Unusual and Interesting Books

vintage syle photograph book shelvesReading is ‘in’ now, in a way that it just wasn’t when I was a kid. Primarily thanks to Harry Potter, there’s now a huge portion of the population of kids reading regularly. As a result there are some writers/book series that have become famous, to the extent that it can be difficult to track down something that an avid reader won’t have heard of. With this in mind I thought I’d put together a wee selection of the less well known, but no less brilliant, books that we stock here at Fun Junction, there’s a fair age-range here so please take the time to scroll to the end of this post. Quick disclaimer: our Perth shop has a smaller book section than our Crieff shop so some of these titles might not always be in stock through in Perth (where web orders are processed), we’ll do our best though.

So without further ado here’s the list (in no particular order):

strange case of origami yoda‘The Strange Case of Origami Yoda’ by Tom Angleberger: This is the first in a series of books about a boy called Dwight, who has a little trouble making friends and who makes an origami Yoda finger puppet that hands out (surprisingly accurate) advice to his class-mates. This helps him develop friendships and build a circle of friends. It’s a great story overall but will go down especially well with kids who relate Dwight’s struggles (that’ll be a lot of kids, we all worry about making friends at some point). The books in this series are also designed to be really readable with heaps of illustrations and doodles to liven up the pages for children who might ordinarily struggle a bit keeping their attention up with ‘normal’ chapter books. You can grab a copy over here.

*

Man On in The Moon Simon Bartram Bob Bill ‘Man on the moon: A day in the life of Bob’ (by Simon Bartram): This book is another start to a series of books. Here we meet Bob who goes to the moon every day to keep it tidy for the tourists yet seems oblivious to the alien goings-on all around him. This is a great book for observation games and is just generally a lot of fun. Bartram has been pretty busy and has written a bundle of books with a similar whimsical look and feel which I’ll add to our web-site at a later date. In the mean time you can pick up a copy of ‘Man on the Moon’ here.

*

Traction man is here‘Traction Man Is Here’ (by Mini Grey): This is another whimsical and unusual picture book which has spurred on a resulting series of books. The main character is ‘Traction Man’ a super-hero-slash-action-man (toy) who gets into all kinds of unusual adventures in a way that would be similar to toy story if the style weren’t so different. There’s something comfortable and homely yet adventurous and exciting about the traction man stories that will definitely have kids coming back for more. I’ll get more Traction Man titles on our web site soon but you can get hold of a copy of ‘Traction Man is Here’ over here right now.

*

jake-7048‘Jake’s Bones’ (by Jake McGowan-Lowe): This is a brilliant book based on the blog of a twelve year-old naturalist and bone collector called Jake McGowan-Lowe. I came across this book when Jake did a talk about his book at our local library, my eldest son (he’s 5) loved it and has been raking under bushes for bones every time we’ve gone for a walk since. Jake seems genuinely passionate about his subject and this passion is clear to see in his book. And come on, how many twelve-year-olds have you heard of that are published authors? Here’s his twitter account, if you’re looking for help identifying a bone (he’s a very helpful young lad and my son Logan has already been clued in on the anatomy of a rabbit hip bone thanks to Jake’s twitter). I’ve added Jake’s book to our web site if you’re looking for a copy.

*

madame Pamplemousse incredible edibles‘Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles’ (by Rupert Kingfisher): This is another book that starts a series, in Rupert Kingfisher’s Madame Pamplemousse collection children will encounter many magical and peculiar adventures. In ‘…Incredible Edibles’ we meet Madeline who stumbles across the strangest little food shop you could ever imagine all prepared by Madame Pamplemousse, ingredients include T-Rex tongues, Great Squid Tentacle in Jasmine-Scented Jelly, Scorpion Tails in Smoked Garlic Oil and Pterodactyl Bacon. These books have a slight Roald Dahl feel with a French twist and are guaranteed to entertain any child. Here’s the link if you’d like to buy a copy just now (I’ll get more of the series added onto the web-site soon).

