Books by my bedside: A summer reading list + books about motherhood

Books on motherhood: Look How Happy I’m Making You, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood before I was Ready, I Miss You When I Blink - more on my blog, Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

My youngest child turns two this summer and as I fold up the clothes he no longer fits to pass along to the charity store, clothes passed down from his brothers from four or five years ago, clothes that we no longer need to keep because there are no more babies to have, I am acutely aware that a very specific, very particular phase of motherhood is ending.

Soon he’ll drop his nap. He’ll join the realm of his older brothers - a full life force that has the power to stay awake all day. Soon we’ll no longer need nappies. Soon he will stop calling raspberries ra-dee-dee and eventually he will stop dragging me by my little finger to watch a bumblebee or a fly crawl in front of the back door. Sooner than all that, he will stop talking in song.

I am not writing this for the sentimentality of it; more for the acknowledgement of a small loss of something that will always hide in the shadows, I suppose, for the rest of my life. I imagine there will be a time when I am old and I will struggle to remember all of this, all of them so small, and that chips away at my heart a little. I know there are great times to come but the fragility of all of this; that feeling doesn’t go away.

Perhaps all of this, all these feelings of being caught between wanting these moments to last forever but also wanting them to move on, is why lately I’ve found myself drawn to books on motherhood. Books in which I recognise fragments of myself.

Of course, you don’t have to be a mother to enjoy these books for books on motherhood are not just about babies. They’re about feeling lost or feeling like you’ve found yourself. About love. Loss. Loneliness. Making friends, losing friends. Learning to be kinder to yourself. They are about being human.

Here are some books on motherhood I’ve cried and laughed over and texted the titles of to far-off friends with the order YOU HAVE TO READ THIS, all in caps:

Summer Reading List + 4 books on motherhood

1. Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike

I wanted this book to last forever. It’s the most beautiful and meaningful writing I’ve read in a long, long time. I hadn’t read fiction for a long time as I’m more drawn to first-person and memoir lately but this collection of short stories exploring motherhood sucked me all the way right back in. Each short story explores some facet of motherhood (trying to conceive or trying not to conceive, or losing a mother, or trying to be someone else’s mother or not wanting to be a mother at all) and every single story is intimate, tender, lovely, heartbreaking, shattering, destructive; all of those things. Rosenwaike’s prose is exquisite and simple and beautiful - the sort of writing that says so much by so little, the sort of writing I aspire to.

2. And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell

An honest memoir on motherhood for the first-time that is not at all rose-tinted. Funny and light but also hard and messy and magic, it contains the sort of conflicting thoughts you might find yourself thinking when you’ve got a newborn but that you can’t say aloud because no one ever does. O’Connell writes bluntly about the pressures of motherhood and its impact on her mental health and relationship with her fiance. Her journey to motherhood is a very modern, New York one but her story is nevertheless immensely relatable (and I mean that in a good way).

3. The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry

This is not strictly a motherhood book or a beautiful piece of literature for you to enjoy on your summer break but I feel it’s worth a mention especially if you feel you overwhelmed by school summer holidays. I approached this parenting book as a cynic, mindful of a catchy book title and how so many books on parenting top the bestsellers lists just because parents often feel they need all the help they can BUT this book humbled me greatly. I’ve always enjoyed Perry’s writing and I hugely appreciate the gentle but no-nonsense unfussy tone in which she writes on parenting. I also appreciate that this is not a book that teaches you how to cajole your children into behaving but rather accepts that they are all unique as are we and that it’s up to us as adults to take a long hard look at ourselves before we make expectations of children who are but children. There’s parts I skipped - guilty of sleep-training - but overall, this book reminds me to do better and try harder for them because I’m the one that brought them into the world in the first place.

4. I miss you when I blink by Mary Laura Philpott

I read this essay collection and at times had to shake myself for so much of what Philpott writes about, I recognised deep inside myself. The essays explore the central theme of burnout, of having to start over when you thought you had it all. She was a type-A personality of wit and ambition but found herself forced to slow down after having her children. While not all of these first person essays are specifically about motherhood, Philpott writes of and around and about her family and so it all overlaps - family, children, work, writing. Warm and funny but also poignant and brave, I found great comfort in this.

