Saturday, 27 August 2016

Book reviews - New books for young readers from Gecko press

Today I'm sharing three new lovely chapter books from Gecko press, aimed at both new and more confident readers.

Three new books from Gecko press

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa is an absurd and endearing story about an African giraffe and his penguin pen pal. Giraffe is bored and wants a friend to share things with. One day he finds a sign from a bored pelican offering to deliver anything, anywhere. So he writes a letter and sends it as far as possible across the other side of the horizon. There he finds a pen pal - Penguin.

The book is written from the point of view of both Giraffe and Penguin and also contains the letters that the two unlikely friends write to each other. It's a very sweet book and instantly appealed to Harry as his comfort object is a giraffe, so he liked it very much!

Life According to Dani by Rose Lagercrantz tells the story of Dani, who is spending the summer holidays on an island with her best friend Ella and they are having a fantastic time. But one day an unwelcome visitor comes and Dani isn't sure that her life is that happy any more now that her widowed father has a new girlfriend. But thanks to her best friend Ella is there to help get things back to how they should be. With lovely illustrations from Eva Eriksson, it's a story that children will enjoy, as well as dealing with a serious issue that many children have to face.

Bicycling to the Moon by Timo Parvela is a beautifully illustrated chapter book suitable for more confident readers. It's all about Purdy the cat and Barker the dog, who are friends that live in a sky blue house on top of a hill and are quite different to each other. Barker likes to potter in the garden, but Purdy has big dreams - he wants to fly south with the birds, win the singing competition, be a Supercat...

It's a quirky and funny selection of stories all about friendship, and because each chapter can be read as a separate little story, it's great for reading aloud to younger children at bedtime or for older children to read to themselves, with a different story each night.

I received these books in exchange for a review.

Book review - The Storm Whale in Winter

The Storm Whale in Winter, written and illustrated by Benji Davies, is the sequel to the equally beautiful The Storm Whale. In The Storm Whale we meet Noi, who rescued a little whale after a storm washed it ashore, and then returned it to the sea.

The Storm Whale in Winter book review

Noi can't forget his friend the whale, and longs to see him again, watching for him while his father sets off to sea every day in his fishing boat. One cold night his father doesn't return home, and Noi goes out in search of him. He can't find him and becomes lost himself, until an old friend brings his whole family to the rescue.

The Storm Whale in Winter

It's a lovely book, and the illustrations are perfect, with touching images that carry so much expression. It's a really peaceful book to read aloud, with a gentle story and a happy ending - just right for a bedtime story! 

I was sent this book in exchange for a review.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Warwick Castle with the family

Warwick Castle logo

We've visited Warwick Castle several times over the last few years with our Merlin Passes, as it's literally just around the corner from where Ram's parents live. It had been a few years since my last visit to Warwick Castle though and a lot has changed, so we spent a lovely day out there at the beginning of the summer holidays.

Warwick Castle entrance

Warwick Castle is a very well preserved castle, and has all the features of a castle that you expect to see - a portcullis, turrets, crenelated walls, a dungeon, grand rooms and a huge open courtyard in the middle. You have lovely views across the River Avon and surrounding countryside and there are some beautiful gardens with peacocks.

We started our visit in the Horrible Histories Maze, as we had heard that it can get very busy. The children were given a little booklet with spaces for stamps that they needed to collect at various different locations within the maze. The always love this sort of thing, and had a lot of fun chasing about. Some of the stamps were quite difficult to find and quite a few people were slipping through gaps in the walls, but Harry insisted on doing the maze properly and finding them all correctly!

It was quite educational too, with lots of little informative snippets about different periods in history, like the Vikings and the Tudors.

Horrible Histories Maze

Then it was time for the Trebuchet demonstration, so we found ourselves a nice spot on a grassy bank (the picture below is taken from the top of the castle, we were lower down with a wider view). The trebuchet takes a few minutes to get into position, with some very hardworking staff running around the treadwheels in the heat. While this is going on you are told about the trebuchet, in essence a huge catapult, which was used to hurl projectiles at the castle walls. They fired a flaming ball, and it was very exciting to watch, definitely worth making the effort to watch the demonstration!

Trebuchet at Warwick Castle

Then we explored the rest of the castle. We arrived at the Princess Tower just as the show was starting so we didn't have to wait, but at busy times you need to collect a timed ticket. We met a princess who introduced us to the story of Guy of Warwick, who was cursed and trapped in a painting, and then the children helped her to break the curse, it was a lot of fun and they really enjoyed it.

