How can children’s literature archives help us to understand what it’s like to be torn from your home as a refugee?
For her PhD project ‘The Other Side of Truth: agency, representation and belonging in Beverley Naidoo’s refugee fiction’, Helen King explores the role of children’s books and archives in shaping how we think about the refugee experience, and empowering children to engage creatively and politically with literature.
Beverley Naidoo (pictured above by Linda Brownlee) donated her archive to Seven Stories in 2016. The Collection is an essential part of what Seven Stories do, and they hold archives from numerous authors with huge value, both for the general public and for research. Naidoo’s archive is a really important acquisition for Seven Stories, and contains research for and responses to her fiction, as well as material relating to her careers as a researcher, teacher and activist.
A South African author, Naidoo was exiled to the UK as a result of her anti-apartheid activism, and themes of displacement and the effect of totalitarianism and racism on children runs through much of her work. Her novel The Other Side of Truth won the Carnegie medal in 2000. This book tells the story of two Nigerian children who are forced to seek asylum in the UK due to their father’s critique of the military rule of General Sani Abacha in the mid 90s. Exploring themes such the loss of home, the impact of trauma and importance of the individual refugee story, this novel is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, and forms the starting point for this research project.
I am still in the early stages of my research, and already I have found so much thought-provoking and challenging material within the Naidoo archive. With a framework of postcolonial theory that examines how colonial dynamics have and still do affect our constructions of race, nationhood and citizenship in the UK, I am using Naidoo’s fiction and her archive to explore the following questions:
What does it mean to belong as a refugee child?
How can a children’s author represent voices that are marginalised, misrepresented and silenced by popular rhetoric and the media?
What agency can children have in the face of social inequality, either as creatives or as activists, and how can children’s literature give them this?
How can Seven Stories use the Naidoo archive to develop new creative engagement with their collections?
My time is spent between Newcastle University, the Seven Stories archive in Felling and their visitor centre in Ouseburn. I will be posting here from time to time as the project develops, and as the public engagement aspects of my project take shape over the coming months.
Viewing the Naidoo archive as carrying such potential, this project will facilitate in Seven Stories finding new ways to bring the archive to the general public through exhibitions and engagement with groups from their local community who have experienced displacement themselves. Children’s literature archives are not simply slices of history, but are active sites of debate, creativity and activism through which children can be empowered to tell their own stories.
Later that afternoon, join author and Lecturer in Creative Writing, Ann Coburn, for our creative writing workshop for adults, Undiscovered Land: Write Like David Almond. Start your own story incorporating elements of memory, history, magic and transformation. I can’t wait to see what our writers come up with!
On Sunday 18th November, come and take part in our Wavering Boundarieswalking tour, led by Dr Tom Schofield from Digital Cultures in Culture Lab. Magical realism, augmented reality and literary archives come together in this guided walk around the Ouseburn Valley, and you’ll be one of the very first to try out our Magical Reality app.
“My work explores the frontier between rationalism and superstition and the wavering boundary between the two.” David Almond
Seven Stories are also supporting Newcastle University’s final festival event, Songs from the Dam, with Kathryn Tickell, David Almond and Amy Thatcher. This special musical performance will present local songs and folk tales, and celebrates David Almond’s new book The Dam, beautifully illustrated by Levi Pinfold, which tells the story of the flooding of Kielder Water.
Have you ever considered how the design of spaces can help children learn and explore? In this blog post, Daniel Goodricke provides an overview of the research project, ‘Children in the Archive and the City: Collaborative Practice with Seven Stories’.
The project investigates how children interact with museum, archive and reading spaces, as well as the broader context of the city, and explores how spaces could be reimagined with and for children and young people. The investigation aims to:
identify changes that can be made to the Seven Stories’ spaces to bring children’s books to a broader demographic
develop and test a series of possible design scenarios and alternative configurations of museum, archive and reading spaces to further encourage children and young people to interact with Seven Stories’ Collection
propose changes that can be made to both physical and digital spaces in order to bring maximum benefit to people of the North East, as well as national and international stakeholders.
