Why I will not bother with this children’s book

Since starting my journey into parenting I have been absolutely fascinated by the impact that children’s authors and illustrators can have in little people. I think Julia Donaldson deserves a Damehood, a statue and a museum. I will start campaigning to make Axel Scheffler a national treasure (regardless of him being German, who cares!). Jon Klassen‘s books, simple and clever, never fail to make my daughter chuckle. Michael Brownlow’s Ten Little Pirates taught my girl to count and she now knows it by heart. I could go on forever telling you about how much I value children’s books in our life. Until, Mr Large is in Charge came home in a party pack.

MrLargeAs I read the book to my daughter something started bothering me. And I mean, really bothering me. The story line is the following: Mrs Large wakes up one morning feeling unwell and Mr Large tells her to go back to bed and rest as he will look after the children. In a nutshell, Mr Large is an utterly incompetent father to the point that Mrs Large never gets to rest. But that doesn’t matter because at the end they all snuggle in bed with mum.

I understand that the author Jill Murphy, wrote the first Large family book back in the late 1980s with the idea of portraying the chaos of family life. But please correct me if I am wrong, Mr Large is in Charge was first published in 2005 and this is why I have a problem with it. We are constantly bombed (and pressured) to raise children surrounded with positive role models, so why continue portraying fathers are as useless when it comes to domestic life? I found it incredibly unfair that in this day and age we can come across children’s books that reinforce the idea that ‘Dad can’t cook’ and ‘Dad can’t do the housework’.

There are many fathers out there who are perfectly capable to look after their kids without having mum around. My husband is one of them and he does the ‘job’ as well as me. He fixes our daughter’s toys, he does her hair in plaits, cooks great meals, takes her swimming and to hockey. We live in the age of shared parental leave, as well as household responsibilities, flexible working for both men and women, so how about portraying a Mr Large who in the end has a fantastic day out with his children and when he’s back home Mrs Large feels better?

If classics like Snow White are changing (no more kissing while asleep), I believe the Large family should do so as well. We owe it to the 21st century dads.

Bitter Almonds or The Privilege of Literacy

bitterThey say that giving a book to someone is also giving a commitment as people expect you to read it. This is how Bitter Almonds fell into my hands.

As many of you, I have a reading waiting list and I promise myself not to buy more books until I’ve read the ones I have in that never ending pile. I must confess I was reading something else when Bitter Almonds appeared. With not too much room in my bag I carried the book in my hand and while on the bus I started reading it. The rest is history. I was hooked.

This is perhaps one of the lesser known novels by the French writer Laurence Cossé. But certainly one that had a strong impact in me and that I’ll remember for a long time. The idea behind the novel is simple: literacy.

For many reading and writing is as natural as breathing. I can’t even remember that process in my childhood. I was born in a family of readers, in a house with a library that keeps on growing and where you’ll be able to find all sorts of books from classics to mountaineering and landscape gardening books. Reading has always been there, but not for Fadila, Bitter Almonds’ main character.

One day, any day, Edith, receives her new housemaid: Fadila, a 60 year old Moroccan lady. Nothing unusual there except that Fadila is illiterate. And this is when the story becomes heartbreaking and an eye opener. Edith is determined to teach Fadila to read and write, and in this process the world of Fadila opens to the reader. Just imagine not using public transport such as the underground because you’re unable to read the stations or the map.

Even more, finding your bearings in a big city rely on your memory, street names mean nothing to you. Fadila always takes the bus, the same bus and if there’s a change of route she panics and can’t get to get to work. Using a cash point is unthinkable and therefore the only way is to ask a cashier in a bank to help you fill the slips. Needless to say, Fadila can’t do numbers either. The novel is set in modern day Paris, a city where, like many others, literacy is a given. In today’s world we look around assuming the written word speaks to everyone. But very few times we sit back to think about those who did not have the opportunity or the gift of literacy.

Fadila’s journey into learning is truly a very difficult one. I’ve never tried to teach anyone to read and write and since recommending this book on Twitter I was contacted by teachers who read the book and told me that Edith’s and Fadila’s experience was beyond painful and frustrating.

I come from a country where illiteracy is not unheard of and as a book lover is easy to forget it. The great achievement of a novel such as Bitter Almonds is that takes you to the core of a life shared by many people all over the world.

In a nutshell, never take literacy for granted.

Reading failures

The other day surfing around WordPress I came across DragonFlyy419’s blog with a post asking people to comment on books they hated. We always talk about the books we loved, changed our life, made us grow, etc. But what about those classics or “must read ones” that simply didn’t do it for you?

Surprisingly the majority of the people commented on their frustrating experience with To Kill A Mockingbird. So I could not resist and took the opportunity of a life time to tell the world how much I hated The Iliad. Yes, you read well, The Iliad. Homer’s masterpiece. Yuk! 

I was forced to read it in school when I was about 12 or 13 years and I found it completely impossible to follow, what was with that language! and overall boring, dead boring. A truly traumatic experience. Needless to say it was absolutely useless for the teacher to tell us we had to read a wonderful story in the form of an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter. Yeah thanks, now I get it!

Having said that, that blog made me think about many more books that I know are crucial in world’s literature but that went down my list of reading failures. The following may be shocker for more than one, so please feel free to comment and bring back the hope.

1. In Search of Lost Time I – The Way by Swann’s by Marcel Proust. Failure in the first of the seven volumes! I attempted it at least three times, always unable to go further than page 150. Happily for the sake of the masterpiece I did manage to go through the famous madeleines episode.

2. The Rings of Saturn. – W.G Sebald. Not for me from page 1. As much as I love Britain his journey through East Anglia sadly did not catch my attention.

3. The Light of Day. –  Graham Swift.  After truly enjoying Waterland (which reminded me of Faulkner in a way), I was dissapointed by this novel.

4. The Rebels.- Sándor Márai. I know people who are huge fans of Márai and I just did not get it. Maybe try another one?

5. My Name is Red. – Orhan Pamuk. Again, at least 3 attempts and no success after page 60. However, I see this novel as a challenge and I will come back to it as I enjoyed other Pamuk’s books such as the moving and melancholic Istanbul: Memories and a City.

I think 5 is enough, don’t want to put anyone off reading these books. But if you felt the same, I’d be delighted to hear all about it.