The Royal Weekend Party takes you through a series of rooms in the castle which tell the story of a weekend spent in Victorian high society, and the Kingmaker exhibition takes you on a journey as Richard Neville, Warwick the Kingmaker, prepares his army for battle in 1471. We also very much enjoyed the Time Tower, where you can join characters from the castle's past to learn all about the history of the castle, very interesting.

Warwick Castle courtyard

It was a busy day when we visited and if I'm honest it did feel as though the castle wasn't quite set up to handle the large volume of visitors. Even though we arrived just as the castle was opening in the morning we had to park in the overflow car park which was a good 20 minute walk to the entrance, the restaurant ran out of vegetarian food choices at lunch time, and there was a long queue for the toilets.

There was also a queue to climb up the Towers and Ramparts as it's all quite narrow so we gave it a miss. However we were able to climb up to the Mound, which gives you some lovely views both inside and outside the castle.

Finally we spent a lot of time in the Pageant Playground, which fortunately wasn't too busy. It's a good playground with only one entrance/exit, so you can be sure that the children can't escape if you take your eyes off them!

Warwick Castle Pageant Playground

There was plenty going on during the day when we visited and we didn't have time to see everything - as well as the trebuchet demonstration there was a birds of prey show and jousting, and plenty of colourful characters walking around. 

Warwick Castle character

There is loads to do at Warwick Castle, there is definitely a lot more there than your typical castle experience, and I'd recommend a visit (avoid peak times if you can, and if you can't, arrive early!)

Warwick Castle outside

We visited Warwick Castle with our Merlin Passes (which we purchased!)

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Book reviews - Belle and Sebastien and The Castle of Inside Out

Today on the blog I'm sharing two lovely new children's books from Alma Books, both aimed at young readers aged 9-11 years old. 

Belle and Sebastien and The Castle of Inside Out

Belle and S├ębastien: The Child of the Mountains by Cecile Aubry was first published in 1965 to coincide with the internationally successful television series of the same name. It tells the story of Sebastien, the son of a gypsy woman who is found as a newborn baby in the Alps and brought up by Guillaume and his grandchildren Angelina and Jean. Belle is a beautiful white Pyrenean Mountain Dog who has been neglected and passed on from owner to owner until one day she escapes from a kennel. Sebastien rescues the runaway Belle from angry villagers, and they form a lifelong friendship, embarking on many exciting adventures in the mountains.

The book has been newly released in hardback with some lovely illustrations by Helen Stephens. It's a classic book which will definitely still appeal to children today, all about friendship and adventure.

The Castle of Inside Out by David Henry Wilson introduces us to Lorina, who is led by a black rabbit through a wood to a magical land where she finds a race of green people who are all overworked, starving, and subjected to the toxic fumes billowing out of a nearby castle. It sounds like a familiar story, and indeed it has been described as Alice in Wonderland meets 1984 (Lorina and her sister in the story Edith even share their names with the sisters of Alice Liddell, inspiration for Alice in Wonderland).

Lorina decides to gain access to the castle for the poor green people, and within its walls she meets the 'insiders' - selfish creatures that treat the 'outsiders' as slaves. Along with the captivating story, the book has plenty of wonderfully detailed illustrations by Chris Riddell, which really bring the story to life.

I received copies of these books in exchange for a review.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Book review - Ada Twist, Scientist

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts is a new picture book, and a follow up to the sucessful Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect.

Ada Twist, Scientist book review

Scientist Ada has a boundless imagination and has always been hopelessly curious. When her house fills with a horrific, toe-curling smell, Ada knows it's up to her to find the source. Not afraid of failure, she embarks on a fact-finding mission and conduct scientific experiments, all in the name of discovery. But, this time, her experiments lead to even more stink and get her into trouble!

Ada Twist, Scientist inside

Although the book champions girl power and women scientists (inspired by real-life women in science like Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie) it also appealed very much to Harry, who didn't seem to notice that the book was about a girl, just that it was about a 'scientist', which he what he wants to be when he grows up. It's a lovely story about a little girl who is curious to learn about everything, and her supportive parents that do everything they can to help her in her quest.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Making some simple, colourful bunting for the garden

I was sorting through the craft cupboards recently and came across some fabric paints and crayons left over from previous projects. So I decided to come up with a craft that we could use them for, and settled on some simple homemade bunting for the garden. It's not intended to last forever and to be honest will probably only last for the summer, but it's a lovely decoration while it's there!

Bunting in the garden

We made the bunting using scraps of old fabric, both plain and patterned. The plain fabric, like a lot of my fabric, comes from a pillowcase. I buy very cheap ones from Asda where they cost about £2 for a pair. I ironed the fabric so we had a nice flat surface to work on.

