Playing by the book

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

Made by Raffi by Craig Pomranz & Margaret Chamberlain & other knitting picture books

Posted on | July 2, 2014 | 8 Comments

Indulge me: Have a quick brainstorm about picture books you know for young kids which explore what it feels like to be different?

[Go on! Play the game!]
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Of those you’ve come up with, how many are about emotions rather than physical characteristics?

How many of them feature humans rather than animals?

How many of them have a boy lead character rather than a girl?

[I came up with very few, and even then I needed help from the ever resourceful and generous Letterbox Library. Between us we came up with Oliver by Birgitta Sif, Eliot Jones, Midnight Superhero by Anne Cottringer and Alex T Smith, Weslandia by Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes but that was pretty much it.]

raffifrontcoverSo when Made by Raffi written by Craig Pomranz, illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain (@madgiemadge) appeared in my hands for the first time I sat up and noticed; it’s about a boy who feels he doesn’t quite fit in, for instead of football, his passion is knitting and sewing.

Although he’s a curious and generous kid, he feels sidelined at school. Unlike most of his classmates, he doesn’t like noise and rough play. But thanks to a supportive teacher he discovers a new passion – making his own clothes. When it is time for the school play could this new skill help him gain the respect of his peers? Without giving the game away, the ending is upbeat, but also authentic. This isn’t a sugar-coated story. (For the really interesting background to the story, take a look at this article).

This book deserves to be in every school and read in every family for a whole plethora of reasons. It’s bold, tackling gender issues that many adults might skirt around: I love Pomranz daring to use the word “girly“, and it certainly helped us talk about how being a girl interested in ‘boys’ things’ is often more accepted by society than a boy interested in ‘girls’ things’. It’s big hearted; not just the warm, loving family Raffi is part of, but also his supportive school. It shows all sorts of children playing together, with different skin colours and different physical abilities, as well as different interests. It’s a joyously inclusive book, which tackles big themes gently and playfully.

raffiinside

Margaret Chamberlain’s illustrations are delightful. She uses colour very cleverly to portray moods and to mirror how much more interesting – indeed colourful – the world is for a diverse range of characters; wouldn’t the world be a dull grey place if we all liked only the same things?

A book about loneliness, respect, difference, and learning to trust your instincts even when it means you don’t follow the crowd, Made by Raffi is a vital, delightful and unusual book I urge you to share.

M and J were recently shown how to knit by their Grandma, and reading Made by Raffi offered the ideal opportunity to practice their recently acquired skills. (Here are some Youtube tutorials we found helpful to refresh our memories of what Granny had taught us: Casting on, knit stitch, casting off.

knitting2

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Having a ball of wool with lots of different colours on it was an effective tool in motivating the kids; each child would knit one or two colours and then hand the needles and ball over to the other. It gave them easy targets to aim for, and I’m sure this is partly why they completed a long scarf far more quickly than I was expecting.

completedscarf

Whilst knitting we’ve been listening to:

  • Lots of songs by Raffi (an Egyptian-born Canadian singer-songwriter who creates great kid-friendly music), – here’s a whole playlist on youtube.
  • The Knitting Song by Bill Oddie
  • Knitting by Arthur Askey. Massively old fashioned but a great rumble through all sorts of stitches and garments.


  • Other activities which would go well with reading Made by Raffi include:

  • Learning to finger knit. Here’s the youtube video we used to learn how to fingerknit.
  • Letting the kids embellish their own clothing. I found this the easiest/most satisfying way to let the kids have a go at making something themselves – they chose buttons they liked and sewed them onto a couple of pieces of clothing. Simple sewing but with a relatively big (and ‘real’) result.
  • Making a cloak as described in the story. Alternatively, if you can find a department store selling off curtain samples (eg in John Lewis or House of Fraser), you can pick up pretty much prepared cloaks – all you need to do is add something (eg a large hook and eye) so you can have the cloak safely stay on your shoulders as you zoom around wearing it.
  • If in a school or a library setting, making a display with images of clothes designed by men (Galliano, Versace, Gaultier for example, cut out from glossy magazines) and as the centre pieces place Made by Raffi and The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams. Whilst not for primary school kids, I’d also encourage you to read Boys Don’t Knit by T.S.Easton, a hilarious take on a teenage boy who loves to knit. Ben Fletcher and Raffi would definitely like to meet each other!


