Tea Party Tails: what I learnt

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Storytime. Reading stories. It sounds deceptively simple. In fact they take skill and preparation to run, and here I take my headscarf off to all the library staff who run them week in, week out, with such energy and spirit. I’ve taken Roshan to storytime at Central Library regularly over the past few years, but it’s quite another thing seen from the other side, and I’ve learnt a lot in doing them. If you’re a writer asked to do a storytime session and you’ve never done one before, here’s what I learnt this summer:

Firstly: an ice breaker is always good. I didn’t have one for my first session and it was confusing and abrupt for the children when I just started reading. Storytimes always involve waiting around with small children at the beginning, who become restless and distracted by the time things actually begin. All the time you, the reader, have been sitting there, and suddenly they’re expected to focus on you? Why? If you do singing or moving together, suddenly the whole energy of the room changes. If the storytime is a sentence, it needs punctuation to flow properly, and the ice breaker is the capital letter that signals the very start.

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Inject lots of energy, expression, enthusiasm and movement into tyour first activity! The more you put in as a performer at the very beginning, the more children will respond in kind. Heaping praise and learning children’s names (if the group is small enough) really helps establish a bond and connection. So praising the best impressions/efforts is really important at this early stage of the session.

When it’s time to settle and read: change your tone and position. Sit from standing, make your voice calmer and lower (it doesn’t have to be so all the way through, just right at the beginning). It is time to listen, and be quiet and enjoy the story. (In punctuation terms, this acts as a comma).

It’s helpful to learn most of the stories beforehand if possible, mostly because in storytimes, you have to read the text from above, and it’s upside down! I did not realise this until I started my first session but it’s pretty obvious now I look back on it. Knowing the texts well also means you can put in extra emphasis, expression and performativity into the readings too.

Make sure, too, that everyone has a chance to see each page. With big groups I had to move the book in a kind of semi circle to make sure all the children at the sides could see all the pictures.

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Interactivity in the readings is important. Break up the reading with relevant questions as one kind of interaction – I asked things like “If the tiger came to your house yesterday, what would he have had for tea?” and “What would you order in a cafe?” Using a story sack or puppets is also great (though I found it hard enough to read upside down and turn pages let alone sacrifice a limb for a puppet, so opted for the story sack).

Be flexible and respond to things within the session: if children want to talk about what they had for dinner, listen and engage with them about it! Then gently bring the conversation back to the story, and resume. I also found managing the attention of large groups throughout a session quite challenging. It’s much easier to connect and keep a small group focused on stories, but with a large group, children start to wander off or do their own thing after a while. That’s ok. I focused on connecting with the kids who were still sitting and listening, and some of the others came back of their own accord.

Children respond to feedback and praise in storytimes, just as anywhere else. When they got things out of the story sack, when they answered my questions, I thanked them and praised them for doing really well. The poitn of storytimes is to make libraries a positive, safe space for children, a place they connect to feelings of fun and happiness so that books also become fun and positive things by extension. During the craft activities, I went round and asked children what they were doing, helped those who were struggling and praised effort and creativity. I had my iPad and I took photos of finished work, which they then looked at, and I think it gave a great sense of pride and satisfaction.

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A breakaway, bonus activity is useful to build in for “quick crafters”: I designed a treasure hunt to raise awareness of the upcoming themed storytimes, but it came in really handy as an extra activity on the theme that children could do if they had finished their craft (this was particularly welcomed by parents of multiple children, if one had finished but the other hadn’t). It took the children away from the crafting space, too, and enabling a staggered clearing up and a space for other children or latecomers to join in on the craft.

You need to signal the end of the reading session. Just as you need the capital letter, you also need a full stop. Tidying up the story sack/books, thanking the children for helping you read the book, a round of applause – some kind of punctuation is needed to end the readings, otherwise children might expect another story and feel confused when being ushered towards tables for a craft activity.

Storytimes are really valuable elements of the lives of our libraries and really encourage young children to love books and find libraries inclusive, welcoming spaces. It’s brilliant as a writer to be able to do them too – you understand what works in terms of picture book stories in a whole new way: sentence structure, what kinds of things are funny, dramatic, or even boring. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to do them this summer.