As an architect and educator, I was motivated to undertake this research project following my experience as part of multi-disciplinary teams responsible for the design and delivery of centrally-funded secondary school projects as part of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) and Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP). Whilst the programmes were commendably ambitious; tasking school governors, principals, staff, local communities and, even, the pupils themselves with developing an ‘educational vision’, the projects often soon reverted to more normative and routine production modes.
Acknowledging end users as experts in their own experience, this project positions children and young people at the centre of the design process by means of a series of co-design workshops. Employing creative research tools, such as body mapping, illustrated writing and sensory collage, each workshop endeavours to gain a better understanding of children and young people’s current experiences of Seven Stories spaces across a range of scales including their interactions with books, ‘nooks and crannies’, archive, building, and the city. The Finnish-born American architect, Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) admonished designers to:
“[a]lways consider a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
The workshops, supported by continued creative dialogue, will also begin to articulate the goals, priorities and values of stakeholders, providing participants with a direct involvement in the decision making of architectural proposals. In respect of the latter, I recently attended a series of three linked seminars on the theme of Architecture and Education – specifically how architecture may be used to express educational aims and values – held at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. I hope to elaborate on some of the presented ideas with reference to my project in a subsequent blog post.
Professor Sir Christopher Frayling’s highly influential paper, Research in Art and Design (1993), categorised the varying relationships between research and design (or, architecture) as constituting one of either, ‘into’, ‘for’ or ‘through’ the discipline. This project adopts a ‘through’ approach as it utilises the design process as a methodology in order to undertake the research investigation itself. Such as approach also provides participants, particularly children and young people (given how little emphasis is placed on architecture within the National curriculum), with a relatively unique experience, knowledge and understanding of architecture and the built environment around them, as well as the skills and confidence to become involved in debates surrounding it within their own communities. The Ouseburn Trust, including the now amalgamated Ouseburn Futures, have long engaged residents, workers and visitors to the Valley in influencing what happens there and shaping the regeneration process.
The findings of the project will culminate in the production of a design brief, developed through the close dialogue with representatives of Seven Stories, end users, neighbouring communities and other stakeholders. The brief will assist in articulating Seven Stories’ capital ambition of a new permanent and accessible home in Newcastle, as it aims to establish itself as an international centre of excellence for children’s literature, by defining the scope and outlining the deliverables of any future capital development project.
Children have fascinating insights into the places they live in, and Seven Stories are interested in how the families that visit them feel about their locality. Yet traditional approaches to urban planning are quite exclusive (and not massively creative) when it comes to consulting and involving children and young people. So what about new and alternative methods?
Today I’m exploring JigsAudio, a research project led by Alexander Wilson, a doctoral trainee in the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics at Open Lab. Zander’s research interrogates the intersections between digital technology, design, human-computer interaction and town planning, with a focus on alternative tools and methods to participation.
From that initial conversation, Zander and his Digital Civics colleagues came up with JigsAudio. It combines drawing and colouring in jigsaw pieces, which the children and families visiting Seven Stories are familiar with, with something new: a device which allowed the children to record an audio message about their jigsaw piece. The pieces and their recordings are then combined to create a digital version of the jigsaw online.
JigsAudio’s first test was during the Big Draw in October 2016 and formed part of a range of drop in activities offered that weekend around Newcastle City Futures. Zander said, “A colourful puzzle came back with many varied visions of Newcastle and Gateshead. A five-hour barge trip along the Tyne and a colourful new bridge across the Tyne – painted in green, yellow, black, blue and purple – were just two of the ideas that emerged.”
Following that, Seven Stories also worked with Zander on a second JigsAudio activity for Summer 2017 around their Aliens Love Underpants exhibition, asking children to design and talk about alien planets and reflect on what they value about their own. For Zander: “I’m amazed at the effort the children put into their alien’s planet. It’s really interesting to see that they have such a strong sense of what is important to where they live. As well as a few aliens, we got something that’s really valuable and will hopefully lead to children getting more of a say in how places change. We’ve been underplaying their ability to understand some of the issues planning is facing and hearing their ideas has been an eye-opening exercise. It’s been a fantastic project.”
