Moving on from Harry Potter

Like a lot of parents, we started reading the Harry Potter books to Ada when she was quite young. In hindsight, she was too young, and we shelved most of them until she was 7. She diligently waited until after each book was finished before we all watched the relevant film together, and one birthday she went with her dad and best friend to see the WB Studios.

When we finished the final book, Ada was pretty devastated. They’re not the best books in the world, and I’ve still only read bits of them as we take turns to read to either one of the children each evening, but they did a very good job of introducing her to a whole world of magic and adventure. So when they were finished, I knew we needed to find some other books that could help Ada to find joy in someone else’s world-building talent again, even if they didn’t immediately fill the void.

So naturally, I did what anyone over the age of 30 does when they need recommendations for things: I asked Twitter, and the good people who use it delivered in spades!

I compiled a list of the recommendations we had that day. We have read some of these now, and have some more of our own to add that we have found along the way. Sometime it hasn’t worked out, normally because the language in them is a bit advanced, and if the language isn’t at their level of understanding it can really kill a child’s enthusiasm for any story, no matter how exciting or seemingly well-written. I’m actually quite surprised by how many books are supposedly pitched for one age group and yet feature combinations of words that even the cleverest 8-year-old will struggle to really comprehend and contextualise. Another problem is when they are set so far from the world we live in that the children can’t imagine themselves as part of it.

I have offered some very short comments on the ones we’ve read so far, but the intention is to offer a series of short reviews on them. Unless stated, these were all read to our daughter from about 7.5, but mostly aged 8. We’ve read some gems, recently.

The List

*we have read these

The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel – Michael Scott
*The Edge Chronicles – Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. We started the first of these, but they seem to be more suitable for a slightly older child.
Barimaeus Sequence – Jonathan Stroud
The Supernaturalist – Eoin Colfer
The School for Good and Evil (Series) – Soman Chainani
The Books of Bayern – Shannon Hale
*A Series of Unfortunate Events (Series) – Lemony Snickett. Ada has actually been reading these to herself, sporadically as there are about 13 books.
*Charlie & the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin
The Ruby in the Smoke – Phillip Pullman
Shadow in the North – Phillip Pullman
Tiger in the Well – Phillip Pullman
The Tin Princess – Phillip Pullman
Wild Magic – Tamora Pierce
Mirror Dreams – Catherine Webb
Crestomanci (Series) – Diana Wynne Jones
*Percy Jackson (Series) – Rick Riordan. We had these as audio books. A great introduction to the myths of Ancient Greece.
The Bartimaeus Trilogy – Jonathan Stroud
*Artemis Fowl – Eoin Colfer. We didn’t get on very well with this, and abandoned it after maybe a third of the book.
Dragonrider Chronicles – Nicole Conway
Shiverton Hall – Emerald Fennell
The Phanton Tollbooth – Norton Juster
Téméraire (Series) – Naomi Novik
*Nevermoor (Series) – Jessica Townsend. These are great!
Sabriel series – Garth Nix
*Inkheart (Series) – Cornelia Funke. These are also great! Then they got a bit too advanced in terms of how dense and detailed they are so we’ve stopped mid-way through the second book.
Magnus Chase (Series) – Rick Riordan
*Kane Chronicles  (Series) – Rick Riordan. We have read the first one, it features gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt.
Redwall (Series) – Brian Jacques
Coraline – Neil Gaiman
*The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman. We have started this as an audio book, but think we could prefer it in print.
Tortall – Tamora Pierce
The Dark is Rising (Series) – Susan Cooper
A Girl called Justice – Elly Griffiths
Children of the Red King (Series) – Jenny Nimmo
Whitby Witches – Robin Jarvis
The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – Chris Wooding
The Belgariad – David Eddings
Ella Enchanted – Gail Carson Levine
So you want to be a wizard – Diane Duane
Obernewtyn Chronicles – Isobelle Carmody
Septimus Heap (Series) – Angie Sage
Crater trilogy – Homer Hickam
Mary Russell (Series) – Laurie R King
Keys to the Kingdom (Series) – Garth Nix
The Chronicles of Prydain – Lloyd Alexander
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Sevenwater Series – Juliet Marillier
Discworld – Terry Pratchett
Eva Ibottson books
Black magician trilogy – Trudy Canavan
Warriors – Erin Hunter
The Mennyms – Sylvia Waugh
The Clockwork Dark trilogy – John Claude Bemis
The Prince who fell from the Sky – John Claude Bemis
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles – Patricia Wrede
Deltora Quest – Emily Rodda
The Thief Lord – Cornelia Funke
The Stravaganza series – Mary Hoffman
No Flying in the House – Betty Brock
Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
Wildwood Chronicles (Series) – Colin Melody
Summoner (Series) – Taran Matharu
The Girl of Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – Cat Valence
Unwritten – Tara Gilboy

