Playing by the book

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

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.

    The Katie Morag Treasury / Books with a strong sense of location

    Posted on | November 13, 2014 | 6 Comments

    Over the last couple of year’s I’ve read quite a lot about how children’s books with a very specific cultural setting are not favoured by publishers because it is hard to sell rights widely; publishers are keen for “universal” stories which translate (literally and figuratively) well across borders and languages.

    Whilst I understand publishers’ drive to maximise sales, I think a great deal is lost if we ignore stories boldly and vividly set in specific and identifiable locations and cultures. Indeed, considering the current drive for increasing diversity in children’s books, I would argue that books which are culture specific have a vital role to play.

    And of course, a great book will be “universal” whether or not it is set in a specific time, location or country; enduring stories speak to that which we share whatever our differences.

    I have been a fan of Mairi Hedderwick’s books for as long as I can remember. She writes and illustrates rural Scottish island life in a magical way. She captures truths like poetry can in her watercolours of Hebridean life, whilst her stories are full of acute observations about family life that’s more or less the same wherever you are in the world, exploring issues such as sibling rivalry and intergenerational relationships.

    katiemoragetreasuryThe Katie Morag Treasury by Mairi Hedderwick is a glorious book, bringing together a mix of the most popular previously published Katie Morag books and new stories and illustrations first heard and seen on episodes of the highly acclaimed BBC Katie Morag TV show. It really is a treasury, with a range of witty and poignant stories, illustrated in ink and watercolour in a way that invisibly and movingly marries romance and realism.

    For kids listening to these stories Katie Morag’s tales act as mirrors; yes she may live in a community vastly unlike the one the young reader or listener lives in, but that only makes it more interesting and reassuring to read that Katie Morag has the same sort of worries, plays the same sorts of games and quarrels with her parents just like they do. Thoughtfulness is a consistent thread in all these stories, and Katie Morag herself is a terrific role model; full of strength and imagination she is not afraid to explore, to try new things, or to be kind.


    This is a keeper of a book, one which works well both as a read-aloud, or for children who can read themselves. Indeed the lovely hardback binding makes this ideal for older readers who might not want to be seen reading picture books any more.

    Last year when we were holiday in Scotland we collected a stash of shells and sea glass and re-reading these fabulous Katie Morag stories inspired us to get our jars of them out of our natural history museum, and play with them using a home-made light box.


    I borrowed one of our large plastic boxes which we normally store lego in, lined it with white tissue paper, and then put a load of fairy lights inside it. With the fairy lights turned on, and all the other lights turned off and curtains drawn we entered something of a soothing world where the girls could then make patterns with the shells and sea glass, with soft light shining through.


    If you don’t have any sea glass, you could do this activity with florists’ glass (vase) pebbles instead, making light imbued mosaics.


    Music which goes really well with Katie Morag stories (though maybe not with the light box activity as much of it will get you up and dancing) includes:

  • My favourite radio programme – available worldwide online – Travelling Folk. This is BBC Radio Scotland’s flagship folk programme and it’s full of treats each week.
  • Arrangements of songs like you’ve never heard before from Billy McIntyre and his All Star Ceilidh Band, who I’d love to hear live because they are just WAY out there…. Pop! goes the Ceilidh is a hysterical album with covers of lots of pop classics (eg Living on a Prayer, Robbie William’s Angels, Billy Idol’s White Wedding) redone with fiddle, accordion and more. It will put a crazy smile on your face.
  • Anything by Skippinish but especially Land below the Waves that always gives me goosebumps:

  • Other activities which you could try out alongside reading The Katie Morag Treasury include:

  • Creating a sand imprint roller (!) like we did when I reviewed audiobook versions of the Katie Morag stories.
  • Making stone soup, as per one of the six folk tales told at Grannie Island’s Ceilidh, and reproduced in The Katie Morag Treasury. If you’ve never made stone soup here’s a recipe to get you started.
  • Adapting a pair of shoes to make your own tap shoes; Katie Morag learns to tap dance but uses her wellies and a little bit of ingenuity. Here are some ways you can turn your regular shoes into tap shoes.

