Playing by the book

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

Cakes in space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Posted on | August 18, 2014 | 7 Comments

Imagine packing up your home, leaving Earth and setting out to travel across space to colonise a new planet.

The journey will take so long you’ll be put into a cryptobiotic state. But there is absolutely nothing to fear: You’re on sleek new spaceship, looked after by a team of well-programmed robots, and everything has been carefully thought through. When you finally arrive at Nova Mundi (it only takes 199 years to get there), you’ll be woken up to a delicious breakfast and the start of a whole new and wonderful life.

It sounds great, doesn’t it?

cakesinspacecoverAnd so it is in Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. Astra and her family are on their way to their new home but – you’ve guessed it – something goes wrong. Astra wakes from her suspended sleep, and feeling peckish goes off in search of a chocolate biscuit.

The Nom-O-Tron (a highly developed version of Star Trek’s Replicator) satisfies Astra’s request, but when she’s tempted to ask for something a little more outlandish (how many times have you seen the word “Ultimate” used to describe a dish?) something goes awry. Soon Astra is hurtling through space surrounded by cakes which have learned to evolve. Cakes which are fed up of being eaten themselves. Cakes which have developed a killer instinct.

Will Astra be able to save her family from the Ravenous Crispy Slices and Ferocious Fruit Cakes stalking the spaceship’s corridors? How much more complicated will things get when a second front opens up and her spaceship is raided by alien life forms known as Poglites, desperately searching for their holy grail, that technology which they haven’t been able to master: SPOONS.

Yes, this is a totally surreal and deliciously outrageous story of friendship, ingenuity and hundreds and thousands.

It’s fast-moving, exciting, just ever so slightly scary in that enjoyably adrenalin pumping way and above all it’s FUNNY! Add into the mix some genuinely beautiful writing (sometimes young fiction is all about the plot and the language – especially for an adult reading it aloud – can be somewhat unremarkable, but Reeve at times writes sentences which I found myself wanting to copy out), a plot which will enthral both boys and girls of a wide age range, and the subtle inclusion of some philosophically meatier issues (the consequences of greedy desire, the demonisation of that which we don’t know and can’t name) and you’ve got yourself a remarkable book.

Image: Sarah McIntyre. Please click on the image to be taken to the original blog post - well worth reading!

Image: Sarah McIntyre. Please click on the image to be taken to the original blog post – well worth reading!

McIntyre’s illustrations are a crazy but perfect mix of 1950s brave new world sleekness and outrageous sponge-and-icing based fantasy. I’m delighted that Astra’s family are mixed race (this isn’t mentioned in the text at all, but how great to see some diversity just as-is, without it being an issue in the book).

The top-notch content of Cakes in Space is matched by a stunningly produced physical book. Like last year’s Reeve and McIntyre production, Oliver and the Seawigs, this is first being published as a small hardback in pleasingly chunky, strokingly hand-holdable format. Everything about the book is appealing.

After indulging in a solo read, I read this book aloud to both girls over a couple of days last week. Before we’d even finished the books my girls were off to raid the cutlery draw in the kitchen for highly prized spoons to create a collection of which any Poglite would be proud.

spooncollection1

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Carefully curated, they labelled every spoon with where it had been found in the galaxy, its rarity and its monetary value (I can see how this could develop into a Top Trumps game…)
spooncollection3

Spoons are one thing, but cake is another, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to host our own mini Cakes in Space party. We baked a host of fairy cakes and then turned them into KILLER CAKES…

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Lollies made great eyes on stalks…

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… as did Maltesers and Aero balls.

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We had fun making teeth out of snapped white chocolate buttons, tictacs and rice paper snipped to look like rows of sharp teeth.

cakesinspace10

We also had some Ferocious Florentines and Sinister Swiss Rolls (helped along with edible eyes).

cakesinspace4

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Other characters from the book were also present: The Nameless Horror was a big bowl of wobbly jelly dyed black with food colouring and with licorice shoelaces reaching out across the table, and jars of purple gloop (thinned down Angel Delight, again dyed to give a good purple colour) with gummy snakes in them made perfect Poglite snacks. Alas these were guzzled before I got to take a photo!

