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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Children’ Category

At least she’s reading

One of life’s great pleasures is to read or recommend a book you’ve loved to your child. In the early years, when they can’t read to themselves, you hold all the cards – credit and library.

You can indulge yourself completely with those beautifully illustrated children’s books, especially the soppy ones that bring tears to your eyes with their tales about how much the mommy rabbit loves the baby rabbit.

This doesn’t last long, because at about two, your child develops a will of her own and, often, an obsessive streak. She will decide that there is but one book that she likes, and that you will read it 45 times a day. This is the main reason most women go back to full-time employment. If you’re lucky, your two-year-old will at least pick something halfway bearable. If not, you might be reading Fascinating Facts about Camels for three months. No matter, you’ll dread them all equally after a bit.

That phase passes, and reading to your child becomes a pleasure again. A few years on, they start to learn to read. Dan and Spot and Pip will be your new friends, as they hop and jump and skip. Dr Seuss is one of the few who can make all this monosyllabic activity entertaining.

Thereafter, your reading paths diverge. In primary school, children turn to magic kittens and unicorns and princesses. Or soccer stories and boy detectives and fart jokes. As they get a bit older, there will be mean girls and bullies, divorced parents.

There will be lots of tales of kids relocating to new towns where they are outsiders and no one likes them. There will be vampires and wizards and confusing plots involving parallel universes. Not to say some of these books aren’t excellent, but they tend to leave parents rather cold. And no, nobody will be interested in reading The Secret Garden, or whatever your own childhood favourite was, so don’t even try. You will find yourself saying, “At least she’s reading …” quite often. If you’re lucky.

Then, joy of joys, your reading paths converge again. If you are fortunate, and your child hasn’t had her brain reprogrammed by the BlackBerry, at about 14 she will start reading adult books. This has happened recently in my family. I gave my 14-year-old daughter The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

She loved the memoir of life with two non-conformist, creative and charismatic but deeply dysfunctional parents. Walls’s parents’ inability or unwillingness to play by the rules (as well as a worsening alcoholism) left their four children neglected and deprived, living in cars and shacks.

The author grew up smart and resourceful, though, and escaped her upbringing to carve a career as a journalist in New York. The book has many lessons for a young person, and has the additional benefit of making your own parenting look positively saintly by comparison.

Another winning recommendation was The Catcher in the Rye. It may not be the startlingly radical and controversial book it was in the 1950s, but Salinger’s narrator, Holden Caulfield, remains a powerful portrait of adolescent angst.

And reading the book myself, as the mother of a teen, there was an added poignancy to Holden’s loneliness and depression and his vulnerability in a harsh world. That it touched us both, 60 years after its publication, is testament to its power.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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A new language for the lullaby

Sleep deprivation is torture. For parents, that torture comes in the deceptive guise of a delicious very small person smelling sweetly of baby wash and all snuggled up in clean pjs, prepped for bed, exhausted, yet curiously resistant to actual sleep.

I’ve seen parents drive a baby around the neighbourhood at night until the aforementioned delicious thing falls asleep, and then remove it and carry it, gently gently and full of terror, as if the little bundle were an unexploded bomb, to the cot. Another very common method is to soothe him to sleep with a song or a book.

It is this experience that inspired Adam Mansbach (whose daughter, Vivian, apparently used to take two hours to go to sleep) to write Go the F**k to Sleep, a “children’s book for adults”. He combines the lilting sing-song writing style of books for very young children, together with some cutesy images, with the F-word as a little bombshell at the end of each stanza.

By way of example: “The cats nestle close to their kittens now/The lambs have laid down with the sheep/You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear/Please go the f**k to sleep.” Or: “The eagles who soar through the sky are at rest/And the creatures who crawl, run and creep./I know you’re not thirsty. That’s bullsh*t. Stop lying./Lie the f**k down, my darling, and sleep.”

Mansbach’s book has struck a chord with been-there-felt-that parents. The pdf of the book that had been sent to publishers was leaked in nanoseconds and went viral, creating pre-orders so heavy that the book hit the bestseller lists before it was even printed. You can hear Samuel L Jackson read it (go to, and download for free). You can read earnest online observations about the state of modern parenting. Or about how fabulously ironic and funny it is. Or about how ubiquitous the F-word is. Take your pick.

Incidentally, some of the online commentators are so idiotic, they probably shouldn’t be allowed to raise children at all. “I would never read something like that to my children,” said one piously. You just want to scream: “It’s an ADULT HUMOUR book, a PARODY, geddit?,” but you can’t, which is one of the main disadvantages of the internet, when compared to the dinner table .

Modern parenting is a very earnest business. The future of the human race rests on adults, collectively, accepting that having children is important and worthwhile and fulfilling. Which, of course, it is. But this has somehow morphed into the notion that parents may never ever express anything other than absolute delight at all aspects of child-rearing, every moment. You may never admit that there are times when you are tired, bored, angry or that you want to lie on the floor and weep.

So expressing frustration – and, even, yes, is that barely suppressed rage I detect? – in the face of a stubbornly non-sleeping child is heresy. Doing it in rhyme is unforgivable and, naturally, there are those who believe Mansbach should be burnt at the stake over a flaming pile of hypo-allergenic, acid-free green nappies.

Anyway, I’m just jealous that someone had such a good idea, one that on a bucks-per-word basis must be one of the year’s biggest money spinners. I’m busy working on my own version, Get the F**k Up, for parents of teenagers. You can pre-order yours now by sending me R150 in an envelope, c/o The Sunday Times.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times books columnist

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