What Should Children Be Reading?

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I don’t remember learning to read. I consider it a huge privilege that I only have memories of being a reader. I think it’s because I was quite nosy and once I’d mastered talking (which those that know me won’t be surprised to find out was at a very young age) I didn’t want to be locked out from this world the adults could access for a second longer than necessary. Walking came late, reading came early and that is reflected in how my spend my leisure time as an adult. I was surrounded by books growing up; they lined the walls of every room in our house. Whole worlds, carefully hidden between battered, worn covers just waiting to be explored. Reading introduced me to new ideas, people and places, some real and some fictitious, it enriched my life and fuelled my imagination. So it’s with interest that I read Katie Ashford’s article about what children should be reading. This is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. And, as part of that thought process, I have decided to reflect on my own “reading journey” and the teachers who guided me through it.

By the time I got to school, I would proudly announce that I could read “by myself” to anyone who would listen (I was probably quite annoying as a child.) My Reception teacher, Mrs Woodhams, gave me books from her own collection to take home once I’d worked my way through the class library. At home we’d read the Ahlbergs, Shirley Hughes, Jill Murphy,  oh and a book called “Bad Mood Bear” before bed. I read whatever I could get my hands on but there are a few books that stand out in my memories of my school years.

I think I’m right in saying that the “Puddle Lane” books were the 80s equivalent of “The Magic Key” series. I have a distinct memory of bringing them home and reading them to my brother. Lucky him. I remember being thrilled to be given the chance to read, “The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark” aloud to the class in Year 1. In Year 3 I became obsessed with the “Flossy Teacake” books – I must look those up again – they were brilliant. Bel Mooney’s “Kitty” books were another favourite, oh and not forgetting Jill Murphy’s “Worst Witch.” There was a series of books by Nigel Hinton that I loved called, “Beaver Towers” it was about a boy called Philip and his adventures with a family of beavers. Whenever I ran out of books – I’d scour my Mum’s bookshelves for anything I thought looked interesting – which is why by the time I’d left Primary School I’d read more Libby Purves than most 11-year-olds. Nothing was off limits. There were no “good books” or “bad books” there weren’t even “hard” or “easy” books there were just books to be enjoyed every day.

In Year 5 I read my first classic. As a class we read the “The Hobbit.” There was no film to rely on in 1995 and, even if there had been, we only had one twenty minute session in the TV room a week, it would have taken nearly a term to get through it. Instead we were skillfully guided through Tolkien’s Middle-Earth by Miss Fry. She would read it to us every day and photocopy chapters for us to read at home. We drew maps of Middle-Earth and even created a “life size” Smaug out of chicken wire and paper mâché. (Which I’ve since found out was rolled out to greet Ofsted when they turned up. It is my belief that all schools should have an Ofsted dragon.) This sculpture was so enormous that we had to move it out into the playground so we could all work on it. As well as grappling with Tolkien we were also treated to a poems by Michael Rosen and Spike Milligan. Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Tennyson were introduced to me in Year 6 and I loved them but after school I’d have my nose in the latest Babysitter’s Club or “Animal Ark” book.

Secondary school was where I was introduced to the big guns: Orwell, Hardy, Dickens, Austen and Keats. Some I loved and some I found insufferably dull. For GCSE I read, “The Handmaid’s Tale” the book that started my love affair with Margaret Atwood. 6 years later I wrote a dissertation about it.  Conversely, for  A-Level I had to read Thomas Hardy’s, “The Return of the Native” and I could not get to grips with it. My form tutor at the time, who was an English teacher herself, listened to me moaning about how complicated the plot was and how difficult I found it to keep up with what was going on. Her response was perfect and has always stayed with me: “Oh Zoe, come on now, the plot is no more complicated than the plot of ‘The OC.'” (‘The OC’ was a programme full of teen drama that I watched avidly at the age of 17.)