Did you know you can still buy and download Postcards Home, my summer writing course? It’s available to purchase until the end of August, to print off or upload onto your device and take with you on holiday. For summer writing inspiration, read more about my summer writing course.

How to encourage storytelling in children

Children’s books and how to encourage storytelling in young children by nurturing a love of reading. More on my blog Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

Some of my family often ask me for help with their kids’ creative writing for school. This is not necessarily because they want their kids to be writers but because, well, from what I hear, school exams mark you on storytelling, especially exams for selective schools. That is to say, children are marked on writing a story, constructing a story, having an idea and presenting that idea.

A few friends have also asked me if I might coach their children, children older than mine, on creative writing too and several people have asked the same thing over social media. Now I’m a writer, an author and a mother, but I’m not a teacher. I don’t know if there are particular rules to follow that might guarantee success in an exam scenario and I suspect that’s what tutors are for (and boy, the north London scene is rife with tutoring).

The children’s books publisher Egmont recently published a report on children’s reading habits. In the study, Egmont outlines the benefits of reading for pleasure in terms of well being, educational attainment and parent-child bonding. And yet the same study also found that less than 30% of under-14s now read for pleasure. There are screens to blame, of course, but also the fact that parents stop reading to children when they become literate. And that, crucially, schools have made reading part of the curriculum, a target to achieve, rather than something that is enjoyable, exciting, imaginative and creative.

Based purely on my own experience of growing up, I believe reading stories for pleasure when you are young is what helps you learn to tell your own stories, even as a child.

I believe there are gentle ways to simply encourage storytelling in children without necessarily thinking about exams and academic success, by focusing instead on the imaginative side of storytelling, which is compromised of many components (language, expression, empathy, creativity), all of which are so, so important for a child’s development. With my kids still so small, the idea of writing stories for the sake of passing exams is far from my mind. I simply want them to enjoy how amazing stories can be.

As we head into the summer, I look forward to spending some time with my children while they rest, unwind, play and enjoy the lazy days of two months to be entirely free. But it’s important to me that we keep in touch with a little learning along the way, and so, sort of like a (very laid back) summer-homeschool, I’ll be setting up some practices in a gentle, background-sort of way. This includes reading and writing.

And so this is how I encourage storytelling in my own children and this is also how I intend to keep doing so over the summer break too. These ideas might be helpful for some of you in the same position, but please keep in mind my children are only small (aged 5, 4 and nearly 2 respectively!) so my experience in that way is limited while my experience in writing has been somewhat more lifelong:

How to encourage storytelling in children

Read

To be a storyteller, at any age, one must also be a reader. It’s the same advice I give all the students on my writing courses. So let them read. Read, read, read. Read to them. Even if they’re old enough to read themselves. Through reading stories they’ll eventually pick up what it is that makes a story - an idea, characters, a beginning, middle and end. It’s basic, but it’s the sort of concept that can be easily absorbed if you’re hearing it every single day.

But more than that, it’s exciting. Reading is exciting. Read more and you’ll soon want to tell your own stories. Children learn by imitation - let them write their own version of a story they already know off by heart. Let them absorb language so that they have the words they need to express themselves.

My children happen to love books and I don’t say that to sound obnoxious and I don’t say that because think I’ve done anything particularly brilliant or literary with them from birth (oh, God, no).

I think the reason they love books is just because they are lucky enough to always have a lot of books around, so invariably they end up looking through them. We get books from the library, from older cousins who are finished with this or that, and yes, I buy a lot of books too (more than I buy toys). So if I were to offer one piece of advice, it would be to let books be available to your kids. Stock up from the library, organise a little swap with friends to bring in some new stock over the summer. Let your children choose the books they want to read, but also feel free to gently guide them into subjects they perhaps have not considered but you know they’d be interested in. Keep a good mix of fiction and non-fiction, and introduce non-fiction even if they are young. My older children are five and four-years-old, and greatly prefer reading non-fiction books about the real world than they do stories, which is a surprise to me because I adore the poetry and rhythm and fantasy of picture book tales, but I’m happy to follow their lead.

