Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


“Planet Odd”

planet oddI’m don’t know about you but I’m only just getting my head around the new world order. In a heartbeat what seemed so ordinary, now seems either really hard to achieve or simply not necessary. I seem to be setting myself simple goals on a daily basis – mostly linked to locating ordinary items I would not have given a single thought too in that previous world we inhabited.

I also work in early education so the current issue of children being in or out of school is all consuming. I have seen many parents coming online to ask about the kinds of things they can do with their children whilst they are at home – which at this moment could be for quite a while.

For children who are almost at the end of their reception year parents can still find ways to help children practice their developing reading skills. At this stage in the school year children have typically been exposed to most of the letters in the alphabet (graphemes) and the sounds they make (phonemes). They can match a sound to a letter. (phoneme -grapheme correspondence) and they can hear the sounds through a word. They may have learnt to do “robot arms” when they orally chop up the sounds in a word This “segmenting” will help them with writing. For example, red is split into 3 distinct sounds, r/e/d. The other way around, when they put the sounds together, (blending)  is a key skill they draw on to read. Being able to independently read simple words like this is a key target for children going on into year 1. Reading books together will help children at this crucial stage of cracking the reading code. Find words in any books you have that are easily segmented and blended. Look for common words such as “the” or “my” which are not so easily blended (sometimes called tricky words). I found a useful video that might help anyone who wants to know a bit more.

Children read and understand simple sentences. They use phonic knowledge to decode regular words and read them aloud accurately. They also read some common irregular words.They demonstrate understanding when talking with others about what they have read.   (Early Learning Goal for Reading)

The Maverick Yellow Band Early Readers are the perfect match for this vital stage of reading development. Among the most recent additions to the collection is the fabulously titled Planet Odd, which matches the current state of the world outside our front doors. Written by Jenny Jinks and illustrated by Roman Diaz, it follows the adventures of Kip, who crash lands on a planet quite unlike his own. This planet is r/e/d! Thankfully, Kip meets Zak, the odd resident of the red planet, who turns out to be quite a helpful character. The illustrations provide some excellent opportunities for a spot the difference conversation as Zak and Kip travel towards a solution for returning Kip home. Much of the story is told through conversation and works well with the visual story told through the pictures.

Another winner for me is “Too Much Noise” by Cath Jones, illustrated by Leesh Li. This story has a more classic, bedtime story feel to it. Poor Rabbit cannot sleep because of bear’s rumbling tummy! However, Rabbit is a true friend and after much  effort Bear can sleep again. Or can he?! I was reminded of one of my old favourites, “Peace at Last” by Jill Murphy, so if that is a family favourite I’d bet on this one being a winner too.

“Bad Robot” (which I cannot say without hearing the ident for the production company of the same name) by Elizabeth Dale and Felicia Whaley is the tale of Max and his robot Rob. This is a fun story with a great twist at the end, that I certainly didn’t see coming! Finally “The Red Rocket Pirates” by Katie Dale and Elena Resko will certainly appeal to all pirate lovers out there. The story is well paced and there are many laugh out loud moments! With Easter on the way the ending feels just right.

So if you’re in lock down with a Reception age child, I would recommend any of these new books, along with the full range of Early Readers. As with all the books in the scheme they are well written, perfectly pitched and above all fun!

Stay safe and well and KEEP READING!


©Chez l’abeille  2020

Disclaimer: I was provided with complimentary copies of the books by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.

Bananas and Sausages!

Two new books appeared recently and both are fully focused on food! Published by Maverick, these are fun reads which would make a great bedtime or story time book. In the classroom they also offer interesting opportunities to support the literacy curriculum.


Iguanas Love Bananas by Jennie & Chris Cladingbee, with illustrations by Jeff Crowther is a reading feast! It starts simply by asking “who knew?” then launches into a run of rhymes that take in a huge variety of animals and their favourite foods. Bees apparently prefer cream teas – I was very pleased to note that these particular bees are obviously well brought up Cornish bees (they put the jam on first!). The pictures are vibrant and packed full of tings to notice and discuss. There are some interesting words within the text, which children will be able to explore and use to build their vocabulary – sophisticated is just one example, a six syllable word which just rolls around, though constipated may be fun to explain!

“Teachers should ensure that their teaching develops pupils’ oral vocabulary”

“Pupils’ vocabulary should be developed when they listen to books read aloud and when they discuss what they have heard. Such vocabulary can also feed into their writing. Knowing the meaning of more words increases pupils’ chances of understanding when they read by themselves.”

KS1 English

The rhyming couplets whisk you through the panoply of animals and their favourite foods but then the twist! Suddenly they’re all off, as fast as they can run. Just what is it that they cannot stand…well, you’ll have to read the book to find out, but suffice to say this book might also squeeze itself onto a Christmas book list too!

Its-MY-Sausage-LR-RGB-JPEG-275x280The second book is “It’s MY sausage”, written and illustrated by Alex Willmore, who also illustrated two books by fellow SCBWI member Alison Donald. I was also reminded a little of Vivianne Shwarz’s cats.

