Thanks to the generous support of Klaus Flugge, founder of Andersen Press and one of the Youth Libraries Group's honorary members, we have been able to offer a bursary enabling one member of the profession to have a full residential place at our annual conference. Here Mélanie McGilloway reflects on attending this year's conference.
This year I was lucky enough to be able to attend the YLG/SLA joint conference in Birmingham after being awarded the Klaus Flugge bursary. I had not attended a school/youth librarian weekend conference for several years (the SLA conference in Nottigham in 2007 had been my last one) so this was a fabulous opportunity for me and I was looking forward to getting stuck in, and it didn’t disappoint: inspiring speakers, wonderfully generous publishers, a fabulous bookshop, everything came together brilliantly (under Sue Bastone and Alison Tarrant for SLA and Joy Court and Alison Brumwell for YLG’s expert guidance) to create a stimulating weekend that left attendees utterly enthused but slightly exhausted by the end!
It would be difficult to the pinpoint which talks were the best or the most inspiring. I felt that each brought something different, something worth thinking about, something worth implementing. What I particularly enjoyed about the programme was the breadth of experiences and backgrounds of speakers, several of them not directly linked to librarianship, recognising that when talking about Building Identities and Readers, as was the theme of the conference, we need to look at the bigger picture, one that libraries and librarians very much have a role to play.
However, as well as the wonderful programme, the networking, the opportunity to meet colleagues and professionals, the reunion with old friends, the joy of celebrating some of our own (congratulations to Marilyn Brocklehurst for her honorary YLG membership; Emma Suffield who was 2018 School Librarian of the Year; Youth Librarian Award winner Olivia Barnden, and Joy Court for her outstanding contribution to CKG), cannot be underestimated. Being a school librarian can be a lonely position within our work establishment. There is, more often than not, only one of us there. We need those times to take stock, share experiences, learn from others, and remind ourselves that we do a great job, sometimes in challenging circumstances. Conference is a celebration of all of us, and it is heartening to hear so many of the speakers telling us how important they think libraries are.
I am already looking forward to 2020, when YLG conference will take place in our neck of the woods!
My heartfelt thanks again to YLG and Andersen Press for this wonderful opportunity.
Save the date: we are delighted to announce that the Youth Libraries Group annual conference 2020 will be held at the Imperial Hotel, Torquay, it will be held between 18 and 20 September, please look out further announcements and we hope you will join us.
We are delighted to introduce author Savita Kalhan who discusses her new and intensely thought-provoking novel, That Asian Kid. Part gripping thriller, part ethical dilemma it's an utterly absorbing view into power, control and contemporary teenage life. Here Savita talks about her influences both as a reader and as a writer.
Growing up as an Asian girl in High Wycombe in the sixties was challenging. My family was poor, my parents were very strict and traditional, and my mother was completely illiterate – in her own language as well as English as she never had the chance to go to school when she was growing up. We couldn’t afford to buy books, but for my parents education was synonymous with books and reading, so they made every effort to take me and my siblings to the library once a week. Education was the key to achieving success and financial security; it was also the key to overcoming prejudice and racism.
Very quickly, the library became our safe place, our haven. It was where we discovered the many worlds and possibilities outside of the four walls of our home and the strictures and pre-conceptions of Asian children in our schools. We couldn’t change our colour or our background, but we assimilated as fast as possible because not to do so would have consequences. We tried to make ourselves as English as possible.
I read voraciously – my first and abiding love was fantasy. The Narnia books and The Hobbit will always hold a special place in my heart. But I read every book I could lay my hands on in the children's library. In all that time, I never read a story by an Asian author, and I never came across an Asian character. Because there were none. So I never thought I could ever be a writer. How I ended up becoming a writer is another story. But my experiences have inevitably informed what I write, both with The Girl in the Broken Mirror and That Asian Kid.
