Zak and the Vet: When Phonics Books Go Dark

I should first warn you that this book review may contain spoilers. I’ve actually photographed the book in its entirety and published each page below so it definitely contains spoilers. If you want to know what happens at the end of Zak and the Vet I suggest you stop reading now.

I suppose that basic-level phonic books operate within the confines of the genre. Single-syllable words and brief sentences don’t lend themselves to complex storytelling. But the writer of Zak and the Vet has created a convention-busting rollercoaster ride that delights, disgusts and surprises – all within the pages of a slim pamphlet.

We meet Zak on the first page. Zak is a dog. He has a strange head deformity. I don’t think this isn’t integral to the plot, but perhaps sets the tone for more sinister events to come. His owner is trying to make him sit down.

Her failure to do this is possibly the reason she performs a Mobot on the doorstep, the incongruity of which has confused Zak who makes a dash for it.

As he pelts down the pavement on page three, he causes a man to pour his can of pre-made Smirnoff and cola down himself. And in the distance, a red van lurks.

And then BLAM! The van hits the dog. This is where the writer does her greatest work. Turning the constraints of phonics education to her advantage, the stark punchy prose smashes the reader in the face harder than van does the weird-headed dog.

Zak goes to the vet surgery which is where the illustrator comes to the party, creating a genuinely distressing image of a bloody rag. Perhaps the illustrator is a specialist in bloody rags because the next page is mostly bloody rag.

Suspicions are aroused about the vet when it is revealed he requires a poster on his wall to help him identify which animals. In a panic about the vet’s competence, Zak’s owner asks for the prognosis.

At this point, the vet points his syringe in the air, in a slightly gleeful but evil way like a Nazi doctor about to administer some slow-working poison. His monosyllabic manner leaves a little to be desired, although it’s probably not easy being a veterinary physician in an early-stage phonics book.

And then, just as the tension becomes unbearable and the reader wonders if Zak is going to bleed out onto his rag, the book ends and Zak is fine. Although I’m not sure about his owner, who appears to be imitating her pet.

The real twist came when I discovered the identity of the author. And it was a twist because I didn’t think of looking until I’d finished the book. It’s only Julia bleedin’ Donaldson! Creator of proper children’s classics like the Gruffalo and Stick Man and Room on the Broom. Perhaps she was giving something back. Perhaps her own dog Zak was hit and this was her coping mechanism, to commit the incident to the page. In words of only three letters or less.

Any good?

Stepping Inside the Nativity Actor’s Studio

I never got the opportunity to appear in a nativity play. When I was at the appropriate age my school decided instead to put on a series of dramatized nursery rhymes. In what may have been a satirical commentary on my chronic bed-wetting at the time, I was cast as Wee Willie Winkie. This required me to flounce about in a flannelette nightie banging on imaginary doors like a rudimentary Marcel Marceau.

The next year I was at a different school, but still no nativity. That Christmas we staged a chaotic production of the ’12 Days of Christmas’. My memories are little misty, but I do remember that the collected troupe of French hens and calling birds had been decimated by a sick bug. Which in retrospect it may have been an early strain of bird flu.

I was hopelessly miscast as the romantic lead, the ‘true love’, although in truth there wasn’t a lot of romanticising to be done. My job was to introduce the various cast members by walking on stage holding a sign with the number of the day on it, like a bimbo in a boxing ring.

On about the fifth day I accidentally waved the sign upside down and it got a massive laugh out in the stalls. So I did it again and then again and again. And each time the laughter rang out a little more pallid than before, until eventually the merriment fell away to universal tedium among the audience.

The director added a final twist during which the exasperated recipient of all the gifts chased me off stage with a broom. For all the milking maids, gold rings, leaping lords and, as far as the punters were concerned, for all the feeble comedy stylings.

My son’s school has opted for the more traditional nativity which hopefully limits the chance of him following in my cringeworthy footsteps. About a month ago he came home and let us know that he had been selected to play a donkey. It seemed quite early to start the process, but perhaps they wanted to rehearse the shit out of it. To get it right. If they were taking it so seriously, then maybe we should too. We could go full method and send him to a local farm and spend time with the donkeys there. Learn something of their ways, what makes them tick and so on.

