Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

Some things are worth waiting for: Snow by Samuel Usher

Posted on | November 20, 2014 | 5 Comments

Illustrator Sam Usher burst onto the scene two years ago with with a riot of colour and pattern in Can You See Sassoon?, which was shortlisted for the Red House Children’s Book Award 2013. When your first book gets flagged up as a potential prize winner, there is some expectation and anticipation when it comes to future publications.

More than two years after Can You See Sassoon? was published, Usher is back, and like all good things, it has been worth the wait.

snowfrontcoverSnow by Sam Usher celebrates that wonderfully exciting feeling in the pit of your stomach when you open your eyes in the morning, draw back the curtains and… your world has been transformed by a deep blanket of snow. The potential for play, the white world waiting to be explored, the possibility to really make your own mark….ahh! Just how quickly can you get out there to delight in at all?

A young boy zooms through getting ready, frustrated by the time it takes his Grandfather to join him. Will it be worth the wait for other kids are already out there leaving footprints everywhere?

A whole lot of snowballs and a little bit of childhood magic later, Grandpa and child agree “some things are definitely worth waiting for“. With Snow, I couldn’t agree more.


Usher’s illustrations are full of life and energy; there’s a comfortable looseness about them, and I cannot help but draw comparisons (in the best possible way) with Quentin Blake. Perhaps it is because the Grandfather in this story physically reminds me of Blake, with his bald pate and avuncular manner. But it’s also in the noses, the wonky fingers, the hand gestures and I love this stylistic echo. Indeed I get a real kick from these potentially vulnerable pen lines that speak to me of a real person, drawing a line that connects creator, story, reader and listener together.

With another contender for my favourite page turn of the year, showing how an almost plain white page can produce both gasps and a burst of warm delight, Snow is a wintry classic that will bring much delight and joy, however long you have to wait for it.


Alas weather in our part of the world has been unseasonally warm so I don’t hold out much hope of snow any time this year. Ever the optimist, I instead made some snow to play with in the warmth of our kitchen.

Snow dough is a moldable yet friable substance akin to commercially available ‘moon sand’, made out of corn flour (corn starch) and oil. We mixed about one part sunflower oil to four parts corn flour, and just for good measure added in a few drops of peppermint essential oil so that our snow dough smelt like Christmas candy.


I smoothed out the snow dough to recreate that blissful untouched vista of snow, and brought out a load of playmobil people and plastic animals (matching those in the book where possible). A small pot of glitter, for pinching and casting over the scene to add a little extra sparkle completed the invitation to play.


Lots of tracks in the snow were made, and because the snow dough is moldable, caches of snowballs and even an igloo were also prepared.


The snow dough has a wonderful crunch to it when you mold it – satisfyingly just like real snow!


Cake and hot chocolate completed our afternoon playing in the “snow”.


Whilst playing in the snow we listened to:

  • Dean Martin sing Let it Snow!
  • Snow Day by Zak Morgan – we really love this one!
  • Snow Day Dance by The Fuzzy Lemons

  • Other activities which could work well alongside reading Snow include:

  • Creating your own snowstorm at home. Inspired by the ‘Snowstorm in China’ magic trick (click here to see in action – I’m assuming shiny trousers are optional), you – and the kids – could tear up large quantities of white tissue paper and then use fans to get the “snow” falling in your home.
  • Using a jam jar to male a snow globe. I particularly like this tutorial on Our Best Bites.
  • Researching how to make the best hot chocolate. Why not make a “science lab” with different types of milk, cocoa vs hot chocolate powder vs melted chocolate, optional extras like marshmallows or flaked chocolate and investigate different ways of making this wintry drink; kids will no doubt enjoy coming up with their own recipes. Here’s a comparison of different recipes to get you started.

  • I know at least one of my readers has already got snow this November (Hello Donna!), but has anyone else had the chance to play in snow yet this year? Or are you heading into Summer?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Snow from the publisher.