The Girl in the Broken Mirror explores the themes of identity, culture clash and the patriarchy that exists in Asian communities, where girls are often treated as subservient second class citizens. Through the main character, Jay, the book also deals with the trauma of rape, the feelings of shame and being at fault in some way, and also the long journey to recovery. I wanted to provoke discussions in classrooms about respect, boundaries and consent, which, judging by the horrific figures collated by the NSPCC, both girls and boys need to talk about in a safe environment. The book is not graphic and it is sensitively told because I wanted it to be accessible to teenagers. I am always mindful of who I am writing for, but I strive to be honest.
That Asian Kidis a very different story. It’s the story of Jeevan, a fifteen year old boy growing up in Britain today. He is third generation Indian. His parents and grandparents would have gone through much the same experiences as my parents and me. He’s got great friends, enjoys school, but he is a bit of a smart-aleck, which gets him into trouble with one particular teacher.
He is walking home from school, taking the shortcut through the woods, when he sees two teachers. He ducks and hides when he sees that it’s his favourite teacher and his least favourite teacher, the one he feels has been unfairly marking him down. They’re talking about him, so without pausing to think, he presses record on his phone. And then the teachers get it on, and the camera is still recording.
Jeevan now has a radio-active video on his phone that feels like a ticking time-bomb. He’s caught in a moral dilemma. As tempted as he is to upload the video on social media, Jeevan knows that it would be wrong to do so. He knows that two wrongs don’t make a right. But as the situation between him and his teacher escalates and with expulsion looming on the horizon, Jeevan’s struggle to do the right thing becomes compromised when matters get taken out of his hands.
Ultimately, That Asian Kid is about one boy’s struggle against the abuse of power by a figure in authority – hard enough for an adult to deal with, much harder when you’re a kid.
Kevin Sheehan, School Librarian of the Year 2010, was the winner of the inaugural Klaus Flugge bursary. The bursary was set up thanks to the generosity of Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press and allows a librarian to attend the Youth Libraries Group Annual conference as a fully paid delegate. In times of constraint for both school and public libraries, this is an act that can make a real difference to individuals and to their practices, just as libraries themselves are able to make a huge difference the lives and aspirations of those using them.
On a serious note I was really experiencing a mid-job mid-life crisis when I applied for the Klaus Flugge bursary that successfully enabled me to attend the Youth Library Group conference. Actually, I was on the brink where I questioned whether I wanted to carry on as a School Librarian in the future. Constantly being barraged by headlines in the media really has had an negative impact on my own mental health. What have I got to contribute? Are there going to be School Librarians in the future? Am I good enough?
This year’s theme was on Reading the Future examining the impact of libraries on children and young people. My tote bag said it all ‘It all starts with Enid Blyton’, which I felt on reflection was like some kind of karma. Enid Blyton did not just provide me with escapism, away from the 1980’s plastic monotony during my formative years, but more notably made me fall in love with books, libraries and librarians. So, it was exactly like going full circle!
"We are all the same when wearing pyjamas."
It was an understatement to say that this year’s three day conference was jam packed. There was so much for me to hear, see and experience, and I was determined to savour every single moment of this time. Again, another understatement to say it was all brilliant. However, if I was to identify three key moments it would be:
-Melvin Burgess, Sharon Dogar, Juno Dawson and Sally Nicholls panel discussion examining women’s representation within young adult fiction. Melvin really summed it up as ‘childhood is a peculiar prison’. However, what is very clear is that publishers, authors and librarians create a freedom where positive female characters, whether that be from past, present or future, can have and regain power.
-Whoever thought of the Enid Blyton midnight feast deserves a sainthood. It pulled together the whole cohort of the publishing and library world in such a fun and spontaneous way! We are all same when wearing pyjamas. I don’t think I have ever experienced anything as hilarious and well-spirited at a conference previously.
-Jackie Morris provided a very emotionally satisfying conclusion to the conference exploring the importance in exploring visual literacy through wildlife and nature. It was a very special experience listening to Jackie on how the best ideas come from the silence of voice. I also felt very privileged obtaining a signed copy of ‘Lost Words’ personalised with my very own badger.
