing with it since.
(3) We bought this Nerf Gun and this (4) laser version and this is actually a very nice (5) target practise

‘Smartypants: Pete in School’ by Maira Kalman

Smartypants book

There is so much I want to tell you about Maira Kalman. She is my current ‘book-creator-crush’ – I have loved everything I have read by her – adult books or kids books.

Maira Kalman was born in Tel Aviv but moved to New York aged four. She is an author, an illustrator, a curator and just a brilliant, brilliant voice and mind. She has a style and stream of consciousness like no other author I have ever experienced and as everything she writes is also illustrated the whole experience of looking through a Maira Kalman book is an energizing joy – her books always make me laugh but can be thought-provoking and also touching to draw a tear.

Smartypants 2
Smartypants 3
The stories often don’t follow a clear path – you need to commit to her style and prepare to jump around a little but when you do you go on a journey which is just about as delicious as a salt-beef and pickle bagel – which brings me back to her Jewish / Bronx routes – which gives her work such a rich tone – I’m not sure you can be funny like Kalman unless you are Jewish and from the Bronx (but I may be wrong on that?).

So to choose a book to review was the hard thing here – I’m sure I’ll tell you about some more soon but I picked Smartypants: Pete in School because it is the book that makes my kids laugh loudest and what better reason to spread the love?

Pete is the dog of Poppy & Schmookie Wise – he eats everything. One day he turns up at school and starts causing havoc by eating his way through Poppy and Schmookie’s classes – until, called to the principal’s office, he eats a Big Book of Everything and ends up really smart …. The story is funny but the characters – Poppy, Schmookie, the teachers and of course Pete you will just love. Kalman, talks in asides (if she was on Instagram she’d be the hashtag queen!) and goes off on tangents, which lets us get to know these characters in a deeper way.

Smartypants 4

You can buy Smartypants: Pete in School here, but I warn you it could spark a book-buying-spree!

-Mo x

PS: If you want to know more about Maira Kalman you can hear her 2007 Ted Talk here (it’s perfect!) and books for grown-ups by her are The Principles of Uncertainty, which is a compilation of her columns for The New York Times. And the Pursuit of Happiness  is her year-long investigation into American democracy and lastly (my personal favourite) is My Favorite Things which was created to accompany her curation of the artifacts at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The book explores the significance of objects in our lives and combines personal objects and artifacts from the exhibition. Lovely.

A Bell for Ursli by Alois Carigiet & Selina Chönz

A Bell for Ursli 1
A Bell for Ursli 2

We talk a fair bit about social media in our house – my husband really hates it whilst I love a bit of Instagram and this can lead to some interesting debates, but this is a story of how social media got me to discover a wonderful book I didn’t know about but which was already on my bookshelf….

One of Esther’s Insta-friends posted a picture from the book ‘A Bell for Ursli ’ and she messaged me to ask if I knew the book – it just looked so lovely. It looked familiar but I couldn’t place it. Esther’s friend revealed the title and so I looked it up and by the front cover I knew it was on our bookshelf somewhere. My husband is German and so we have lots of kid’s books in German – I always look at them when we buy them (in fact I buy a lot of them purely based on their illustrations!) but then they go on the ’German Shelf’ for him to read. ‘Schnellen-Ursli’, ‘Der Grösse Schnee’ and ‘Flurina und das Wildvöglein’ – all by the same author / illustrator were all on our shelf having been bought for our eldest son when he was born by friends.

Noticing some of the titles were also in English I bought them and feel like I found treasure – what lovely stories! You see these books are real classics – beautiful tales of idyllic childhoods in the Swiss mountains accompanied by equally idyllic pictures.

A Bell for Ursli 3
A Bell for Ursli 4

A Bell for Ursli is a perfect story for this time of year – based on the Swiss tradition of children ringing cow-bells through the streets of the villages during the Spring Festival. Each child carries the biggest bell they can and ring it loudly to drive the Winter away and welcome the Spring. The village people then fill the children’s bells with treats – but only the big children can carry big bells, the smaller children must carry the smaller calves bells – the story of Ursli is of a small boy wanting to be bigger and the adventure he goes on to be so.

I think this book would make the perfect Easter present (and paired with this super-brilliantly-kitsch Playmobil set it beats almost any chocolate egg I know!).

