Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


The Single Mother’s Weekend

Saturday, dawn: Husband and father-in-law depart for a weekend of bonding and looking at history in Berlin.

Saturday, 9am: Arise, having read book and enjoyed coffee in bed while the children watch some morning TV and get themselves breakfast (I warmly recommend the over-fours).

Saturday, 10am: Raining, so we proceed to the usually hideously over-crowded indoor playground, where I bury myself in my book (Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos, which is so beautifully, poetically written that I cry into my coffee) while the children leap about on the trampolines. When not reading, I check out the fathers, ranging from hot to not but all of whom appear to be actually enjoying spending time with their children and think about how the father species has improved in my generation; drink the world’s most disgusting latte; and try out the trampolines.

(Note to self: trampolining after three natural births is dicing with public humiliation.)

Saturday, 3pm: Return from playground and have burning urge to bake peanut butter biscuits. Eat biscuits and lie on bed while finishing book.

Saturday, 7pm: Have marathon Harry Potter reading session (six chapters of the Prisoner of Azkaban) on my bed, which is declared the girls’ dormitory for the weekend, broken by philosophical discussions on why Snape is mean, why the Weasleys are so funny, and which further HP story includes the unlikeable and ratty Peter Pettigrew.

Saturday, 9pm: Tell the girls to sleep and start Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key.

Sunday, 7.30am: Smallest child wakes at record late hour. Oldest sister takes him down for breakfast and telly. Read more of the excellent Sarah’s Key, washed down by two cups of coffee and thank the universe for my coffee machine.

Sunday, 9am: Children return to the dorm for more HP.

Sunday, 11am: Persuade family to get dressed.

Sunday, 1pm: Eat lunch and head for the cinema to watch Up (Oben, auf Deutsch). Eat peanut M&Ms during movie. Suffer regret.

Sunday, 4pm: Visit ice-cream parlour. Drink the best Milchkaffee in the Burg while the kids have ice-cream.

Sunday, 4.30 to 6pm: Attend a formal Lego and puzzle session. “You will play with me, Mummy,” says smallest child firmly.

Sunday, 7pm: Bath and return to dorm for climactic finish to the P of A. Sirius Black is a goodie! And Harry’s godfather! Harry conjures his first Patronus! It is almost too much for us all to bear – even those of us who have read it all before.

Sunday, 9pm: Off to bath to finish Sarah’s Key. Husband and father-in-law due back shortly.


Number of books read: 3

Number of coffees drank: 7

Number of cute dads discreetly admired: 2

Number of peanut butter biscuits: 3

Number of peanut M&Ms: whole packet

Number of meals I actually consumed at a table: 1

Number of feelings of overwhelming love for children: too many to mention

How much I am looking forward to husband coming back: a lot


Garrulous Girls and Other Orphans

I am revisiting my childhood obsession with Anne of Green Gables by reading it aloud to my two enraptured daughters. I’m loving how the book is working its magic on my girls, just as it did on me. My grandmother worked as a school librarian and I was allowed to sit in the library while she worked, or wonder quietly amongst the shelves trailing my hands along the lovely cool spines of the books. Since it was a high school, many of the books were too advanced for me, but then I found Anne and fell in love. I was delighted by her zest, and learnt many useful phrases (“kindred spirit”, “scope for imagination”, “bosom friend”) which I immediately incorporated into my daily life.

It has been interesting reading Anne of Green Gables, which was published in 1908, directly after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and Pollyanna (1913), since they all have the same synopsis: garrulous orphan girl goes to live with spinster and bachelor/spinster aunts and eventually wins their chilly unyielding hearts with her unique optimistic world-view and amusing talkativeness. In all three books, the orphaned child must enter a rather adult world and learn to live in it, but not without bringing her own charm to warm the childless household. The orphan gets a family; the spinster a child, and all is well with the world. It was clearly a formula that worked, as all three books were popular in their time and are classics now.

Much of children’s literature centres on the symbol of the orphan. In order for a book to grasp a child’s imagination, the small protagonist must battle alone in an unfriendly or fantastic world, without the help of adults. This gives the reader a chance to imagine herself into that situation and live with the thrilling possibility of a world with no grown-ups, where she has to make decisions and take the consequences. There are three main categories: orphans in the real world like the three books above, orphans in a fantastic world like Peter Pan or Harry Potter, or where children function in the real world but are left to their devices by their parents (most of Enid Blyton’s books, Swallows and Amazons, the Just William series). It is necessary for adults to be dead or absent or threatening in order to make the reading experience a thrilling one.