Jake Hope advocated in both his opening and closing speech that it was important to go away from the conference, then put the inspiration and experiences into practice. Actually, I have to say that I have done this repeatedly since being back at school. It is not just myself but also others have seen the positive energy that this conference has instilled into my whole being. There has not been a murmur of those constant negative mumblings that I experienced prior to the conference. It has really made me happy and positive for the future. I really do believe that School Librarians have a lasting impact on lives. Thank you for making me believe in myself again.
To mark National Libraries Week, Samantha Lockett recounts her experiences at the Youth Libraries Group conference. Samantha won the bursary kindly sponsored by Browns Books for Students. Her account is a powerful reminder of the importance of training and development within the profession.
The theme of this year’s Youth Libraries Group conference was Reading the Future. Sponsored by Enid Blyton Entertainment, it was a celebration of the old and new, looking back on childhood favourites – such as Blyton – while discussing how these can be reimagined for modern audiences. Alongside the nostalgia, there was a sense of immediacy, an awareness that children’s fiction, literacy and libraries must be fought for. The conference explored many of the key issues in contemporary children’s fiction – such as the rights and representation of women, the need for diverse and inclusive books and the promotion of empathy. Throughout the conference, authors, panelists, poets and publishers stressed the importance of reading for pleasure. Reading may not be an instant joy to all children, but with enough support it can become one.
Within minutes of arriving at the Mercure hotel, I found myself part of a group marching towards Central Library in the torrential Manchester rain. As a visitor to the city, I had only ever ducked into the library, too intimidated by the grand architecture and swish café to do more than browse the gift shop. The tour was an eye-opening experience, giving us backstage (backstacks?) access to the many hidden wonders of the library, including the restoration room and archives. As you might expect from a collective of children’s librarians, we were reluctant to move on from the Children’s Library with its delightful Secret Garden theme, but with lunch imminent we said goodbye to Central Library and headed back. The conference was about to begin.
That first day, I overheard somebody say, ‘Only the YLG!’. As I watched the opening courtroom skit – three librarians dressed in wigs and gowns, interrogating a series of witnesses, including Anthony McGowan and Non Pratt, about what makes a reader, I could understand why. Only at the YLG Conference. As the weekend went on, it became my internal refrain. Ginger beer cocktails? Only the YLG. A midnight feast? Only the YLG. A lollipop shaped like the decapitated head of Frankenstein’s monster? Only the YLG! One of the things I most enjoyed about the conference was that it encouraged people to have fun, to be a little silly. The poet Matt Goodfellow got an entire room of bookish people to act out his poem Chicken on the Roof. Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre had us in hysterics as they led a group drawing session of Kevin, the flying pony hero of their new book. Audience participation – one of the most feared phrases in the English language – was met with applause. What wizardry was this?!
With such a jam-packed programme, I was worried about sensory overload. However, the programming worked extremely well, mixing formats – a panel followed by a poetry performance followed by a publisher roadshow – to great effect. I particularly enjoyed the tea break sessions; thirty minutes of listening to brilliant authors while eating themed-snacks may be my new favourite thing in life. On the second day, delegates were given a choice of breakout sessions to attend. I chose ‘Literacy by Stealth’ – a discussion of how the Book Bench project and Read Manchester initiatives have engaged disadvantaged communities in Manchester, increasing tourism and library visits – and ‘Life Online’ – a two-part session delivered by CILIP’s Andrew Walsh and the author Nicola Morgan about information literacy and the preconceptions we hold about teenagers and technology. I found both sessions to be hugely informative, giving practical advice, such as how to reach underrepresented groups and forge connections with partner organisations, that I have since followed in my own library. Another session that I thoroughly enjoyed detailed the painstaking creation of the children’s poetry book, I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree: A Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year. The book’s illustrator, Frann Preston Gannon, and its publisher, Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, took us through the stages of its creation, from early sketches to the final cover art. It was astonishing to see how much work – and passion – went into producing the book. As I walked around the Exhibition Room, where publishers showcased their new and upcoming releases, I had a greater appreciation for… books. For everyone who plays a part in making them. I was so excited that children and young adults would soon be reading these incredible titles, and, as a public library, we would be doing our part in providing them.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce made me cry. He may also have made a nun cry, if his opening anecdote was anything to go by. His keynote speech was so full of sincerity, humour and wild, unrepentant bookish love, that my notes became a scribbled explosion of his quotes. My favourite is this: ‘only books catch all the voices’. Books, according to Cottrell-Boyce, stand for complication. There is a democracy to books. This, I believe, is one of the key themes of the conference. Reading the Future does not mean forgetting the past. In his closing speech, YLG Chair Jake Hope mentioned that he always intended for illustrator and author, Jackie Morris, to be the final act of the conference. Co-created with Robert Macfarlane, her book – The Lost Words – brings lost words back into being. It is a beautiful book, full of Macfarlane’s “spells” and Morris’ uncanny illustrations. Watching Morris paint an otter into life was an experience I will never forget. It showed how books, as tangible, living things, can bring people together. Not just a conference room of strangers, but families and classrooms and communities. What wizardry indeed.