From then on she would ask me every day how much more I’d read until I finally got to the end. I am forever grateful to her for doing this. It got me the grades I needed to study English Literature at university and proved to me that I was capable of sticking with a book (a skill I had to draw on often when studying Anglo-Saxon literature in later years.) However, it was also the first time I’d ever had to really force myself to finish a book I wasn’t enjoying and it put me off reading Hardy for years (“Tess of the d’Urbervilles” changed my mind.)

I think we need a two-pronged approach when it comes to introducing children to books. The first thing we need to do is completely surround them with books without preference or prejudice. Picture books, graphic novels, classics, nonsense poems, everything from Jeff Kinney to C.S Lewis.  I disagree that “hooking” children in to reading with books based on their interests won’t lead to a life long love of literature. My brother grew up on a literary diet of football magazines, Liverpool FC annuals and the occasional “Goosebumps” book until the age of 14 and now reads widely and regularly. Let children read whatever they want at home, show that you’re interested in what they’re reading and encourage them to bring in their favourite books and share them with the class. Recommend other texts they might enjoy and please never tell a child, “you’re a bit too old to be reading that.”

This is not to say that children should leave school without any experience of the classics – they absolutely should. But it can be a two-pronged approach. Whilst the works of Shakespeare, Tolkien and Dickens should not be the preserve of the most able pupils, neither should they replace “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” It is our responsibility to guide pupils through these more challenging texts and make them accessible. I’ve taught “The Tempest” to 6-year-olds. It was the year of the 2012 Olympics and the class had seen Kenneth Brannagh read Caliban’s speech in the opening ceremony. Given that they were already interested in the speech, I decided to run with it and introduce them to the play. I taught from both an abridged children’s version and the original. As Shakespeare plays go, “The Tempest” is a good one to start with as it’s full of magic, a wizard, a storm and a monster. I know people will pipe up with, “But if you feel that you have to “sell” Shakespeare to children you are suggesting it isn’t interesting or worthwhile.” I’m not. I’m suggesting that if you want six-year-olds to read Early Modern English don’t expect them to be immediately interested. That’s not a new, radical idea – the first children’s Bible was published in 1759 in an attempt to make it more accessible to children.

By the end of that term, the entire class knew Caliban’s speech by heart and we took turns performing it from the top of the playground equipment. Gimmicky? Perhaps. Sugar coating? Possibly. But there are 30 children who are no longer intimidated when they read Shakespeare. That particular class also know Michael Rosen’s “Chocolate Cake”  by heart because we read it so many times and they in turn introduced me to the delights of “Mr Gum.”

I hate this notion that some books are too “easy.” Learning to read isn’t easy and it isn’t always interesting and I don’t believe that it’s selling children the assumption reading is dull by finding them books they’re interested in. The books you first read for yourself and actually enjoy are so special they stay with you for the rest of your life. A book that sparks interest and inspires a child to pick up another is like a magic key (not that one) that unlocks the world of reading.

All that said, I am the teacher that hid the “Where’s Wally?” books from my Year 5 class…

 

 

That’s What She Read 2016

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Last year I did an end of year review of everything I’d read in 2015. I read one book a month in 2015 and set myself the challenge of two a month for 2016. Now it’s worth remembering that I spent three months of this year travelling around the world on trains with ample time to read which certainly made it easier but this year I’ve read 30 books. Well 30 and a half as I’m only half way through Eowyn Ivey’s “The Snow Child” which is a beautifully written novel based in Alaska in the 1920s.

The total might have only been 29 and a half had I not accidentally read, “Girl on a Train” thinking it was “The Girl on the Train” which I read once I realised my mistake. I haven’t done a review of each book like last year because there are too many of them so instead I’ve taken a leaf out of the Chief Whip’s book and underlined the ones I highly recommend. For 2017 I will be taking on the “50 Book Challenge” – you can get involved on Twitter by following the hashtag #50BookChallenge.

