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Interview | Siân Williams, founder, The Children’s Bookshow

What is The Children’s Bookshow and how did you dream up the idea?
It’s a national tour which takes place each autumn in theatres across the country ranging from the Old Vic to the Liverpool Philharmonic – 15 venues in total. The tour takes writers and illustrators into those theatres to read their work to children, and to go to schools to do workshops afterwards and work with the children on their own creative writing. The idea came about because the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education for which I was doing some freelance publicity brought out a book – a compilation – called Simply the Best Books for Children. Since it was an institution rather than a publisher, it was very difficult for them to get distribution and I knew that having been a publisher. So I said, “If we can’t get it into the bookshops since they aren’t keen on books which are a bit out of the normal, what we’ll do, is promote it like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin which became famous by word of mouth.” And so we took the book into libraries and bookshops with some of the writers who were in the book. We had a marvellous first tour with Quentin Blake, James Berry, John Agard and others. That’s how it began. 

Have you always been an entrepreneur?
I suppose so, yes! In 1974 I was one of the founding members of Writers and Readers publishing co-operative founded on £250 and a prayer! The other members were Glenn Thompson, Richard Appignanesi and Lisa Appignanesi.

How has your career in publishing contributed to the success of The Children’s Bookshow?
Being a co-operative we’d learned how to do everything. I knew about the book trade, representation, distribution, press and publicity and I knew about marketing.
Right from the beginning we placed a tremendous stress on getting the books out there – to the extent that when Virago left Quartet to go independent, Carmen Callil came to Writers and Readers  for distribution. And similarly with Granta, when Bill Buford wanted Granta to break away from being Cambridge University Magazine, he came to Writers and Readers. I asked Carmen one day, “Why?” and she said, “Because I see your books everywhere.”  We concentrated on and understood the power of distribution and of publicity. That experience has fed into The Children’s Bookshow.  

How has your vision from when you started the Kids Bookshow 15 years ago changed?
It is the same: simply the best books for children. So we work with whoever we think is excellent. I look all the time – not just in the UK but abroad as well. So we find the best writers in the world – the ones who have won, say, the Hans Christian Andersen Award. They agree to come because they like talking to children!

childrens bookshow flyerWhy is it so important for children to start reading at an early age, can’t you start reading at any age?
I don’t think it is necessary to start reading when they are very young so long as people are reading stories to them. Then they’ll want to read. If you give children excellent picture books they’ll be intrigued, and will want more. We’re not didactic, we’re not teaching reading. What we’re doing is putting great literature in front of children, in other words storytelling, at a very early age.
So the tour covers the age range of all primary school and the first two years of secondary up to 13 years old maximum. Schools make up our audience. We used to cover all ages but secondary was very, very difficult because once children get to a certain age, they’re locked into the curriculum and teachers are very reluctant to bring them out for events. So now we just go from the whole of the primary age to the first two years of secondary.

Why do you think reading a book and reading on screen is a different experience, does it matter?
I think it matters enormously. There is a whole tactile pleasure first of all. And how can you pour over a double page spread of a beautiful picture book on a tiny tablet?

Why does reading transform lives?
We go everywhere and cover a very wide range so the children come from town and country. W
e visit tiny village schools which are one class, for example in Hereford, to huge multi-class primaries in, say, Newcastle. The children light up. The teachers and children all comment afterwards, ranging from “I never thought I could do this” after poets like Valerie Bloom or Rachel Rooney or Michael Rosen go in and do a workshop; or else, “I can write too!” So they are inspired. We have one writer who is also an illustrator, Jessica Souhami, who is brilliant. She makes a whole book in the course of a one-and-a-half hour workshop – each child makes a whole book to take home and keep. I’m very fast with a Pritt stick! The way she does it is to ask them what their favourite fairy stories are, like Cinderella, and then she says, “We’re going to write our own stories now. Take one of those stories you like, set it in a different time, a different place, but I want you first to just draw the story.” So that’s what the children do: they draw their pictures spread by spread, and they’re not allowed to write. Only when they have finished the story in pictures do they start writing. Then I go round with a pencil and help them with the words. One child had never written before; never participated – he was autistic, and he actually wrote a story. His drawings were cones, a series of cones, but they meant something to him, and then he could tell us what the story was and we wrote it below. The teacher said he’d never done anything before, so that’s absolutely remarkable.  We’re high as kites after an experience like that!