    The Story of Money from bartering to bail out

    Posted on | November 17, 2014 | 10 Comments

    storyofmoneyThe Story of Money written by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura is a humorous, wide-ranging tale about the evolution of money, starting with what people did before money was invented, exploring why it came into being and how money systems developed before coming right up to date with a discussion of modern day bank crashes and their consequences.

    Although satisfying and curious facts about (for example) money’s relationship to the evolution of writing, the everyday use of official IOUs even in the 21st century and the remarkably tiny total volume of gold that exists on planet Earth pepper the conversational text, Jenkins presentation of these nuggets is unusual; rather than short, sharp fact boxes, or framed individual paragraphs (writing styles which are very common in non-fiction for children), he weaves a story together creating sustained texts over each 2-3 page chapter (each with their own funny title, echoing Victorian novels).

    This slim hardback volume, ideal for upper primary aged children, is richly illustrated throughout with Satoshi Kitamura’s quirky and slightly wonky comic strip style images; they bring their own brand of humour to an enjoyable, approachable economics text which manages to make things as foreboding as inflation, deflation and taxation come to life.


    The Story of Money is a digestible and entertaining introduction to many aspects of pecuniary history which offers up plenty of starting points for both practical and philosophical discussions about the value of money. An index and short bibliography add to the book’s utility both at home and in the classroom. Prepare to finish it feeling surprised: Surely there aren’t many other economics books which end by reminding us that there’s a great deal more to life than accumulating as much money as possible?


    A numismatist was selling low value world currency at a charity table-top sale we recently visited and I took the opportunity to by a bag of coins for £5 (yes, the girls and I did see the irony at using money to buy… money).


    I threw in a few chocolate coins for good measure and then we set about investigating where our coins came from.


    On a cheap wall map we highlighted the countries we had coins from, noting those countries which we had coins for but which no longer existed (e.g. Yugoslavia), and also those countries who have currencies are now something other than that which we had coins for (for example we had lots of pre-Euro-era European coins). Some coins also opened up new stories in history for the girls; we had several coins from former UK colonies which referred to their ‘Emperor’.


    That £5 I spent opened up so much exploration; from what coins are made out of, to the sometimes exquisite art on them, via the history they reflect as well as the geography they open up, I was quite amazed at how much interest and enjoyment we got out of a small coin collection (to say nothing of the very tactile and romantic experience of handling coins that have somehow landed up on your kitchen table even though they were made 1000s of miles away, sometime more than 100 years ago – what stories led them into our hands we wondered?).

    Whilst mapping our money we listened to:

  • Money makes the world go round sung by Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in Cabaret
  • Money for Nothing by Dire Straits (every child’s education ought to include _that_ guitar riff, right?)
  • Money, Money, Money by Abba
  • Money (That’s What I Want) by Barrett Strong (though I also like the Flying Lizzards version)

  • Other activities which go well with reading The Story of Money include:

  • Designing your own coin. The Royal Mint recently ran a UK-wide competition for the design of a new £1 coin. Whilst the competition is now closed you could still use their “Hints and Tips” as a starting point for designing a coin. There was also a recent bitcoin design competition, and a United States Mint competition – just keep your eyes peeled and maybe another such competition which you could enter will turn up.
  • Cleaning coins at the same time as gaining a little bit of scientific knowledge: use electrolysis to make tarnished coins shiny!
  • Creating a Chinese Money Tree, or collecting coins from your birth year.

  • What are your favourite activities for helping your kids learn about money?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Story of Money from the publisher.

    12 holiday stays for bookaholics

    Posted on | November 15, 2014 | 9 Comments


    Earlier this week I was contacted by a blog reader who is spending a few weeks in the UK and wanted some advice about the children’s literature highlights she shouldn’t miss whilst in the country. This got me thinking about dream places to stay for all of us who love to read.