Oryx & Crake – Margaret Atwood

The Circle – Dave Eggers

The End of the World Running Club – Adrian J. Walker

Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve

The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo – Amy Schumer

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Room – Emma Donoghue

Not That Kind Of Girl – Amy Poehler

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse – David Mitchell

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

The Art of Travel – Alain De Botton

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – JK Rowling

The Lady In The Van – Alan Bennett

Committed – Elizabeth Gilbert

Sweet Bitter – Stephanie Danler

How To Build A Girl – Caitlin Moran

Girl On A Train – AJ Waines

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

Nod – Adrian Barnes

High Challenge Low Threat: How the best leaders find the balance – Mary Myatt

A Perfectly Good Family – Lionel Shriver

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

High Rise – JG Ballard

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

First Persons and Fish Pets

89 children have joined my school since September – that is far more than your average Primary school. Out of those 89 new arrivals only nine arrived speaking someChildren, Kids, School, Little, Boys English. The rest had none. Nada. They’ve come from all over the world: Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Romania… and those are just the children that have joined my class. This is their first experience of a British school and some of them (particularly the KS1 children) didn’t go to school in their home countries.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a moan, I knew how diverse my school was before I applied – it’s one of the reasons I wanted to work there. The fact that there are so many different languages and cultures mixing every day brings out the best in the children who, it has to be said, are wonderful with the new arrivals. There’s always a fight over who will get to be the buddies and then it is with real they carry around a whiteboard with them during the first week to draw pictures to try and explain things to their new, bewildered classmate. They love teaching each other their first language and showing us on the class map the country they were born in.

There is, in Educational circles, a myth that if you throw a non-English speaking child into a class of English speaking children they will just “pick it up”. Sort of through osmosis.  The first issue of this is that in my school most of their peers don’t speak English as a first language. What is far more likely to happen is that the new arrival will find the child/children in the class that speak their first language and then spend their first few days speaking through that new friend.

Even if the rest of the class were fluent in English just “hoping” they’ll pick it up is not how you teach a language. If I wanted to learn French spending 6 hours a day in a room of people that were speaking French would not be the most effective way for me to do that. I would probably learn “hello”, “goodbye”, “lunch” and “toilet” very quickly because those can be understood from the context of conversation but if, after 8 weeks of being in France, I was asked to explain in French how I knew the character in the story was feeling unwell I probably wouldn’t know what I’d been asked/known we even reading a story let alone have enough language to form an answer.

And of course learning to speak English is only half the battle. I have plenty of children that can speak, read and write in English to the point that they can be understood but they’re still learning how to structure sentences. My favourite example of this conversation that I had in my previous school with a 7-year-old boy. He was born in Pakistan but moved to the UK when he was 5.

Me: Does anyone else have a pet?

Boy: Yes. Fish.

Me: Great so the sentence is: I have a pet fish. Can you say that sentence?

Boy: I have fish.

Me: Try again. I have a PET fish.

Boy: I have a fish pet.

Sure enough, when I marked his writing later that day there it was:

fish pet

Fish, Kids, Clip Art, Pink, Cartoon

What could I say to him? “Sorry you’ve used fish as the adjective which is why this sentence doesn’t make sense”? His sentence was incorrect however he’s 7 years-old and doesn’t yet have enough English for me to explain to him why it was incorrect. I wrote the correct sentence underneath but he still doesn’t understand why my sentence is right and his is wrong. He doesn’t have enough experience of English to be able to “hear that it is right.”(Another skill teachers often rely on children having, “Read your work back – does this sound right?” Well, yes to this little boy it did.)

None of this should matter because really I shouldn’t be trying to get children to read and write in English before they can speak it. However, I get paid by the Government to my job and they have decided that my job is make sure all children are writing at National Expectations by the time they are 7 whether or not they speak English yet. Not only that, the effectiveness of my school will be judged by the number of children that meet National Expectations. Their results will be put in a table and my school will be placed below schools where over 90% of the pupils have English as their first language.