*

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You Ally Carter‘I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You’ (Book 1 of the ‘Gallagher Girls’ series of spy academy books by Ally Carter): This next one is for older children/teens and it brings something quite different to the table. The Gallagher academy may claim to be a school for geniuses but all is not what it seems; for starters they get advanced martial arts in PE and extra credit for cracking CIA codes, the Gallagher academy is a school for spies. But what does a trainee spy do when she meets a boy she likes, all her training will be put to the test as she faces the difficulties of having a ‘normal’ relationship with a boy can never know the truth about her or her school. This is teen fiction with a very distinctive spin on it and is likely to appeal especially to girls who are a little tired of the typical high-school romance books that they’ll have encountered. As with the other book series mentioned I’ll add more of the Gallagher Girls series soon but for the time being you can get hold of a copy of book 1 by clicking on this link.

*

That’s just a small sample of the kind of books we try to keep in stock at Fun Junction, to be honest we have a lot of fun picking out new titles and we never really pay much attention to ‘top trending titles’ mentioned by our suppliers. We try to keep things fresh and interesting. I hope you got something out of this list and I’m always on the lookout for new titles to get into the shop so if there are any unusual/different books that have really stood out to you please let me know in the comments below (or over on twitter). As always thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Advertisements

Throwback Thursday: All hands on deck

This post comes from around this time last year when we were all set to go with our brand new web-site. Little did we know then that it was set to flop, in the entire time we had the site we had about 3 or 4 sales, which hardly felt worth the effort. We’re up and running with our brand new (and improved) web site this year and we’ve also set ourselves up with a myhigh.st shop with a select group of our favourite products. I like to think that since we’ve moved on from our old site and dusted ourselves off after a less than exceptional first year. I’m hoping we can approach the new site(s) with some experience and realism. On with the ‘throwback’; when I read through this old post I can’t help but think  ‘poor old 2013 John’, how little he knew…

****

I always write about toys (or at least I try to stay on topic as much as possible) but I thought I might also write a wee post today about the ‘toy shop’ from ‘John the Toy Shop Guy’. For those of you who didn’t come upon this blog as a result of a link from Fun Junction’s facebook page, I work in two fairly small independently owned toy shops in Crieff and in Perth in Scotland. I have to admit the opportunity to play with toys for a living is really rewarding and one of the best things about my job is helping people to engage with toys that they may be less than familiar with. Second to that is the exciting prospect of new and unusual toys which accompanies every new catalogue we get through the door.

The hour is drawing close

The hour is drawing close

Here at Fun Junction these two things are coming together in the work that we’ve all been doing lately on our web-site. We’ve (wisely or not) pledged to have this web-site ready for orders at the start of May and it’s becoming all too apparent just how close by this deadline is. One of the main problems has been the time it takes to write a product description, we made a decision fairly early on to try put in our own description of a product, where possible, rather than simply copying and pasting the manufacturer’s. The idea behind this was to personalise the description and use it as something like a store-based product review of the toy.

It’s been hard going: at times writing these descriptions has been fun (my personal favourites are this and this [dead links]) at others it simply feels nail-bitingly slow going and I have to admit a few products have ended up with copied and pasted descriptions due to time constraints. However, as time goes on we’ll hopefully get a chance to inject some personality and humour into the ones that have slipped through the net.

tumbleweedWe have less than a week to go and to be honest most of the site looks right to me, though there are loads of behind the scenes tweaks to deal with. We’re also all panicking about how we’re going to deal with deliveries and we’re not sure what to do in terms of postage. We’re pretty sure we won’t be getting enough to warrant an account with a courier to start with so the cost of deliveries will probably be pretty high to begin with. What’s more a lot of things on the web site itself feel like a work in progress and we’re seriously considering asking friends family and some regular customers to be ‘beta testers’ for us, just to iron out any problems. I think the main worry (it’s certainly my main worry) is that we’ll launch this newly revamped web-site next week, after months of work and nothing will happen; no one will shop there or even browse it and we’ll find our site bombarded with virtual tumble weeds. This is probably one of the most common worries you can have about a new endeavour, that you put time and care into making something and no one cares. Though perhaps the opposite is equally frightening: what happens if our site goes viral and everyone in the world loves it and has to buy something from us? The truth will hopefully be somewhere in between, and putting all our worries to one side we’re all in all pretty excited about this new addition to the business and I hope customers enjoy their visits there.