One book that springs to mind where an adult is present and part of the action is Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, but even there Danny’s father is a renegade fighting the status quo (a poacher), and the positive outcome of the story depends on Danny alone. There is a scene where Danny must drive his father’s car alone, which resulted in many childhood nightmares for me – clearly a little too much autonomy for me to cope with.

In all good children’s books, the child protagonist must effect a change – defeat an evil wizard, beat the pirates, escape the wicked aunts, win the chocolate factory, find the missing parents – and this allows the powerless child reader to enjoy the vicarious pleasure of being in control, making adult decisions and being given free reign. In last night’s chapter from Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s temper got the better of her and she lashed out at the dreaded Mrs Rachel Lynde:

‘I hate you,’ she cried in a choked voice, stamping her foot on the floor. ‘I hate you – I hate you – I hate you -‘ a louder stamp on each assertion of hatred. ‘How dare you call me skinny and ugly? How dare you say I am freckled and red-headed? You are a rude, impolite, unfeeling woman!’

I can’t tell you how much my children enjoyed that.


How I Love A Booky Meme

Aphra tagged me to write about books. My rubber arm duly twisted, here is the Booky Meme:

Number of books you own:

Between my husband, my kids and I, probably a few thousand. What is visible to the public eye is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, because downstairs in the Keller in the Room That May One Day Be Someone’s Office, there are many many more. I need to give some away, but am ridiculously attached to them. They spark memories and tell stories of other times in my life. I really like owning my own fiction and reference library (with special focus on literary, feminist and film theory, travel, history and all things geeky).

Last book you bought:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I haven’t read it yet – it’s joined the teetering piles of TBRs scattered around my bedroom.

Last book someone else bought you (I had to add this one. Sorry to the person who invented the meme):

My husband understands the book addiction and his latest treasure trove for me contained: Darkmans by Nicola Barker (which I’m presently reading and can’t wait to post about, so fabulous it is), Mr Pip (which I’m reading next) and the now much pored-over Rough Guide to Berlin (which I must post off to my friend in South Africa as a reminder of our lovely week together).

Last book read:

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. Strong on narrative, but with superficial characterisation, as always.

Five Books that Mean a Lot to Me:

This is hard because I’m not a great re-reader. I tear through books and move on, and I’m realising now that all those classics I like to say I’ve read, I have completely forgotten.

How To Eat by Nigella Lawson. Despite the tragic lack of photos, this is the book that got me interested in cooking. It is peppered with great wisdom and I love her lack of issues around food. I now have a large cookbook shelf in the kitchen, but this is the one that I always return to and always find inspirational.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by What’s ‘er Name. The book I was reading in the bath when Daisy decided to give us a surprise home birth. It’s a book that’s now understandably close to my heart. For the first few months of her life, I called her “Hufflepuff” which seem to suit her style of being.

The Narnia books by CS Lewis. They lifted my heart, comforted me and assured me that life would go on at a time when I believed it was hardly possible.

Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram. The first book I read to each of my babies. I think I got more out of it than they ever did, and I’m sure it taught me more lessons about parental and unconditional love than any parenting manual. “I love you right up to the moon and back!”

The poetry of William Wordsworth. Hilariously described by AA Gill in last week’s Sunday Times as “lyric brown sauce, an unctuous, fruity slop that’s supposed to be a complement, but actually drowns nature in rhyming sycophancy”, Wordsworth’s poetry was my first experience of words as transcendental. They made my soul tingle and I don’t care if that makes me the literary equivalent of ketchup. I am clearly v. middle-brow.

Consider yourself tagged!


Reading in English

My husband and I are both bookworms. We have read to our kids since their babyhood in the hope that they would become readers too. They have grown up around books, watched us read books, slept with books in their beds. They know that books are a Good Thing. So with all this preparation, we have been keenly waiting for them to start reading books themselves.

While we are fairly – if ungrammatically – fluent in German, we both tend to choose to read in English. I have laboured over one or two German books, but seeing that reading is my main leisure activity, I didn’t really enjoy it being such hard work. For me, there is something special about reading in English. It brings me pure joy, relaxation and escape from the not always smooth or easy expatriate life. It’s my island in the sea of Germany, and it has a palm tree, white sands, a view of the sea, cool breezes and Pina Coladas. That’s how much fun it is.

When Lily started school last September, she knew her alphabet in English and could read and write a few English words. We had been loathe to teach her to read in English as the collective wisdom here is that that would confuse her when she started to read in German. We watched with pride as over the months she began to read fluently and without accent in German. She learnt to build words phonetically, as she was taught in school, and she started to bury her nose in German books.

