Playing by the book

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

Barbapapa’s New House – A book so good I’m featuring it for a SECOND time!

Posted on | March 18, 2014 | 1 Comment

barbapapasnewhousecoverBack in 2010 I chose a book very dear to my heart in celebration of my 100th post on Playing by the book: Barbapapa’s New House by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor. I am now feeling very old, as this will be my 770th post on Playing by the book and it is celebrating the fact that Barbapapa’s New House is back in print!

To celebrate this fantastic occasion I was luxuriating in thinking about what I loved and love still about this book. And it is – appropriately enough – the houses, the homes of the barbapapas. 670 posts ago we made a dollshouse that looked like the new Barbabpapa home…

Image taken from my old edition of Barbapapa's New House

Image taken from my old edition of Barbapapa’s New House


…but this time I was dreaming about the old Barbapapa home, with its romantic turret and fairytale quality.

Image taken from my old edition of Barbapapa's New House

Image taken from my old edition of Barbapapa’s New House

As a child I longed to live in a house like this one. And when I recently saw that none other than Judith Kerr had lived in something similar as a child (there’s a video of her visiting it here) I sighed wistfully.

Our 1930s ex-council house isn’t nearly as magical, but to bring a bit of that old fashioned charm and beauty into our home I thought I’d create some colouring-in pages based on the Barbapapas gorgeous old house.


Click to download and print the colouring-in sheets:

  • Barbapapa street in its entirety (the houses are small, as this prints onto A4)

  • colouringinlarge

    For larger houses (2 per A4 sheet and much easier for little hands to colour in) use this series:

  • Barbapapa Street part 0
  • Barbapapa Street part 1
  • Barbapapa Street part 2
  • Barbapapa Street part 3
  • Barbapapa Street part 4
  • Barbapapa Street part 5

  • To make these colouring in sheets I used a series of images I found in the British Library’s Photostream on Flickr . Back in December last year the British Library released over 1 million images from 17th, 18th and 19th century books in their collection, making them available for anyone to use, remix and repurpose.

    I’ve previously blogged about some of the vintage children’s book illustrations I found but all the illustrations I used for the Barbapapa colouring in sheets come from Strassburg und seine Bauten. Herausgegeben vom Architekten- und Ingenieur-Verein für Elsass-Lothringen. Mit 655 Abbildungen in Text, etc, published in 1894 by Architekten- und Ingenieur-Verein für Elsass-Lothringen. I used the trace function in Inkscape to create clean(er) black and white images, and the same programme to put them together in order to create my dream street.


    Using felt glued to card and googly eyes I created a Barbapapa family and the girls then coloured in the street I’d created. Here’s the final result!




    I hope the Barbapapas capture your kids’ imagination just as much as they did mine – there’s so much to love about them from their inventiveness and thoughtfulness to their playfulness. You don’t need to read the books in any set order to enjoy them so if Barbapapas are new to you, please do seek out the gorgeous book that is Barbapapa’s New House and let me know what you think of it.

    Thanks got Damyanti and her family for trialling the colouring-in sheets.

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Barbapapa’s New House from the publisher.

    Non-fiction books aren’t just about facts: 2 playful artist biographies which encourage self expression

    Posted on | March 14, 2014 | 4 Comments

    In this day and age where there are fewer and fewer independent bookshops, some of the most exciting bricks-and-mortar places for discovering new children’s books are the shops in museums and art galleries.

    Whilst they may not carry a huge range of stock, they often have quirky, unusual books which would never make it to the surface on the shelves in a highstreet chain bookshop. Two recent publications by Princeton Architectural Press are prime examples of the sort of books I mean: Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso, both by Patricia Geis, are part of a stylish, new and playful Meet the Artist! series which I really like.