We cut out plenty of flags, mine measure around 19cm x 15cm but they aren't exact. We decorated the flags using both Fabric Crayons and Fabric Paint (affiliate links). When the paint had dried I set the paint by ironing it for a couple of minutes on the reverse.

Homemade fabric bunting

I was rather proud of my letter J, and the children copied me with flags for their own initials. Mia decided to decorate her flags with the current family obsession, Pokemon. Harry came up with the idea of advertising a bug hunt challenge, and he made scavenger hunt leaflets to keep in the summerhouse.

Bunting in the garden

They are hanging across the entrance to our vegetable patch, and I love watching them fluttering in the breeze!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

CBeebies Land at Alton Towers

CBeebies Land at Alton Towers

Nearly four years ago we took the children to Alton Towers and we had a lovely day. This summer we returned with our now slightly older children (7 and 5) and we were interested to see what had changed, especially with the opening of the new CBeebies Land. To be honest, our children are at the upper age range of the area, and CBeebies isn't really on at home any more, but Harry is pretty timid when it comes to rides, so he was perfectly satisfied with what was on offer.

CBeebies Land is a redevelopment of the Old MacDonald's Farmyard. I'm fairly sure that the only new ride in the area is the Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure (which replaced a similar family rollercoaster).  It's the closest land to the main entrance which means that it's not too far to walk, and it's also part of Early Ride Time and opens an hour before the rest of the park. This means that if you pre-book tickets online, are staying in the resort hotel, have a Merlin Annual Pass or Alton Towers Annual Pass, you can enter at 9am.

The Get Set Go Treetop Adventure gives you a nice view across CBeebies Land and it a gentle ride, but exciting for little ones as it is so high up.

Alton Towers CBeebies Land view

There's also a large outdoor play area - Tree Fu Tom Training Camp - which we spent quite a bit of time in, although some of the area was unfortunately under construction.

Alton Towers Tree Fu Tom playground

Some of the rides get very popular so it's worth heading for these first. Postman Pat Parcel Post is a little track ride in a post van around Greendale, and the In the Night Garden Boat Ride is another ride which can have quite a queue. It really is a lovely ride though and was my favourite. Both children have loved watching In the Night Garden, and I think even very young children that are familiar with the show would really enjoy this ride.

In the Night Garden boat ride

The other popular ride is the Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure, which Mia rode several times. There are also some nice walk in areas - Nina's Science Lab was empty and had some fun little science experiments to try, and Charlie and Lola's Moonsquirters and Green Drops indoor play area was small but fun, especially when not too busy. 

Alton Towers is spread over a large area, and you do need to be careful when planning your route as you can end up walking a long way. The gardens in the middle are lovely, and if you have a baby that needs a walk with the pram to aid with a nap it's the perfect spot. There is also a SeaLife Centre in the park which little ones love.

If you are only visiting Alton Towers for CBeebies Land then unless you have a Merlin Pass or other discounted tickets it can work out quite expensive for what it is. CBeebies Land itself reminded me a lot of the Peppa Pig World area that is part of Paultons Park in Hampshire, except that I've found Paultons Park to have more to do elsewhere in the park for small children.

Unfortunately many of the rides elsewhere at Alton Towers that we thought the children would enjoy were closed (planned closures for the season). The Charlie and the Chocolate Ride was closed, as were Hex and the Driving School. This meant that the only other ride in the rest of the park that Harry was really up for was Duel (although he did really love it and went round it seven times as there was no queue) and we also went across on the SkyRide a couple of times.

Mia and I went on the Congo River Rapids, which she enjoyed, although we had to queue in a deceptive line for about 40 minutes so she was pretty fed up by the time we got on. She also enjoyed the Runaway Mine Train, and there was only a short queue so she was able to go on it a few times.

Ram and I were very keen to ride the new Galactica rollercoaster, which we would have done using our Parent Queue Share ticket (which means that one adult queues once, then the second adult can enter through the FastPass line), but that broke down early on and the queues would have been too long for us to wait later. We only rode on Nemesis with the pass as we thought it was a bit unfair on the children to have them waiting around for us, but it's a good system if you want to ride some of the faster rollercoasters. You need to get the Parent Queue Share ticket from the Resort Box Office shortly after you enter the park (and you need to have the children with you).

So we spent most of our time in CBeebies Land and that was where the children were happiest. I was really impressed with the theming of the area, everything was really fun and colourful, and it's a lot of fun for little ones.

We visited Alton Towers using our Merlin Annual Passes (that we paid for!)
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