-Mo  x

6 Easter Book suggestions

Easter books
1. The Golden Egg Book by Margaret Wise Brown
Margaret Wise Brown is probably best known for Goodnight Moon but I prefer this story for Easter – a young bunny finds a curious object (an egg) and can hear some tapping inside it – what is it? The bunny sets to investigations – some of which are quite disruptive but the little duckling that emerges is also an inquisitive little thing … a sweet little story of curiosity and friendship and of course its right in keeping with this time of year.

2. I am A Bunny by Richard Scarry
An old Babyccino favourite (see here) and if you don’t have it already this story of Nicholas the Bunny would make a perfect gift for Easter for a baby or toddler.

3. The Easter Story by Brian Wildsmith
I’m a big fan of Brian Wildsmith’s books and this book is a good way to introduce children to the more difficult religious story of Easter time. Like his other book, A Christmas Story, Wildsmith uses an outsider to the story to tell it – in both cases a donkey. The donkey in The Easter Story carries Jesus into Jerusalem and sees the whole story unfold – how he is bought before Pontius Pilate, how he is crucified and how he comes to life again with the resurrection. Wildsmith uses bright colours, which evoke a Middle-Eastern landscape and gold to show that this is a very special, precious story. Whether you are religious or not it gives a good overview to what the festival of Easter is about. Good for children aged 4 – 7.

4. Hare and the Easter Eggs (Little Grey Rabbit) by Alison Uttley & Margaret Tempest
For those of you unfamiliar with the stories of Little Grey Rabbit – Hare is quite a cheeky, brave character and here he uses his boldness to get a most special Easter treat for his friends on Easter Sunday. A sweet little story with pretty, pastel drawings. The books are in small hardback format (reminiscent of another ‘rabbit’ book which doesn’t feature here as I figured it was just too obvious) so it makes a neat little package to hide as part of an egg hunt!

5. Rabbit School by Fritz Koch-Gotha and Albert Sixtus
We have this book in German but I double-checked that it is available in English! Fritz Koch-Gotha and Albert Sixtus are both Children’s Literature legends in Germany and this book is a lovely example of why. The illustrations are lovingly detailed whilst the rhyming story tells of 2 rabbits who are off to school. At school they learn what plants are tasty and good and how to make them grow. They learn about the evil fox and how to avoid him and of course they learn how to paint Easter Eggs so they can be Easter bunnies!

6. Those Pesky Rabbits by Ciara Flood
Released at the beginning of March, this is Ciara Flood’s first picture book. The story of annoyingly nice new neighbours and a grumpy bear who is just not into being disturbed (even by niceness!). Of course those ‘peskily nice rabbits’ win in the end and we all feel rather happy that bear turns over a new leaf to not be such a grump. Not an Easter story as such but rabbits felt enough of a link to get this one in this little list!

Have a great Easter – Mo. x

Where’s the Pair? by Britta Teckentrup

Where's the Pair
Where's The Pair 2

Courtney wrote about The Odd One Out by Britta Teckentrup and I bought it immediately – Otto loves ‘looking’ books and particularly ones where he can get involved. I love them too – these moments sitting and chatting to my 3-year-old over a book are all too precious. How they chat at this age is so great isn’t it? And these moments are made even more enjoyable when the book is as pleasing to the eye as with Ms. Teckentrup’s illustrations. That’s why I was happy to see this new book Where’s the Pair? released.

Where's The Pair 3
Where's The Pair 4

As with ‘The Odd One Out’ each page is adorned with a vibrant pattern of animals and a little rhyme questioning us to find the pair. And it’s not too easy — I even found the pairing a bit tricky. After Otto and I had read it I found him later sitting with his older sister trying to find the pairs – maybe she also enjoys these quiet moments and chats with our little one?

The book is available from Amazon (UK and US ).

-Mo x

A Rock is Lively by Dianna Aston & Sylvia Long

A Rock is Lively

My eldest son, Elias, has a love for stones and rocks (or as he calls them, crystals). Our house is full of stones he has found outside of our house, in the garden or in the park – to me they are just stones but to him they are all wonderful – he looks at them for ages finding the sparkling bits or fossilized fragments. He cleans them and studies them and keeps them in boxes and old printing trays in his bedroom.

So when I found this book I knew it would make the perfect birthday present for him.

A rock is lively_inside
A rock is mixed up
A Rock is Lively book

The title itself captures the special thing that people like Elias see in ordinary stones: A Rock is Lively … well I was yet to be convinced but as Mother and Son sat down to read this book – this Mama slowly became a convert. It turns out that stones really rock (if you’ll excuse the pun).

The book is written in such a way that it opens up the world of Stones, rocks and crystals and demonstrates just how interesting they are with bite-size nuggets of facts and stunning drawings to illustrate.