  • What are your favourite children’s books which have a very strong sense of location?

    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of The Katie Morag Treasury by the publisher

    It’s an Orange Aardvark!

    Posted on | November 10, 2014 | 6 Comments

    I do love a book full of holes.

    Tights with holes? No thank you.

    A bike tyre with a hole? What a pain.

    But a book with holes? Yes PLEASE!

    There are some all-time classic books with holes in them: Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar and the Ahlbergs’ Peepo. More recently there’s the exuberant Peck, Peck, Peck by Lucy Cousins, which I adore. But a new contender to join the ranks of honourably holey hits is It’s an Orange Aardvark! by Michael Hall.

    aardvarkThe tale of a small colony of carpenter ants chewing holes in a tree stump, this book covers everything from learning about colours and similes to group dynamics and animal biology. It’s a wonderfully enjoyable read which explores both curiosity and fear. It really packs a great deal within its covers at the same time as being a visual and tactile treat.

    A band of formic brothers are creating holes in their stump to look out on the world outside their home. One is enthusiastic to see what lies beyond their threshold. Another is terribly worried about the dangers that lurk beyond their known and safe world. As they make each window their stump is flooded with colour. What could be the cause of this? Is it something to embrace and delight in or could it be a threat?

    The naysayer is convinced there is an existential threat to them all in the form of an aardvark waiting to gobble them up. As each different colour floods the stump, this poor ant must come up with increasingly outrageous explanations; could it really be a (blue) pyjama-wearing, (red) ketchup carrying, orange aardvark guiding a group of green geckos?

    With a hint of Klassen-style ambiguity in the ending (what really was the source of all the colour?) this book is full of delicious tension, punctured with lots of humour as well as holes which let the colour flood from one page to the next. The bold illustrations appear to be made from collage, mixing watercolour and tissue paper. The torn edges suggesting the tree stump sides give an additional handmade, personal feel to the images, and the use of black and grey pages ensures the colours sing and pulse as they shine through.

    The somewhat American language (“Sweet!”, “Neat!”) may niggle some readers elsewhere in the world but this is a small price to pay for such an inventive, enjoyable read. I do hope it will be released as a board book so that it can be fully explored with the fingers, hands and mouths not just of aardvarks but also of the youngest book devourers.


    Taking the lead from the concentric rings of colour flooding through each hole as it is created in the tree stump, we used tissue paper circles of various sizes to create suncatchers which explored colour depth. You can buy ready cut shapes of tissue paper, but we used regular sheets and cut out a series of circles of various sizes using plates, bowls and mugs as our templates.


    We layered our circles over a sheet of contact paper large enough to then fold back over the concentric circles to enclose them entirely in see-through plastic. An alternative would have been to use laminator sheets, if you have ones which are larger enough for your largest circle.


    Once a we had a selection of coloured tissue paper/contact paper circle sandwiches we stuck them on our patio doors and let the light flood through them.



    Whilst making our concentric sun catchers we listened to:

  • I’m an Aardvark from Sesame Street
  • Carpenter Ant by Tom Cornwell
  • Some species of armadillos feed almost exclusively on ants and that’s why we also listened to Armando Armadillo hot off the presses from Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke.

  • Other activities which would go well with reading It’s an Orange Aardvark! include:

  • Using an old detergent bottle to make an aardvark lamp. Sounds crazy, but you can see what I mean here!
  • Learning about ant behaviour. Here’s an absolutely fantastic ant activity pack created by The Invertebrate Conservation Trust. This 26 page pack includes details of group games to play outside; they would be great for class learning and exploration.
  • Trying your hand at ombré dyeing, where colours get gradually deeper and more intense – whether it’s a pillowcase or eggs these are fun activities to try with your family.

  • What’s your favourite book with holes in it? What’s the most annoying (non book) hole you’ve ever discovered?

    Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of this book by the publisher.

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