“There are five of us but just one sausage” says the narrator… and there is the problem, laid out on spread 1. How will this cat keep the sausage all to itself, despite the best efforts of the rest?

Much relies on the visual literacy of the reader as the owner of the sausage goes to increasingly zany lengths to save it from the other four cats. The smallest of clues leads us to see that maybe this isn’t going to end the way this selfish cat believes!

“Role-play and other drama techniques can help pupils to identify with and explore characters.”  Key stage 1 English

The use of the first person would make this an interesting text to discuss in class or to use as a model for independent writing activities. It would also lend itself well to drama activities, such as hot seating, to explore the characters. Each cat has a range of expressions which at a stroke give us a sense of their inner thoughts and desires so their inner thoughts could also be an interesting writing prompt.

The moral aspects of the story would be a good starting point for a circle time discussion. Do the cats deserve the sausage. Are they the authors of their own downfall? How would five cats share one sausage fairly? Many moral issues exist within this story which will appeal to most children.

Bananas and sausages – now I’m feeling hungry!!

©Chez l’abeille  2019

Disclaimer: I was provided with complimentary copies of the books by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.


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An aliens guide to… new non-fiction readers!

Another great bundle of books arrived recently, just in time for the start of the school year! Among the collection was a set of new non-fiction readers pitched at the Year 2 end of the book bands.

The books have the same set up as the other non-fiction readers. Zeek and Finn are providing essential information for extra-terrestrial tourists. This collection has a loose environmental theme, which will appeal to readers interested in the impact humans have on the world around us – a very hot topic.

img_1759“Going Green” explores how we are finding alternative ways of producing our energy. Covering wind power, wave power and geothermal energy there are a wide range of ideas and information which would provoke discussions about how we are managing our resources. With many schools looking at how they can become more eco-friendly this book should easily find a home in the class library.

“Food for Thought” and “City Animals” would also be useful reference books for the Science Programme of Study in Year 2 .

“Pupils should be introduced to the idea that all living things have certain characteristics that are essential for keeping them alive and healthy. They should raise and answer questions that help them to become familiar with the life processes that are common to all living things. Pupils should be introduced to the terms ‘habitat’ (a natural environment or home of a variety of plants and animals) and ‘micro-habitat’ (a very small habitat, for example for woodlice under stones, logs or leaf litter). They should raise and answer questions about the local environment that help them to identify and study a variety of plants and animals within their habitat and observe how living things depend on each other, for example, plants serving as a source of food and shelter for animals. Pupils should compare animals in familiar habitats with animals found in less familiar habitats, for example, on the seashore, in woodland, in the ocean, in the rainforest.”

With this in mind, “City Animals” will provide a positive challenge to possible established ideas about habitats, in particular some of the larger animals found living alongside humans.

In this 50th anniversary year of the first lunar landing the last book, “Our Place in Space” also feels timely. Reading through this text I discovered quite a few things I didn’t actually know! When I was last teaching space, Pluto was always the last planet – usually held aloft by an energetic child at the furthest end of the playground as we recreated the solar system on a human scale. Now I learn it has been downgraded to being a dwarf planet. Sorry Pluto, you were always a favourite.

I’m a big fan of these books – they work well as individual readers but also as books to dip into with groups and the whole class. The environmental issues discussed could be used within science teaching but also to prompt wider discussions about the impact of humans on the earth and beyond. With these discussions becoming more and more relevant in the lives of young people, even down to the Early Years, I think they will find much to engage with here.

©Chez l’abeille  2019

Disclaimer: I was provided with complimentary copies of the books by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.

“The Pirate who lost his name” by Lou Treleavan and Genie Espinosa

Finding new texts to enthuse young children is always a teacher’s top priority. In recent times, I don’t think I’ve got through a school year without seeing a pirate context being used in an early years classroom somewhere. Most young children love the idea of pirates and know a lot about them too. The-Pirate-Who-Lost-His-Name-Cover-LR-RGB-JPEGThis new book by Lou Treleaven and Genie Espinosa brings a new twist to the pirate genre, and offers some strong curriculum links too.

The front cover bears some detailed investigation and consideration; our pirate protagonist is sporting a quizzical look and a very large bump on his head, his parrot is wearing a rather long -suffering look and the way-sign suggests we’re off on a journey. Lots to discuss and predict from there onwards.

Our main character has all the trappings of your usual high seas brigand – he is the very model of a model modern pirate but unfortunately he’s forgotten his name. There is a very engaging double spread explaining exactly how, which took me a while to fully appreciate. In a series of small vignettes we are able to visually read the cause of his amnesia, which adds some useful practice of inference and deduction skills to the telling of this tale.

So begins our hero’s quest: to find a way to remember his name. His first stop at Captain dreamboat’s heart shaped island would provide opportunities to investigate 2d and 3d shapes in nature. I was immediately reminded of the famous heart shaped island in the Maldives, but discovered more!

