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.