  • Other picture /illustrated books which feature knitting include:

  • Socks for supper by Jack Kent
  • Knitting Nell by Julie Jersild Roth
  • Mr. Nick’s knitting by Margaret Wild and Dee Huxley
  • Shall I knit you a hat? : a Christmas yarn by Kate Klise and M Sarah Klise
  • Derek, the knitting dinosaur by Mary Blackwood and Kerry Argent
  • Annie Hoot and the knitting extravaganza by Holly Clifton-Brown
  • Mrs. McDockerty’s knitting by Ruth Martinez and Catherine O’Neill
  • Noodle’s knitting by Sheryl Webster and Caroline Pedler
  • The knitting of Elizabeth Amelia by Patricia Lee Gauch and Barbara Lavallee
  • Knitty Kitty by David Elliott and Christopher Denise
  • The truly terribly horrible sweater that Grandma knit by Debbie Macomber, Mary Lou Carney and Vincent Nguyen
  • Carrie measures up! by Linda Williams Aber and Joy Allen
  • knittingpicbooks1

  • Pa Jinglebob, the fastest knitter in the West by Mary Arrigan and Korky Paul
  • Pa Jinglebob and the Grabble Gang by Mary Arrigan and Korky Paul
  • The best little knitter in the West by Sermsah Bin Saad and Samantha Cook
  • The three billy goats Fluff by Rachael Mortimer and Liz Pichon
  • The long red scarf by Nette Hilton and Margaret Power
  • It’s gone, Jac! by Rob Lewis
  • A winter’s yarn by Kathleen Cook Waldron and Deborah Turney Zagwyn
  • Love from Woolly : a lift-the-flap book of woolly gifts by Nina Michaels and Nicola Smee
  • Pelle’s New Suit by Elsa Beskow
  • Milo Armadillo by Jan Fearnley
  • knittingpicbooks2

    If you like the sound of Made by Raffi and are anywhere near Edinburgh in August, don’t miss the chance to meet author Craig Pomranz talking about his book as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival.

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publishers.

    That Cat who came in off the Roof by Annie M. G. Schmidt

    Posted on | June 29, 2014 | 5 Comments

    Mr Tibbles – a shy reporter on the local newspaper – has been threatened with the sack. It’s perhaps no surprise: Mr Tibbles is mad about cats, and all his stories end up revolving around felines one way or another. What his editor wants, however, is news!

    Photo: Sarah

    Photo: Sarah

    An act of kindness brings Mr Tibbles into contact with Minoe, a rather strange young woman who appears to be able to talk to cats. Through the town’s network of feline pets and strays Minoe starts starts to deliver interesting titbits of exclusive news to Mr Tibbles; cats across the city overhear all sorts of conversations often revealing juicy gossip and insider information, and when Minoe learns of these pieces of news from kitty comrades, she passes them on to her friend the reporter.

    Mr Tibble’s job is looking up until he uncovers information which could lead to the downfall of a local powerful businessman. Will the reporter be brave enough to expose the evil goings on? Will he be believed, when his only witnesses are pussy cats?

    Copy_of_Cover_Cat_who_came_in_off_the_RoofA funny and yet quietly profound tale of courage, friendship and what it really means to be human, The Cat Who Came in off the Roof, by Annie M. G. Schmidt, translated by David Colmer is a gem of a story. Ideal for fans of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, or cross-species tales of identity such as Stellaluna or Croc and Bird, this book would make an especially good class read-aloud, with lots of opportunities to discuss what life looks like from different perspectives, helping readers and listeners walk in another’s shoes, as well as perhaps learning a thing or to about overcoming shyness, and how to stand up for what you believe in.

    From the mangy, feisty stray cat who you end up rooting for, to the hilarious school cat with a penchant for history lessons and a slight;y different (some might say out-dated) understanding of the term ‘news’, Schmidt has populated her story with a super array of characters. The narrative beautifully unfolds with unseen and fine tuning, climaxing with an exciting and rich ending which is deeply satisfying even though not everything is tied up neatly and not all strands end happily. Despite plenty of kittens and purring, this book never patronises its readership.

    Knowing the original Dutch language version as we do as a family, I can also comment on the gorgeous translation. Colmer has wittily and cleverly translated linguistic and cultural jokes. His phrase ‘miaow-wow’ for when the cats meet up for a big parley is genius and has now entered our family parlance. If I nitpick I might personally have chosen -thorpe rather than -thorn for the Dutch -doorn, when translating the town’s name but I feel mean mentioning this as Colmer’s voice is pitch-perfect; at no point will you notice the text as a translation for it reads authentically and smoothly.

    This must-read book will make you laugh out loud (whether you are a dog person or a cat fan). It will make you feel like for a brief moment you’ve witnessed and understood the best of humanity. It may also make you rather nervous next time you find a cat sitting ever so quietly next to you whilst you are having a private conversation!

    I do so hope Pushkin Press are now thinking about translating Schmidt’s earlier work, Ibbeltje, which shares many characteristics with The Cat Who Came in off the Roof and has the added advantage of brilliant illustrations by another glittering star in the Dutch children’s literature firmament: Fiep Westendorp.

    For reasons which will become clear upon reading this charming and magical book Minoe not only can speak the language of cats, she is also known to climb trees when dogs approach. It took about a nanosecond for M to decide she wanted to play-by-this-particular-book by climbing as many different trees as she could one afternoon at the weekend. So, armed with a local map (printed from http://www.openstreetmap.org/) we set off to map all the local trees good for climbing in.

    tree1

    Each tree we climbed we identified (it seems that around us oaks, ash and willow are the best climbing trees).

    tree2

    We remembered the last time we deliberately climbed trees in order to read on location.

    tree3

    Getting out and climbing a tree? Reading a truly terrific book? What more could you ask for as a lovely way to while a way a few hours!