It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in negative thoughts but all I need to do is remember our facebook following and the extremely discerning and intelligent people who read this blog and I can relax a bit. Here’s hoping that people at least stop by for a look next week. If you do happen to find yourself browsing our website after next Wednesday then feel free to let us know what you think to it and give us suggestions for improvements either here on my blog, on the facebook page or on the contact form [another dead link] on the web site. Sorry for the slight departure from the norm today, I just felt like venting a bit of this mixture of excitement and trepidation, thanks for taking the time to read this and wish us luck on next week’s launch. I should also point out that this blog is now a member of the Mumsnet bloggers network, so I’ll say a quick hello and welcome to anyone popping in from there. If you’re new to my blog my posts are normally more topical and toy centred, feel free to have a look at past posts in links on the right.

****

It’s an uncanny experience being able to read the positivity and energy (and the slight trepidation) I had at the start of an endeavour that I now know was doomed to failure. Part of me feels I’ve learned some lessons, gaining some new skills and abilities in the process, and part of me is resentful of the time that feels wasted. The strangest thing is probably the fact that it’s almost impossible to be able to see how a venture will play out in the early stages. Certainly a few months in it became clearer and clearer that the time was not well spent and that the web sales we’d hoped for just weren’t materialising. It makes me a little worried that our new site could become a case of history repeating itself, I guess time will tell.

What kind of similar experiences have you had, where optimism and energy just weren’t enough? Do you think people can tell, deep down, when something won’t work and that I was just kidding myself back in 2013? and possibly the most important question for me: What do you think of our new web site (here’s the link)? (sorry couldn’t resist a plug) Thanks for reading, all the best, John

Top 5 chocolate-free gifts for Easter

playmobil easter eggs 2014There’s a new trend on the rise; people are buying toys/gifts for Easter instead of the traditional chocolate eggs. Last year I talked about this trend and it seems to be showing no signs of stopping. The latest thing I’ve noticed is that toy industry publications are starting to issue the same kind of ‘top 10’ and ‘top 5’ lists normally produced in the run-up to Christmas. Apparently the predicted ‘top toy’ for Easter 2014 is the aqua dragon dino egg which we actually stock at Fun Junction (so that’s a nice surprise).

With this in mind I thought I’d tell you about some of the other ‘crackingly’ eggcellent toys which might go down well for Easter 2014:

wow easer egg 20145) Wow’s ‘Chirpy Chick’ egg: This is a new addition to the Easter-themed gift selection this year and it’s very useful for a couple of reasons. For starters it’s great to be able to provide children younger than five with an Easter-orientated toy. On top of that it’s great to have an option for little ones which doesn’t involve handing them an egg the size of their head only to take it back and ration it off over the coming days. This way they get a gift and they can keep it for the duration, no worries about tooth decay at all.

4) Games: This might sound strange but bear with me. More and more families are using Easter as an excuse to get together and in some cases head off on holiday together. With this in mind it seems to make sense that you might want something for the family to do once you’ve got them all gathered together. Although games aren’t specifically Easter-themed I’ve certainly noticed a lot more holiday makers popping into the shop to pick up something to keep kids occupied (especially on the rainier days we’ve had so far this holiday). Some family bonding seems as good a reason as any to go for something more box-shaped than egg-shaped as an Easter present. Here’s s selection of the games you can get at fun Junction.

3) Outdoor activities: This is on the list for almost exactly the same reason as games: it’s something to do. On the drier days of the holidays (and we’re lucky enough to have had a few of them recently) it’s great to get the kids outside: balls, buckets and spades, frisbees, outdoor explorer kits, we’ve been seeing all of these having a dramatic boost over the holidays and anything that a kid could pop outside and play with would be a great alternative to chocolate.