At each port of call, he gets closer and closer to discovering his name and the parrot becomes more insistent with her squawks of frustration. Then almost at the point of failure his name is revealed! There’s a nice twist at the end too which will have the reader and listener laughing.

This story would also provide opportunities to discuss the cast of characters and their various attributes. Each pirate has a hugely descriptive name and sometimes some quite subtle characteristics. Captain Anorak certainly wears an anorak, but why does our pirate rush away when the “One Thousand Favourite Pirate Postcards Scrapbook” is produced? Understanding the multiple meanings of words and phrases is a skill the reader needs to develop so they can really understand the texts they engage with. I think having opportunities to do this with language and not just images is important. My only request would be to even up the gender balance as I could only find three female pirates who all had background roles. (Maybe there’s an idea for me to ponder and add to my “to write” list!)

All in all this is a funny story, with depth to the tale and the illustrations, and one which will bear multiple readings. A worthy addition to the pirate canon!

And if anyone can tell me what movie the “Best Pirate Beard Contest” poster is referencing, could you please let me know? I REALLY can’t remember.

©Chez l’abeille  2019

The Pirate Who Lost His Name

Disclaimer: I was provided with a complimentary copy of the book by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.


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The MOOsic Makers by Heather Pindar and Barbara Bakos

There’s nothing more exciting than coming home to an envelope full of books! Even more exciting is a book cover that is full of sound and rhythm. Many of my own stories feature sound as an integral part of the story, so I was curious to see what came next.

The story starts quite quietly… Joni is sat on her farmhouse porch, just listening. There’s a stillness that draws the reader in to explore the double spread until you spot the riotous MOO-grass music rising up from the barn. What is going on?

Joni is surrounded by talented music making animals so when disaster strikes her loyal gang set out to save the day.

Along the way they discover fame but no fortune, the perils of being something you really don’t want to be and the nature of true friendship.

Although, on the surface, this story appears quite straightforward, there are several themes which would make it a very useful story for any classroom. Nutmeg and Celery, the talented duo are lured by the scent of fame, but have to become DisCOW musicians instead.  Georgie Smarm, music industry baddie extraordinaire, tells the girls that their preferred checked shirts and straw hats are for boys and instead they must wear pink and glitter! Joni is a capable, cowgirl boot wearing character too. Discussing these characters would make a very interesting starting point for conversations about gender, image and personal preferences.

Music clearly plays a large part in this tale. Nutmeg plays a mandolin, which is not a typical instrument in most children’s musical repertoire and certainly not mine! I recently went to hear the Ukelele orchestra of Great Britain playing and had been surprised at the range of ukuleles that exist. A quick google indicates that there are specific bluegrass mandolins and I’d guess Nutmeg’s instrument is sporting a lovely traditional sunburst colour scheme. You can read a bit about the mandolin here. Listening to fast, finger picked mandolin would be an exciting way to introduce the story and create a sense of the western environment it is set in.

I also felt that this story would be of value to read with slightly older children. The perils of forgetting your friends and your true self, in pursuit of quick fame and glory, might not be so evident for younger listeners but children who have been steeped in the overnight success seen on X Factor or Britain’s’ Got Talent, could find some insight into the dangers of being seduced by all that glitters.

The story is riotously chock-ful of puns, which will have children laughing and adults groaning in equal measures. Some may need explaining but all will add to the pleasure of the read. The good news is that Joni and the MOOsic Makers save the day and the evil impresario gets his comeuppance. It said so in the New MOOsical Express!

The MOOsic Makers

©Chez l’abeille  2019

Disclaimer: I was provided with a complimentary copy of the book by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.




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Reading for pleasure part 1: What’s new in the Maverick Gold Band.

It will soon be the start of the summer term and for many Key Stage One teachers this means one thing: time for the Statutory Assessments or SATs. Reading is a key part of this process and by the time a child is completing this phase of their education there are a number of skills they are expected to master. Among the list provided in the National Curriculum we find that children should:

  • read accurately by blending the sounds in words that contain the graphemes  taught so far, especially recognising alternative sounds for graphemes
  • read accurately words of two or more syllables
  • read further common exception words
  • read aloud books closely matched to their improving phonic knowledge, sounding out unfamiliar words accurately, automatically and without undue hesitation

I would also add an additional aspect to reading at this age – it has to be FUN! Being able to read for the sheer joy and pleasure of the story is vitally important. So the books children have access to at this vital stage need to not only support their independence in the mechanics of reading, but also enthuse and engage them.

Looking at the new additions to the Maverick Early Readers at the Gold Band level, I think Year Two teachers will find plenty to support children develop these essential building blocks towards independent reading. Each one is a five chapter book, which will build reading stamina. On top of that they are great stories that are fun to read.

ER-The-Chicken-Knitters-Cover-LR-RGB-JPEG-731x1024“The Chicken Knitters” by Cath Jones and Sean Longcroft is a rollicking adventure with a host of capable and fast thinking female characters, including the chickens!  As I have recently rediscovered the joy of crochet, I was immediately drawn to this title. Lilly, our knitting heroine is determined to save the featherless chickens from the clutches of Farmer Claw. Despite several setbacks, she finally outwits the farmer with the help of the local school knitting champions and Edna McLuskey, the school caretaker.