    Recently a central London Waterstones bookshop offered one lucky reader the chance to spend a night amongst its bookshelves, inspired by the case of a tourist who accidentally got locked in the store last month. Unfortunately it was a one-off opportunity to sleep in the bookshop, but here are 12 more places you can stay in on holiday and read to your heart’s content (and one place that might inspire you to never leave home at all..).

    ReadingLasses in Wigtown

    ReadingLasses in Wigtown

  • ReadingLasses is a “charming bookshop and cafe with a lovely self-catering apartment, with bed and breakfast possible. Situated in Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town, ReadingLasses is surrounded by hills, seascapes, cliffs and some of the most beautiful countryside in South West Scotland”.

  • Photo:  Elliott Brown on Flickr

    Photo: Elliott Brown on Flickr

  • The Library House is “a beautiful Georgian Grade II listed town house situated in the historic core of the World Heritage Site of the Ironbridge Gorge” in the centre of the UK. Before being converted into a Bed and Breakfast, it was the local public library. It still retains some of its original library shelving. Bedrooms are named after Chaucer, Milton, Eliot and Hardy. Another former library you can stay in is the Althea Library in Padstow, Cornwall.

  • Gladstone's Library

    Gladstone’s Library

  • Gladstone’s Library “is Britain’s finest residential library”, a Grade 1 Listed building in North Wales “which is dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups, who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions.”. You can find out lots more in this travel article from the Guardian newspaper.

  • The Ceilidh Place

    The Ceilidh Place

  • In Ullapool, in North West Scotland, you can stay in The Ceilidh Place, a cafe – bookshop – events location – and place to stay in a very beautiful part of the world. The bookshop has “a stunning collection [making] the shop one of the best of the small independent shops around. It hosts an eclectic mix of titles suitable for all ages and interests covering everything from fiction to children’s books, art, history, music, poetry, politics, natural history, travel writing and biography.”

  • Stay above a bookshop in County Kerry, Ireland.

    Stay above a bookshop in County Kerry, Ireland.

  • If you’re looking for a bookish place to stay in Ireland you could try this self catering apartment in Kenmare, Kerry, which is located above a bookshop. Other self-catering apartments I’ve found above bookshops include Mansard House in Aldeburgh, Suffolk and the Ashness Apartment in Keswick, Cumbria.

  • Photo: zoetnet on Flickr

    Photo: zoetnet on Flickr

  • If you’re lucky you can stay a night or two at the Parisian bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. You can’t pre-book, you have to be happy to work a couple of hours in the bookshop for each day you stay, reading a book a day, and leaving a one-page biography of yourself alongside those of everyone else who’s been fortunate enough to have stayed in the bookshop. You can delight in the photo diary of one reader who stayed for two months in the bookshop here.

  • libraryhotel

  • I really do wonder what Library Hotel, New York is like: “The Library Hotel concept is inspired by the Dewey Decimal system. Each of the 10 guestroom floors honor one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System and each of the 60 rooms are uniquely adorned with a collection of books and art exploring a distinctive topic within the category it belongs to. Guests are invited to unwind from their urban adventures by enjoying the quiet exploration of over 6,000 books.” Do take a look at the rooms you can choose from; I think I’d have to go for room 800.005 – Fairy Tales. The whole concept makes me smile, and I love that the advertising photos include someone reading Shaun Tan’s The Arrival!

  • The Library Hotel and Wellness Resort in Cyprus “consists of 11 uniquely styled suites named after poets, thinkers and writers from all over the world… The main attraction of this mansion is an impressive library lounge with an open fireplace and a collection of interesting books on various subjects with an emphasis on history, philosophy, culture and civilization.” Would you stay in the Franz Kafka Room? The Nietzsche Room? The Rimbaud Room?

  • And if none of the above is quite what you are looking for, take inspiration from Michael Seidenberg’s apartment on the Upper East Side and transform your own home into a bookshop. That way you’ll always be able to sleep surrounded by books:

    There’s No Place Like Here: Brazenhead Books from Etsy on Vimeo.

    keep looking »
  • Coming soon – new adventures

  • Categories