I would need another thousand words to write about all the other wonderful things I saw at the YLG Conference. Or maybe ten thousand words, including the words I SAW MALORIE BLACKMAN AND SHE SPOKE KLINGON. As it is, I will just say thank you to Browns Books for Students for the bursary, and to the YLG committee for organising it all. It was absolutely brilliant.
Samantha Lockett is a Library Assistant at Holmes Chapel Library in Cheshire East. She is currently studying for an MA in Information and Library Studies at Aberystwyth University.
We are delighted that Pete Johnson, author of multi award-winning titles like The Ghost Dog and How to Train Your Parents is joining this year's Youth Libraries Group Conference to discuss funny books. Here he talks about some of the books that made him laugh as a child and continue to provide mirth and merriment. Which books made you laugh as a child and do they continue to do so today?
Writing this, I only have to look up, to see them massed across two shelves. Some are rather shabby and battered now, but they have travelled through time with me.
For these are my most treasured children’s books. The ones which cast such a spell, they made me a reader. And many of them are funny stories.
Now, if you’d come across me when I was eight or nine, I doubt if you’d have described me as fizzing with comic energy. I was a painfully shy, fearful boy. ‘Look at people when they’re speaking to you,’ my mum would say. But I found that very hard. I was much happier mumbling away to my shoes.
This at least, was the outward me. But as soon as I could escape the tyranny of what other people called ‘real life’ I was off travelling the countryside with my irrepressible alter ego, William Brown.
One night while reading a William book I caused my parents to come tearing up the stairs. They’d heard a noise. What had happened? It was very simple. I’d been laughing so hard at William and the Princess Goldilocks (from William the Pirate) I’d fallen out of bed. My parents were so pleased to see me smiling and free from my usual anxiety they didn’t say a word. In fact, they helped me buy all thirty eight of the Just William books by Richmal Crompton. William’s anarchic spirit called up something in me, as well as his optimism and resilience and sense of purpose.
I collected every one of the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge too. He was similarly bold and impetuous, never deliberately causing trouble but still leaving a hilarious trail of accidents and disasters. The moment when Jennings accidentally stuck his head in the railings, while attemping to photograph a squirrel never failed to make me fall about helplessly.
I re-read the William and Jennings stories over and over, marvelling not only at the brilliant characters but the witty dialogue and careful way they were structured. I suppose I was starting to analyse them.
But mainly, I was a boy who, left to his own devices, could swiftly fill his head with gloomy thoughts. In fact, I could depress myself in seconds. And there was only one antidote.
Another book which always lifted my spirits was Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn, by Eve Garnett. Here, my favourite character from the One End Street books – Kate Ruggles – spends two glorious months in the country. Now Kate was more than a bit like me – earnest, bookish, eager not to give offence. The book’s humorous tone, gently mocks Kate’s endless worrying and anxiousness and I suppose in laughing at Kate I was also beginning to laugh at myself.
