A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I went to prison last week.
If you asked an illustrator to draw a prison off the top of their head, they would undoubtedly come up with something like this one. Imposing brick walls, dirtied by time to a forbidding grey. Central gate so large that it could be a giant mouth, eager to swallow everything that passes its way, before eventually spitting out the emaciated remains. Endless security checks, and then the tall barbed wire fences and narrow concrete exercise yards so well known for the movies.
I am in. A door is locked shut behind me.
Fortunately, the door was opened to let me out two hours later. I had not been sent down for committing a terrible crime, but had instead been invited in to read The Giant of Jum to some of the inmates and their children for a prison Family Fun Day.
Some authors have been doing events for years. I have not. As a result I can’t claim to be an expert on them, but one of the things I have come to appreciate most about them is their sheer variety. Back in May I was at the Hay Festival, doing Giant of Jum and Woozy the Wizard events for groups of children who almost certainly came from households where books and reading were a normal part of daily life. These were children whose parents, all no doubt highly literate, had paid good money for them to be there. And yes, they were great audiences, and I had an amazing time.
But the events I perhaps prefer are the schools events, and the recent prison event, where you know that not all the children will be growing up on a diet of books. There is something magical about knowing that my bringing a story to life, you might be enthusing a child about books for the first time.
At the age of four Elli wrote her first picture book, involving her best friend, a tricycle accident, blood everywhere, and the author emerging as the hero. Several years later she completed an MA in social anthropology, moved out to Thailand, taught herself the language, and has since worked variously as a Thai to English translator, a copywriter for a domestic appliance insurance firm (about as interesting as it sounds) and an assistant editor in academic publishing. She now lives in London where she combines writing with freelance translation work, looking after her four children, butchering nice music on the piano and being dictated to by her deranged cat.
That isn’t to say that events are all plain sailing. Before my first event I was, quite frankly, terrified. Once upon a time writers did just that: writing. Being a children’s author was something you did alone, at home. Now, however, authors are expected to go out there and perform, and for introverted types like me whose idea of fun is to curl up with a good book, this can be daunting. We signed up to be writers, for god’s sake, not CBeebies presenters!
But actually, I found out after the first session that performing in front of children was something I could do. Possibly even something I’m good at. Children are a fairly forgiving audience. Do something silly by mistake, laugh at yourself, and the children are on your side. Do something silly on purpose, and they laugh all the more. Dress up, get the children to dress up. Get them to do silly things, like stamp on sausages (as I do for my Woozy events). And ask them to volunteer for anything, and you’ll see a whole ocean of hands shoot up. The trick seems to be to keep it varied and to include lots of audience participation – no child wants to be lectured at for hours. It’s lovely to produce an atmosphere that simmers just under the level of chaos, after which you can hand the excited children back to their teachers and go home. And if you come in with a banana costume, as I do for some of my Giant of Jum events, they will absolutely love it.
Things have gone wrong at my events, and no doubt will continue to do so. Like the time when the battery box for my clip-on microphone (which I didn’t even need – I have a LOUD voice) slipped down between my skirt and my knickers half way through the performance, and I was left trying to hold my book one-handed while desperately clutching the battery box under my skirt with the other hand. Or the time when the train I was supposed to be travelling on was cancelled, and I found myself having a mad panic trying to get to the event. Or the time when the event organisers ordered the wrong book in the series (not a major problem, but slightly panic-inducing at the time). Or just me generally getting in a muddle, which I do a lot.
But you know what? I love events. Really, really love them. Yes, they are exhausting, but it’s wonderful not only to show children how exciting and fun books are, but also to show them that authors are real people. When I was growing up, I always wanted to write, but being an author seemed impossible. Not having ever met an author, I never imagined it was something I could aspire to.
I would love to think that when I do an event, there might be children who think ‘yes, I’d like to do that’, and go off and start writing their own stories. Some might write them as part of their schoolwork, and that in itself is wonderful, but some might go on to become the authors of tomorrow.
Whoever we are, books help us escape the imprisoning walls of our own existence. By doing events, we can break down barriers (those metaphorical equivalent of the barbed wire fences in the prison I visited), whether those between authors and their readers, or those between mundane reality and imagination.
I can’t wait for the next one.