I really loved reading the book with Elias and by the end of the book I was proud that he was so interested in such a subject. Never having been one for Geology as a kid, it was great for me to learn (or re-learn as I’m sure is the case) how different rocks are made up, how old they can be and just how beautiful they can be. Maybe as a result I will be more patient about the piles of stones I find in my washing machine after washing Elias’s trousers! Maybe ….

-Mo x

p.s. A sweet story for younger kids about a ‘special’ stone is the Shirley Hughes Alfie story, Bonting (found in The Big Alfie Out Of Doors Storybook ) – Elias loved that as a little boy – I should have known then that stones are special to some kids!

Matisse’s Garden by Samantha Friedman & Cristina Amodeo

Matties's garden
matisse's garden_inside
matisse's garden book

If you are anything like me you can’t resist a museum shop. I found this book on a recent trip to the Tate Modern and bought it as semi-compensation for missing their exhibition of Matisse’s Cut-Outs last year.

I really love taking my kids to art exhibitions, even if it is not always their bag yet. My eldest (who is nearly 8) is starting to be interested in his own perceptions of what he is looking at and I love those dialogues with him. My middle one (the girl) loves drawing and painting and is often inspired to do an art-project as the result of a visit, and my youngest (3) is … to be honest … really, really horrible to take to museums!!!

So we missed the exhibit but … we found this book! Surely the next best thing? The book, published by MOMA, unfolds the artistic process that Matisse went through to develop some of his famous Cut-Out works. Told, as a story, we learn about Matisse, the curiosity and experimental nature of artists and, of course, some of his most famous works.
The book has been illustrated in a cut-out style, which nods to Matisse but still has its own individual look and then the pages unfold to reveal some of Matisse’s finished work which example that part of his artistic journey.

Lioba doing Matisse art project
henri matisse art project
Lioba and art project

We really enjoyed the book and it was also fun to have a go at producing a cut-out ‘art-piece’ with my daughter (a few phone-pics here to see). You can pick up a copy of ‘Matisse’s Garden’ from Amazon (UK and US ).

-Mo x

Henri’s Walk to Paris, by Saul Bass and Leonore Klein

henri's walk to paris
Henri's Walk To Paris 2
Henri's Walk To Paris 3
Henri's Walk To Paris 4
I’m a list maker – normally the ‘to do’ variety but occasionally more interesting – my Desert Island Discs (you never know I might one-day end up on Radio 4 and I better be prepared), my top recipes if I were to write a cookery book (they are all sweet) and of course a variety of book lists – kids books that make me cry, my favourite books to give a new baby, kids books for grown-ups and kids books that would make nice wallpaper. Yes you read it correctly. Some kids books are real works of art and I often thing they would be great on a wall – for example: William Bee’s ‘And the Train Goes… ‘ (imagine spreading out the whole length of the train around a kid’s room – super cool!), ‘Who’s Hiding? ‘ By Satoru Onishi – the graphic animals in their stand-up grid would be so great as a wallpaper and so much fun to see which ones are hiding! But top of this list is ‘Henri’s Walk to Paris by Saul Bass.
For those who don’t know, Saul Bass is considered by many to be the greatest Graphic Designer ever – he is famed for his film-title sequences (Pyscho, North by North West, The Seven Year Itch etc) and designing some of the most recognisable corporate logos in America (United Airlines Tulip being one of the most famous). Henri’s Walk to Paris is the only children’s book he created. It is gorgeous.

The story, written by Leonore Klein, is that of a boy from a small town wishing to visit the big city – Paris. It is simple and sweet and provides the perfect vehicle for Bass to work his magic. For years it was a hard-to-get-hold-of collector’s item but thankfully it was reprinted in 2011 and so is once again available to all – and all should have it! It is a study of design – so rich and vibrant yet simple and clean – colour and form are here in perfect harmony. C’est Magnifique!

-Mo x

Lucky by David Mackintosh

Lucky by David Mackintosh
Lucky book
Lucky 3
Lucky 4

This book is for my son, Elias. No seriously … it is. I met David Mackintosh at a friend’s place recently and when I sussed out he was the Author/Illustrator responsible for Marshall Armstrong Is New To Our School – I had to tell him about how Elias loved that book – he even slept with it by his bed for quite a long while, which in Elias’s world means it was VERY special (and probably a bit magic)! So David (very sweetly) sent Elias his newest book, Lucky , and it is a book we all really enjoy and laugh out loud to!