But it turned out that the donkey role was just part of the audition. We should have realised when we discovered one of his chums said he was down to play a vampire. I am proud that my son overcame his natural timidity and volunteered himself for a part. He was rewarded with the plum role of the shepherd.

For the sake of authenticity it is important to get the costume right. I have begun sketching some potential designs and created a Pinterest board. I’m thinking some thick pelts, a longish beard and possibly a live sheep slung across the shoulders like my Grandma’s fur stole.

He only has the one line: “tonight it is calm and still”. He has a challenge on his hands to fill this with enough pathos to make an impression. He can start with the accent, but pulling off ancient Judean is probably quite problematic for a five-year-old. My tip would be to pause on each word, making it sound a bit broken and emotional, perhaps repeating it a few times. Without throwing his colleagues off their cue hopefully.

Tonight….it is calm…..and still.

Tonight….it is calm….and still.

TONIGHT…it is calm…and STILL.

Tonight it is calm and still.

Any good?

Scissors, Glue Guns and Sexy Underwear: That’s Crafting

There is a notice currently outside my son’s classroom inviting families to make their own robots for display at the school. The most appealing word on this notice is ‘family’. This says to me that this project is not aimed solely at the child but also at the parent. That the parent shouldn’t be just hovering in the background like a butler, just to help with scissors. Perhaps it’s the child who just helps with scissors.

Or perhaps the child should just entertain themselves for a bit while daddy gets on with the important business: developing moodboards, creating concept art, procuring materials. Truly, it’s this type of endeavour that excites me these days.

Crafting is like D.I.Y. in safety mode. The potential for causing lasting structural damage is minimal. And that is comforting for someone like me who can’t plug in a power drill without inadvertently smashing down a supporting wall. It’s also a chance for me to prove my value to my children; Christ knows I won’t be building any climbing frames for them.

I should clarify that I only properly enjoy craft time without my children. With them, it’s like being slathered with glue and left out in a sandstorm of googly eyes. Today my son celebrated his fifth birthday with a jungle-themed party. Which was an excuse for my wife and me to get round the table and bang out a selection of suitable animals. This is special ‘mummy-and-daddy’ time now. My wife will produce some of her sexiest hosiery. And we’ll stuff them with newspaper to make reticulated pythons.

The most exciting innovation of our craft-time is the glue gun. What a way to feel alive. The greatest appeal of the gun is that the glue is so strong. I don’t mean in the way the scent curls up your nostrils and distorts the mind, although that’s probably why I like to take my top off, daub my face in water-based paints, point the gun in the air and yell “it’s craft time, bitches!”

What I mean that its adhesive power is so impressive. I can fire off a couple of rounds into the back of a pom-pom and it will stick to a papier-mâché tarantula for eternity. A glue stick is frail and ineffective in comparison and leads to a chaos of gummy pom-poms and naked spiders.

The other essential tool for the discerning crafter is some high-end scissors. There is nothing like the feeling of a paper gliding gracefully through paper without a single snip. I hope that soon my son will experience this. We’ve had a note from his teacher that he hasn’t quite mastered handling scissors and that he needs to practise. Perhaps he should step forward from the background and take the lead on the robot project. It’s craft time, bitches.

Any good?

It’s Not Just The Kids Who Are Learning At School

We felt a lot of trepidation before my son started school. He had no idea what was coming, but his mum and I contemplated all sorts of challenges that he might face: the difficulty of making friends, the stress of homework, the phenomenal adjustment required to step on to the five-day-a-week treadmill. But so far he has adapted very well. This is probably a lot to do with his teacher, who I am beginning to suspect is the most brilliant person in the world.

We expected the extreme fatigue. The overwhelming newness of everything whacks him out. And with the overtiredness naturally comes the rage. His anger is not directed at school but at his parents and our tiresome insistence on bathing and sleeping. And feeding him watermelon. And the usual paradox is at work: the more sleep a child needs they less they want it. But this is all to be anticipated.