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Tea Party Tails: what I did

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So my five Tea Party Tails story times are over.  As an emerging writer for a slightly older age group (11 upwards) designing and running these workshops was an illuminating experience, through which I learnt a great deal. I would like to thank all the support staff at Central Library, Bitterne Library, Cobbett Road Library, Woolston Library, Lordshill Library, Portswood Library and Burgess Road Library for all their help running them, and for welcoming me so warmly. Our libraries would not exist without these teams of staff and volunteers. They are heroes.

The idea for the workshops began through a discussion with librarians Allison Kirby and Alison Biczysko when I expressing my great love for The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Alison suggested that I frame the storytimes around this story, which I was really glad to do, but it also required some thinking and careful research.

In my short story The Tigress’ Invitation to Tea, I gently tease at the gendered dynamics of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. As a child in the 1980s, raised by a stay at home mum, I don’t think the gendering of this book registered at all. But as a feminist mother of a boy, it has begun to trouble me (and others) a little. I still love the story, but for public storytimes I felt that it needed another kind of book, with a different approach, to make things fun and current. I wanted a book that would speak to it, but with a different tone and perspective.

In the weeks leading up to Tea Party Tails I read a lot of big cat related picture books (I love my job!). There are some beautiful ones out there. Burgess Road Library showcased a great range of tiger ones in anticipation of the workshops! I particularly loved Catherine Rayner’s gorgeous Augustus and His Smile and Narinder Dhami’s charming A Tiger for Breakfast.

But Mark Sperring and Sarah Warburton’s book Daddy Lion’s Tea Partywas absolutely perfect. It is filled with delightful comic word play and brilliant illustrations. Most importantly, for me, it features a tea party organised by a male lion for his boy cubs. The moment when “Daddy Lion lifts his favourite china teacup daintily to his lips” is my favourite genderbending moment in recent children’s literature. Where The Tiger Who Came to Tea is very understated, delicate storytelling, Daddy Lion’s Tea Party features a stinky skunk and complete chaos. They are perfect complements and children and parents in all the sessions found the book a hoot.

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I also designed a treasure trail based on the illustrations in Daddy Lion’s Tea Party which was a useful additional activity to have for children if they finished the craft quickly. I am ever grateful, in my academic and creative life, for doing Art A Level and for being able to draw a little. It is a skill that comes in handy in a surprising number of situations.

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Then I needed a craft that would fit with the theme. As the storytimes were in the summer holidays, it was possible that a wide range of children of different age groups might attend, so I wanted a simple craft that could lend itself to very basic making skills but which could also fire a more developed creative imagination. I did some research on Pinterest, and found a fun tipping teapot tutorial by Danya Banya. This has proved to be a highlight of the workshop in the feedback I’ve received.

After the first workshop at Central Library featuring the two books and the craft I realised that we needed some kind of ice-breaking, get up and move story at the beginning, and more interactivity throughout the storytime.

After further research I found The Zoo Hullabaloo! by Jan Ormerod and Lindsey Gardner, a book of all kinds of animal movements which proved to be perfect. This book  has some obvious animal moves, such as stretching like a giraffe, but it also has unusual ones that made the children pause and think, like a slow loris and a turkey gobble. It’s a really fun book. I bought mine from Ebay, and was delighted to discover it was a library book, stamps, lamination and all!

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I also built in interactivity into the readings. I used my special pop up version of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, and my original plan was to have children come up and do the pop ups. But this really disrupted the flow of the reading and some of the younger children found it difficult to do.

So instead, I created a story sack. Story sacks are brilliant – children love the act of rummaging, and the unpredictability of what they might find in a mysterious bag (or pillowcase in this case!) I filled the sack with my son’s tea party toys and stuffed animals that feature in both books. Pride of place was this beauty:

At points in the stories when various things like sandwiches, teapots or cakes are mentioned, I invited children to come up and find the thing we’d just read about in the sack. These were laid out on the picnic rug on plates, and animals arranged around them. At the end of the session, there was an animal tea party in miniature right in front of us!