2) Playmobil (pictured above): This is an old favourite and to be honest I think they’re one of the first toy companies to have come out with an egg shaped pack. The really great thing about the playmobil eggs is that there are more than just one type of playmobil egg available. Each egg comes with a figure and some accessories. Every year they bring out something different too, a quick glance at the Playmobil eggs that we’ve got left in the shop includes a fairy, a biker, a top agent and a native American with animals. They’re a great alternative to yet more chocolate at Easter and I know at least one five year old boy who’ll enjoy getting one. (when Playmobil eggs are in season you’ll be able to pick some up by clicking this link)

aqua dragon jurassic dino egg1) ‘Aqua Dragon Jurassic Time Travel EGGspress’: As I’ve already said, this is being touted as the ‘top toy for Easter’ and to be honest it’s easy to see why: it’s simple and gets you set up with your very own set of ‘aqua-dragons’ (tiny crustaceans which hatch from dried eggs when placed in water). The life-cycle of an aqua-dragon is 45-60 days so it’s a nice introduction to the responsibilities of having a pet. Something that’s definitely a step away from yet another chocolate egg.

As I’ve already said I talked about this trend of toys for Easter a while back and it doesn’t seem to be showing any sign of stopping. I wonder whether anyone out there has a problem with it. Speaking as a parent I have to say I like the idea that my kids could get something nice for Easter that won’t leave them wound up like coiled springs (or make them sick with indulgence). I can already predict the kind of reactions that this shift in tradition might get though, including (but not limited to) pointing out how commercialised Easter is getting, that the ‘real meaning of Easter’ could be compromised by this shift, that a bit of chocolate never hurt anyone or even that Easter gifts at the very least have to be egg-shaped (unlike items 3 and 4 on my list).

I agree and disagree with these arguments in my own way but I’m more interested in seeing what you think. Is there something to be preserved in our Easter traditions? Has Easter ever really had a clear set of traditions (like Christmas does) or has it always been a bit harder to define as a holiday/celebration? and the last one (which is kind of a biggy) Is there anything inherently religious about the standing traditions of Easter or do chicks, eggs, bunnies, and egg hunts have more to do with the arrival of spring than anything? What do you think? As always I welcome comments on here (it makes it feel like my writing has been worthwhile), thanks for stopping by for a read and don’t forget to follow me on twitter to chat about toys, life and people. Cheers, John

Being independent, the pros and cons

lone wolf foil art fun junctionThere’s safety in doing what the majority is doing: for starters you’re less likely to be admonished or ridiculed if you follow the status quo. However it can be limiting as well, not only that but it makes it harder to think for yourself and act in ways that differ from the norm.

For my regular followers, this post is going to be a bit different and I’ll be straying pretty far off my usual toy-related topics. If you fancy joining me for the next few paragraphs I welcome anything you have to say about. If you’d rather wait for my next toy post then our regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly and in the mean time feel free to check out some toy related posts I prepared earlier ‘How to Play‘, ‘Why are dinosaurs so universal?‘, or my first ever post which was about my son’s favourite toys at the time ‘Pocket money‘.

Today I’m going to be looking at independence in children and in independent businesses (please bear with me, I’ve got genuine reasons for thinking they’re related). For starters there’s the obvious notion that a business is often the ‘brain child’ of some entrepreneur. That said it’s worth spelling out what real parenting is like, since ‘brain child’ makes it sound like it’s something complete, like the job is done, which just isn’t the case with parenting.

Every new parent has absolutely no clue what they’re doing and will rely heavily on the help of others, consulting the advice of other parents, parenting books, blogs and a whole host of other sources. As time goes on a relationship develops and you start to realise that what you’re doing isn’t a job with a list of check-points to tick off but instead it’s a more responsive and evolving role as you provide support and advice that you hope will steer your child in the right direction.

So how does this relate to independent stores? In some ways it really doesn’t, especially the help element, since (for starters) some independent businesses can be so specific that there just won’t be a book/web forum/advice group that fits the bill. That said, most parents eventually learn that something like this is true of their children as well; they’re individuals, what works for one parent with their child might be a terrible idea to try out with another. It’s all about relationships.