We were thrilled, but also faintly anxious. When and how would she learn to read in English? Would we have to put in some effort and teach her? What would happen if we moved to an English-speaking country and she was behind in her reading? Should we arrange extra lessons?

Then, in May, she picked up an English book and read it with squeals of glee. “I can read! I’m reading in English! I really really am!” Cue huge, but disguised, parental sighs of relief. She really was reading, and began to read everything in sight, progressing quickly from storybooks with pictures to novels like The Magic Faraway Tree and the Secret Seven books.

Once it had dawned on me that my child really, really was reading in English, I asked her what had happened. It turns out that for the two weeks in May when our DVD player wasn’t behaving properly, all the movies that she watched were being shown with the subtitles turned on.

“Mummy, I would hear the words and then see them written on the screen,” she explained to me.

Yes, television taught my child to read. When I thought about it, it made perfect sense. I remember learning to read with flashcards back in 1970-whatever, and the subtitles had had exactly the same effect. We had primed her, made her ready for reading, but the flashcard effect of seeing the subtitles onscreen helped her to make the connections between letters and sounds.

So now when I meet earnest German mummies in the playground who like to say how bad telly is for their kids, I love explaining how Lily learnt to read in English and watching their faces drop.

I’m a bit naughty that way.


The Interview

As a journalist, I spend a good deal of my time interviewing people. I have been interviewing people for 15 years. Last week I interviewed two people, one in India and one in Germany. So when Kit did the interview meme, and offered to interview someone, I was shamelessly jumping up and down, going “Me! Me!” like the most eager kid in class. Finally, I can say, “And now let’s talk about me.”

Without further ado, here is Kit’s interview with me.

Kit: How did you come to make your home in Germany? Is any one of the countries you’ve lived in your spiritual home or are you a natural nomad?

Charlotte: We moved to Germany in 1996 because my husband was offered the chance to work at the head-office of his company, SAP. I had never been to Germany, and like most Anglo-Saxons, I imagined that it was a horrible industrial complex beset with neo-Nazis and beer-swilling, yodelling sausage eaters dressed in Lederhosen. We came to look at Heidelberg one January. I had never been so cold in my life, but I was stunned by how beautiful it was. I knew straight away that I wanted to come and live here, for a while. Now, 11 years later (with a four-year hiatus in England), I have three children who speak perfect German and are deeply attached to this land.

Germany isn’t my spiritual home. I think South Africa is, though the longer I spend in Europe, the harder it gets for me to go home. A few months ago, the 100-year-old grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine was senselessly murdered, and I began to think it would not be possible for me to live in a country where life is taken so lightly. My children are also used to a certain amount of freedom, and it would be hard for me to take that away from them. So while my heart lies in Africa, I will probably always be a nomad. I love travel, I love new places and I like to keep moving.

Kit: If you could make a cocktail of all the best elements of South Africa and Europe, for your children to grow up with, what would you put in it?

I would take South African weather, landscape and spontaneity, and mix it with the relative freedom, the travel and the old, wise cultures of Europe. I would like them to grow up with a German sense of independence and disregard of status, a South African warmth and hospitality, and a European appreciation of art, literature and culture.

Kit: Where do you look for inspiration for your writing? Has blogging changed the way you approach your writing?

Charlotte: I am fascinated by people and what motivates them. I like to understand what makes people tick. I believe that life presents us with opportunities to grow into better versions of ourselves, so I tend to be intolerant of people who refuse those opportunities, who choose to stay the same, locked into old mindsets and prejudices. I like to write about the clash between people who grow and people who stay the same. Those who stay the same get short shrift. Growing up in apartheid South Africa helped to forge such a mindset, because the old Nationalist government tried in every way, legal and illegal, to restrict and contain people, but the positive energy of growth was so powerful and compelling that the society had to change. I love the idea of change and growth that is irresistible.

Blogging has taught me that I can write every day. However, with all the other things I try to cram into my day, I leave myself with little time or energy to write creatively. I am stuck with one story, and one set of characters, and anything I write seems to be about or around them. They are a novel waiting to happen. They are hovering in the stratosphere waiting for me to call them down. I have no doubt that I will finish writing about them and move on to the next story, but this story has to get written first.

Kit: What are the favourite books from your childhood that you still enjoy reading today?

Charlotte: I adored the Narnia books with a passion and have recently started reading them to my daughters. It has been wonderful rediscovering their magic.