There are elements of his school experience that have surprised us all however. He managed to get lost within the confines of a single climbing frame for instance. He was retrieved by a kindly classmate who was rewarded with a sticker for his efforts. He’s also perplexed by the manner in which the children are allowed to go to the toilet; they appear to be kept in some kind of holding pattern. Which would seem bizarre to me too.

Stuffing caught him unawares also. As a family we don’t really do stuffing. It only really makes an appearance on our dinner table at Christmas, along with hot ham and dessert wine. Stuffing has passed my son by. So when he was served it for his lunch, he was confused. Which is fair enough, it just looks like squidgy meat. He described it as ‘yucky sausage’, in case any stuffing advertisers are looking for some copy.

I have been learning too. I have learnt that I need to take my glasses when I pick my sons from school. To prevent me waving enthusiastically at the wrong child and scaring the shit out of them. If you’re reading, little boy on the trike, I am profoundly sorry.

Last week I picked up my younger son from nursery at lunchtime while his brother was halfway through his school slog. I am not sure what I thought would happen, perhaps that the youngest would be presented to me through a hatch. Instead I was invited to wander through the school grounds to fetch him from his classroom. My concern was that his brother would glimpse me, mistake the situation for his extraction and an unseemly kerfuffle would ensue.

So I turned up the collar of my coat, edged along with my back against any wall and made my way furtively to the rendez-vous by the mud kitchen. Which is not a good luck for a lone adult man in a primary school. I eventually had to explain myself to a suspicious janitor. Once he was satisfied by my explanation I reached the nursery.

Happily I arrived undetected. My older son was nowhere to be seen, possibly at that moment missing within the vast climbing frame. Of course the first thing my youngest wanted to do once I’d picked him up was to seek out his brother. He suggested that I use a pair of binoculars.

We all have a lot to learn.

Any good?

My Advice To My Son As He Starts School (Which He Didn’t Ask For)

My son starts school tomorrow. And he has only asked me for one piece of advice. He is concerned about accidentally breaking wind in his classroom (I’m paraphrasing for reasons of delicacy). I have explained that he shouldn’t feel ashamed if he lets something slip on the odd occasion but to try and avoid making a habit of it. Just in case his classmates start giving him and his emissions a wide berth. I added that if he was suffering from excessive wind then to speak to his teacher and ask permission to visit the toilet.

In a half-baked attempt at crowdsourcing, we also asked the six-year-old son of a friend of mine for some general tips on reception class. His core message was that it gets more difficult in Year 1. In fact it was his only message. He offered nothing about reception itself. It seemed a bit brutal, but he’s probably on to something.

It only gets more difficult from here. Part of me feels sad for my son because from now he’s basically going full-time. And he will remain full-time until he is pensioned off. Apart from some respite in school holidays and at university, which from my experience is just a long series of afternoon baths.

Of course I am not telling my son any of this. And obviously it’s not like he’s joined the rat race just yet. He’s outside the rat stadium on the rat warm-up track, honing his racing skills with his new rat pals. From what I can gather reception class involves finding stuff out, a bit of structured play (the best kind of play) and the constant provision of snacks. In this environment my son is going to thrive.

It’s probably best that my son hasn’t asked me for any guidance other than my thoughts on flatulence (clearly he considers me to be an expert in this area). But if he does seek my counsel again then I will let him know this: to make the most of his school days he should be kind, have fun and use all the talents that he obviously possesses.

And just go easy on the free flapjacks. If you’re still worried about the wind.

Any good?

What Can You Do If Your Child Misses Out On A Primary School Place?

The evening before the primary school admissions were announced I posted on Facebook that the process was like the tombola at your village fete. Except that the prize wasn’t a Dundee cake or a box of Matchmakers. It was your child’s future.

Well the next day we discovered that we’d pulled out a losing ticket and I wished I hadn’t been so flippant.