Anyway, I finally started to become more confident. My secret self, so far hidden from everyone but my fictional friends began to shakily emerge. There were even moments when I’d been glimpsed looking cheerful, happy even. But then – disaster.
When I was twelve we moved away. And I was plunged into a new school, at which I felt instantly out of place. Soon a horrible cloud of misery settled over me and clung to me unceasingly every day. I’d never felt more isolated.
But at my lowest point help, once more, was at hand. I came across an Armada paperback. (Hands up who remembers Armada books?) called Mike and Psmith by P.G Wodehouse. The cover featured a boy in cricket whites and another reclining in a chair – wearing of all things, a monocle. It didn’t appeal to me at all. I nearly stopped there. But standing in the bookshop I read the first page. That was enough. I was hooked. I sat up half the night finishing it.
There was something to make me laugh on every page. But best of all there was the author’s beguiling voice. And long after I’d put the book down, I still had this big smile on my face. Next day I tore to the library to see what else P.G.Wodehouse had written. And there was a shelf and a half of Wodehouse treasures. So began a golden chapter in my life. Whenever I was feeling down I reached for Wodehouse or Edward Eager.
Eager is best known for Half Magic, a wonderfully inventive and funny book about a magic coin, which makes wishes come half true! This became a favourite escape read.
Shortly afterwards, I discovered several other hardback Edward Eager books for sale at my local library – 20p each. I bought all six of them. I’ve never made a better deal. The books captivated me and especially Seven Day Magic, which has a great central idea: library books are magic. Soon this book is taking the characters to their favourite fictional worlds.
As with Wodehouse, it was Edward Eager’s voice – wry, quizzical, often dryly humorous – which especially delighted me. And that’s why I wrote to him c/o his publishers to say how brilliant and brilliantly funny his books were and ask what else had he written as I was extremely keen to read them. I knew he lived in America, so I expected a bit of a wait for a reply.
But, in fact, it came almost by return of post. It was from his publisher to thank me for my enthusiastic appreciation – but to tell me., Edward Eager had died back in 1963 (at the age of just 52 of lung cancer, I later discovered) and the seven books I mentioned were the only ones he’d written.
I felt as if I’d lost a friend. And a friend who’d helped me get past the towering misfortune of having to change schools.
That’s why books which make you laugh are so special. They are the ones which reach right out to you. They go on doing that for me today. I only have to open any of these titles at random and within a very few pages I am laughing out loud. And there’s a rush of joy as they cast their spell all over again.
Posted By Jacob Hope,
18 September 2018
Updated: 18 September 2018
At the Youth Libraries Group Conference, Miriam Halahmy will be speaking on a panel with Candy Gourlay in discussion with Chloe Germaine Buckley from Manchester Metropolitan University talking about unconscious bias, cultural appropriation and colonial influences in children's literature and collections of these. Here Miriam talks about her time as Head of Special Needs at a school in Camden.
In 1981 I was Head of Special Needs in a Camden secondary school and The Rampton Report on the education of children from ethnic minorities was published. The recommendations of that report had a huge impact. Our school had many children of Asian and African Caribbean descent as well as many other cultural backgrounds. As a staff we were concerned to promote a multicultural society and the classroom as a microcosm of that society.
One of Rampton’s recommendations was that teachers review all books and materials and assess them for appropriateness in today’s multicultural society. I remember so well the day I went back to my classroom, looked through my tiny library and threw away those books which presented a negative view of children from a different culture. It was a painful process as we had no money to replace them but there was no way I would have left such books on my shelves anymore.
A recent report stated that only 1% of children’s books have a BAME main character and only 4% have any BAME characters. Is that because we threw our books away 30 years ago?
No, of course not.
But our work embracing the multicultural society – valuing each child and the cultural background they brought with them, displaying world maps to showing where everyone came from, etc, – often feels today as though it is being ridiculed. There are claims that the multicultural concept of society has undermined our Britishness.
Rubbish! is my answer. We were the bedrock of creating a more tolerant society and it seems the job has hardly begun in the world of children’s books. I would urge anyone providing books to children and young people to scan carefully through your collections as we did and literally throw out the less enlightened books and materials.