    Alexander Calder contains a simple biography of the artist’s life and then focuses on several of Calder’s recurrent or particularly important themes or pieces. We learn about his love of making toys, his circus, wire sculptures, mobiles/stabiles and what my kids instantly recognised as what they call “junk modelling”, but which is here referred to as sculpture out of “found objects”. So far, so fairly normal for a non-fiction book about an artist.

    But this book is not like your average artist biography because it is full of surprises. There is pop-up bunting, a length of metal chain to play with, press out card toy reproductions, flaps, string and cut-outs. This book is about really engaging with Calder’s art, not just looking at it, but doing it, and viewing it from all angles.


    To describe this as a “novelty” book would be unfair, as that label often carries the connotations of cheap gimmickry. Here the physicality of the book engages the reader in a way that I think gives valuable insight into the artist: this book is playful and unconventional, just as Calder was.

    The Pablo Picasso volume is equally design conscious, with short pieces of text and white expanses left around the crisp reproductions of Picasso’s art so that they really stand out. The pop-ups are not quite as successful in this volume; sculpture, inherently 3-D, is simply more exciting when it pops up off the page than a reproduction of a flat painting, even with clever use of stands and frames.

    Whilst these books might not be favoured in public libraries, with all their moving and loose parts being unlikely to stand up to masses of (quite rightly) active reading, I love how they are a stepping stone to encouraging self-expression (“If a famous artist can sculpt with clothes pegs, then I can try that too!”) and through that, self confidence. Non-Fiction book aren’t just about learning facts!

    Alexander Calder‘s Circus is one of his most famous pieces of art and so my girls decided to create their own version. First up M made some bunting out of paint chips. She folded them in half, and then cut out a triangle that she folded over a length of string and held in place with a glue dot.



    For our circus artists we downloaded, printed and coloured this great circus set from Made by Joel and made further unusual attractions out of corks and jewellery wire (in the spirit of Calder’s wire sculptures and found objects sculptures).




    Watch out for our terrifying circus lions!

    Whilst making our circus and then playing with it we listened to:

  • Calder’s Circus by The Tiptons (here it is on Spotify)
  • Swingin’ Little Duck (Alexander Calder) by Hope Harris (you can listen for free here on Soundcloud)
  • Calder’s Circus by Goin’ Monkey (here it is on Spotify)

  • Other activities you might be inspired to get up to having read the Alexander Calder Meet the Artist! book include:

  • Browsing some museum and art galleries’ online shops and browse for interesting books. I like the shops from the Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Design Museum in particular.
  • Creating a pocket circus, like this one from MollyMoo.
  • Balancing a Calder Mobile, with this tutorial from Salamander Art.

  • A third book in the Meet the Artist! series is planned for the Autumn of 2014: Henri Matisse will be the subject of the new volume and I’m certainly looking forward to it.

    Disclosure: I received free review copies of both Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso from the publishers.

    Pterosaurs, sweetcorn racing and zombie cockroaches: where great non-fiction can take you!

    Posted on | March 12, 2014 | No Comments

    2014 sees the first crop of books by Red Shed (@RedShedBooks, Egmont‘s new dedicated non-fiction imprint for children and young people) hitting shelves across the UK. I Explore Digging for Dinosaurs and I Explore Under the Sea, both by written by Mike Goldsmith (@mj_goldsmith) and illustrated Kate Daubney (@kd_illustration) plus an advance copy of In One End and Out the Other, again written by Mike Goldsmith but illustrated by Richard Watson have given me reason to have high hopes for this imprint.


    Digging for Dinosaurs and Under the Sea are the first two of four titles publishing this year in the ‘I Explore’ board book series. Each book takes readers on a mini adventure; they don’t just contain facts, but actually lead readers and listeners on a journey with a beginning and an end.

    One clever device used is a teaser on the right hand edge of each double spread – a glimpse of what is coming next, with a focused question to get readers and listeners thinking. Page turns in (fiction) picture books are so important in creating drama, excitement and pace, and it is wonderful to see this being used in a non-fiction text too. A robust and large fold-out-flap at the end of each book creates a grand finale.

