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The Time it took Tom - Stephen Tucker, Nick Sharratt

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Paperback: 32 pages / Publisher: Scholastic Hippo / Published: 18 Aug 2000

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      21.11.2012 10:02
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      Lots of fun and educational too

      This is the story of a little boy called Tom who finds a tin of bright red paint in a cupboard under the sink. It takes Tom 3 seconds to decide what he's going to do with it, 3 minutes to get the lid off and 3 hours to transform his living room beyond recognition. How long is it going to take to put things right again?

      Aimed at children aged 4 to 6, this is a very funny story. It's impossible not to giggle at Tom's mischievous antics and his curious obsession with paint. There is a very amusing set of pictures which show Tom heaving and straining to get the lid off the paint tin. "It took him (oof!) three (humpf!) minutes to get the (grrrrrrrrr!) lid off the tin," says the text. It's clearly written in a way that is designed for an enthusiastic adult to read aloud with plenty of expression, which can only add to the amusement. Three minutes to remove a lid? Most people would have given up and gone off and watched telly, but such is Tom's demented need to get at that bright red paint that he perseveres. It's this craziness that makes him rather endearing.

      To make things even funnier, Tom doesn't just paint the living room walls, but transforms everything in that room to a glorious shade of red - the furniture, the fruit bowl, even the cat. Meanwhile his mother is blissfully unaware of what is going on. We can see her through the window, mowing the lawn, chatting to a neighbour and then snoozing on a sun bed. This really helps to build the suspense as children know what's going on even though Mum doesn't, and it's only a matter of time before she finds out. In my experience, children are on the edge of their seats at this point. On the one hand they're thinking, "Stop! Don't do it Tom! You'll get into trouble" but on the other thinking, "Go on, Tom! Keep painting! This is going to be so funny." Tom's naughtiness makes compelling reading.

      It could be said that this book sends out a slightly alarming message. Here we have a little boy with a worrying fascination for paint, totally unsupervised and wreaking havoc in the house. Could a story like this encourage children into acts of mischief? Well, perhaps in some extreme cases of very impressionable children, but I really don't think this story condones bad behaviour. I can't imagine that any child would really be tempted to paint their living room red. How many children outside the world of fiction would spend 3 hours on any task before getting bored? How many children would get the opportunity anyway? Tom's mum's failure to supervise him is so over the top that it can't really be taken seriously. Tom's need to cover every single object he can find in red paint is also so ridiculous that even the youngest children are going to see it for what it is - a comedy story, not real life.

      Whether Tom sees what he's doing is wrong or not, the reader sees things from a different perspective, looking in on the scene as an outsider. The reader can see the consequences of Tom's actions long before he can. This is one of the good things about this book, the way it encourages young readers to predict what is likely to happen, to anticipate things that the characters are not aware of.

      This book is a great way to introduce the concept of time to the very young. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, etc. are all referred to and children acquire understanding of different time scales. This can lead to further discussion. For example, children could be asked what else they could do in the time Tom took to open the tin of paint. How long would it take you to eat a chocolate bar, for instance? Could you put your shoes on in the time it took Tom to open that tin of paint? In the time it takes Tom to paint the room, readers can observe his mother doing a number of different things in the garden, which encourages discussions about how much you can actually get through in 3 hours - one big task or several shorter ones, for instance. It's a way of introducing mathematical ideas without children even realising it, which is often the best and most relaxed way to learn.

      What I find particularly amusing is how in the whole of the 3 hours while Tom is painting and his mum is doing various jobs outside, the cat remains in the same spot, snoozing on the sofa. That is certainly well-observed feline behaviour!

      The book also helps children to think about the consequences of an action. Sometimes it can take only a short time to carry out an act but the consequences will take a long time to put right. Maybe children will be able to think of times when something has happened to them which only took a matter of seconds, but they had to live with the consequences for much longer. Perhaps they decided to leap off the climbing frame, for instance, and ended up with their arm in a plaster cast for weeks. So it's quite a thought-provoking book as well as a funny one. Although Tom is not the greatest role model, the book is encouraging children to look ahead and avoid giving in to impulsive ideas without thinking them through.

      The illustrations are colourful and vibrant. To begin with there is a just a little bit of text on each page, with the pictures telling the story almost without the need for words. At the beginning when we are told it took Tom 3 seconds to decide what to do with the tin of paint, those seconds are counted out in big typeset - "One. Two. Three" so children can join in with counting down those seconds and get a real sense of how quickly Tom came to his unfortunate decision. Later on you can count down the ten seconds it takes for Tom's mum to come in, see the state of the room and explode.

      A lot of the text is in the form of speech bubbles, which add to the comic book feel of the illustrations. I love how there are speech bubbles coming from inanimate objects as well as people. For instance, Mum's lawnmower says, "Vrrr Vrrr" and the clock says "tick tock." This adds to the enjoyment of reading it aloud and children can join in with the various sound effects. Perhaps the best sound effect of all is made by Tom's mum when she discovers what her son has been up to - "Waaah!!!"

      The text becomes more wordy when it gets to the part of the story where Tom explains how they sorted out the mess he'd caused. Suddenly there is a lot of a text and, in my opinion, it starts to look a bit too busy on the page. Also slightly irritating is the fact that the text varies in size and at times it is so small that you have to strain to read it. This section of the book reads like a long list of things that were done to rectify the problem. Another thing I dislike about the layout here is that the incorrect use of capital letters makes it a bit confusing to read. For example:

      "We had to get a skip
      For the ruined bits of furniture.
      We stripped off all the wallpaper,
      And went off to the store."

      However, I think the inclusion of mini pictures at the end of each sentence to provide a reading cue is helpful. It means that children who aren't yet reading can join in with adults who are reading the book, using the pictures as a guide. Although this may not be real reading, it is good practice just to start following a line of text from left to right and it makes the story session a more interactive experience, which helps build confidence.

      I would recommend this book because it is genuinely funny and unusual, as well as being educational. There is a twist at the end which leaves the reader pretty certain what is going to happen next - but who knows? That bit of ambiguity packs quite a dramatic punch and is a great talking point. Older children might even be inspired to write their own sequel about Tom and what he did next.

      In the time it takes to log onto Amazon and press 'one click', you can purchase this book used for a mere £0.01. It's a lovely addition to any young child's collection.

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