So what were Zander’s research findings? He found:
“That drawing and talking was effective at getting people to communicate complicated and elaborate visions that might not be easily communicated through a single media.”
“The initial low-tech appearance of the activity encouraged engagement with JigsAudio”. This was particularly important for Seven Stories’ youngest visitors, and they loved the tactile nature of the jigsaw itself. I noticed that the children really enjoyed adding their piece into the constellation of planets, for example!
“Participants were interested in how the JigsAudio device worked and wanted to take part in the activity.” This was backed up by Seven Stories Santander University Intern, Emma, who facilitated the Aliens Love Underpants JigsAudio activity: “You have to watch [the device] quite a lot because… it was quite an interesting thing for the kids; they were picking it up!”
For Seven Stories, using JigsAudio was an interesting way of finding out what their youngest visitors see and think about the place that they live in, and their visions of alternative spaces.
And for Zander, “I’m thinking about how we can use drawing and talking with other topics, and how we might put together a toolkit for children to make their own devices. If you’re interested in having a go with the device, or if you have your own project you’d like to use JigsAudio in, please do get in touch!”
Thanks to Zander for his help with this post! To find out more about JigsAudio, visit: http://jigsaudio.com/
In June of last year, I packed up my books and my notes and closed the door to my office at Queen’s University Belfast for six months. As a Northern Bridge doctoral student I was given the opportunity to take up a placement with one of the consortium’s partner organisations and naturally, I jumped at the chance! I chose to work with Seven Stories for several reasons – firstly, books were foundational to my childhood, and my love of literature has seen me through two (and a half) degrees in the field. The thought of seeing some original material up close was exciting! Secondly, I liked the idea of working with an organisation that has strengths in public engagement, both through the visitor centre and at the archive. As the final year of my PhD roared into view, I was also aware of the need to plan for the next stage in my career, and I was keen to develop some skills beyond those which writing a thesis can offer.
So what have I been up to? The simple answer is LOTS of things!
When I first arrived in Newcastle, the team at Seven Stories were gearing up for a changeover in one of their gallery spaces. During these times they need all-hands-on-deck to get things ready for a new exhibition, and so I was kitted out in steel-toed boots and put to work! I was able to assist with de-installing the Michael Morpurgo exhibition (by taking artwork off the walls, scraping off vinyl lettering, changing light-bulbs and dismantling built props) and installing the Comics exhibition (almost the same in reverse!). It was great to start my time at the visitor centre, getting some very hands-on experience in the public-facing side of museum work. Later on, I had a chance to do some audience research in the Comics gallery, and it was lovely to see families and children engaging with the space and the objects on display.
After things had calmed down a bit, it was time to learn how to use CALM, the management system used by the archive to record their holdings. Once I had got to grips with this, I was able to tackle my first collection – Noel Streatfeild’s – which included original manuscripts, correspondence, and personal diaries. This was exciting for me as a life-long fan of Ballet Shoes, and the collection granted me a much better insight into Streatfeild’s writing practices, and the personal experiences which shaped her stories. It was incredibly satisfying to take charge of the collection, ensuring it was organised, repackaged and catalogued in an accessible way, while respecting as much of the original order as possible. Even more satisfying was getting to see the material in use before I left. You can read more about the collection in my post for the Seven Stories blog.
After completing work on the Streatfeild collection, I spent a bit of time in the world of the Wombles sorting through some of Elisabeth Beresford’s huge collection. The Wombles material had been worked on by several volunteers before me, and will probably require the attentions of a few more before it is complete. I realised just how lengthy the cataloguing process can be in a collection of that scale, and I was better prepared for the final collection I worked on, which ran to almost 50 boxes! Working on this was especially exciting as I knew the material would be used extensively – I was given the chance to select items and write some copy for the collection highlights page, as well as liaising with senior curator, Gill Rennie, and presenting some of the material to various teams in the organisation. Unfortunately I can’t say much more about this mystery collection yet, but keep your eyes peeled for an exciting new exhibition this summer!