    One of the right hand pages in I Explore Digging for Dinosaurs - note the question in the bottom right hand corner and the partial illustration of something which is revealed on the following page.

    One of the right hand pages in I Explore Digging for Dinosaurs – note the question in the bottom right hand corner and the partial illustration of something which is revealed on the following page.

    The illustrations are brightly coloured, featuring both boys and girls (hurrah for the female helicopter pilot and palaeontologist as well as the male scientist and digger driver) and not everyone is white (double hurrah!). As is to be expected, some of the vocabulary is a little specialist (I’m not sure I’ve ever read the words “humphead wrasse” before) but I think it’s great the books are not dumbed down and do included unusual and interesting words.

    Whilst my kids are rather older than the target audience for the ‘I Explore’ titles (officially targeted at 2+), my five year old enjoyed them as books she could read herself (often board books do double up as great early reading material for kids learning to read themselves). The dino board book got both kids eager to play prehistoric animals so we set about making a flock of pterosaurs. Pterosaurs are NOT actually dinosaurs, but we had such fun with this activity that I really wanted to share it.

    Click to download your pterosaur wing template!

    Click to download your pterosaur wing template!

    Inspired by this post from Kinderspiele Welt, we used washing line pegs and a new template I made up with multiple wing spans (you can download it here) to create our pterosaurs. We made two main types – an early one (like a Preondactylus or Eudimorphodon), with a tail, and a later one (like a Pterodactylus or Gnathosaurus), without the tail.


    We used jewellery wire (very thin and easily bendable by little hands) to hang our flying prehistoric creatures from on high.



    I rather like the fact that our kitchen is now home to a flock of pterasaurs. We just need to find a good collective noun for them – have you any suggestions?


    Play inspired by the Red Shed books didn’t stop with our prehistoric flying reptiles. Next up, In One End and Out the Other (with over 50 flaps helping to provide answers to “What happens to poo when it leaves you?”) led us to have a sweetcorn race. Sounds innocuous. It IS innocuous. But if you think about the details too much you might feel a bit yucky.

    Photo: Phil and Pam

    Photo: Phil and Pam

    So yes, how do you have a sweetcorn race? Well one evening you all have a bowl of sweetcorn for supper and then see how long it takes to emerge out the other end….

    Photo: Sharon Mollerus

    Photo: Sharon Mollerus

    I hope you appreciate the tasteful photos I’ve found to illustrate our race. Without going into to much detail I can report back that we had one competitor who Did Not Start (the fussy eater) and one competitor who was disqualified (it turns out she had had sweetcorn the day before as part of her school lunch and hadn’t told us about this). The winning competitor’s sweetcorn travelled at a rate of approximately 57 cm an hour, whilst the silver medal winner’s sweetcorn travelled at a rate of about 18 cm an hour. How fast do you think sweetcorn would travel through YOU?!

    deadoraliveWe’re definitely looking forward to Red Shed’s Dead or Alive? by Clive Gifford and Sarah Horne this summer. We’ve seen an extract of this book (with brilliant illustrations, a little like those by award winning Hannah Shaw) and it led us to finding out more about real life zombies. Just for fun, you too might enjoy this Ted Ed lesson from Carl Zimmer, or the video of the cockroach zombie on this page from National Geographic.

    Whilst making our flock of pterosaurs we listened to:

  • Where Does It Go? by Maria Christensen & Jessica Harvey. You can listen to a free sample here on the Dangerous and Stinky website.
  • Dinosaur by We Kids Rock. You can listen to a free sample here.
  • I Am A Paleontologist by Here Comes Science

  • Books which get us “doing”, playing, investigating, and having fun are what we’re all about here on Playing by the book, and it’s great to find a crop of non-fiction books which have inspired us so much. What’s the last book that got your family off the sofa and playing or exploring?

    Disclosure: I received free review copies or advance excerpts of all the books mentioned today from the publisher.

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