Best books for babies and toddlers 2019: Storytime favourites to read with your child

Foster a love of reading in your little one with our pick of the best books for babies, 1, 2 and 3-year-olds

Baby got books? It will probably be a few years until you need to start worrying about initial, middle and final phonemes but it’s never too early to start fostering a love of reading. The best way to do that is to read with your child. Even very young babies will enjoy the sound of a story or rhyme read aloud in a soothing voice, and toddlers will love identifying favourite characters and joining in with the ends of sentences in familiar texts.

If you’d like to introduce books to your routine but aren’t sure which are most suitable, books from your own childhood are a good place to start; anything you remember fondly from the past is likely to go down well in the present. Several of our choices below are time-tested classics for exactly this reason, and we’ve also included some newer titles you may not yet know. Each of them will help babies and young children as they begin exploring the world through image and language.

How to choose the best books for baby

How many words?
Books for babies and very young children are mostly picture-based, with just a few words per page (and just a few pages per book). Your baby’s first books will probably contain words identifying key, simple concepts – such as animal names or colours. Over many repetitions, these tiny tomes will help your baby associate the sounds of the words with the images, which is the beginning of language acquisition.

What’s it made of?
With very young children, your choice of book material may be more important than the subject matter or language used; delicate paper pages aren’t suitable for babies who are still developing fine motricity. So, look for sturdy board books that can’t be easily torn or chewed up (although we can pretty much guarantee they will be lightly nibbled); fabric books; or waterproof books you can safely take into the bath. Books with added sounds and textures will stimulate your baby’s senses and begin the process of associating words and concepts.

Toddlers will be able to turn paper pages more safely, but it’s still worth looking out for wipeable covers and large formats that are easy to manipulate rather than small and fiddly pages. Many children’s books now also come in Kindle and audio editions, but really nothing beats the feel of paper (or board) in the hand and the sound of mummy or daddy reading.

What’s the best setting for storytime?
Be guided by your child – some children prefer to read in the daytime when they’re alert and receptive; others will prefer a bedtime snuggle with a story. You may find your child has preferred books for different contexts, like exciting new books in the daytime and a familiar story at night.

At any time of day, try to read without other distractions (for example, TV or other noises) so you and your child can focus on the story. If your child likes to read with a cuddly friend, like a teddy or a soft toy character from one of the stories, make sure they’re in the room and sitting comfortably too. Relax and allow enough time to read through the story several times, and to ask and answer questions about what’s happening.

With older children, leave a gap or two at the end of a line and see if they can fill in some of the missing words – this is where rhyming stories and repeated phrases work well.

What are some other things that will help my child to read?
If you’d like your child to start learning the letter symbols, keep flashcards, letter blocks or alphabet foam squares in the nursery or the room where your child plays. You might also have an alphabet frieze around the wall. Help your child identify the letters as and when they ask. Without going full synthetic phonics, you can start associating the letters with the sounds they make. Songs can help, too, and the Sesame Street A-B-C song is a tried and tested favourite that has helped generations learn their alphabet.

When it comes to encouraging your child to read, however, nothing beats reading together and ensuring that storytime is a relaxed, positive thing to do. Make reading fun for both of you by choosing stories you both love, whether timeless classic or modern tale. Our favourites are below.

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Tango Fire Warms Up West London

Outside, the streets of Holborn are full of sleet and Brexit. Inside the Peacock Theatre, all is warm and lit in the golden tones of a Buenos Aires sunset. Tango Fire, now in its fourteenth year of touring, is a straightforward presentation of the sensual beauty of Argentine Tango, performed by a cast of twelve world-class dancers and four exquisite musicians.

Tango Fire 2019 Oliver Neubert

There is pink and orange on the cyclorama; there are gliding walks and syncopated leg hooks; there are dramatic drops and lifts; there are jewel-coloured cocktail dresses and glittering black gowns; there is an unironic starcloth. This is not a show that seeks to challenge or provoke, this is a show that wants unapologetically to entertain; and on a freezing January night that’s truly more than welcome.

The first half brings the cast together for a series of ensemble choreographies punctuated by individual duets. The ensemble work is strong, but the duets (although choreographed) give the couples greater freedom to respond to one another, and to the live music, than the tight unison of the ensembles allows. The second half gives each couple their own moment in the spotlight with flashier, showdance-style duets featuring higher leg extensions and more vertiginous lifts. It’s certainly thrilling, but lacks the sensual intimacy of the first half.

Tango Fire does not pretend to be anything it’s not: you won’t find anything melancholy, or problematic, or downright puzzling here. But the unpretentiously entertaining certainly has its place, and Tango Fire gives us that with an elegant sizzle.