Tidying this up also was a great way to end the session and transition to the craft activity. Unlike at home, children love to tidy up in group activities!

I’ve loved designing these sessions, and running them was a great deal of fun. In my next post, I’ll reflect on what I learnt from doing them.

The Tigress’ Invitation to Tea

The Tigress’ Invitation to Tea

Once there was a little girl called Sophie, and she was having breakfast with her mummy in the kitchen.

Suddenly there was the sound of a letter dropping onto the doormat.

Sophie’s mummy’s name was Lena. Lena said, “I wonder what that can be. It can’t be the postman, because he came earlier. And it can’t be the newspaper, because today isn’t Sunday.”

Sophie went to the door. On the doormat there was a big, stripy, orange and gold envelope.

She took it to Lena. Sophie and Lena opened it together.

Inside there was a card. It said:

“I’m very sorry that my son the tiger ate all your food and drank all your drinks. He is just out of cubhood and is still very naughty sometimes. I would like to invite you both for tea tomorrow at my home to thank you for being kind. The address is: The Weeping Willow by the Lake, Regent’s Park.”

So the next day Sophie and Lena told Robert, Sophie’s daddy, to make his own tea. Sophie and Lena dressed in their most special clothes and went out.

Under the willow tree in the park, there sat a big, furry, stripy, tigress. She was sitting on a velvet rug and there were plates of food all around.

“Welcome,” said the tigress with a smile. “Would you like a mango?”

But she didn’t just give them one mango. She gave them a whole box of mangoes which she peeled and cut with her sharp claws.

“They are not as sweet as ones back home,” the tigress said. “But they were the best I could find in London.”

“Would you like a samosa?” the tigress said.

But again she didn’t give them just one samosa. She gave them all the samosas on the plate and Sophie and Lena ate them all because the walk had been long and the samosas were delicious.

Then the tigress passed them a dish of round sticky sweets, and a plate of pomegranate seeds, and a bowl of sweet carrot fudge, until there was no food left on the plates and no food left in the hamper.

Then the tigress said, “Would you like a drink?”

And Sophie and Lena drank all the cinnamon tea in the teapot and all the lime sherbert in the flask and all the rosewater in the glasses.

Then the tigress said, “My cub isn’t here because he was too embarrassed about eating everything at your house. We came from India recently and he is finding it hard to fit in.”

Lena had also come from somewhere else so she understood.

“It is quite all right,” Lena said. “It was lovely that he felt at home.”

Sophie and Lena said thank you for their lovely tea. When they got home, Lena looked at the ingredients on the big tin of tiger food.

“It doesn’t look very delicious,” she said. “When they come I will make them dumplings instead.”

Then she put some water in the teapot, and added a stick of cinnamon.

 

Tigers and tea, nasta and diaspora

It has been a huge joy to be able to celebrate my very favourite picture book as part of my Summer Reading Challenge storytimes: Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I adored this book as a child and still love it, so much so that my sister bought me the pop up version for my birthday a few years ago. It continues to be one of my most precious books, and I’m using it as part of the story times.

As a child I was obsessed with tigers. My father always told us that tigers were our national animal and that they stalked the jungle around the village where he had grown up. Tigers were Bengali, just like us.

So when I first read The Tiger Who Came to Tea, it thrilled me to my very core. Here was a tiger not in the wilderness of Bengal, or even a zoo, but coming to call on a little girl like me, in a city that looked a lot like the one I lived in. Brazen as anything, inviting himself in, and eating and drinking everything in sight, before taking his leave and melting away back into the city.

Inspired by rereading it to my son, in preparation for the storytelling sessions, I recently wrote a response to Tiger. While doing so I paid quite close attention to Kerr’s voice, rhythm and syntax in the story, and it made me really appreciate how simple, gentle and lovely her storytelling is. There are no exclamation marks: everything that happens, happens quietly and as if it is quite to be expected that a massive tiger would come into your home and consume all the food and water in your house. I think that understated quality to the narration is what makes the story itself live so very vividly in the mind of the reader – Kerr makes it seem so very possible that you almost get goosebumps, believing that you might open your front door tomorrow, and it might be the very same tiger standing there. It’s a masterclass in under-writing the extraordinary and in so doing, making it real.