So to ensure my school isn’t deemed as a complete failure I don’t just have to teach these children to speak English I  have to simultaneously teach them to write, read and understand grammar rules. They have to be able to use adverbs, contractions, plurals, past and present tense (that one is particularly tricky for children new to English.) They need to have enough understanding about tenses to answer questions on the KS1 Grammar test. Questions like this: SPag1

Of the 22 children in my set, nine of them wrote “go”, six wrote “gone”, three wrote “been” and one wrote “went” (hooray for the one!) The rest left it blank.

The Reading Paper doesn’t provide much relief either. It’s not just that most of the children don’t have enough English yet to actually read the paper, although that is a huge issue, it’s that even the children that CAN access the paper has such limited vocabulary they can’t draw any meaning form it. These children don’t have the points of reference that a child growing up in a more affluent, English-speaking household would have. They don’t know what or where Big Ben is, where the Queen lives or who The Beatles are. They’ve never heard of Shakespeare, Radio 4 or David Cameron… (you have to envy them that last one.) The small amount of English that they have is conversational and based entirely on their experiences; they have such a restricted vocabulary.

They don’t speak English at home so most of my class know the words they need to get through the school day as well as perhaps the names of animals, computer games and a couple of countries. Again this wouldn’t be a problem if it was just about us muddling through the day. However the Reading Test they will take in May means they will have to decode and understand words like: valley, horizon, ashore, drift, exclaim, palm because the Government thinks they should be able to. Words like these, that they do not encounter day-to-day, require explaining. Often with a picture or diagram (although that’s not always possible. I once had a very painful conversation where I tried to explain the word “inappropriate” in the context of behaviour and we had to agree on “not right for school.”)

When I am reading to my class I don’t stop to explain every word because I just want them to enjoy the story so I have to judge whether knowledge of a word is key to them understanding the story. Whilst I am getting them ready for the Reading Paper they can’t just enjoy listening to stories or reading they have to understand every word and give very specific answers to questions about what they have read.

Reading paperThis is a page from the DfE sample papers. Even if you ignore the amount of language a child new to country wouldn’t understand there are other skills at play here that they won’t have had a chance to develop. For example, question 12: “How do you know that Frog was excited?” half a dozen of my children wrote ,”Frog is smiling” which I suppose is a perfectly logical conclusion to draw when you look at the picture (which is one the strategies we teach the children to use to help them when they are learning to read.) The correct answer is actually, “Frog says, “This is definitely our lucky day/this is what I call an adventure.”” Which my class won’t recognise as an expression of excitement because no one they interact day-to-day speaks like that.

This isn’t a post arguing against testing in schools and it isn’t meant to be a list of excuses for why the children in my class won’t score highly on these tests. The argument is about testing children before they have learnt the language the test is written in. This final story sums it up quite nicely. The Man On The Piccadilly Line was teaching his Year 6 set last week and going through the tests with them. One very hard working, conscientious girl put up her hand and said, “I came to this country 3 years ago and I think I have worked hard and I have learnt a lot of English but I find these tests really hard as I don’t know enough English yet.”

There was a petition recently asking for Education ministers to sit the KS2 assessments. Perhaps we should go one step further than that and send them to India and in 12 weeks time they can take the KS2 assessments in Tamil.

That’s What She Read

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One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015 was to read every night. That hasn’t happened. So around Easter I decided I would settle for a book a  month which was far more achievable. On reflection 2015 was the year of comfort reading. I re-read some old favourites and the first time reads were books written by authors I knew well.

January – Stone Mattresses – Margaret Atwood

This was a gift from my lovely sister. If I had to choose a favourite author (and I don’t believe anyone should ever have to) it would be a girl-on-girl battle between Atwood and Elizabeth Gilbert. This book is slightly different to Atwood’s usual style in that it is 9 short stories rather than a novel. Disembodied hands, freeze-dried corpses and husband stealing cancer patients all make an appearance in this dark, pick-n-mix collection. Atwood is stepping away from realism, her default mode, and playing with fantasy, and Gothic themes instead. Does it work? Absolutely. After all if Margaret Atwood can’t mix it up occasionally who can?