Originally published at

Shane Shambhu / Altered Skin, Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer

Shane Shambhu | Photo: Martin Dewar

Image: Martin Dewar

Bharatanatyam performer Shane Shambhu’s Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer is part dramatic theatre, part one-man comedy, and part classical dance exposition with a postmodern twist. The comedy confessional mode is one we’re increasingly used to in contemporary theatre; Shambhu’s show blends this fourth-wall breaking contemporary mode with classical Indian dance to create an entertaining and thought-provoking new combination.

We arrive in the theatre to find Shambhu dancing with himself – a projected video of his bharatanatyam arangetram from twenty-four years ago plays on a screen above the stage, and the present-day Shambhu marks through the steps as if trying to remember the decades-old choreography. The video version of Shambhu is dressed in the manner we would expect of a classical Indian dance performer: bare chest, pleated pajamas, temple jewellery and heavy eye makeup. Present-day Shambhu is dressed simply in white shirt and brown trousers without makeup, jewellery or ankle bells. This pared-down presentation of the classical artform is something Shambhu will later comment on explicitly in his spoken script.

With humorous narration and the repeated promise of a live re-enactment of the arangetram performance seen on video, Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer takes us on a danced and spoken-word journey through a life in classical dance. We hear how Shambhu first began dancing – sent to classes by Keralan parents who wanted to improve the health of their ‘really, really, really fat kid’. We learn about the quiet dedication that even an early dance career demands – practising in secret behind a wall in the school playground, working on combinations of steps despite a fear of being mocked by friends. We learn how Shambhu became ‘Shampoo’, the curly-haired and frequently mispronounced superhero of South Indian classical dance in the UK. And we learn, a little heartbreakingly, about clashes with the same parents who sent Shambhu to his lessons but who expected the young man to move on to a career in engineering or medicine rather than the performing arts.

A warm and engaging perfomer, Shambhu isn’t afraid to layer his performance with reference and self-reference. While posing (hips slanted to the side and invisible hair plaited) as a bharatanatyam performer giving a lecture-demonstration, Shambhu both performs this role in an ironic, highly-mannered style with wink and accent, and performs the role for real, giving an overview of Indian classical dance conventions to those in the audience to those who may not know them. Speaking in the character of himself (or a similarly conscious, constructed version of thereof), Shambhu discusses his own performance style – stripped-back, without bells or colourful silk costumes – while apparently on the phone to a theatre programmer whom he invites to come and see his performance ‘tonight, at The Place’. Moments of reflexivity such as these point up the use of personal history as stage material and the self as a scripted character, as constructed as they are authentic.

There’s a repeated mimed motif of carrying a burden (the weight of cultural history, or of parental expectations?) that registers clearly in the viewer’s mind without ever being explicitly defined in the script. Towards the end, as Shambhu finally begins the long-trailed re-enactment of his first professional stage performance, flashes of anger and frustration creep above the humorous surface for the first time. It’s clear from the prior narrative where these have come from – the double-bind of finding one’s place as a child of migrants performing a classical cultural form (‘British Asian Dance – or BAD’ as one of Shambhu’s revered dance gurus puts it); and of working in a classical form in a contemporary theatrical context, wanting to forge a new style but coming up once or twice too many against bell-and-pajama-based expectations. Shambhu’s primal yelp of anguish from the stage floor as he wrestles an afro wig, a symbol of his own younger self, is genuinely shocking and briefly overthrows the comedic thrust of the rest of the show.

Confessions of a Cockney Temple Dancer carries its complex social-political and theatrical irony lightly, resulting in a highly entertaining show that asks some deep and resonant questions about the place of South Asian culture in contemporary British society. Shambhu is a wonderfully warm guide through the minefield of his own dance journey; and it’s not every day you get to see a grown man wrestle a wig on stage. Catch it if you can.

Originally posted in Pulse Magazine

Ballet With An American Accent Comes To Sadler’s Wells

English National Ballet in Playlist. Image: Laurent Liotardo

English National Ballet’s Voices Of America triple bill at Sadler’s Wells brings together three iconic New York-based modern ballet choreographers.

Jerome Robbins’ The Cage and Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings share an animalistic physicality; Robbins’ piece, the oldest in the programme, pits fourteen predatory insectoid females against two hapless males. Barton’s 2016 work, brings the whole company together in a celebration of pondlife; the energetic piece is set to a fantastically cinematic score by Mason Bates, but lacks Robbins’ economy and rather runs out of steam after twenty minutes.

