Early on Saturday morning we drove up to Oxford for the Children’s Laureates Event at the Sheldonian, which launched the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival children’s programme. Four children’s laureates were present; the current Laureate, the illustrator Anthony Browne, and three ex-Laureates: Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson, and Michael Rosen. They each shared the initiatives that they brought to the role and took into schools during their two year tenure. They also talked about their childhood love of books and reading, what had inspired them to become writers, and the books that had had an impact on them as they were growing up.
Anthony Browne talked about how kids these days were moving on from picture books to reading books far too quickly. He devised the very cool Shape Game and then discovered that the game had been around for a long time and played across the world. His aim has been to introduce it more widely into schools across the UK. His hope is to encourage more parents to read picture books with their children, appreciate together the art that exists within them and that magical gap between picture and text. He firmly believes it fosters a great bond between parents and children too.
Jacqueline Wilson, undeterred by her stinking cold and cough, talked about her council estate background, which she said her mother would want to describe as a ‘cut above the average council estate’, and allowing her imagination to escape into books. She once found a book that featured ‘real kids in ragged clothes’ and shared her excitement at the discovery that children’s literature didn’t have to be all about middle-class kids! She shared a fond memory of her dad, who had never read to her until then, reading Enid Blyton to her when she was ill. She wrote her first novel, all 22 pages of it, at the age of 9.
Anne Fine was so ahead in school at 7 that instead of being required to join a class two years ahead of her age, she was granted a year’s sabbatical, which she spent reading in a room full of glass-fronted bookcases! Whilst she was Laureate she encouraged children’s reading and raised the profile of libraries. (Why are libraries always under threat when it’s clear what an important role they play in everyone’s life?)
Michael Rosen was amazing – funny, witty, honest, and engaging, just like his poems and stories. He shared lots of snippets from his childhood: about how his older brother taught him to read using the unconventional method of making him memorise long lists of words, about how their dad used to read aloud from Great Expectations on every camping trip, about how his teacher used to read a chapter from a book every Friday and then, despite their pleas for him to read the next chapter and knowing the book was not yet in the library, making them wait a whole week before reading it, leaving them to champ at the bit.
The Laureates also talked about what made them readers and makers of books. What unified them was their appreciation of books from a very young age – whether it was through teachers and school, through their parents , or through school libraries or local libraries. They loved books, they loved being read to when they were young, and they loved reading. This is essentially what they spent their term as Laureates promoting in schools.
Their collective enthusiasm was inspiring for all the kids and adults present that morning. But they were speaking to the converted. The next Children’s Laureate will be announced in June, and if the last five Children’s Laureates are anything to go by, he or she promises to bring their own special touch to the role. But we increasingly live in a world where for children the simple pleasures of reading and being read to now compete with a whole host of obstacles ranging from modern technology to library cuts. While some kids are lucky enough to have had their parents reading to them throughout their early childhood, so many more are not so fortunate. In the end school is where children are required to spend the majority of their day, and it is there that the love of reading and of children’s literature can be championed best.