Many of the year 2 spelling and grammar expectations feature, providing much needed examples in context. The text also includes plenty of onomatopoeia, which enriches the language experienced by the reader. What I particularly liked is the way environmental and animal welfare issues are carefully integrated into the story. This book would provide a good launch point for discussion around these points. The value of crafts and making things is another aspect which is promoted, and I was pleased to see that the champion knitters included a boy! More perceptive readers may wonder why Lilly herself wasn’t at school, but “The Chicken Knitters” is an engaging chapter book, with a very satisfying and happy conclusion.


Katie Dale has two new books in the Gold Band. “The Coach, the Shoes and the Football”, illustrated by Ellie O’Shea, is a witty inversion of the traditional Cinderella story. Raj (who is presumably an orphan because his mum is never mentioned) lives with Terry, his uncaring stepfather, and his two dreadful step brothers. All three make Raj’s life miserable and his only hope on the horizon is the summer football camp. Will Raj get to the try outs and impress Coach Prince? Not if Luke and Damon can help it. But despite their efforts and a series of setbacks, Raj is saved by his “hairy Godfather”, Dan, who even provides some sparkly new football boots too.

I liked the way the story references the traditional tale, but makes it a modern version – perfect for prompting similar re-telling of traditional tales from a different angle. It also uses interesting similes and wordplay to stretch the reader. When challenged, Terry turns “as purple as a beetroot,” and there’s also a full on cheesy Cinderella/football joke at the end which should make everyone groan!


Katie Dale’s second book is “The Magic Music box”, illustrated by Giovana Medeiros.

Bella is desperate to go to ballet school, but there just isn’t any spare cash to pay for it. Bella, however is determined and saves hard to acquire the tutu and shoes she needs. She is also given a magical music box with a dancing ballerina by the mysterious lady in the charity shop. The dancing ballerina inside coaches Bella until she is ready for the talent competition. But things don’t go as the reader may predict – and this is my favourite part of the story. In a time when talent shows are seen as THE way to achieve success, it’s heartening to have a story where hard work and practice are the virtues that get rewarded. In turn, Bella passes on the magical musical box to a dance obsessed boy – another nice twist in this engaging tale.

The story uses alliteration to very good effect, for example, Bella does the cha-cha-cha to the charity shop. There is also a range of descriptive vocabulary which will open up inference questions; when Bella trudges to the charity shop or bites her lip, how is she feeling? The illustrations also open up questions to be explored…just who is the woman from the charity shop?!  This is a sweet tale which emphasises how hard work is what will ultimately help you achieve your dreams.

ER-The-Spooky-Sleepover-Cover-LR-RGB-JPEG-731x1024Finally we have “The Spooky Sleepover” by Elizabeth Dale, illustrated by Steve Wood. I was particularly taken with the monochrome illustrations in this book, which seem to bridge between all colour picture books and an illustrated story.

Summer can’t wait to show off her new house to her friends, and nothing, including spooky noises and a mysterious cat, is going to stop the four girls from having fun! Ella is not so sure about the spooky goings on, but her friends are so reassuring that even she takes part in the midnight ghost hunt. The next day the four friends make a surprise discovery, with an even more surprising ending.

This story manages the balance between being scary but not TOO scary very well indeed! The lovely black and white illustrations work well, as the girls explore the night-time house, where every sound is different to the familiar day time world. I also like the way the girls are not reacting in a stereotypical way to the spooky noises and goings on. Summer has a practical explanation for each occurrence, and they all positively relish the idea of holidays spent looking for ghosts! The story builds gently to the final reveal, but still leaves enough room for discussion about what really happened.

All four of these new Gold Band books will give independent readers a challenge and support their writing skills too. Children who are writing at the greater depth standard are expected to “write effectively and coherently for different purposes, drawing on their reading to inform the vocabulary and grammar of their writing“. If these are the books they are reading, then they should be off to a great start.

©Chez l’abeille  2019

Disclaimer: I was provided with copies of the books by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.



More Maverick doings…

I’ve reviewed several Maverick Early Readers before, so it’s always interesting to see the new titles and get a feel for how the series is developing. These new books certainly deliver. One of the things I love about them is that they would be equally at home in the home or in a classroom – so as my day job takes me in and out of many classrooms, I’m going to consider them in that context.