February – The Elephant In The Classroom – Jo Boaler

Shamefully this is the only non-fiction book I’ve read this year (unless you include the administrators guide to Rising Stars assessment, which I don’t.) When it comes to Educational research, I think one needs to be wary of reading a book and believing it is gospel. Some people have a tendency to cut and paste findings from research into their School Improvement Plans without ever reflecting if it is right for there school.

That aside, one of the main reasons  I like “The Elephant In The Classroom” because it is accessible to the general reader. As a teacher, I like the fact that rather than just pointing out the many problems (yes, I’m looking at you Sir Ken Robinson) Boaler actually suggests solutions and also goes as far as providing example activities as part of an approach schools can adopt. I think this quote sums up her work nicely:

“Bringing mathematics back to life for school children involves giving them a sense of living mathematics. When school students are given opportunities to ask their own questions and to extend problems into new directions, they know mathematics is still alive, not something that has already been decided and just needs to be memorized. Posing and extending problems of interest to students mean they enjoy mathematics more, they feel more ownership of their work and they ultimately learn more.”

March – Once – Morris Gleitzman

Is it cheating to include children’s literature? Definitely not. I re-read this whilst toying with the idea of teaching it to my Year 3 class as part of our work on WWII. Like all excellent stories you’re hooked in from the opening line.

“Once I was living in an orphanage in the mountains and I shouldn’t have been and I almost caused a riot. It was because of the carrot.”

“Once” tells the story of Felix searching for his Mother and Father in the midst of the war. From the outset, Felix creates explanations and stories for the horrors that he sees but as the story progresses Felix begins to piece tougher what is really happening. The war seen through the eyes of children is well trodden ground because that juxtaposition of innocence and violence is incredibly powerful.

“Once” is also about the power of storytelling. Felix uses stories to protect himself from the reality of what’s happening and when he meets Zelda he tells her stories to distract her from having to confront her parents’ death. The message is stories can move, comfort and inspire; Glietzman successfully does all three.

April – Us – David Nicholls

Remember that book “One Day” that everybody read in 2009? It had a sort of orange cover with the silhouette of two profiles on it? With me? They made it in to a film that I’ve never seen because I refuse to believe it can do justice to the book. David Nicholls is the sort of writer I want to be when I grow up. His stories hinge almost entirely on the depth of his characters and “Us” is no exception. The novel follows Connie and Doug travelling around Europe with their 18 year-old son whilst at the same time deciding whether to stay in their marriage. True to Nicholl’s style the narrative shifts seamlessly between past and present as the reader pieces together the story of how this unlikely couple came to be. Following a best seller come film like “One Day” but this is an excellent novel in its own right and definitely worth a read.

May – A Spot Of Bother – Mark Haddon

Speaking of hard to follow books… “A Spot Of Bother” is the first book Haddon has published since “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time.” This is novel about aging, mental health, affairs and ultimately – family. The protagonist George becomes obsessed with a lesion on his leg to the point of pathological hypochondria. He is tipped over the edge by finding his wife Jean in bed with David, one of his former colleagues. Being a middle class, middle aged man George is far too polite to let his mental instability burden others and so unfolds the politest nervous breakdown in literary history. Meanwhile George and Jean’s adult children have their own battles: his daughter is preparing to marry Ray; a fact none of the family are overly thrilled with and their son Jamie has a big decision to make regarding his boyfriend Tony. The characters are interesting and well written but I feel as though “A Spot of Bother” could have been slightly grittier given the nature of the issues it is dealing with. It’s all a little bit too nice and polite. A bit like George himself I suppose.

June – On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

If I’m honest I made this my June read because it was nearing the end of the school year and, at only 166 pages, “On Chesil Beach” looked quite manageable.  Short yes, but incredibly intense. Set in 1962, a few years short of the Sexual Revolution Edward and Florence arrive on Chesil Beach for their honeymoon. The opening line tells you the entire story:

“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”

The entire book is an in-depth study of the two characters and their anxieties about their impending wedding night. It takes an incredibly skilled writer to keep you with the same two characters and just their memories and thoughts for entire book. I found it gripping and read the book in one sitting.