One very clear similarity between a child and an independent business is that an independent business (especially a retail business) will start to develop it’s own ‘personality’ pretty quickly. Regardless of what you want people to think about your business they’ll make up their own mind. (I’m basically borrowing/stealing/being-inspired-by an ‘Un-Podcast’ post here). With this in mind independent shops are in a pretty good position to micro-manage their behaviour in ways that bigger businesses just couldn’t.

If a large company makes a mistake in policy which causes them to inconvenience customers (or even annoy them) then it could take months for them to realise and make the required changes. In a small shop it can be as simple as a phone call and you’ve got a happy customer. All the same it can still be hard to keep track of what your business is becoming.

Over the next week (possibly more) I’ll be posting about what I feel stands out about the company I work for: Fun Junction. I’ll mostly be talking about toys, games, books etc. which we stock that I find really distinctive and many of these come from companies that a lot of people may not have heard about. I’ll be posting a link to this blog post on my twitter account, tagging other independent business for ‘Follow Friday’ (today) so if you’ve found your way to this post from there, welcome to my blog, thanks for stopping by and please feel free to share your own experiences of being on the inside of an independent business. I also welcome comments from readers regarding why they do/don’t shop local. I know it’s a departure from my usual subject matter but I hope it drums up some interesting discussion. Thanks for stopping by, Cheers, John

Gendered toys and the Blind Buying problem: ‘What have you got for an eight year old girl?’

create your top model creative studio by depesche

Top Model outsells every other toy (about 5 to 1) for 8 year old girls at Fun Junction. It’s by far the most popular toy picked by the girls themselves.

We’ve all heard parents say things like ‘that’s not a good toy for you, that’s for…’. In fact, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’ve all probably said it ourselves at some point. We tell our children that a toy isn’t appropriate for them for one reason or another. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time) the reasons for this are completely legitimate, as the toy may be too advanced or pose a danger to your child. However, there are times when some parents just don’t have a reason, or at best we have a reason which is likely to wither in the face of cross examination.

I work in a toy shop, I have done on-and-off for more than half of my life. I hear what parents really say to their children and to be honest the media (/social media) can be kind of harsh on parents who are choosing toys. Despite the occasional shocker like ‘girls don’t build stuff’ or ‘boys that play with dolls turn into p*@fs’ (yes I have heard this, thankfully the boy in question wasn’t actually within earshot) the overall response of parents to their children is fairly open minded. The problem only really hits its zenith when people are buying for other children. When party time comes along parents of the children invited often get a check-list of ‘favourites’; things that will avoid disappointment and assure the buyer that they’ve not wasted their money.

‘She likes horses and fairies’, ‘He likes Lego’, ‘He’s a really active boy’, ‘she likes drawing’

A brilliant set and one I know boys and girls would both love but again it doesn't fit the averages

Really Gross Science‘ is a fantastic science set and one I know boys and girls would both love but it’s generally not picked by 8 year old girls

I hear these descriptions (and many similar wish lists) so often that I’ve got a set list of go-to products to fit. It makes the whole thing easy, seamless, unchallenging and, most importantly for all involved on busy Saturdays (where multiple siblings might all be attending different parties on the same morning/afternoon) such lists save time.

Sidebar: There’s a lot of emphasis placed on gender targeting in this kind of situation but less people seem concerned about our growing need to force children from stage to stage whilst exclaiming ‘they sure grow up fast don’t they!’. I personally think it’s just as dangerous as the growing gender segregation of toys (I’ve discussed this before here and here) but I won’t get into that too much just now. Sidebar over.

Anyway, here’s the issue that’s really amping up the gender/age divide in toys: combine the need for speed in the choosing of a birthday present with the gender/age specific advertising that kids are bombarded with and you start to see why toy companies have been favouring the targeting of specific groups with a particular line of toys. If a box is clearly, unambiguously, proclaiming that it’s ‘perfect for an 8 year old girl’, then you can bet your butt that thousands of 8 year old girls across the country will be getting at least one for their birthday.