There is a lot of discussion in education currently, about the need for reading books that are “decodable”; that is, closely matched to the phonics knowledge a child has mastered. The recently revised draft Ofsted Inspection Framework makes much of this viewpoint, so many schools I expect, will be looking closely at their reading book shelves and making big decisions about their content. Personally, I think all the Maverick books would be a good addition to any classroom collection.

er-mole-in-goal-cover-lr-rgb-jpeg-731x1024First up then: Mole in Goal by Amanda Brandon and Giusi Capizzi (Orange Book Band/Phase 5 Letters and Sounds). This is a great book in which disability is sensitively explored. Mole has very poor eyesight and naturally short legs which prevent him being able to play his favourite game, football, until his goal keeping skills are discovered. What I particularly liked is the opportunity this affords for children to explore Blind Football and see how a visual impairment is not something that needs to prevent engagement in games and sports at very high levels. When his team mates create a sound making football, Mole is able to save the game and the day.  The illustrations work well with the text and I particularly liked the way Mole’s point of view is demonstrated, so children can see how he experiences the world.

er-the-oojamaflip-cover-lr-rgb-jpeg-1-731x1024The next three colour bands; turquoise, purple and gold, are all aimed at readers who have developed the required phonics skills and are now building their reading fluency. I was particularly happy to see “The Oojamaflip” by Lou Treleaven and Julia Patton (Turquoise Band) in the set I received. This story, in its very early submission stage was once shared with permission in a SCBWI workshop I attended and greatly influenced my move into sometimes writing in rhyme! In this funny story, the wonderously red haired  and resourceful Professor McQuark invents her Oojamaflip, which does exactly what it says! I was interested to see that this has been rewritten in prose and it did make me wonder if there is a place for rhyming texts within this series. However, I do think that having alternative versions of stories, outside of the traditional tale cannon is an equally useful addition to classroom resources. Given that I sometimes have to hear Year 2 children reading as part of my day job, I think this one may make its way into my work bag!

er-wishker-cover-lr-rgb-jpeg-731x1024“Whishker” by Heather Pindar and Sarah Jennings takes us up to Purple band, which brings in more opportunities for wider inference and discussions about the characters and their motivation. This also extends to the illustrations. The main character’s wish builds gradually into a massive problem, which presents the reader with a moral dilemma; Mirabel learns her lesson, but does somehow get her wish! However the nice twist at the end also brings opportunities for considering what happens next. I also felt the language and structure of the text gave it a sightly more episodic feel – perfect for building up the reading stamina as children move into early chapter books.

er-scary-scott-cover-lr-rgb-jpeg-731x1024So finally to “Scary Scott” by Katie Dale and Irene Montano (Gold Band). I loved this story for it’s humour and pace. The story is told over 5 chapters and I also liked how the illustrations interplay with the story and add layers of meaning, so the reader has to use their inference and deduction skills to really engage with the text. The tension builds gradually and there are some great Uh-Oh! moments and cliffhangers along the way. There is also another moral dilemma to discuss – how to do the right thing, even if you may lose out is an important consideration for most 6 and 7 year olds!

So once again, all I can say is Maverick have continued to bring children, parents and teachers some great stories which we can all enjoy in equal measure!


My other reviews of the Early Readers can be found here:

A “Maverick” reading scheme? Yes please!

Making Reading Real Again.

©Chez l’abeille 2019







That was the year that was…

2015. The year that scarred me. Literally.

Whatever it was that bit me in Devon is still unknown, but the hole it left in my forehead remains as a souvenir of the week I went to Arvon.  This was the year I did a lot more learning about picture book writing but a lot less sending out stuff to agents. Seeing the brilliance others achieve is somewhat daunting and I feel a confidence boost is needed to go back to the things I have completed and get them sent out. That is my first 2016 ambition. I was tremendously flattered by the poem inspired by my blog post though- thanks Al!

I saw the northern lights by accident and popped over to Paris but didn’t travel as much as usual. All my spare money went into essential repairs at the tail end of 2014, but as a result I have a lovely spare room/work space with the ever ready aerobed which welcomed many visitors in 2015, including the not seen for ages Mary, Alicia and Mardi. I did finally get to the great home owning milestone of paying off the mortgage, so maybe there will be more travelling in 2016. I’m already coming up with ideas for Christmas and would really like to go back to Iceland.

I discovered I really enjoy unravelling murders. MOOCs have entertained and enlightened throughout the year and I have several waiting for me in 2016. I also walked a lot and went to places in London I had never seen before. There are still many sections of the Thames Path to tramp along and new street art to seek out, so watch out for more Streets of London reports next year.

2015 map

Finally, I achieved my blog target of at least two posts a month and more than doubled my visitors and views. A lot of people around the world came and visited me in cyberspace. If you were one of them, thank you and may 2016 be a great success for you. I would love to have more of your comments and thoughts so please feel encouraged to leave them!

I am thinking about how to refresh and build the blog next year so watch out for more doings here at Chez L’abeille in the year to come!

Happy New Year! Cx

©Chez l’abeille 2015





Mastering the MOOC: Identifying the dead

It started with a bone.

Not just any old bone. This, as it happens, was a human bone. To be precise it was a left side, human ulna, found by a dog walker in the area of Dundee known as The Law.