Which five books made you fall in love with reading as a child?
Fairy tales? I cried my eyes out when I read Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop at about 9, that’s my first memory. Also Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Do you have grandchildren? What do you read to them?
Yes, two boys age 6 and 4 and I read to them all the time! I started reading to them at 6 weeks old. Michael Rosen We’re Going on a Bear Hunt was one. And Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar – which would not be possible on a tablet! As a result both boys read the whole time. By the age of 5 and 3 they developed a taste: anything they did not think was up to scratch was taken to the thrift shop!

childresn bookshow flyer 2009How important is language learning at school and how can a love of reading and stories help, given that, according to the British Media, language teaching in the UK is in crisis. What is your experience of this on the ground when working with the different schools who take part in the tour?
We’re working mainly with primary school so languages are not really involved, but in the tour we introduce the idea of foreign literature and have foreign authors on tour, and of course it broadens the teachers’ horizons. And to have somebody who is, say, Japanese on stage speaking to the children means they find out what other cultures have to offer. This year we’re touring with writers from Belgium, Finland, Estonia, Japan Russia, and an Iranian artist who lives and works in the UK. In the past we have included, amongst many others, writers and illustrators from Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, France
. . . and we once brought an Aboriginal Australian writer on tour, Boori Monty Pryor. The children listen and work with them.

Who are your favourite prose authors for children? Are there returnees to the Children’s Bookshow?
Well there is Quentin Blake of course, and Michael Rosen too; he is so wonderfully proactive with schools. When he goes in, he does a workshop with one class, but makes sure he pops his head around the door of the other classes to say hello. Also Jessica Souhami who I mentioned before who is very special: there aren’t many people who can do both the illustrations and the writing.
The writer and illustrator usually work as a team. On tour they are interactive on stage. For example, what Megumi Iwasa and Jun Takabatake who are coming over from Japan this year will do, is talk about things in their lives that the children know about – home, food, pets, and so on, and interact with the children to find out what’s the same and what’s different. Then there might be a reading, or part of a reading, from Yours Sincerely, Giraffe and then the illustrator might draw various things on a visualiser, like part of an animal, and get the children to guess what it is. It is quite interactive and most of all it is fun. That’s very important: you wouldn’t want to go a theatre not to be entertained would you! What we want to do is bring the children joy.
The bookshops participate always at the events and do a bookstall so that afterwards the teachers can come and browse the whole range of the writers’ books. That is my promotional background coming in.
There is more to be done with the press and Media. Just putting on a tour at 15 large theatres is quite an undertaking! We have solid ties with the Times Educational Supplement and have worked well with The Independent and their tabloid ‘i‘, but more needs to be done. I’m meeting the Sunday Times education editor soon, so that’s a good beginning. We’re running a competition for the children in collaboration for the second year with the TES. I have just had the first entry – a poem about a whale.

Your favourite children’s poets? How did the tour go when it was poets?
Valerie Bloom is excellent, and Michael Rosen of course. We had James Berry in the tour early on, very sadly now deceased.  A very good poet who has won the Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award is Rachel Rooney. Then there are Roger McGough, Ian McMillan and the wonderful Kit Wright who have taken part too. I’m also always looking for up-and-coming young poets.

What about comics and graphic novels for young adults?
I’m trying to do something this year with Philip Pullman and Fred Fordham whose wonderful time-travelling adventure called The Adventures of John Blake is out with David Fickling who does The New Phoenix Comic.  I had to read their book twice it is so wonderful.
I wasn’t allowed to read comics when I was a little girl. They were seen as trash. Same for Enid Blyton, my mother said, “her books are like sausages, they all come out the same . . .” I did read some comics, but on the quiet . . . Beano, Bunty, Dandy, but not Eagle.

What next for The Children’s Bookshow, post-Brexit, how will it evolve?
It has made me resolve to work even more closely with the various embassies here in London, which we have done over a number of years, because they are incredibly willing to help. They’ll put on receptions, give you grants, and a travel grant to bring over the writers. So this year we’
re working with Megumi Iwasa and Jun Takabatake in Stafford, and The Japan Foundation has said let’s do something in London so we’re doing an event at Foyles, in Charing Cross Road, for adults. So there is that support. We’ve had funding from Europe House, the European Commission representation in the UK, for the last five years and they’ve been tremendous.
As you know we work in large theatres, but we also sometimes tie in with bookshops. We have a Russian coming over this year, Eugene Ostashevsky. He is doing a panel at Europe House talking about how classic literature, and literature in translation, can share in the success and growth of the children’s book industry at the moment; how we can make it a force. Ostashevsky is the translator of three stories for children by Mandelstam, Mayakovksy and Kharms in the picture book The Fire Horse published by New York Review of Books Classics. Again, this is a collaboration with a bookshop, this time Waterstones in Trafalgar Square.

To end . . . with you as translator, which children’s books have you translated?
I have translated the Italian writer Francesco D’Adamo who, says an Italian friend, is the best author of Italian children’s books right now. Oh, Freedom! tells children about the history of slavery and how people fought against it and how they triumphed – which could be translated to any situation where there is injustice and inequality. It is an inspiring and joyful book.

Interview © Siân Williams 2017. Questions format © BookBlast Ltd, London.

Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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