Chair of the Youth Libraries Group, Alison Brumwell, introduces us to the British Library's Discovering Children's Books site
When national lockdown began on 23 March 2020 it was difficult to envision where we were headed or grasp the unprecedented change children and their families would face as schools closed. Throughout this time, we’ve seen a range of teaching and learning take place online, with new blogs, Facebook pages and YouTube channels popping up to support parents with home schooling and librarians with outreach. There have been virtual tours of museums and art galleries, virtual literary festivals and free access to some brilliant online theatre productions and film experiences, not to mention author events and book launches. Library membership and e-book borrowing has burgeoned across the UK and more than 100 books worldwide have been published for children and young people in a range of languages about COVID-19.
As a librarian, I have been reading, viewing and exploring many of these, marvelling at the variety and range of material available online. One of the best new websites I’ve discovered and promoted is British Library’s Discovering Children’s Books https://www.bl.uk/childrens-books. There is a range of brilliant activities for children of all ages, each of which involves delving into the diverse heritage of children’s books; not just fiction but poetry, non-fiction and illustration too. Themes of belonging, identity and morality are explored and the ways in which children’s books have also changed the world is compelling social history; in fact, there’s so much rich content here it invites parents and children to dive straight in.
As I collect children’s picture books and illustrated material, and own quite a nice personal collection, I gravitated immediately towards the creative activities, like Make a Miniature Book. https://www.bl.uk/childrens-books/activities/make-a-miniature-book. The miniature books project was inspired by those created by Charlotte Bronte and her siblings as children growing up at Haworth parsonage, carefully crafted and hand-stitched. The website includes examples of mini books created by famous authors like Jacqueline Wilson, Katherine Rundell and Philip Ardagh, which they also read aloud. https://www.bl.uk/childrens-books/activities/miniature-books-by-your-favourite-authors. You can try making your own mini book: photos can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or shared on Twitter to @BL_Learning, using #Discovering Literature.
When Eva Eland, the talented author and illustrator of When Sadness Comes to Call and Where Happiness Begins visited Kirklees Libraries last year this was an activity she prepared for primary school pupils and they loved it. I still have my own unused resources from those sessions, so I am determined to find a way of combining my love of illuminated manuscript and traditional inks with manga and see what happens. It’s a wonderful introduction to books as interactive and “living, rather than just something to digest or as artefacts arranged on a shelf.
There is also an exhaustive archive of interviews to watch and listen to. I love Viviane Schwarz’s in which she gives an insight into developing character through illustration: it is magical how a few lines and colour (or not) can evoke so much. And it’s something which is very accessible to children. Likewise, Joseph Coelho’s brilliant tips for budding poets. Zanib Mian’s interview highlights the importance of own voice and lived experience – a child’s thoughts and ideas can have a powerful place in their own writing. But a highlight for me is seeing Sarah Garland’s sketches, research, dummy book and original artwork from Azzi in Between, held by Seven Stories in Newcastle. How fascinating to have an overview of the whole process from start to finish and to read about Sarah’s inspiration for this very moving book.
The articles included on the website are equally fascinating and range from fables and fairy tales in children’s books to fear (Kim Reynolds’ article on the subject is illuminating). My own favourite is food in fiction, and Imogen Russell Williams gives us a whimsical insight into the role food plays in children’s books. Nothing fills a reader with more delight or vicarious pleasure, whether it’s bread on a toasting fork, a picnic or a feast (or Mrs. Twit feeding her husband worms instead of spaghetti). One of my most pored-over books as a child was Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School. As a sequel to What Katy Did, it was perhaps unremarkable, but I will never forget the sumptuous food hampers Katy and Clover used to receive at boarding school.
I hope librarians, teachers and parents will take every opportunity to explore Discovering Children’s Books with children and young people, or just take time to click through this informative, interactive resource themselves. The gallery of activities alone makes it worthwhile, but there’s so much more to share and appreciate.
'Image © Philip Ardagh'