Although work at the archive took up the majority of my time, the team gave me the chance to get involved with lots of varied activities in the organisation, from working at white glove handling sessions (at a wedding, a conference and a schools project) to helping at a celebration event for the Living Books project. There was never a dull moment, and I’m really thankful to all the wonderful members of staff for their patience in showing me the ropes and sharing their fantastic knowledge of children’s literature, as well as making me feel right at home in the office.
I’m now back to normality in Belfast, finishing my thesis and missing the Seven Stories tea breaks. I learned so much during my placement, and would highly recommend applying for Northern Bridge funding – it’s a fantastic opportunity to test the waters of research-adjacent careers, while completing your thesis. I would come back to Seven Stories tomorrow if I could, so here’s hoping it won’t be the last you’ll see of me!
Thanks Amy! Everyone at Seven Stories really appreciated all your hard work. This was a really successful first Northern Bridge placement experience for Seven Stories, so much so that we’ve just welcomed our second placement student!
Then there were the roundtable and forum discussions, where we discussed barriers to authentic inclusion, and identified ways to shift these. For Seven Stories, the artform of children’s literature is at the heart of everything they do – and it’s by going to events like this that they can flag up with publishers that inclusion is fundamental to the national story they aim to tell. Seven Stories’ workforce (like that of many arts organisations) is not particularly diverse – they’re aiming to shift that barrier through targeted pathways to work programmes from 2018 to 2022.
Highlights of the day for me were hearing from Year 10 pupil Jarvia, one of Inclusive Minds’ Ambassadors, about her reading experiences – she spoke about reading new writing on Wattpad as she feels it’s less filtered – and I loved hearing Jay Hulme’s“angry trans” performance poetry (his description!):
In the afternoon discussions, I ended up sat next to the author, actress and presenter Cerrie Burnell. In her presentation, she talked about how the books she read as a child didn’t reflect her experience. She recounted a story about playing at Peter Pan in the playground: there was already a Wendy and a Tinkerbell, so one of the other children suggested that she could be Captain Hook – Cerrie was adamant that she was more of a Tigerlily. Cerrie encouraged her fellow authors to represent difference in an incidental way: “write the thing that you know, or write the thing that you want to see.”
Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike mysteries, talked about the two types of offence her writing might potentially cause (the one she loses sleep over is making errors about misrepresenting cultures and experiences outside of her own, which is why in her recent books she has been working with sensitivity readers) and Di Airey of Diversity Dynamics reminded us that although publishing is in some ways ahead of other sectors, that we still have a way to go: “There’s not enough change: there are too many people who hide an aspect of their difference.”
It was an inspiring and thought-provoking day, but ensuring the Vital North Partnership’s activities are inclusive is an ongoing process. We’ve done some interesting work, such as our Diverse Voices? symposium in November, and our recent Geographies of Gender and Generation collaboration, and in 2018, we’ll be focussing on BAME voices in children’s literature and activist networks through a new AHRC Creative Economy postdoctoral fellowship led by Dr Aishwarya Subramanian. But there’s still more to do. As Juno said so eloquently in her opening keynote: “The worst thing we can do is think we’ve done it, we’ve achieved diversity. We haven’t done diversity. You can’t tick diversity off the list.”
Universities and cultural organisations are working more closely than ever before. New roles and initiatives are emerging to manage these collaborations…
Navigating a challenging funding landscape, arts and cultural organisations are increasingly collaborating to make their resources stretch further and engage new audiences. Universities are similarly turning to partners, who can help to demonstrate impact beyond the academy, support challenge-based research funding bids and enhance the (increasingly expensive) student experience.
Aside from these external drivers, there are synergies between the two sectors. Both arts organisations and HEIs can be seen as ‘anchor institutions’, not-for-profit organisations which contribute to learning, economic growth, skills development and community engagement within their regions. Many universities run their own cultural venues; some of our national cultural institutions are eligible to apply for RCUK funding through their status as Independent Research Organisations. You could say we’re natural partners.