Meanwhile my job as a writer is to ensure that all characters in my books represent the multicultural world I come from, have lived in and worked in all my life. But then I have always found that quite a natural part of my writing.
Posted By Jacob Hope,
08 September 2018
Updated: 08 September 2018
Night Shift by Debi Gliori was one of the 2018 CILIP Kate Greenaway medal shortlisted titles. Debi recently visited Bury Grammar Schools who have been shadowing the awards to provide insight into the background for the book.
Night Shift had unusual origins. It began as a series of unplanned pictures rather than as a book. Debi worked on enormous rolls of paper using charcoal, which she describes as one of the oldest drawing materials. She used her fingers to help create the work, making this quite literally a hands-on experience and allowing the creation of the smudged fog, a term she uses to describe the depression she's had since she was twenty-five. 'I drew how I felt - numb and miserable. It seemed as though there was a pane of glass and as though all of the great stuff in life was happening behind that'.
The series of drawings communicate how depression manifests itself and makes us feel as well as the insidious and sneaky way in which it affects life. 'Creating the pictures wasn't therapeutic. It triggered memories and reminded of what unfamiliar territory depression was when it first occurred.' Debi described how the hustle and bustle of working around the clock to meet deadlines led to a lack of sleep and increased pressure in her early twenties. 'It was terrifying, I used to belief I could hear what people were thinking. It was like static on the radio that I could not tune out from.'
When Debi's agent, Penny Holroyde, saw the pictures, she suggested with the addition of some spare text, they might form the basis for a special book.
'Debi told me she had been working on some large pictures in charcoal and I asked to see one. She sent me the image of the girl clutched in the dragon’s arm and told me that sometimes, during depressive periods, it’s easier to point at a picture than describe in words how you feel. This image (although cropped for the final book) and the sentiment behind it, moved me enormously and Night Shift, the book, became a little seedling. Debi obviously has a sublime way with words and I thought that simple captions would be the most effective way to carry the imagery and there is an intimacy in the picture book format that suits the subject matter perfectly.'
Penny Holroyde, Holroyde Cartey Agency
After the conversation, Debi began thinking about the way this could show how depression is a real illness and the way it makes people feel. She thought back to Leonard Cohen's line, 'there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in,' and realised that finding a way to re-frame depression was the key to giving structure to her illustrations and creating a narrative around these.
The moment when this clicked into place was serendipitous, it was during a walk on the beach. Debi recounts how helpful she finds being out in the natural world, among trees, rivers, sea and sky. On this particular occasion, she stumbled upon a feather, comprised of both light and dark elements, and realised this could provide the shift in perspective that she needed.
Debi's unique honesty and courage in recounting her personal experiences and making these both engaging and accessible for young people made the event every bit as affecting, heartfelt and affectionate as 'Night Shift' itself is. The Youth Libraries Group are delighted that Debi will be joining their annual conference Reading the Future this September and discussing the role books and reading can play in unlocking young people's emotion and empathy.
The Youth Libraries Group are delighted to be extending our Early Bird offer for the YLG National Conference 2018 “Reading the Future”.
Numerous people have expressed interest in attending but have stated that extra time would aid employer decisions. Professional development is a key part of maintaining knowledge and awareness offering a chance to engage with up to date research, changes in cultural context and current best practice. The deadline for the Early Bird offer has been extended until 15 July. We are keen to provide some rationale for attending conference, whether this be as a day delegate or on a full place.
• Conference this year is focused explicitly around reading - one of the six universal offers for libraries decided by the Society of Chief Librarians, policy and agenda setters for libraries across the United Kingdom
• Latest research from key organisations and agencies including BookTrust and the National Literacy Trust
• Networking opportunities with publishers and the opportunity to pitch for author visits, proof copies of books for reading groups
• *It is worth noting that average daily rates reported by the Society of Authors are between £400 and £500 for an author, this means one successful pitch for an author to a publisher - (which would also include the authors travel and accommodation), would more than recoup the entire cost of conference. Conference gives direct access to a host of publishers and the opportunity to build strong partnerships.