My son was not allocated a place at our first choice school. Or the second. Or the third or the fourth. Admittedly the fourth choice was something of a wild card, given that it was two miles away. My initial reaction was shock. Followed by a biting sense that at the first opportunity to fail my son I had done so. Perhaps I had been blasé, perhaps I hadn’t been duly diligent in helping my wife make the selection.

Our first choice is around 500 yards from our house and is the school which adjoins the pre-school that my son currently attends. We looked back at previous intakes and reckoned he’d have been admitted four out of the five last years. It seemed like a relatively safe bet. And anyway our second choice provided an attractive contingency. I was feeling quite smug.

But we played the odds and lost, knackered by the unfortunate geography of it. The school he was given was undersubscribed, which told us everything we needed to know about it. At first I was incensed by the arbitrariness of the allocation, the sort of ‘tape measure says no’ culture of it. Apparently the distance is measured from the front door of the home to the front gate as the crow flies, although as far as I’m aware no crows actually applied for a place this year.

Of course the process has to be arbitrary. It is not left open to interpretation or nuance and emotional pleas or appeals can be waved away with the swipe of a ruler. In a sense there isn’t anything you can do to change the situation but as nonsensical as it sounds, I would suggest do something. It may be an act of self-delusion but both my wife and I felt comforted by being pro-active.

We rang the council to confirm the next steps and important dates. We made sure we were on all the waiting lists for our original choices. We contacted the offices of those schools, not because we can exert any influence on their decision-making but more in the pursuit of information, a notion of where we stand. I’ve taken odd pleasure in the detective work involved, sniffing around like Columbo.

We sat down and looked at private school options and worked out how many internal organs we’d need to sell to finance it. Kindly grandparents have offered to take up their cudgels in the fight, wherever that fight needed to be fought. We accepted the place at the school he’s been offered, in spite of our misgivings. It is important to do this. It’s very easy with a few rash, angry clicks to reject that place and catapult your child out of the school system entirely, only to have to slink back to the end of the queue later.

Among the other more unviable options that were mooted were to for me to quit my current job, train as a teacher and apply for a vacancy at our preferred school. Or temporarily move the family to live in the caretaker’s hut and put us at the top of the waiting list. Or reduce the distance by bricking up the front door and pretending that the back door has been our front door all along.

Perhaps the flippancy is a coping mechanism.

Any good?

I Am In Real Need Of An Education Into Education

The time has come to select our preferred primary school for the Major. I have dreaded this decision for some time and there are three reasons why. Firstly and fundamentally because I have a heavy sense that for the first time we are allowing him out of our grasp a little.

The Spartans of ancient Greece sent their children to military school aged six, where their teachers prepared them for the basic shitness of life by not feeding or clothing them. The children were encouraged instead to steal their essentials, but were also beaten if they were caught.

The Spartan education authority was clearly run by fucking wallies and bears no comparison to today, but I am weighed down by the feeling that we are now lashing the Major to life’s mast to be bashed by the winds and rains of human existence. Left to face real issues like being misunderstood or underestimated by your seniors or being ostracised by your peers.

Secondly because I am nervous that a misstep in our decision-making here has a serious material effect on the Major’s happiness. I have been told that we should listen to our gut when evaluating schools. But my gut has only really contacted me when I’ve put too much rich food in it. We’ve never discussed education. And so I don’t trust it as an advisor.

I have therefore composed my thoughts on our choices based on two factors: proximity and Ofsted findings. We are very fortunate that our closest school has been given the thumbs-up from the Ofsted bods. So in truth I had already made my mind up before we visited, although my wife still wanted her gut to have a look around.

I was impressed immediately, largely by the vivid gallery of art on the walls and the ginormous flat-screen television fixed to the wall of the school-hall. It’s this kind of stupid detail that influences me. My own primary education does not form a satisfactory basis for comparison. The first school I went to consisted of 23 pupils in one room, overseen by a headmaster who later turned out to be a paedophile. The school closed down with a year of me being there.