For larger organisations managing multiple cultural or HEI partnerships, co-ordination functions often sit with a team within the organisation’s staff structure. The National Archives’ Academic Engagement team co-ordinate engagement with academic audiences; Kings College London’s Cultural Institute facilitates collaborations between the University and the cultural sector.
But as you drill down to a collaboration between an individual university and arts organisation, new partnership models and roles, like mine, are beginning to emerge.
Our partnership is built on a shared ambition: that Newcastle becomes a centre for excellence in children’s literature. My work focuses on initiatives which are genuinely beneficial for both organisations, support our jointly agreed objectives and progress our long-term relationship.
Of course, working for two different institutions isn’t perfect – just imagine working between four different offices and two IT systems – but it’s a model that’s proving successful. Since 2015, our partnership has generated over £800,000 worth of funded activity and engaged with over 100,000 people. And beyond the numbers, I think that more interesting and innovative things happen at this intersection.
A collective ‘brand’
An extension of this model is Opera North and the University of Leeds’ pioneering DARE collaboration, positioned as a collective ‘brand’ embedded within both organisations. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the partnership has impressive statistics, encompassing more than 250 projects and attracting £3million in new funding.
DARE Director Lesley Patrick says: “The fundamental pillars to building the relationship included identifying areas of common ambition, to form an equal partnership with a common language. This created a framework which removes ‘policing’ and allows conversations to breathe.”
“DARE has allowed each organisation to prioritise the development of initiatives that make a positive contribution to achieving its own ambitions. It drives the partners to think and act more broadly, outside the traditional spheres – it enables business development.”
Networks of partnerships
And as partnerships between the sectors increase, new co-ordination initiatives are developing to support, catalyse and highlight activity. Culture Forum North launched in 2015, bringing over 50 Higher Education and cultural sector partners in the North together to discuss collaborations. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s MUPI project, which began in 2015, brokers and analyses partnership activity between small to medium-sized museums and HEIs.
There’s a culture change going on here: arts research and arts organisations are demonstrating that our sectors can work together innovatively and effectively. But external funding is still primarily sector-specific. Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council have yet to release a collaborative funding call. Perhaps there’s an opportunity here for our funders to work in partnership, too?
Thinking about collaborating with a university, what animal is a university like? Is it an octopus? A soaring eagle? A bee? Or a huge, slow-moving whale? That was the opening question posed to delegates at the NCCPE Engage Conference 2017, and set the tone for two days of creative debate about the nature of university collaborations.
In the first plenary, Ahmed Bawa of Universities South Africa focused on the ‘intensely local, and intensely global’ challenges which we face in society today. In a context of growing inequality, he encouraged universities to think hard about what they can do to further the social justice agenda. Newcastle’s Institute for Social Renewal, and Seven Stories’ work with children and young in some of the poorest areas of the North East, means this is a focus for the Vital North Partnership’s work.
Nancy Cantor’s plenary, on Rutgers University’s work as an anchor institution within Newark, New Jersey, considered social justice in the context of the “birth lottery”. Universities do brilliant work on widening participation, but generally focus on Year 6 and above. In my work with Seven Stories, I see first-hand the impact that engaging with the arts has from birth onwards; and I often wonder whether universities need to engage with children and young people at an earlier stage.
In a complementary mini-plenary, I heard Sophie Duncan and Paul Manners from the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement talk about their attempt to create a typology of public engagement activity, and the motivations behind it. This seemed quite a successful and helpful framework when considering a single project, but I struggled to see how the Vital North Partnership’s work as a whole would map onto this.
And of course, I also presented at the conference. I participated in the Co-production in Practice workshop, where I discussed building momentum within existing partnerships and came up with some top tips with the other delegates attending. I also took part in the poster party – here’s my poster, which captures just some of the highlights of the Vital North Partnership’s work in 2017:
So what is collaborating with a university like? Well, I would say a hybrid between an octopus and a whale. Newcastle University is a huge organisation, but through the Vital North Partnership, Seven Stories is collaborating with lots of different Schools and departments. A whoctopus, if you will. What do you think?