July – To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

This was a “re-read” before the release of “Go Set A Watchman”. Do I really need to explain this one? I have nothing to say other that hasn’t already been said. I will instead leave you with the words of the unlikely literary critic, George W. Bush (yes, really.)

“One reason To Kill a Mockingbird succeeded is the wise and kind heart of the author, which comes through on every page … To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced the character of our country for the better. It’s been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever.”

August – Eat Pray Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

I make no apology for this one. “Eat Pray Love” is permanently on my bed side table. I dip into it on difficult days for advice such as, “You’ve gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone ought to be.” As well as using it for general reference I read it cover to cover every Summer. On Thursdays, when I have the flat to myself, I sometimes drift off to sleep to the audiobook. I love everything from Gilbert’s honest, open style to the detailed picture she paints of her travels.

September – Go Set A Watchman

I’m reluctant to say too much about this as I know plenty of people that still haven’t had a chance to read it so I’ll just make the one comment. The main criticism is the apparent change in Atticus Finch, the hero of “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I would argue that instead of the idolised version of Finch as seen through the eyes of his young daughter, we begin to see Finch, as his adult daughter now does, as a flawed character. This is perhaps a more honest and realistic version of the

It is generally accepted that “Go Set A Watchmen” is an earlier draft of Mockingbird and, if that is the case, I want to know what made Lee change her novel so drastically? Pressure from her editor? Or did she just want her novel to have a hero. Whilst I enjoyed “Go Set A Watchmen” you can’t help shake the feeling that you are reading a draft. It’s slightly clumsier, less polished and just a bit… incomplete.

October – The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

Once again, Atwood paints us her dystopian vision of the future. This time we follow Charmaine and Stan. Stan has lost his job and they are living out of their car – things are pretty bleak. Consilence, the self-sufficient utopia that offers stable income, warm homes and all of the comforts that brings, seems like the perfect solution to their problems. The only snag is that every other month they have to swap their lovely home for prison cell. Throw in sex with chickens, Elvis escorts and women falling in love with inanimate objects and you’ve got a darkly comic tale that’ll keep you guessing until the very last page. I’ve read a lot of Atwood and I might go as far to say this is my favourite of her novels – I could not recommend it highly enough.

November – Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

I first read “Eat Pray Love”  in 2012 then the following year did a solo trip around Italy. Now, as I take my first steps towards writing my own book and sharing my writing through my blog – Gilbert publishes “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.” A whole book dedicated to making time for creativity into your day-to-day life. As we’ve come to expect from Gilbet the book is painfully honest, witty and insightful. Gilbert has such a strong voice that the book feels as if she were sat next to you offering advice. So whether its figure skating, gardening or painting stars onto bicycles I’d recommend this book for inspiration, encouragement and a much needed kick up the bum to get going.

December –  The Mayor Of Casterbrige  – Thomas Hardy

This can only just claim a place in this post as I am only 62 pages in. Something about December sends me to Victorian literature. Perhaps its the vivid descriptions of snowy rooftops, plum puddings, miracles and gestures of goodwill that make it the perfect Christmas genre (as long as long as you don’t let the poverty, inequality and Gothic tone bring you down.) I’m hoping to finish this before the Christmas holidays because then it will be time for my pre-Christmas read of “A Christmas Carol.”

Resolution for next year? New authors. It’s time to branch out. I need to read more widely – any recommendations?