Our more recent finds:

Ada, 8:

Starfell (Series), by Dominique Valente. We read the first one to Ada, and she has read the second one to herself. It features magic, adventure, and mystery.

The Explorer, by Katherine Rundell. A wonderful book set in the rainforest, about a group of children trying to survive and find their way home.

Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell. We bought this on the strength of The Explorer, but it didn’t quite live up to it.. it’s good, but a bit meandering. Ada got a little bored.

The Beast and the Bethany, by Jack Meggitt-Phillips. This is great so far, apparently going to make a storm as a series of books to be turned into a series of films..

Lyra, 6:

The Wild Way Home, by Sophie Kirtley. This is an *amazing* book. Lyra was very taken with it and its world, and I will be writing something proper about it soon.

Amelia Fang (series), by Laura Ellen Anderson. Lyra loves these books. They’re a step up from Isadora Moon – they are a bit longer but fairly similar in the kinds of happenings.

It’s been a while..

Nearly three years, in fact. I always intended this to be a place I’d end up writing about my work, something that felt kind of like a public research output. The truth is though, that it was a commitment I wasn’t ready to make.

I wasn’t really sure exactly where my thesis would end up, or how I could turn my everyday findings into suitable posts. Now that I’ve got a much better handle on it all, i.e. I’ve nearly finished, I know what to say.. I’m later with submission than I should be, mostly as a knock-on effect of the schools having been closed for six months. I might write about what I’ve found at some point, I might not. I’ll turn some of it into journal articles, but perhaps some of the little side stories I’ve found along the way will find a home here.

What I’d like to do before all that is make a home for something completely different, a list of children’s books that were recommended to us last year, that might prove useful to someone else in the future. Back in ten.

8 things I’ve learned doing a PhD with kids

I’ve been a PhD student for two years now. I came into it thinking I knew what to expect, especially regarding the kids and what having kids meant to studying. Obviously I was completely wrong, so here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

It’s not easy, but it’s not doom and gloom. You’re not foolish if you find yourself embarking on a PhD when you have children or are planning to have them soon. In many ways doing a PhD is a job, and there are many working parents in the world. But there are ways in which a PhD is different to a regular job: you largely choose your own hours (aside from teaching), you have supervision and feedback more often, you are poorly paid relative to your role, and there are lots of extra-curricular expectations. All of these make it a slightly different experience.



1: You will constantly question your life choices

Like most working parents and students you will be living between several worlds. Your parenting friends won’t give a hoot about your topic and will tend to respond with ‘I don’t know how you do it’, every time it’s mentioned. Most of your fellow students won’t have a clue what having a child entails, and will also spend a lot of time saying ‘I don’t know how you do it’. You will suffer from the same anxiety as other students and believe your thesis is worthless and your ideas are rubbish, and you will suffer from the same anxiety as other parents and believe you have failed your children. But don’t worry: every now and again your supervisor will tell you they like something you’ve done, and your child will spontaneously brush their teeth without a meltdown, and you will feel like you’re not drowning anymore! Your notebook will still be covered in colourful scrawlings that aren’t your own, though.

2: Childcare is a nightmare

The single biggest kicker and potential barrier to studying is childcare. I cannot stress enough how important it is to formalise some kind of arrangement before you start. I do know people who rely on family, but family are generally not paid and can fall ill or go on holiday or change their mind with short notice. For the first two years of my PhD my husband worked for himself from home, and we were able to be super flexible and fluid about who took responsibility for drop-offs, pick-ups, clubs and dinner.