Preparing for the party was at least as much fun as the party itself…

cakesinspace7

Great music for a Cakes in Space party includes:

  • Cake by Mindy Hester & The Time Outs – heavily influenced by George Michael’s Faith
  • Peggy Seeger with Ewan MacColl, “The Space Girl’s Song”
  • I like Pie, I like Cake by the Four Clefs
  • To the Moon by the Mighty Buzzniks
  • Man in the Moon by The Full English. This comes from the album Sarah McIntyre listened to a lot whilst illustrating Cakes in Space.
  • Crunch munchy honey cakes by The Wiggles… not everyone’s cup of tea but it is sort of earwormy…

  • Other activities which would make for a great Cakes in Space party include:

  • COSTUMES! Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve have the most amazing Cakes in Space costumes (you can see them here), but if you want some inspiration for your own costumes you could try these: Using a bucket and plastic tray to create an astronaut costume as per Spoonful, how to create a papier-mâché helmet on StitchCraftCreations, a Pinterest board dedicated to cake costumes.
  • ROBOTS! I’d pile a load of “junk” from the recycling bin on the table and let the kids loose on designing and building their own robots or spaceships. NurtureStore has some ideas to get you going.
  • SLEEPING PODS! For the grown ups at the party if no-one else… You could use large cardboard boxes painted silver lined with duvets, and with the lids cut out and replaced with something see-through, with bottle tops/lids stuck on for the various buttons… you get the idea!

  • We’ve all heard of Death by Chocolate, but what’s the nearest you’ve come to being killed by a cake?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Cakes in Space from the publishers.

    Brilliant Libraries create Brilliant Opportunities: Book Aid’s Open Doors Campaign

    Posted on | August 14, 2014 | No Comments

    This really speaks to my heart.

    Open Doors is Book Aid International‘s new appeal to create library environments for children in which reading for pleasure and learning can flourish.

    Soroti Library's Children's Corner, Uganda, 2013. Photo: bookaid.org

    Soroti Library’s Children’s Corner, Uganda, 2013. Photo: bookaid.org

    Between now and 2018 they are planning to create create a total of 60 child-friendly spaces – Children’s Corners – in libraries in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Cameroon, Zambia and Zimbabwe, in conjunction with local partners. They will train librarians to work effectively with children, supply new books from the UK and provide each library with a grant for refurbishments and the local purchase of books.

    Children's Digital learning pilot project  in Kenya. Photo: bookaid.org

    Children’s Digital learning pilot project in Kenya. Photo: bookaid.org

    Why am I telling you this?

    Open Doors will revolutionise access to books for thousands of children in sub-Saharan Africa, where many children live below the poverty line and literacy levels are among the lowest in the world.

    With few books in their schools and no books at home, children struggle to read and to learn. For most children, a local library – where one exists – is the only place where they can read the books they need to prepare them for adulthood. However, few libraries have suitable spaces for children and most librarians are not trained to work with children.

    It happens that I was born in Zambia and had my first books read to me there.

    Me in Zambia

    Me in Zambia

    We didn’t have access to many books, but my favourite was Tiger Flower by Robert Vavra, illustrated Fleur Cowles which my Mum found in a bookshop in Ndola.

    tigerflower450

    My first introduction to the power and beauty of books, and the way they open doors into worlds of opportunities happened in Zambia, one of the countries where Book Aid works. So this campaign not only appeals on a professional level, it matters to me personally.

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    Please consider making a donation to the Open Doors Campaign – you can do so via this link: http://www.bookaid.org/get-involved/opendoors/
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    If you’re reading this as a publisher or book distributor please do take a look at this information sheet about how you can get involved. Each library is looking for new stock and you could be the one to make a huge difference. The number of books being sought really isn’t enormous.

    Each of the 60 participating libraries will receive 2,500 children’s books. This will be broadly made up as follows:

  • 80 board books
  • 80 big books
  • 350 picture books – to age 6
  • 500 fiction titles (including graded readers), ages 6-12
  • 350 fiction titles ages 12+
  • 400 non-fiction titles for ages 6-12
  • 400 non-fiction titles for ages 12+
  • 40 reference books
  • 300 primary-level educational non-fiction (eg geography, history, science)

  • If you, as a publisher, do decide to get involved, let me know and I’ll be so delighted to tell the world what fab folk you are!