Fortunately the good folk at the University of Dundee Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHId) were on hand with their team of experts led by Professor Sue Black. I first met Professor Black at the recent “Forensics” exhibition at the Wellcome Trust in London, where she spoke eloquently about her forensic anthropological work in Kosovo. I say met – she was on a video and I was listening intently to her incredibly compassionate description of how she painstakingly identified the individual remains of a family group, so that their father could finally bury his wife and children with dignity. I was incredibly moved by her words and it made me realise just how important it is for us to recognise the unrecognisable so we can name the un-named.

Back then to the bone. Slowly and carefully, guided by this expert team, I have been learning about the process of human identification. Six weeks ago we started “Operation Sweep”.

To begin we had to analyse the scene, and gather evidence alongside the forensic archaeologist. We were encouraged to raid kitchen cupboards so we could recreate layers of soil to investigate how burying something causes changes in the soil horizon, giving an insight into what happens to the layers when a body is buried. Curiously, in this age of digital technology, I learned it is still important to also draw the crime scene by hand – the small details and nuances can be lost when not under the gaze of the human eye.

Drawing of the skeleton in the grave - identifying the dead courseHaving ascertained that this was indeed a complete skeleton, it was time to undertake a skeletal inventory. Part of week two had me combing the nearby shops for modelling clay so I could examine at first hand the differences between blunt and sharp force trauma. Whacking a lump of clay with various kitchen implements is indeed fun way of finding out!! It quickly became apparent that there was evidence on our skeletal remains of ante mortem injury (healed bones) but more sinisterly, peri mortem (at or around the time of death). Transections of both the left and right humerus and femur made by a toothed saw were found. The added identification of a knife cut to the left-hand fifth rib confirmed one thing – this was seriously looking like foul play.

So that raised the key question – just who was the individual buried up on The Law and how would we find out? This involved a detailed review of the recovered bones to identify the probable sex, age, biological ethnicity and height of the deceased. I have to say this was the most compelling part of the course: I have since found myself sitting on trains and buses observing the shapes of fellow passengers heads, fascinated by their brow ridge or pointed chin. My own analysis of the pelvis, skull, fourth rib and tibia came up with the following: I was looking for a missing 5′ 7″, European female, aged approximately 17 – 29 yrs. On its own not enough to give a formal identification but a step along the way.

The great thing about having the skull though is that an expert can build it up using their knowledge of muscles and skin and how they work with the shape of the bones. Little indicators give clues about the shape of the eyes, or the size of your mouth. Even having sticking out ears can be determined by your mastoid process! Layer by layer, clue by clue the victim started to reveal herself.

(These images are screenshots from the activities I completed – courtesy of Futurelearn/University of Dundee)

I’ve now completed week 6. I now know who dunnit and how it was done. I’m not going to say more about the outcome of my investigation because, well you know – SPOILERS! What I will say is over the past few weeks, that bone has become a person with a past but sadly no future. That happens on a daily basis, all around the world. Thanks to the people who do this on a daily basis they can be identified and given back the dignity of a name. Those same people have shared their skills, knowledge and huge amounts of encouragement with over 21,000 people around the world in the most inventive and engaging way. If you only ever do one MOOC – do this one.

And don’t forget cake.

Update 16/10/15

The final “Hang’oot” with Professor Sue Black, Professor Niamh Nic Daeid and Val McDermid is now available – well worth a listen, particularly at 26.00″ when Prof. Black references MY COMMENT as a real mark of how succssful she feels this has been!!

©Chez l’abeille 2015

David Roberts drawing from a description in the Stinky Fingers series


In which I retreat again (but this time I’m heading in the right direction).

In deepest Devon not too far from the moors there is a place called Sheepwash.

Not far from Sheepwash there is a place called Totleigh Barton.

In Totleigh Barton something magical happens…

I didn’t plan to head to Devon. I figured I’d just dip my toe into the world of writing retreats this summer with a long weekend (near the River Avon). But somehow Totleigh Barton beckoned and I wound up immersed for a whole week at an Arvon residential (near the River Torridge).

It’s a funny old place; though as it’s been there in some form or another since the 11th century that is hardly a surprise. It’s also one of those places which simply has a name marking its spot on an ordnance survey map, which gives you some idea of the isolation it might provide. Continue reading

Lobsters ready for cooking


Something fishy going on…

Getting up at 4am is not a normal occurrence at Chez L’abeille, but when you want to see one of London’s historic markets in action it’s essential. I was heading to the Billingsgate Market Seafood Training School to take part in their “morning catch” class, which includes a tour of the market in full action, hence the (very) early start!

Having caught the first tube from Southwark (05.31am, should you need to know) to Canary Wharf, my first impression of the market, as I headed over the bridge towards the main gate, was the smell of very fresh fish. My second impression was just how busy it was at 6am, although because of the upcoming Easter weekend, today was apparently especially busy. Billingsgate is a “free and open” market, which means anyone can go there to buy fish and with 98 stands and 30 shops there’s plenty to buy.