With this in mind of course when Christmas comes around many of these children will pick the big, expensive, heavily advertised toys from the same range to add it to their Christmas list. But the reason for this isn’t just exposure to Christmas advertising, or even in-store displays; they’ve been playing with a cheaper element/elements from the same range since their birthday. It’s part of their life, they’re emotionally invested in the toy and they want to add to the world they’ve been playing in for months.

Lego Friends a brilliant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

Lego Friends a vibrant (though perhaps overly pink) new world created by Lego

You will not deny a child this, they won’t allow it and if you force the issue you’re the bad guy, you’re the parent who breaks their dreams and dismantles a world of play that feels comfortable and familiar. Step by step, year by year this relationship between child and brand will grow stronger, until eventually advertising won’t matter, they won’t need to hear about the next thing out, all they’ll know is that they want it. And all this because of a toy/toys they got for their birthday.

I constantly try to explain this problem when discussing gender and toys: it’s not as simple as stopping advertisers/toy companies/toy stores from segregating sections (though this plays it’s part). It’s got a lot more to do with an emerging culture of ‘all the class’ birthday parties where all 30 or so children in a class are expected to attend, and bring a gift, whether they’re the birthday girl’s/boy’s best friend or someone who barely talks to them. With unfamiliarity comes generalisation. If you don’t know a child you have to guess what present they’d like based on the tiny amount of information you have. Sometimes (a lot of the time) that’s just an age and their gender. Of course we’ll see people hurry to buy generalised toys aimed at ‘eight year old girls in general’, they have no other option.

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child's hand, brilliant toy but not generally picked by 8 year old girls

Red Toolbox toys, made to fit a child’s hand, brilliant toy (but again it doesn’t fit the averages) you can get them here.

I try to show people alternatives and to be honest most are chomping at the bit to find something different (they don’t want the child getting 30 of exactly the same toy). However, the problem remains that we’re both entirely, unalterably, in the dark about the actual personality of the child they’re buying for. All we have to work with is a vague list of interests (if we’re lucky) combined with their age and gender. I apologise to anyone from Let Toys Be Toys who reads this but so long as people are in the dark about who they’re buying for I’ll go for the numbers and help them pick the toy that the average child of that age and gender would like.

This is the real problem driving companies to appeal to a specific age/gender and possibly the only solution will be to get to know a lot more about the children in your child’s class. The only way we’re going to open up diversity in play is by knowing children as individuals and for a large portion of the toy buying population this currently is often just not an option.

Keep in mind that on average a parent will probably be taking their child to parties for around half of the Saturdays in the year. If they have more children then they’ve got more parties to buy for. It’s a big expense, even though the individual purchases don’t look like much (maybe an average of £7-£10 per gift), consider what that mounts up to throughout the year. When you add in the expense of travel and any other peripherals (costumes etc.) it’s easy to see why parents are trying their hardest to avoid wasting money. No one wants to imagine that the gift they bought has been sent un-played-with to a charity shop, so they play the odds, pick something that’s statistically likely to go down well, and keep their fingers crossed.

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

or you know abandon the age and gender tags and just get them Lord of the Rings Risk!

So what’s the solution? I have none, I’m sorry but I don’t. We could tone down the number of guests at our children’s parties to include just their friends but when you do that you’re basically asking your child to choose which kids they like and which they don’t/are indifferent to. It’s a difficult thing to do, and a lot of parents would rather avoid the politics and favouritism and just invite the whole class. So Let Toys Be Toys (and the many other groups rightfully campaigning to end the ridiculous segregation of toys by gender) remember: many/most of the people buying toys are just (through no fault of their own) shooting in the dark and despite all the re-named sections and re-packaged toys, these people will still come up to the sales assistant and ask ‘Do you have something that would suit an eight year old girl?’

This is where the next battle will have to be fought and it will be a lot harder going for us all.

Does anyone have any suggestions on what could be done to ease this situation? Do you think I’ve painted too bleak a picture here? As always I welcome any comments/questions/tirades/meanderings, thank you for reading and don’t forget to follow me on twitter to catch up with toy related news/discussions, all the best, Cheers, John