Also, let them see you read for the sheer joy of it. My kids are quite used to be me reading while they play in the garden and because they know it’s something I enjoy, they’re less likely to see reading as a chore and more likely to also copy me and pick up their own books too. It never fails to warm me when I find them utterly lost in the pages of a book, deciphering words as they go. It makes me wonder if that’s what my mother found me doing too, when I was a child.

Watch and listen to stories too

From what I’ve seen at least, a child doesn’t always have to be reading to absorb stories. My kids pick up crazy imaginative ideas from little television shows (Dino Dana! Dino Dan!) and we also sometimes pop audiobook stories on in the car too. Cbeebies Radio has stories to stream, but the repertoire is a little old. There’s also a ton of playlists on Spotify that are worth a look. Some of them are full of Disney which may not be to everyone’s taste but these is also a podcast called Story Shed which tells new and original stories for children of all ages and also includes little ones talking about story themes too which could in turn encourage the same conversations at home too.

use art to tell a story

Children don’t need to be able to write in order to tell a story. Let them paint it instead. Or make it. It’s the expression of creativity and the telling of a tale that counts.

Make books

My mother told everyone at my book launch about the first book I wrote as a child. It was about a rabbit who lost his tail. I wrote, illustrated and bound it (she swears this is the only reason I got accepted at prep school). I did this sort of thing a lot (oh, man). All children love to make books of their very own. And it keeps them occupied for hours, too.

Be excited about it

Engage in the stories your kids produce. Ask them questions. Be outraged when one of their characters does something they really shouldn’t have. Often, my kids love to put on shows - it’s a long process - but they make up entire stories this way. As grown-ups, we sit and we watch and we must be enthralled and enrapt, and in this way they keep going.

Help your children express themselves

The more words children know, the easier it is for them to say what they mean and so the easier it’ll be for them to thread a story of their own together. Of course, reading helps with this but also so too does everyday speech. I talk to my kids the way I talk to, say, my husband - which is to say, I don’t oversimplify my words or what I mean just because they are young. My kids’ll often ask me what this or that word means mid-conversation and often, usually a couple of days later, I’ll hear them sticking that same word into a sentence themselves. With young kids at least, which is all my experience is based on, they love to do what we do and this means they love to speak like us too.

Of course, there are also more focused ways to do this, with flashcards and the like. Taking it to another level, Mrs Wordsmith helps children learn words through illustrations and has been a great investment in our household. It’s something I imagine we’ll be holding onto for a decade or so. It is costly, but that’s not to say you can’t also, if you have the time, make your own small scale version of this - my mother loves to tell everyone I learnt to read by the age of three (I suppose I was that kind of kid) because she made me a tin of words to read off homemade flashcards she lovingly and painstakingly created.

Play story games

Welcome to the Once Upon A Time, one sentence per person game. It’s basically the verbal form of that game we all used to play as kids, when you’d write a line down, fold it, pass it to the next person and so on and so on, until the page was complete and unravelled and ended up telling a funny story. To be clear, I don’t do this thinking: “This will encourage storytelling in my child!” but more because it lightens the mood and, yeah, it’s fun. We go around the table, and each of us gets to say one sentence to build our own story up. It’s super fun to hear what they come up with too.

PLAY my SIMILE GAME!

Sometimes I play this word game with my kids: “As quiet as a…?” I ask and back they yell with “A mouse! An engine with no fuel! Space!” I don’t know if this makes me sound like an eccentric writer but honestly, it fills the time in car journeys or over breakfast and it also just happens to be a rather lovely way to think, even unknowingly, about adjectives and similes and description and stuff. My favourite yet is “As happy as a goldfinch,” as coined by my middle child, and my aim is to one day get as happy as a goldfinch published in print somewhere. Simile is also a very funny word for preschoolers and has them in fits.

they dictate, you transcribe

My four-year-old tells the most dramatic stories. Buses turning the wrong way down the street in a panic, lions flooding bathrooms. He showed an early interest in writing, and so can write, but to write all these stories down would take him too long. I know he’d grow frustrated at not being able to write as quickly as the thoughts come into his head. So instead, I tell him he’s my boss and he gets to tell me what the story is and I write it down instead. It works brilliantly. He paces around me, dictating his story to me as though I am but a stagehand and he’s the great scriptwriter, dramatic flourishes of hand gestures as he goes. We end up with some pretty cool stories and what’s more, he’s super proud of it too.