    The Flying Bath and developing a bathroom library

    Posted on | August 11, 2014 | 8 Comments

    With pretty much all clock-watching abandoned for the summer holidays we’ve been sneaking reading into unusual places. First we boosted breakfast feasting on books with our toast rack displays, and since then we’ve been squeezing in extra reading at the other end of the day – at bathtime. When the kids were little we were big fans of the plastic books you could immerse in water but now we tend to have a stack of comics and magazines (for all ages) on hand in a magazine rack.

    bathroomreading

    It doesn’t matter so much if comics and magazines get wet – a short spell on the washing line or a radiator fixes that, and if they end up really too wrinkled and dog-eared for reading, they’re ripe for recycling as collage material.

    readinginthebath

    Of course, another way to enjoy reading at bath time is simply to sit on the floor and read a favourite book to your kids whilst they can’t escape from the tub, and what better than a bath-time themed book for such an occasion (Scottish Book Trust has some great recommendations here)?

    When news of a flying bathtub which saves animals in distress reached our ears we had to check it out…

    flyingbathIn The Flying Bath by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by David Roberts there’s a hotline to a team of firefighting, thirst-quenching, mud-washing pals who use their bath to fly the world over, saving animals who have come unstuck thanks to a lack of water.

    As you’d expect from Donaldson, the superhero antics are told in rhyme, with a refrain which kids will quickly sing-song along with. Roberts’ illustrations are detailed and have an older feel to them especially when compared to some of the other illustrators Donaldson is often paired with. I personally love his eye for pattern and texture. His architectural drawings are beautiful in their clarity and precision, and Roberts has had enormous fun with the choice of telephones used to dial 999.

    Despite all this, I have to admit that this isn’t a book I’ve fallen madly in love with. I found Donaldson’s text requires a little practise to read out loud (a surprise, given that normally her poems-in-picture-book form trip off the tongue). This makes me too aware of the technicalities of the rhyme to simple enjoy the ride with the rescuing animals. And the text is more a series of flights of fancy rather than an extended narrative with a traditional story arc.

    HOWEVER.

    However, however, both my kids thought this book rather delightful and funny, and had a lot of fun spotting nods to other books Roberts has illustrated. Indeed my kids enjoyed this book so much they immediately came up with an idea for ‘playing by the book’ by creating a bathtime mosaic set, mirroring the tiled wings of the flying bath.

    We grabbed a bunch of foam sheets (such as these) and cut them up into squares before letting them loose in the bath.

    bath1

    The kids loved having the tiles floating all around them – it was like “bathing in a rainbow” said J! Both kids enjoyed making different tiled patterns around the bath, exploring repetition – a visual rhythm, if you like!

    bathaftermath

    Whilst it turns out this book was great for maths play, it’s also a book that could be used in science classes for kids in nursery and the first years of school, gently exploring drought, forest fires, and the need for water for life (both for animals and plants). You could team it up with some research about water charities, for example Waterbridge Outreach.

    waterbridgelogo

    waterbridge2

    I’m a supporter of this particular charity because it aims “to give children in developing communities hope for the future through nourishing their minds and bodies with books and water.”

    Yep, water and books. A good combo, no?

    Waterbridge Outreach donates books in English and local languages and funds clean water and sanitation projects in communities and villages in the developing world. You can read about some of their projects here.

    So it turns out that even if a book isn’t the best thing I’ve read all year, there’s still a lot to be said for it. It can inspire play, it can make children laugh, it can start conversations, it can even lead to a good deed or two!

    If you want music to go along with reading The Flying Bath you could try these songs:

  • Bartleby Finkleton Will Not Take a Bath by Steve Weeks
  • Bath Time by The Sing Sings
  • Bathtime Blues by Uncle Moondog (listen for free on Myspace)

  • For more extension activities which work well with this book why not try:

  • 15 Fun Bath Time Activities That Don’t Include a Rubber Duck! (from Babble.com)
  • Water Math & Science Activities for Kids Ages 3-6 from The Measured Mom
  • Taking books and bath times one step further with this bath tub made out of books!

  • Are you a bath or a shower person? Do you have a bathroom library?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Flying Bath from the publishers.

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