• Showcase of forthcoming titles to aid programming and planning and receipt of publicity materials (tote bags, book marks, badges and more!), copies of new books at no charge
• Chance to share best practice with other professionals across the United Kingdom
• Key part of continuing professional development offered by the Youth Libraries Group, the special interest group for the Professional Body for librarian and information professionals
• Opportunity to showcase best practice from authority and to learn about existing best practice in other authorities and regions so as to replicate existing and proven frameworks for quality and cost-effective service delivery
• Engage with relevant creative provider - app producers, BBC, Gerry Andersen entertainment - to explore models of engagement and hooks to attract non-users
• Receive in-kind materials including book proofs, advanced reader copies, bookmarks, posters and other related point-of-sale
• Actively highlight role of in supporting and maintaining awareness of the UK's oldest and most prestigious children's book awards, the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, the profession's flagship awards.
• Maintain links with the Youth Libraries Group, one of the leading training and development bodies for librarians working with children and young people in the United Kingdom
Posted By Jacob Hope,
15 June 2018
Updated: 15 June 2018
Riding a Donkey Backwardsis a collaboration between storyteller and author Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre and Shirin Adl. Across 21 stories, it recounts the fables of Mulla Nasruddin. Sean Taylor and the Khayaal Theatre will perform a special short-fire storytelling performance of the stories at this year's Youth Libraries Group Conference. Sean discusses how the book came to be created.
Riding a Donkey Backwards came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:
I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out?
We met at the British Library, a few weeks later. It was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project.
Some say Mulla Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:
He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”
They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.
Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.
Posted By Jacob Hope,
02 May 2018
Updated: 02 May 2018
The Youth Libraries Group annual conference is always a high point in the calendar, a chance to recharge creative energies and to connect with all manner of ideas and with individuals working in the field. Our theme this year is Reading the Future and aims to explore what it means to be a reader in the 21st Century, some of the opportunities and challenges that exist around this and the ways in which information, stories and imagination traverse different platforms and technologies.
Reading is a vital skill, an opportunity to find release from daily lives, to encounter and engage with news ways of thinking, to step into the past or to look forward into the future. Running beneath the conference’s main theme is a series of strands exploring key areas of interest.
The capacity poetry holds for conveying feelings, emotion and acting as an access point for reading makes it a very worthwhile focal point. We are delighted to welcome CLiPPA winners Rachel Rooney and Joseph Coehlo as speakers as well as having the National Literacy Trust presenting research on the role reading poetry has on child literacy.
With the 100 year anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, we’re looking at representation and rights for women in literature for young people. Our distinguished guests include Sally Nicholls, author of Things a Bright Girl Can Do, David Roberts, author and illustrator of Suffragette and many more.
This melds with another key for the conference, Enid Blyton. 2018 marks 50 years since the writer, voted by the public as the UK’s best loved author, passed away. It feels an apt time to reconsider her literary legacy and uncanny ability to captivate contemporary readers. We will also have our first ever Midnight Feast in celebration of her work!
In another first, we will also be hosting the inaugural Robert Westall Memorial Lecture. This will be led by Dr Kim Reynolds from Newcastle University and Paula Wride from Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book and will look at the indelible impact that twice winner of the Carnegie Medal Robert Westall’s work has made on the field.
It feels massively exciting to be working with so many different agencies – BookTrust, Seven Stories, National Literacy Trust, Empathy Lab and more – to bring the latest research and findings and to enable networking opportunities that add value and increase reach.
it also feels apposite that this year’s conference is taking place in Manchester, one of the UK’s new UNESCO Cities of Literature and we’ll be holding a special dinner to celebrate the role of key children’s authors and illustrators from the city.
The conference is uplifting, lively, vibrant and most of all inclusive. We look forward to welcoming public and school librarians alike, staff from school library services, people from the education sector and all with an interest in children’s books.