The third and most feared reason is that our choice may not be a choice at all, given that we are beholden to the swelling and shrinking of the school catchment area. Sometimes it feels like we’re tying the Major’s name to a balloon, releasing it and educating him wherever it drifts off to. We don’t know what will happen. There is no red dotted line on the pavement to denote the catchment area.

We’ve heard the stories. The families that have tried to game the system by renting near the school only to find that the catchment area has ebbed away from them like the tide. The sad people who moved to the road adjoining the back of their preferred school only to find that the centre of the catchment area was measured from the school gates at the front, and they were cast out. Or the bizarre influx of twins in one year that froze anyone else outside of spitting distance of the school.

Oh I don’t know. All we can really do is to be a robust mast and make sure we’ve lashed the Major tightly to us.

Any good?

Handing Your Child Over to Near Strangers at Nursery is Difficult Obviously

There is a roundabout near where we live that has become a point of reckoning for the Major. Turn right at the roundabout and the road leads to his grandparents’ home: land of love, nurture and malted milk biscuits. Go in the opposite direction and there lies his nursery.

The Major is now intuitive to the significance of this intersection and his tension can be felt wafting through from the backseat as we approach. And when the car noses ominously to the left the screaming begins, underscored by the clacking beat of the indicator signal.

The first time I dropped the Major at nursery he protested in the most ferocious terms, unleashing a meltdown of terrifying intensity. At least I was terrified. The nursery staff presumably are battle-hardened to these kinds of explosions and his classmates only looked up briefly from their Rice Krispies before balefully chowing back down.

Each grim little finger had to be prised off individually by the nursery staff until the lapels of my coat were as shredded as my nerves. As I drove off I was filled with an onerous sense of having abandoned my own child, but consoled myself that the process would naturally become less taxing for all. But after two and half years it hasn’t.

Every time I leave him and escape from his room I can hear his yelps bouncing around the nursery corridors like a haunted mental asylum. His nurses have hit upon a tactic of carrying him to the nearest window to watch me walk to my car. I haven’t yet fathomed the reasoning behind this except to confirm to the Major that I am indeed deserting him and to confirm to me that the Major is still crying.

We introduced a reward scheme which incentivised the Major not to cry in return for Kinder Eggs. But this promise didn’t work. In fact the sight of Major sort of physically suppressing his tears down under his rib cage in a pitiful quest for chocolate even more upsetting. The Kinder Eggs went off a few months ago so obviously I had to eat them all, the small pile of unopened prize capsules a depressing visual reminder of the failed ruse.

Perversely the easier days are when the Major wakes up truculently and refuses to work with us on any level, requiring actual contorting into his clothes. On these mornings it’s a relief to hand him over, like passing on a peculiarly uncooperative relay baton.

In fairness to Major the nursery doesn’t offer an enticing proposition. It’s full of sad-eyed dolls and ancient fusty teddies. The walls are plain and often when the nurses are late switching on the energy-saving lightbulbs it more resembles a medieval dungeon. It’s regularly understaffed meaning that I’ve often presented the Major to a solitary harassed carer in the midst of a Rice Krispie distribution nightmare.

State of the art
State of the art doll technology

The nursery is owned by a holding company based in the US. A Google query reveals a very healthy share price, a nod to the fact that the Major’s caregivers are being run for profit and perhaps investment in the nursery isn’t as forthcoming as we’d like. It’s a concern that has been corroborated by a few of the less discrete nurses. There are no market forces at work here, no means of exercising consumer choice. We are beholden to our postcode; my wife looked at an alternative nursery nearby that boasted something called a dedicated sleeping room for babies, which turned out to be a cupboard.

We have removed the Major from his nursery. We are extremely fortunate to be able to fund a nanny for two days a week and a sainted granny who can pick up most of the slack in the mean time. We just have to find a nanny now, the mostly likely source currently is one dangling from an umbrella on the East Wind. I’m aware that this is an obnoxiously middle-class problem to have, but a problem nevertheless. And at least we’re turning right at the moment.

Any good?