The real draw is two new works by the celebrated William Forsythe, including the world premiere of Playlist, the first piece made on a British ballet company in over twenty years. Technical, concept-driven Forsythe isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea, but the company attacks Approximate Sonata 2016 with verve and gusto. The all-male Playlist, set to the funk-soul stylings of Peven Everett and (implausibly) a club banger by Jax Jones, brings out the men of the company in strutting, hip-swivelling, quad-pirouetting force. Without a doubt it is the most actual fun we can remember a company having with Forsythe, and reason alone to check out this mixed bill.

Originally published at

Best tonic water: Make a cracking cocktail with these excellent tonics


Perfect mixers that will suit your G&T to a T

We can thank our colonial ancestors for tonic water. Nineteenth-century Brits stationed in India were prescribed medicinal quinine to ward off malaria – and found that the bitter stuff was a lot more palatable when mixed with sweetened fizzy water and a dose of gin. Thus was born a sundowner classic, and the drink has become a pre-dinner staple at home as well as overseas.

There’s never been a single definitive recipe for tonic water, however. Today, it can be found in an increasing variety of styles and flavours. So which will best suit your choice of gin (or vodka)? We’ve sipped our way through the mixer aisle to find out.

How to buy the best tonic water

The classic tonic water recipe combines sugar, quinine and carbonated water for a distinctive bitter-sweet taste. The quinine is still crucial, but is no longer added in medicinal doses and today simply adds flavour.

Flavoured tonic water: For almost as long as tonic water has been around, it’s been offered in citrus-flavoured variants (the first bitter lemon mixer was produced in 1834). Lime, grapefruit and orange are all popular, adding a refreshing sweet-sour tang that complements the bitter quinine notes and offsets the dryness of gin.

Tonic water with botanicals: Herbs and edible flowers – such as thyme, rosemary, lime flower and myrtle – add subtle hints of flavour to the standard tonic taste. These tonics mix well with neutral flavours such as vodka or a simple dry gin.

Low-calorie tonic water: Plenty of tonics are offered in a slimline variant – but bartenders recommend avoiding artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, as these have an aftertaste of their own that conflicts with the flavour of the quinine. If you’re watching your figure, try a light tonic water with natural fructose instead.

Continue reading at Expert Reviews

Best whisky 2018: The smoothest Scotch, bourbon (and more) whiskies


Malts, grains, blends and bourbons – there’s nothing quite like a dram to warm away the winter blues

Whisky (or, as our friends across the Irish Sea would have it, whiskey) has long been a popular tipple in the British Isles, with a history dating back to at least the 15th century. Empire and emigration took the spirit worldwide, and whisky is now globally popular in three distinct types: peaty, double-distilled Scotch whisky; lighter, triple-distilled Irish whiskey; and the sweeter bourbon-style whiskies produced in the US. After a lull in the late 20th century, whisky drinking is on the rise, and it’s not uncommon to find a good selection of malts and blends in your local pub.

But how do you find the best dram? We’ve sipped our way through a selection to help you find the whisky (or whiskey) that will best suit you.

Continue reading at Expert Reviews

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance — Bayadère – The Ninth Life

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 16-17 October 2017
Reviewed by Lise Smith


It’s almost 30 years since Chennai-born Shobana Jeyasingh launched her company with the arresting abstract work Configurations. In the intervening three decades, Jeyasingh’s work has run the gamut of styles and themes: from the life of plants to the Indian sport of kabbadi; from food culture to musings on mortality and the existence of god. First presented at the ROH Linbury Studio in 2015, Bayadère – The Ninth Life is now enjoying a second outing in a new co-production with Sadler’s Wells.

Since 2015, Jeyasingh has reworked sections of the performance to bring clarity and definition to the three-act structure. The first section uses projected text messages to detail the amused fascination with which an on-stage actor (Adi Chugh) reacts to his friend’s description of Marius Petipa’s 1877 ballet La Bayadère. This great classic of the Russian repertory is loved by ballet fans for its melodramatic narrative, challenging choreography and the two strong female roles of princess Gamzatti and temple dancer Nikiya.

While the ballet is much-loved, there’s no escaping the orientalising and othering impulses of the 19th century on this pantomime vision of India: all exotic temples, harem pants, and a scuttling holy man – possibly a Shaiva shaman, possibly a creature of pure fantasy, but almost always nonsensically referred to in cast lists as a “fakir”. Petipa’s Bayadère is beautiful to watch, but also discomfiting, and Chugh’s disbelieving responses to blackface in 21st century performance and a “pure Bollywood” storyline reflect Jeyasingh’s own mixed feelings towards the ballet.