David combines illustration with photo-montage and bold typesetting for a distinctive look which is pacey to fit with the story-telling – you can’t help but go into character when you read this book and when you go back to read it again you spot quirks and little jokes in the illustration that first time round you missed.

But what David does so well is capture a child’s voice and way of thinking. The story, told by our hero, is about how a kid’s imagination can play Chinese-whispers with itself. One idea turns into another and before you know it imagination has turned into reality. There is also an underlying story here of brotherly love and maybe even a question of what ‘lucky’ is? At least the grown-up in me can see that this boy – disappointed by his ‘luck’ not paying off as he imagined it would – is really a very lucky boy indeed.

-Mo  x

I like Animals by Dahlov Ipcar

i like animals
I Like Animals book
I Like Animals 4

I like vintage kid’s books – one day I’ll write some more about that, but suffice to say it’s quite a habit. I always argue with my husband that I’m cheaper then other wives – I don’t need Jimmy Choos! I spend literally NOTHING on cosmetics! But he argues that we need to buy a bigger house to store the books and so it turns out that even a penny-book obsession can get out of hand.
You see there is a snowball effect with my purchases – when I stumble upon an illustrator (usually) or author that I think is brilliant I start trying to track down more and more of their books and so one purchase can turn into 3 or 4 or more!

I discovered Dahlov Ipcar when I stumbled upon a copy of My Wonderful Christmas Tree and thought it might be good for our Advent Book Calendar. I loved her illustrations so much that I searched for more and discovered that a few of her books had recently been republished and bought back to life with remastered artworks by Flying Eye Books, and so I bought I Like Animals for a little boy who does.

What hit me first is the use of colour – this book feels right in keeping with today’s fashion – a coral pink, khaki-mustard, forest green and petrol blue – Some pages printed with all and others using just one – the result is striking. Not so much of a story but rather lists of the different animals and where you’d find them. It’s a really lovely book to look through.

Mo x

Favourite snow-themed children’s books

Snowy Richmond Park
Otto in the snow

favourite snowy books

favourite snow books

Finally it happened. Finally it snowed here in London. As it is the way of the Englander – it seems we have been discussing this possible event for weeks – the postman, the lady in the supermarket, my next-door neighbour, my Mum – we do like to talk about the weather in this country and SNOW is a rare and exciting event. Apart from halting all forms of transport the bare splattering of snow transforms our landscape and of course for children … well there is nothing quite so heart-warming as their excitement as they look out of their windows when woken to the words of ‘it’s snowing”.
As we have been waiting for the snow (which sadly only lasted a few hours) I dug out the snow-themed books we had on our shelves and I thought I’d share them with you:

Snow by Roy McKie & P.D. Eastman
This is a ‘Beginner Book’ from 1962, which means it is simply written using short, repetitive words that a child just learning to read can manage. The main focus is on pictures, which have a bright and bold primary palette and really express the fun of kids playing in the snow.

Immi by Karin Littlewood
We’ve written about this beautiful story here but the pictures are so lovely that a snow-themed read-athon was a great excuse to pull it out again.

The Story of the Snow Children by Sibylle von Olfers
I’m a big fan of the art of Sibylle von Olfers and this story of the Snow Children is (I think) one of the most enchanting examples – the story of a little girl called Poppy, who is tempted by the fairies of the snow to visit the Snow Queen. The berry-red of Poppy’s coat and mittens ping of the page against the tealy blue, gold and crisp white of the fairies snowy world. It is remarkable that a book published 110 years ago feels so fresh.

One Snowy Night by Nick Butterworth
This is a story from Percy the Park Keeper – a gentle series that my children really like. The story sees Percy taking in the park animals one-by-one as they shiver and suffer from the cold one snowy night. I think I like this one as it reminds me a little of our own household with my children creeping into our bed one-by-one at various stages of the night (except in our house it doesn’t need to be snowing!)

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
I can’t believe I haven’t written about this book yet! It is one of my favourite books. The story itself is a simple tale of a boy going out to play in the snow and worrying it won’t be still there when he wakes the next morning but what makes this book special is the bold colours and graphic layouts – each page is a surprising piece of art. I only recently learned that the book was also groundbreaking. Published in 1962, The Snowy Day was the first full-colour children’s book to feature an African-American protagonist. Keats had previously only illustrated other Author’s books and it occurred to him that his own minority was never featured so he changed it and he won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for doing so!

I’d love to hear what your favourite snow-themed books are? I’m optimistic that we’ve not seen the end of the snow – we still have some tobogganing to do and a snowman to build!

-Mo  x

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