A not entirely inaccurate visual metaphor.

Now that he’s working for someone else 30 minutes away, unable to do pick-ups in the middle of the day, I have found myself in a reasonably rubbish situation regarding childcare. It is the reason I won’t be going full time until my youngest goes to school next year. Since our childminder became a teacher there is just preschool, offering very short hours. Even getting to university for a day requires juggling of afterschool club for my eldest, someone to pick up and look after my youngest, and my husband to leave work early to be able to pick up the eldest when afterschool club finishes. If our primary school didn’t offer breakfast and afterschool clubs then we’d be up a certain creek without a paddle. My fieldwork, archive visits and teaching, already carefully spaced out, would have to wait a year.


3: Location matters

If I knew then what I knew now, I would have thought twice about moving out of Bristol right as my PhD was starting. However, we did it to raise the children out of the city and for that reason it was worth it despite it being detrimental to my studies. Distance learning is tough. One of the biggest differences between an MA and PhD for me has been how much I miss learning within and being part of a cohort of researchers. I live an hour away from university by car on a good day, I can’t go to research seminars because they are outside childcare hours and I can’t work in the dedicated PGR space because I can’t get there and back and have any meaningful time to work. I work alone, and have very few opportunities to talk to fellow students. I would highly recommend using an on-campus nursery and living near your department! However, it’s not always possible, and in our case a small school, a big garden, and not living next to a motorway were more important to us than how convenient it is for me to work.

Fieldwork is also harder here, as I have no students nearby to help and have to drag the dog and whatever children I have with me out into the cold and wet to to look at sites. They often love it! For about 20 minutes. I do have high hopes for my youngest though, who can already identify clay pipe in ploughed fields from 10 metres away.


My children super enjoyed our trip to Stonehenge.


4: Age matters, but not in the way you think

Not your age, but the age of the kids. Babies are easy. Babies sleep and eat and want to be close to their caregivers and be warm. I did a lot of my MA with a baby in a sling; Ada came on my field trips and slept through my first graded presentation. You can do an awful lot with a baby and, crucially, people will forgive a baby many more things than they will a toddler. Then there are children. Children who go to school and can have friends over to entertain them and get their own snacks and take themselves to the loo and can work a TV remote. In between, are the real troublemakers. These are the toddlers, who need constant attention and careful management of sleep and snacks to maintain some semblance of balance. Like a house of cards, if one is knocked then the whole thing comes crashing down.

The things you can do, or have to do, when you start a PhD will not be the same as when you end. Just as you settle down into one way of being, things will change. Some of these will be predictable, and you can plan for them. Others will be blindsiding, and I recommend having a way to work through and overcome panic.

5: Your standards will get lower and lower

Your house will be a mess, your children won’t always eat their twenty-a-day, and you will feel like you’re winning if you find more than one pair of matching socks in the drawer. Particularly if your children are on the younger side, you might not achieve the same level of conference-paper-giving, book-deal-signing, internships abroad and extended contemplative trips that your peers are. That’s ok. All that effort that could be going into your future career is probably going into juggling ballet, swimming, and the torture that is reading about Biff, Chip and Kipper over and over again. Anyway, your peers probably don’t get tiny humans seeking them out in the middle of the night for the world’s biggest cuddles, either.

6: A slow cooker is the best thing money can buy

Seriously, get one. And if you can afford it, a weekly veg box. Thinking about several meals for different tastes every day is just one more thing that is incredibly annoying, and having ingredients provided for you to use as the basis for the evening meal is really helpful. Unlike many people, you can’t rely on just finding whatever is in the cupboard and making something up, as the kids will probably reject is as ‘disgusting’. A slab of meat and a load of vegetables chucked into a slow cooker with some pearl barley and some flavouring goes a long way to appeasing the guilt of providing an evening meal of frozen pizza three times a week every now and again. Stock up on snacks too; children whinge a lot about food.