As the rather bleary eyed class gradually assembled, we were sent off to walk around the stalls and buy the fish we would learn how to prepare later. The choice was vast*. There are stalls which focus on mainly British species and others who specialise in the warmer water fishes of the world, ones who only do shellfish or just frozen produce. The boxes of fish are often labelled with their port of origin and I did spot a little bit of Cornwall in a pile of “falfish” boxes. After much deliberation and because a cup of tea beckoned, I decided to go for the rather scary looking gurnard, a fish I wouldn’t normally buy because I know little about how to handle it. More of that later!

The second part of the class was a guided tour of the market and I was lucky to be in the group taken around by Robert, one of the market inspectors – a man who appeared to be hugely respected by the merchants and whose knowledge of all things fish seems to be limitless! Things I learnt from this part of the class: Continue reading

Mastering the MOOC: Reflections on the controversies of British Empire.

Darjeeling by moonlight

Darjeeling by moonlight. A postcard from the Das Studios, Darjeeling

I came upon the concept of the “MOOC” – Massive Open On-line Courses, only recently. I’d heard of them but they hadn’t really impinged on my day to day consciousness. However, after 2 friends recommended some courses they had completed via Future Learn, I was inspired to find out a little bit more.

I did some browsing of their list of on-line courses from a really wide range of universities. Some are very specific and suited only to people who may work in a particular specialist field. I’m not sure that “Dysphagia: Swallowing Difficulties and Medicines” would really be of that much interest to many, but one did catch my eye: Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism, run by the University of Exeter.

Keventers cafe Darjeeling

Keventers – the shop and cafe managed by my grandparents in Darjeeling. Photo by Anja Schmidt

Now, I have some quite strong links to the British Empire as several generations of my family lived in India, so the idea of a course that discussed and explored what Empire meant and indeed still means, intrigued me enough to sign up for the full six weeks. The British Empire was not an area of study I had ever covered at school. Despite doing History to ‘A’ level, the main focus was typically on the Tudors, Elizabethans and Stuarts or the world at war in the 20th Century. Empire and the role of the British Empire was rarely, if ever, discussed.

The course was structured through thematic “controversies”; money, violence, race & religion, sex & gender, propaganda and power. For me the most fascinating elements were the propaganda and sex & gender weeks.

I had not considered how much the sense of Empire filtered into the mainstream consciousness through such ordinary things as adventure stories like “Robinson Crusoe”. In his fascinating video lecture, Paul Young, a senior lecturer in Victorian literature and culture at Exeter explains: “…the novel can be read as a bourgeois fantasy, so too it’s an imperial fantasy. Robinson Crusoe heroically transforms and cultivates his island environment, subduing it and the native people he encounters in order that they serve his own ends. At a moment in history when Britain’s economic and political interests were more and more bound up with imperial expansion,perhaps most notably in the form of the slave trade then, Daniel Defoe writes a novel celebrating Britain’s rights to conquer, rule over, and draw wealth from distant lands and their inhabitants”. (Week 5, The Adventure Story)

It was with this in mind that I was intrigued to see how my changing awareness of the Empire’s legacy crept into my impressions of the images in Ladybird books of the late 50s to early 70s, currently exhibited at the De La Warr Pavilion.

Women Tea pickers in Himalayas

Women tea pickers in the Himalayas

The second week that I particularly enjoyed focused on sex and gender. The course raised the concept of “intersectional identities”, that people are “embodied beings”, who are shaped by the interactions and societal expectations placed upon them at any particular point in time. To some extent, the experience of Empire normalised the typical gender roles; it was men who joined the army, travelled and managed the colonisation process around the world. However it can be argued that women, once they also started to engage in the wider opportunities available to them, were able to experience and observe the lives and cultural expectations of women around the world. Women in fact had to learn how to navigate Empire in different ways because of the differing class, colour and power relationships they experienced once they were there.

Overarching the course, however, was the notion of controversy. I think it is easy to see the many wrongs that were committed in the name of Empire and the way the British assumed a right to rule. There are many documented incidents and events which viewed through the lens of hindsight are now seen as a the negative impact of Empire. Yet in some of the small stories shared it was also apparent that there were positives, moments in time, which enabled people of different cultures to come together in a common purpose.

1953 Everest celebrations in Darjeeling

1953 Everest climb celebrations in Darjeeling

This photo is my own small story. It shows my grandparents and great aunt, with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay at the Darjeeling Gymkhana club in 1953 after the successful Everest climb. The photo shows a group of Indian and European couples, all dressed up. The men, Indian and European are all in smart lounge suits, although one is wearing a turban. The women are either in richly embroidered saris or the very staid British fashion of the times. They all stand together, smiling for the camera with a palpable sense of pride in the achievement, that I think does transcend race and class.

©Chez l’abeille 2015

“Who’d be a teacher?”

I came across this Guardian article the other day and decided it was worth a share.

“My younger daughter has always wanted to be a teacher. She thinks it would be lovely to boss children around all day and have long holidays every now and then. After just a year at my job, I am pleading with her, hand on heart, to forget the whole thing.