A tiger in London is of course out of place. This tiger, in a house, sitting at a table, and taking tea, is absolutely out of place. That’s the joy of the story: the incongruity, narrated in such a matter of fact way.

But there are other kinds of out of place-ness.

When I was writing my story, I thought about my own connection to tigers through Bengal, and my own experiences growing up as a British Bangladeshi child in London. By eating and drinking EVERYTHING the tiger Sophie meets doesn’t exactly follow British codes of hospitality, though he takes great care to say his pleases and thankyous. He’s trying to fit in, but doesn’t, quite, do “tea” in the British way. When I was a child and had tea at English friends’ homes, I would nibble politely at one sandwich and refuse more, however hungry I was and however many sandwiches were on the plate. In contrast,  “nasta” in a South Asian home is an entirely different kind of affair, where guests are almost force-fed everything until they can barely move and there is nothing left (if there are leftovers, they get put in tupperware boxes and get given to the guests for the journey, even if that journey is only five minutes up the road).

It struck me, when thinking about nastas, and South Asian hospitality around food, that the tiger was perhaps used to a different set of codes, and that he might not have been aware he was being anything other than a model guest (my mother, mother in law and aunties would probably have smiled in an indulgent, satisfied way after the tiger left, relieved that he’d eaten “properly”).

This became the basis of the story I wrote, titled The Tigress’ Invitation to Tea: a story of tigers out of place and away from home, trying to navigate a new place and its unfamiliar customs and people, trying to make friends and a new place to belong.

 

 

Tea Party Tails: Summer Holiday Story and Craft sessions for under 10s

I’m starting off my residency by supporting the fantastic Summer Reading Challenge initiative that is run by Southampton libraries and libraries nationwide to encourage children to enjoy reading as part of their fun activities over the summer holidays.

So, inspired by the Summer Reading Challenge’s theme this year, Animal Agents. I am very excited to be holding tea party themed story and craft sessions at Southampton’s libraries – with a furry twist!

I’ll be reading Judith Kerr’s classic The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the contemporary, hilarious picture book by Mark Sperring and Sarah Warburton, Daddy Lion’s Tea Party. Then we’ll be making our own tipping teapots!

The free sessions are especially suitable for under-10s, and will be held at libraries on the following dates:

Southampton Central Library: Wednesday 2nd August 2-3pm

Bitterne Library: Wednesday 9th August 11am-12pm

Cobbett Road Library:  Wednesday 9th August 2-3pm

Woolston Library: Wednesday 16th August 10.30am-11.30am

Lordshill Library: Wednesday 16th August 2-3pm

Portswood Library: Monday 21st August 10.30am-11.30am

Burgess Road Library: Monday 21st August 2-3pm

If you have children under 10, do come along!

I’ve also been working on a tea party themed trail which will be at the libraries for children and parents at any time over the summer, as well as a short story inspired by The Tiger Who Came to Tea (one of my very favourite picture books as a child) which I will soon be sharing here.

So:Write Stories


I am really thrilled to have been chosen as Southampton Libraries’ Writer in Residence over the coming year as part of Southampton’s So:Write literature development programme.

This blog will record the activities I will run, chart the course of two creative projects, So:Write Stories and So:Write Sew, and announce events and readings. I’ll also share some of the writing I will be doing, inspired by the events that I run.

Over the year of my residency I will celebrate Southampton’s libraries, which I love dearly. In Southampton, we have a range of incredible libraries to use, for free. They are such magical, beautiful spaces, refuges from daily routines, from the urban environment around us: places for thought, reflection, reading, understanding.

Our libraries encourage young readers to love books, they preserve our community heritage and local archives, and act as creative community spaces. It’s these elements I want to showcase and celebrate over the course of the year.