Chugh’s unseen correspondent describes La Bayadère’s plot in meticulous detail, with company members popping into a little box on stage to perform short vignettes extracted from the ballet. These live vignettes are simultaneously projected in deliberately jerky, looping videos that look like animated gifs; both live and video snippets set up movement motifs that echo into the later sections of the performance, but in truth the repeated video projection of action seen live on stage moments earlier adds little to the experience and causes the pacing of the first section to drag.

The second act focuses on the arrival in 19th-century Paris of a group of ‘real bayadères’ from Tamil Nadu, and the forensic reports made by contemporary poet and dramatist Théophile Gaultier (narrated in a recorded voiceover) of the features and comportment of one temple dancer in particular. Gaultier’s observations are shocking today in their casual othering of the “alien” bayadère Amany, with her dusky skin, rolling eyes and unfortunate habit of trying to eat cherry-shaped glass hat decorations. As Gaultier’s thoughts are narrated, the reliably elegant Sooraj Subramaniam brings Amany’s sculptural poses and fluid gestures to life on stage, framed by a gilded box that looks like a cross between a cage and a museum cabinet. The devadasi is ogled and imitated, prodded and pulled about, regarded as a creature of savage fascination; then, with the swiftness of changing fashion, forgotten.

The work is at its strongest here in the second act, with Jeyasingh throwing a light on the casual abuses of the colonial gaze. In some respects, the middle section of Ninth Life is a companion piece to the recently revised Material Men Redux, which gave names and voices to the 19th century Indian slaves and subalterns who lacked either in their lifetimes. By (deliberate) contrast, Gaultier’s Amany never truly receives a voice of her own, viewed always through the prism of orientalising attitudes and expectations, finally abandoned by admirers that in the end preferred the exotic fantasy ballet version to the real thing.

The third act remains almost completely abstract. There are new suggestions of a link to the second act: a rumbling mass of voices on the soundtrack and a quick rearrangement of the set suggests some kind of museum setting; Subramaniam’s past/present-day dancer character wanders briefly through the scene in person; and a video projection suggests a Bayadère (possibly Amany, possibly the fictional Nikiya) penchéeing off to the netherworld in a dissoving dust of pixels. The links are slight and suggestive, however, and having become absorbed in the history and characters of the second act, the shift to abstract composition seems abrupt and unsettling. Capably composed as it is, the third act still feels like it belongs to a different production altogether, and as others around me in the auditorium noted on the night, the lack of Subramaniam in this section means Ninth Life is missing a big part of its appeal in the final third.

Jeyasingh’s revisions have brought a degree of welcome clarity to this interesting and provocative work, which remains well-crafted and visually striking. The performers are uniformly excellent and the classical-contemporary movement material as thrillingly dynamic as ever. For me, the problem is in the balance: the production is at its strongest when it critiques and reflects on the complex political layers of Amany’s world, and I would certainly like to spend much more time there.

Originally published in Pulse Magazine

The Rose and the Bulbul


Geffrye Museum, 20 July and touring

There are many worse ways to spend a summer’s evening than wandering the lovely gardens of Hoxton’s Geffrye Museum following a band of itinerant performers made up of dancers, actors and glorious musicians; and this restaging of The Rose and the Bulbul (originally created in 2016) allows us to do just that. The processional production, created by a collaborative team of including musician Arieb Azhar, choreographer Kali Chandrasegaram and director Sita Thomas. The piece brings together the titular Tudor Rose, who inspires poets as a symbol of love, and the Persian Bulbul who helps her to mend her own heart again.

The show is billed as family-friendly but is not specifically created for young children; indeed, a post-bedtime performance time in Hoxton meant the entire audience was well past the first flush of youth (performance times are better suited to younger audiences elsewhere on the tour). To my ears, the script (with its deliberate archaisms) is also rather wordy for very young children. Actor Tony Hasnath gives an appealingly physical performance as the Bulbul, hopping around the garden setting and swinging daintily from trees and gateways. As Rose, a winsome Aryana Ramkhalawon suffers from a script stitched largely together from complaints, leaving her with little to do other than emote earnestly for forty minutes until the final celebration provides an opportunity to lighten up.

Among the trio of dancers that animate the series of gardens we walk through on our processional journey, Kathak dancer Manuela Benini is a particular pleasure to watch with her assured and expressive grace. Fluid and flexible contemporary dancer Lola Maury commits herself to the moment so fully that she briefly falls into a lavender bush at one point, which is one of the special joys of outdoor performance (and one swiftly recovered from at that).

Generally the dance material responds well to its lovely outdoor setting, with portions of the performance designed to be viewed in close-up, the audience led by the cast to nooks and crannies of the very interesting historic gardens at the Geffrye. That said, the other rule of outdoor performance is to make sure that all elements of the performance can be seen by audience members standing in unpredictable parts of the performance space; parts of the performance were sometimes attractively glimpsed through parts of the natural scenery and sometimes simply not visible.