In the foreword to the recently-published anthology of fiction and poetry for young adults, A Change is Gonna Come (Stripes, 2017), philosopher Darren Chetty writes, “We can think of change as the space between who we are and who we want to be—between being and becoming—as individuals and as communities” (7-8).
This sentiment entirely encapsulates the motivation behind the Diverse Voices? symposium I helped to organize with Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for Children’s Books, and Newcastle University, a symposium where Chetty was a participant. During my year as Leverhulme Visiting Professor (2015-16), I formed a relationship with the people at Seven Stories Collections – archivists, curators, and librarians – that was both personal and professional. They were supportive of (and occasionally amused by my revolutionary passion for) my project to make Black British literature a more “normalized” part of British children’s literature. As I put it in the book that resulted from that year at Seven Stories, “The face of Britain might have changed after World War II, but not necessarily the hearts and minds of white British people. This is partly because the Blackness of Black Britons was made manifestly obvious and continually depicted as Other; but the whiteness of white British society has remained largely invisible” (Children’s Publishing and Black Britain5).
The Diverse Voices? symposium, held at Seven Stories, allowed some of the brightest thinkers in writing, publishing, librarianship and academia to come together and think about ways to ensure that real change would finally come to the UK’s children’s literature. This blog highlights some of the thoughts (both from the event, and from their more public commentary) of the main speakers of the day.
Catherine Johnson encapsulates the idea of Britishness/whiteness in her short story from A Change is Gonna Come, “Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances!” In this story, the young protagonist is told to, “Fight the world . . . You are a black man in a white world. A foreigner” (69). When the main character protests that he was born in Norwich, the man responds, “I doubt if anyone else sees it that way” (70).
Although I was familiar with this attitude, that if you are Black, Britishness is out of reach, I knew that Seven Stories did not want to mirror this sentiment in their museum or archives. Collections and Exhibitions Director Sarah Lawrance pointed out on Friday that, “We have a longstanding commitment to collecting diverse authors and materials” at Seven Stories, but it has not always been an easy task for them.
Part of my remit during my Leverhulme year was to provide some recommendations for expanding the collection, but I was very conscious of the fact that I – like most of the Seven Stories staff – was white and middle-class, and an American to boot: the very picture of privilege. What is the point of a person who has always been privileged enough to raise her voice (in revolution or otherwise) speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been historically side-lined? I did not want to replicate old histories. I suggested we bring some intellectuals – writers, editors, librarians, publishers, academics, book people – from historically-marginalized groups to Seven Stories to hear from them directly. Sarah agreed – as did so many of the great names that we invited.
We called the symposium “Diverse Voices?” because it reflected Seven Stories’ previous Diverse Voices initiatives and left open the question of whose voices were heard and where those voices were welcome. It became part of Newcastle’s Freedom City 2017 project, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Newcastle University’s granting an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr. The themes of Freedom City 2017 were those that King mentioned in his speech at the ceremony: the effects of war, poverty and racism on society. King had come to Newcastle from my current hometown of Buffalo, where he argued that these problems affected young people the most because “the best in these minds cannot come out” when they have to worry about their education, their housing, their ability to make their voices count.
I was lucky enough to discuss these ideas with author Alex Wheatle MBE in our Into Crongton with Alex Wheatle event on Thursday 23rd November 2017, who said that the characters in his Crongton series were affected by all of these issues – from World War II, which brought so many of their parents and grandparents to Britain, to the day-to-day poverty that prevents them from reaching their goals, to the institutional racism that keeps them “in their place”. All of Wheatle’s young adult characters in his Crongton series have creative and artistic dreams, but there remains a question over whether they will be able to achieve them. As he said at the symposium when talking about how whiteness influences prize-giving, “Otherness wasn’t quite adjudicated for.”
Otherness, or rather being othered, was something that had affected many of the speakers at the symposium. Filipino writer Candy Gourlay mentioned that her work had been translated to television with her main characters depicted as white because there was always “the assumption that if I had a hero, my hero would be white”. SF Said wondered if by only listing his initials on his books, he had created the same assumption: “The minute I took away the obvious ‘difference’ of my name, doors opened for me.”