7: You will be forced into a working routine

Not a routine person? You will soon have a routine so complex it may as well be in Gantt form. Being forced to inhabit specific hours is good and bad at the same time. I think many PhD students find they have to shoehorn in time just for themselves, to do something other than think about their thesis. When I clock off on a Thursday, picking up the kids at 3pm, I know I won’t be doing a whole lot of work again until Monday. Sometimes if I have a chapter due I eat into the evenings and weekends, but honestly I find it exceptionally hard to work at those times nowadays as I’m just so knackered. Having set hours means I don’t feel guilty for not working over the weekend, and that I naturally switch off from it all and can come back if not fresh then at least slightly less stale.

On the flip side it can be frustrating knowing I won’t get much of a chance to work again until Monday. With set hours I also miss a lot of PGR seminars and networking opportunities, impromptu discussion groups in the pub, can rarely volunteer to help out with events and can’t often take advantage of training advertised as short notice.


Sometimes they have fun!

8: The funding issue is really tough

I have no answer here. I am very lucky that the little money I get through my stipend is topped up heavily by my husband having a decent job. I could not have studied without the funding, and I am in awe of people who make that work. Some people will be eligible for tax credits, even if they are receiving research council funding, and if you work then you are able to claim some childcare costs back. Worrying about money on top of everything else is exceedingly stressful, and there’s enough stress involved in studying as it is. It is doable though, and there are lots of avenues for smaller pots of funding aside from research councils.


There are some caveats to bear in mind with what is written above. I currently study part-time and do not do extra paid work alongside this. I am arts-based, with no formal lab hours to attend. I am fortunate enough to receive AHRC funding for what I do, which pays my fees and a stipend to keep me going. I have a supportive partner who pulls his weight.  I have always chosen not to put my children in full-time childcare while they are under school-age because I don’t have to. For some people it is necessary and/or preferable, and it works well for a lot of people. To do that, I’d need to go to a nearby town to find a nursery which, again, would eat into the actual time I have to work.

Biggest takeaway? It’s full of swings and roundabouts my friend, but somewhere in there you will hopefully find a way to make it work and be rewarded in the not-too-distant future with your very own doctorate. I’ll report back if I make it out the other side.


Hares or rabbits?

The first question people ask me about my PhD topic is always this:

‘You mean like rabbits?’


This is not a rabbit. Photo by Jo Garbutt, CC BY 2.0

I get it; there are similarities. They belong to the same family, leporidae, but (as a crude analogy) humans and gorillas also have the same relationship. Humans are the rabbits here – we’re also born helpless, hairless and pretty much blind, whereas gorillas are one of the most precocial species of ape. Precocial infants are born with some degree of independence from birth, which is where we come back to hares. Because hares don’t burrow they have no underground refuge from predators. They rest and breed in shallow depressions above ground, relying on stillness to protect them from being spotted and speed to outrun any animal that does find them.

Hares have also been around in Britain for at least a millennium longer than rabbits; they were highly regarded in the Roman period and kept in parks on the continent, and there is some evidence to suggest there may have been similar places here (Sykes 2014, p. 89). These enclosures are something that is replicated to a degree in the 17th and 18th centuries, and these monuments are a major feature of my research. Whereas rabbits during this period were effectively farmed for their meat and fur, hares seem to have been encouraged into areas to provide sport. They were wild and not fully enclosed, though they were cared for to an extent – and now the places in which their populations are often strongest are where they are actively hunted. I have now identified at least 16 extant hare warrens across (mainly) the south of England, all reasonably distinct but sharing several common characteristics. These include being wooded, and surrounded by a wall or bank, ditch and wooden pale, complete with holes or ‘soughs’ for the hares to pass through to get in and out.

All that aside though, look at that beast above! Hares almost always have faces plastered with a look of deep suspicion, like a cat approaching a wind-up mouse. There’s a reason hares are associated with folklore and witch myths – they are a curiously arcane animal. And of course we cannot forget the greatest treasure hunt of all time: Masquerade! This little piece of interactive literary gold was packed with hidden hares, references to all sorts of strange adventures and promised the solver of the riddle a golden hare set with valuable jewels. A rabbit simply wouldn’t have cut the mustard.

As for the second question people ask about my PhD.. that one is normally, ‘Why?’. One for another blog post, I think.

Sykes, N. (2014) Beastly Questions: Animal Answers to Archaeological Issues, London: Bloomsbury.