For The Love Of Gilbert

Italy 3

From terrorism to the steady decline of the education system, it’s an understatement to say that my posts have been rather gloomy of late. There’s plenty to be blogging about in Politics at the moment – should we bomb Syria? Probably not. Should we leave the EU? Probably not. Is the Chilcot Report ever going to be released? Probably. However it’s been an exhausting month and I  quite fancy writing something a bit lighter, a bit more hopeful. So I’ve made the decision to add a monthly travel post to the site. Like most people with a pulse, I love to travel and visit new places. To date my adventures have taken me to 4 different continents, 16 countries and countless Cathedral cities. My experiences range from typically tourist (hot dogs in New York, neon paint and fishbowls in Ko Pang Yang) to the more unusual (travelling from London to Malta by train and boat, eating fried crickets etc…)

For the first travel post I decided to write about the only time I’ve travelled alone – my summer in Italy. If you want a blow-by-blow account of this trip including detailed itinerary, restaurant recommendations and the story about the boy who decided to bring home a girl to our dorm for some romancing you can find that here. Instead this post is more a tribute to the inspiration for that trip – Elizabeth Gilbert.

Without being too dramatic, I have Gilbert to thank for the Summer That Changed My Life and believe me, I know how trite that sounds. It’s the sort of tagline you might find on a bargain bin novel or teen movie. But (again, without being overdramatic) nothing has been the same since Italy(another tagline.) In the two years following that trip I’ve changed jobs (twice), moved house, got engaged and adopted a cat called Bubbles. All off the back of that one decision and here is the passage that started it all:

“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”

– “Eat. Pray. Love.” Elizabeth Gilbert

I look back on that Summer now as the perfect balance of complete freedom and independence without feeling lonely or isolated. Every day started with “well – what do you want to see today.” Sometimes the answer was “I want to see the Trevi Fountain.” and sometimes it was “I want to read in that garden next to the gelateria.”  I was the director and star of my own little film and, like all good films, well-known faces popped up throughout. (It turns out if you announce that you’re going to Italy for the summer, many of your close friends will happily join you.)

I ventured through Venice alone tying myself in knots getting lost and summoning the courage to try out the small amount of Italian I’d learnt. I drank local wine on a farm in Tuscany with my oldest friends, I swam and sailed through Lake Como with some of the best travel companions a girl could ask for and, when I finally  reached the glorious city of Rome, I had a very special guest in the shape of my friend, The Man On The Piccadilly Line. That summer is a montage of happy memories with some of my best people and yet some of my happiest times were warm evenings sat alone with a glass of wine and a book, awaiting my spaghetti alla puttanesca .

Before booking the trip I’d toyed with visiting one of Gilbert’s other destinations, India or Indonesia but the food swung it in favour of Italy. A country that encourages you to eat pizza, spaghetti, gelato and coffee every day is the sort of place I want to be. My trip was less “Eat, Pray, Love” and more “Eat, Eat, Eat” but despite 5 weeks of a diet based entirely on pasta and gelato I returned to the UK 8lbs lighter – god bless you Italy.

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The most striking thing about Italian food is how simple it is. Most of the meals I ate were made from 4 or 5 really fresh ingredients. I am grateful for this as it means on cold,  winter evenings, 1000 miles from Rome, it’s possible to recreate some of those beautiful meals. Puttanessca, as well as being of my favourites, is as simple to make as it is delicious. I will leave you with this recipe from Naples:

Spaghetti Puttanessca

750g Pounds Canned Pureed Tomatoes
2 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
200g large Black Olives
3 Anchovies
4 Tablespoons Capers
Salt & Pepper
1/2 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
400g Dried Spaghetti

OPTIONAL EXTRA: Balsamic Vinegar (because my family believe most meals can be enhanced by balsamic vinegar)

Heat the oil in a medium sauce pan and add the garlic, and cook briefly.
Pit the olives and cut into halves
Discard the bones from the anchovies and thinly slice
Add the tomatoes to the oil and garlic, and then the olives, anchovies and capers. At this point you may wish to add a glug of the Balsamic but y’know – no pressure.
Season with salt & pepper and red pepper flakes.
Cook for 15 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Use to top spaghetti pasta cooked “al dente“.

Buon Appetito.

Italy pasta