A small group of student dancers pops up at various points throughout the show, but are disappointingly not well integrated into the performance as a whole, functioning more as a series of tableaux vivant than part of the story or main choreography. As someone who works regularly with young and community performers myself I feel this is a bit of a missed opportunity; community performances require a lot of rehearsal and ideally include creative contributions from the participants, however young, and there’s not a lot of evidence for either in this production. If there were one thing to really improve about future presentations of this show it would be to either fully commit to working with a community group and bring them meaningfully into the performance, or to let that element go.

With that slight misgiving aside there’s a lot to enjoy about The Rose and the Bulbul, in particular the enchanting music that successfully brings together Tudor themes played by baroque violinist May Robertson and South Asian melodies from composer and contemporary Pakistani folk singer Arieb Azhar. The mesmerizing soundtrack would be a delightful thing to enjoy in a garden on a summer’s evening quite by itself. Touring next to the Horniman Museum and Lauderdale House in Highgate, the Rose and the Bulbul is a pleasant way to spend an hour in some very attractive settings this summer.

Originally published in Pulse Magazine

Dance Review: ATMA Dance – The Magic Fish

ATMA Dance – The Magic Fish
Saturday 16 July 2016, The Place Robin Howard Theatre


Since launching her company ATMA Dance in 2010, contemporary Bharata Natyam choreographer Mayuri Boonham has made a series of well-crafted, intellectually curious works that deal with subject matter as diverse as T.S Eliot’s poetry and the universe before the Big Bang. The Magic Fish is Boonham’s first work for children, and the centerpiece of this year’s Something Happening For Kids children’s festival at The Place.

Not to be confused with the European folk story of the same name, The Magic Fish uses dance, music and spoken word to tell the story of Vishnu in his incarnation as Matsya. The performance is billed as suitable for children aged 5-9 years old, but many of the much younger children in the audience (including my own 9-month-old baby daughter) were quite enraptured by Boonham’s enchanting portrayal of Vishnu, who we first encounter sleeping on the stage, bathed in aquatic green light with a hypnotic twinkling soundtrack lapping over us.

The piece begins with Boonham introducing herself as the somnolent god, with a monologue delivered over the top of a fluid, gestural solo. Vishnu then calls to the stage regular ATMA collaborator Pauline Reibell as the titular fish; this use of two performers in essentially one role (Vishnu and Vishnu-as-Matsya) did confuse my non-dance-frequenting husband but didn’t appear to bother the younger viewers one jot. Reibell, in a non-speaking role, is a wonderfully labile fish with her expressive spine and supple hands.

The hypnotic, otherworldly mood changes into something more earthy with the arrival of King Manu (Pirashanna Thevarajah) making his way in through the audience. Thevarajah, who has a ready rapport with the young audience members, brings a jocular, blokey appeal to his regal role and encourages plenty of interaction. He greets his loyal subjects in the auditorium with waves and high-fives; takes a refreshing mimed bath in the river with lots of characterful scrubbing and gargling; and (later in the show) holds the young viewers rapt with his rhythmic mridangam playing.

Lovers of Indian myth will already know how the story continues: Manu finds a magical speaking fish in his bathing water one morning, and promises to save the fish from predators in the river by taking him home to his palace. Overnight, thanks to the magic of theatre and large swathes of fabric, the fish grows immense (accompanied, in this version, by high-pitched shouts of “fish behind you!”) and reveals itself to be Vishnu, transformed into fish form to fight the demon No-Knowledge.

Manu of course has to build a ship to keep the subjects of his kingdom safe, and here the ship is interactively formed from young audience members invited to the stage to create the bow, stern and mast with their own bodies. The number of eager volunteers arriving on stage to help with this part of the story illustrates the engaging nature of the show and it was great to see even the younger children in the audience were not too shy to participate. Fortunately, Manu’s plan works, the ship reaches the Himalayas, and everyone’s suggested treasures are distributed among the people to start a new society. Cue a feelgood ending and happy smiles all around.

If there’s a small criticism to be made about The Magic Fish, it’s that the advertised running time of 40 minutes feels far more suited to the target age range than the nearly hour-long performance that actually took place. If Boonham can find a way to move the show along at a more child-friendly lick without losing the playfulness and interactivity – and if someone in the crew can find a slightly nicer piece of set to represent the Kritamala river than the length of plastic sheeting that looked like it might have come in a hurry from Homebase – she’ll have a winner on her hands.

Originally published in Pulse Magazine

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