Some of the participants mentioned historical moments when those doors were opened because of cultural change; author Beverley Naidoo talked about how “There were really close connections between anti-apartheid movements and what was going on in the UK” in the 1970s and 1980s. And librarian Jake Hope reminded the audience of the “radical roots” that led librarians (Black and white) to demand changes in publishing during that same time period. This sense of history was underscored by author Patrice Lawrence, who highlighted the importance of the historical record: “The joy of looking at archives,” she said, is that “you come to understand how we got to where we are.” And archivist and author S. I. Martin pointed out that archives could teach more than just adults: “Archives are a world that kids can write themselves into.”
There was at times a rumbling undercurrent of concern that the symposium was a good start whose promise might never be fulfilled. Author Ifeoma Onyefulu spoke those concerns out loud when she said, “It’s good to talk, but where’s the action?”
Many of the symposium participants found the pace of historical change too slow, and did not wait for a space to be made for them. Verna Wilkins, the founder of Tamarind and then of Firetree Books, talked about how her life’s work was “an attempt to redress the balance” in the world of publishing. The illustrator Yu Rong spoke about seeing a hole in the publishing world: “There is very little about China and Chinese people in UK children’s books” and so Rong has done her best to fill up that hole, at least a little bit.
But for almost everyone at the symposium, action by one group of people was not enough to bring real change for everyone. Instead, it will take hard work and difficult discussions to change children’s literature in the UK if we are going to make every child feel a sense of belonging in the world of books. We must read differently – think differently – speak differently. We must cross the barriers that keep us apart by any means necessary.
In Sita Brahmachari’s recent book for the publisher Barrington Stoke, Worry Angels (2017), she writes about the difficulty and necessity of communication:
“If someone doesn’t speak the same language as you . . . when you want them to understand not just the words that you say, but what you feel, then you try to speak in any way that you can . . . with your hands, with your eyes, with pictures in the sand . . . You act things out . . . you let the feeling show in your whole body . . . whatever way you can to show them you want to be your friend” (71).
It is this kind of communication we need to keep up between us all, even when it is hard. When it goes wrong – as it will – we must keep on trying. This is the only way to ensure that the change we want will come in British children’s books – for all kids.
The seminar was suggested by Sage Gateshead’sDave Camlin. It gave us the chance to reflect on our time working together on Northern Bridge so far, and “to explore some of the tensions and opportunities inherent in collaborative approaches to the generation of new knowledge.”
Of course, there are tensions; when you bring together any group of academic institutions, or cultural organisations, there is competition – for students, for audiences, for funding. And although learning is at the heart of what both universities and cultural venues do, the processes through which we generate knowledge are quite different. We speak different languages. We have different drivers. Working in collaboration requires negotiating all of these factors.
Another tension which formed a focus of conversation during the day was the inequality of engagement with the arts. The Warwick Commission’s Enriching Britain, Culture, Creative and Growth Report states that “the wealthiest, better educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of the population forms the most culturally active segment of all”. How to reach those beyond that 8% is certainly a challenge.
But democratising culture and knowledge is becoming increasingly important in both the higher education and cultural sectors. The Research Excellence Framework emphasises the impact of research ‘beyond academia’; Arts Council England encourages the organisations they fund to reach more demographically diverse audiences.
From my experience of working on the Vital North Partnership between Newcastle University and Seven Stories, collaboration holds exciting opportunities. Partnership helps to make our activities more interesting and diverse. At the intersections between universities, cultural organisations and communities, we can draw on our collective expertise to create new kinds of shared knowledge. And with increasing pressure on arts budgets, we can pool our resources and become more efficient.
I explored the Vital North Partnership’s unique ecology at the seminar, giving a Pecha Kucha presentation:
It was also interesting to reflect on what role Northern Bridge, as a Doctoral Training Partnership, has as part of our shared ecology. I think the ways in which universities and arts organisations collaborate is changing. We are asking different questions, and having new conversations. I work at this boundary – and I’m interested to see where we’re headed next.