Like I said, I’m no homeschooler and I’m not a teacher. If anyone else has ideas on encouraging storytelling amongst young children, I’d love to hear - please let me know in the comments below!

The beauty of the ordinary

string shelves lined with books in a living room with a little boy in front of them

A few days ago, someone who doesn’t know me very well asked me about this blog and what I write about. I was surprised at the question, which popped up at the school gates, because I am still uncomfortable with the idea of people knowing I even have a blog. My first instinct was suspicious. I wanted to enquire: How do you know I have a blog? But instead I simply said: I write about my everyday. I tell stories of the ordinary things in my life, incidental things that might only be small but are still somehow special to me. (Or something similar to that).

She looked me in the eye, and held my gaze steady. I smiled; her expression was entirely expressionless. As if it might offer clarity, then I simply said: I write about life. She raised an eyebrow. I felt delusional.

I knew what she was thinking for at times there’s a voice in my head that thinks it too. What about my life could be interesting enough to write about? What about my very ordinary day-to-day could be worth sharing? Why, when you have a chance to write and readers who read you, would you not write about the extraordinary? Surely the extraordinary is more interesting than your ordinary? And if you have nothing extraordinary in your life of which to write, then why not imagine it, make it up, write fiction, instead?

I also know better than to listen to that voice.

Here’s what I tell it, that voice that tells me I have nothing of consequence to write about, although I did not tell it to the person to whom I was talking at the time: I think the ordinary is underrated and the extraordinary far too overrated. The extraordinary might be juicy. It might be big, explosive, noisy, dramatic. It might hold our interest for a moment or two, for the length of a celebrity autobiography or a catchy headline. But extraordinary isn’t always real. It isn’t always meaningful. Extraordinary won’t last. It might, on a good day, be magical and mesmerising but it’s there and then it isn’t. It’s gone again before you know it. A click of the finger. Over, again.

But the ordinary. Oh, but the ordinary. It’s always there. It’s the touch of a hand in a small of a back. It’s the familiar smell of a baby’s neck. It’s a glance, shared across a train carriage. The familiarity of routine, the mere comfort of it. Or else it’s those words that break your heart, the tears that come from nowhere. It’s loss. It’s loneliness. It’s everything.

It’s in the ordinary that most of us live, and if I can’t find meaning in my most ordinary of everydays then, well, that leaves me feeling desperately sad. It is the ordinary that I know I’ll miss the most when it’s no longer there. The sound of his key in the door. The smell of a jumper. Little fingers, running through my hair. Evenings curled up on the sofa, a bowl of satay upon my lap; a hand to hold.

Beats of hearts.

*

Sometimes someone else’s ordinary does something to you. Makes you catch a breath or else the hairs on your arm stand up or your eyes grow damp or tears spill and you don’t quite know why. It’s empathy, but it’s more than that. It’s stretches deeper. It’s ordinary but majestic because it is real.

It threads us together. It reminds us we’re not the only ones.

Ordinary puts an arm around you. Catches your eye. Looks straight deep at you when you speak, and listens. Really listens. It doesn’t just sit there, playing with its phone, waiting for someone better to come along.

And so.

You might think your life is entirely ordinary. You might think you are just a stay-at-home mother, or have a boring lawyer job - nothing of any extraordinary substance, you might say. To you, I say: to hell with extraordinary. Ordinary makes the world go round. Ordinary, damn it, is extraordinary.

So I’ll tell the ordinary stories of my ordinary everyday as an ordinary woman. Because they matter to me. Because they might matter to someone else too.

I urge you too to tell your stories (indeed; I ask this of you in Postcards Home) because I need your ordinary.

We all do.

Will you join me?

Postcards Home is my online summer writing course on writing your first-person memories and in it, I write more about the beauty and the strength of writing about your ordinary. It’s designed to inspire you to want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming.

The next round of Postcards Home begins on Monday, July 1st, 2019.

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