    Whilst climbing we weren’t listening to music, but these tracks could go with reading The Cat Who Came in off the Roof:

  • This Cat’s On A Hot Tin Roof by Brian Setzer
  • Everybody Wants to be a Cat from The Aristocats film
  • The Cat theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf


  • Other activities which you might be inspired to try alongside reading The Cat Who Came in off the Roof include:

  • Reading more books in more trees. The very first I’d have to recommend are the Toby books by Timothee de Fombelle, about an entire world of miniature people having giant adventures in an oak tree.
  • Walking around your neighbourhood and greeting the cats you come across. Could you create a backstory for each one? What are they called? What do they get up to when you’re not there?
  • Writing a family newspaper. This is potentially a super project for the summer holidays – and you can get some great tips and downloadables to get you going from this post over on Playful Learning.

  • When did you last climb a tree? What secrets might your cat be able to tell me ;-) ?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Cat who Came in off the Roof from the publisher.

    And briefly…. thank you with all my heart to all of you who commented on my last post, or got in touch via email, phone, snail mail and more. Life goes on and plots are being hatched and plans being laid. As and when I can reveal more I’ll be sure to let you know the latest.

    Where next? Playing by the Book is at a crossroads

    Posted on | June 18, 2014 | 55 Comments

    I try to keep my personal life out of my blog, but given that things might be quiet here for a while today’s post is something by way of an explanation.

    On Monday the school I work for informed their librarian that her services were no longer required, that as of the new academic year, the jobs the librarian was believed to be doing in the school would instead be distributed among teaching staff in order to save the school money.

    On Tuesday I read this post on the importance of school librarians and library services. If you’re a regular to my blog Emma Barnes’ piece may not tell you anything new, but maybe it’s something you can share with your friends and colleagues to raise awareness of librarians who work in and for schools.

    And now it is Wednesday and I’m able to bring myself to share in black and white that I’m that librarian who (with no warning) has been told there is no budget for her position. I can type it today without bursting into tears, which is certainly progress from earlier in the week.

    The council which funds the school is virtually bankrupt and has been cutting jobs by the thousands [sic], (the School Library Service was one of its first services to be cut) so it is no surprise to hear that the school’s budget has been cut and therefore they need to save money. It is (not just personally) heartbreaking; this is a school which invested a great deal just two years ago in a fabulous new library opened by a brilliant author, a new library management system, and a (albeit part-time) member of staff who was passionate about her job. Ultimately it’s the children who lose out.

    I understand the school no doubt had to make “difficult decisions”, and I don’t want to badmouth the school or its staff (and please, I’d rather you didn’t either) but this decision will have a far bigger impact than “just” making teaching staff more stressed as they have to pick up the different aspects of the librarian role as best they can when they are already stretched. I’ve only been a librarian there a year, but in that time I’ve had so many conversations with staff, kids and parents about finding just the right book for what they needed at that moment in time. I know that nearly every day I’ve been in work at the school I’ve made informed, creative, thoughtful suggestions to one person or another about just the right book, and I’m pretty sure that this will not be happening once I’ve gone, however happily staff (or will it be volunteers?) take to re-shelving and cataloguing.

    All this turmoil comes as I was starting to plan how to celebrate the fact that next month I’ll have been blogging about children’s books for five years. I love blogging about books and I wanted to use my 5th birthday as an opportunity to celebrate, and to brainstorm about what-more, what-different, what-how for the next five years. But now that series of questions has become much larger in scope.

    I need to earn some money to replace the salary I’m losing. But I want to earn it with integrity, utilising the passion I have for children’s literature. So far I’ve always chosen not to monetize the blog because I don’t want this space I love so dearly to become driven by contracts and payments and pushing you the reader to buy stuff. But maybe this is going to have to change? Would you care? Maybe not, but I would.

    But what can a dispirited, saddened, demotivated Playing by the Book do? I know I need to pick myself up and dust myself down and move on to bigger and better things. And I will. For a start, on Saturday I’ve the next meeting of the new 8-12 bookgroup I’ve started at the local public library, and as we’ll be discussing comics and graphic novels I know we’ll have a brilliant time.

    But I’d love to hear your ideas about ways forward beyond the weekend. Off the wall ideas? Yes please! Creative partnerships? Absolutely! Innovative, joy-filled ideas for spreading the word about the best of books for kids and young people? Well, that’s always been and always will be at the heart of what I try to do.

    Maybe you’re an author who needs admin support? Or a publisher looking for someone to help with a specific campaign? Maybe you’re an investor who would like to hire me to run this amazing children’s bookshop which is up for sale? (Goodness only knows this would be my dream job.)

    Ah well. I guess now I’ll turn to a book or two for some comfort.

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