Kit: What is your best comfort food?

Charlotte: There are different kinds of comfort food. Chocolate is my anti-depressant. When my husband is out of town and I’ve got a girly DVD to watch, I like popcorn. Soup is good on a cold day, or a salad on a hot one. A cup of tea made by someone else always tastes better than a cup of tea made by myself. For a hangover, I like white bread, thick pieces of cheese, salami and mustard. Because, you know, being a journalist, I get a lot of hangovers.

1. Leave a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. Please make sure I have your email address.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment, asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.


I have also been tagged by Emily for the 10 Best Compliments meme and by Ms Magic Hands for the Five Things I Do To Raise My Vibe meme. I shall interview myself and report back later. Watch this space.


Jumping On the Podwagon

Never let it be said that Charlotte’s Web is not an early adopter. BlogLily has done it. So has Ms Make Tea Not War. Last night, Litlove published hers. Thoroughly inspired by my fabulous blogging and podcasting friends, I’ve made my first podcast too. Beware, there could be more!

You can hear it here

or here:


Please feel free to comment on the sound quality. I used the inbuilt microphone on my Mac and I’m not sure if it’s adequate. Any other comments also gratefully accepted!


Oooooooooo I Absolutely Love Eloise

I read to children a lot. Over the past seven years, I have spent a large chunk of my person hours reading aloud to small people. There are some children’s books I have grown to love and will happily read over and over again, and others I would prefer to toss into the nearest bin, if not actually onto a burning pyre of ill-written crappery. Some books lend themselves especially well to being read aloud and give the frustrated stage star in me a chance to shine.


One of my all-time read-aloud favourites is Kay Thompson’s Eloise, with its stunning line drawings by Hilary Knight. It’s about a poor little rich girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York with her Nanny. Eloise is knowing and innocent, angelic and out-of-control. Her absent mother “knows The Owner”, as well as the Dean at Andover and Coco Chanel. I read it to my four-year-old last night, and I laughed more than she did, but she also laughed at me laughing. We had fun. Eloise is full of pearls of wisdom, such as:

You have to eat oatmeal or you’ll dry up

Anybody knows that


I have two dolls which is enough

They have to have a teaspoon of water every hour or so, so you can

see they are an extremely lot of hard work

The best thing about Eloise is that there are no full-stops. This would usually irritate me, but there are commas, and capital letters to indicate the start of new sentences. The lack of stops adds to the wild breathlessness and makes it extra entertaining to read.

Other read-aloud favourites in our house for the younger kids are the Doctor Seuss books, the Hairy McClary series and anything by Emma Chicester Clarke (her illustrations are stunning too). I love reading Beatrix Potter’s prose aloud, but somehow, we never really got into the Potter groove – I think her language is lot more sophisticated than her pictures and plots. When the kids were able to understand the slightly stilted, old-fashioned language, they were a bit old for the narrative. However, if anyone thrusts me a Beatrix Potter, I read it happily, as much for my own entertainment as for theirs.

As we’ve moved on to chapter books, we’ve loved everything Roald Dahl wrote, Peter Pan and the Horrible Henry books. I enjoyed reading The Secret Garden and The Little Princess aloud, as they were childhood favourites of mine, but they were hard going in parts for my six-year-old. She and I recently read The Scarecrow and His Servant, by Phillip Pullman, which was great, with lovely shards of humour to keep this grown-up’s attention. We’ve loved the Little House on the Prairie series and Charlotte’s Web, of course. Soon we’ll be starting C.S Lewis’s Narnia books with her.

So many fairy tales have rather wussy princesses as heroines, who sit around moping or cleaning, waiting for their prince to arrive and sort things out. My mother gave us this book: Girls To The Rescue: Tales of Clever, Courageous Girls from Around the World. It is delightful, and delivers exactly what it promises – stories about brave and clever girls who get to do the sorting out: the slaying of dragons, the outwitting of wily merchants, the winning of jousts. They also win the hearts of princes, so it is romantically satisfying. It’s written by Bruce Lansky and published by Meadowbrook Press, if you’re interested in pursuing it for the girls in your life.

As with books for adults, there is a ton of stuff out there for children, and much of it is awful. I especially loathe bad grammar and plots that don’t flow clearly. For me, it takes one read to realise that I’m going to be monumentally irritated by a book but unfortunately my kids often love the crap ones as much as they love the great ones. There is no telling. We are now at the point where I can say “I really don’t like that book, please choose another one” and they generally oblige. How we are all growing up.