Not that I am a teacher; nor have I ever been one. I work for one and a half hours a day at an infant’s school as a school meals supervisor. This is a cross between a mother and a nursemaid with a bit of teacher thrown in. (We have to teach them table manners.) There are between 70 and 100 children (the number varies) and three of us, with a teacher in charge. I must be frank and confess that before I started this job I thought that teachers had an easy life – short working hours, long holidays, nothing that anyone could complain of. Money, in fact, for jam, I used to think. When I get home at a quarter to two there is only one thing I want to do – sit down for half an hour and relax, with my mind a complete blank. It is not the physical strain of being on my feet for an hour and a half, after all I am on my feet for most of the day. It is just the feeling that my brain has been battered by dozens of tiny hands. My mind still buzzes with things like “No dear, not your knife in your mouth, you might cut your tongue off…who has fallen down? Don’t throw him on the floor, he’s smaller than you are…please don’t run in the corridors children, have you washed your hands? Let me see them…who threw that baked bean…Your fork should be in your left hand dear…what, left handed? Very well then…Isn’t she? Well she ought to know, what hand do you write with?” And so on and so on. Buzz, buzz, buzz. I ask myself what on earth a teacher must feel like after five hours.

I think the whole point about teaching is that you can never leave your work behind. When your mind is concerned all day with the problems of human beings and not things, you cannot shut them up in a desk drawer – they go home with you. I am sure this is why most teachers I know are so tired by the end of the day. Their minds must feel not only battered but sucked dry.

Every mother knows the infinite patience needed to teach children the elementary skills. How they long to do the things for them instead of gritting their teeth and watching them try to do it for themselves, slowly, clumsily, their tongues sticking out in concentration. But I wonder if they could be as patient with other people’s children. I do not think that anyone who did not care about children would think of going into infant teaching: she could not do her work properly unless she did. But caring about children is one thing; being a mother to them is another. Teachers in infant schools are expected to be just that. There are many five year olds who cannot cope with things like buttoning their coats. Mothers take this kind of thing as part of their job, together with the occasional hazards of wet pants and stomach upsets. Is it not expecting rather too much to ask teachers to do these things?

What a child needs at this age (up to five or six) is someone with patience, firmness, tolerance and compassion to show him gently and lovingly how to cope with life. When he has to share this person with thirty others it is impossible for him to have all the encouragement and interest that is essential to his development.

All this makes me wonder whether it is really necessary for children to start school at all until they are six or seven. Teachers spend years in training for their profession. Is there any reason why they should be use as nursemaids? Their job is to teach children to learn, to think, to read, to write, to deal with figures, not how to tie their shoelaces. If mothers want to send their children away at four or five, let us abolish infant schools and build hundreds of nursery schools.

When the teachers have a weekend off for half term so have I. Instead of thirty children for an hour and a half, I shall have three children for the whole of the day. It will be a pleasure”

There’s a lot in this article that chimes with me as an early years educator. In particular: ratios, teachers’ workload and the future of maintained nursery schools.

The issue of ratios is one that constantly rears its head in the Early Years sector. It has been discussed in the recent past by the Childcare and education minister Sam Gyimah. He is arguing that early years settings should move from the 1:8 ratio towards the 1:13 ratio for adult to children groupings – this being the same as the minimum ratio set for school nursery classes.

Children in school based provision are grouped in higher numbers per teacher, not because said teachers have extra hands or eyes in the backs of their heads. No, the reason these children have less adult support is solely because the adult with them is a qualified teacher. This clearly infers greater capacity to manage all the needs of 13 young children single handedly. As anyone who has ever spent any time with children aged three and four will know, this is simply not true. The nursery teacher however has it easy. Consider the lot of the reception teacher who might be required to manage all the developmental needs of four and five year olds in a group of 30. Clearly quality for children can be lost here in the pursuit of quantity. Young children’s developmental needs do not, generally, vary, regardless of the qualification level of the adults working with them.

Teachers’ workload is also an issue never far from my day to day conversations in schools. I think I only really realized how much time and energy Early Years teaching consumes in your life, when I came out of classroom teaching. I lost the need to rest my mind, to have only silence around me when I finally came home. Suddenly whole weekends became my own – the whole weekend, and evenings too! I found I went into shops and didn’t look at objects with the question “would that be useful in my classroom” lurking in my mind. I realized how all-consuming teaching can become. Although I missed the day to day interactions and fun with children, I didn’t miss the energy sapping, being all things for all children, that a class of thirty reception aged children and their families demands of you.

Another issue raised in the article is the role of nursery schools in providing high quality early education. Ofsted’s own Early Years Report demonstrates that maintained nursery schools “perform as strongly in deprived areas as more affluent ones”, making a difference for the most vulnerable children. Yet the future of our maintained nursery schools remain under threat because of funding arrangements which do not take into account such requirements as having to employ head teachers and qualified teachers to lead learning. Nursery schools have been closing across the country. We continue to face the threat of more of them becoming unsustainable and risk losing this typically outstanding and specialist provision as a result.

I suppose what I can also take from this article is that some things never change. Its date: January 1962.