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.
The documentary, which will begin on Tuesday 8th August at 9pm, explores the concept of utopia by looking at this from a range of different perspectives. From Thomas Moore’s sixteenth-century coining of the term, to Newcastle’s own Thomas Spence, Soviet spa towns, wikipedians, feminist theatre, Steve Reich, Minecraft, Star Trek and beyond, the series is certainly wide-ranging.
Richard Clay, Professor of Digital Humanities in Newcastle University’s Faculty of Humanieis, Arts and Social Sciences, explains how the opportunity to curate Utopia came about: “I’ve done a couple of BBC4 documentaries in the past (The French Revolution: Tearing up History and A Brief History of Graffiti) and a production company approached me and said they’d been commissioned to make some films about utopia for the BBC with me writing and presenting. At first I thought it’s just too big a topic, spanning historical periods and cultures. But I concluded that it’d be a fascinating subject to explore and an amazing experience to film – which it was, especially the time we spent with young people at Seven Stories. Their vision and principles made me wonder whether Jean-Jacque Rousseau was right back in the eighteenth century – we’re born utopian and then corrupted by society…”
Professor Grenby led a workshop at Seven Stories with a group of Year 5 children from West Jesmond Primary School to explore how both historical and contemporary children’s books influence children’s visions of alternative worlds. Using the concept of utopia as a starting point, the children created drawings and talked about the other worlds they conceived of.
Professor Grenby said: “Seven Stories was the perfect venue for filming, being itself a sort of utopian vision of what a child-friendly museum of children’s books can be.
The children from West Jesmond Primary School were fantastic. We asked them to draw pictures of their own personal utopias. The results were really wonderful. Waterworlds, worlds floating in the air, a city situated on a gigantic flower, with different zones for different grades of celebrities. When we asked the children what the rules would be in their utopian societies, there was a definite air of radicalism. One girl said that cars would be against the law. Another said there’d be no kings or queens! One of the boys said that everyone would have to do at least half an hour’s sport every day.
But not all of these fantasy worlds were happy places. In one girl’s vision of the future, all the people were sad because they had to live in the sea, and all the fish were unhappy because they had to live on the land. It was a remarkable insight into how utopian thinking gives a really direct insight into people’s most pressing concerns in the now.”
John Beattie, Business Development Manager at Seven Stories, worked with Professor Grenby and the production company, Clear Story, to set up and support the filming. John said:
“Dystopias are a trend in contemporary children’s literature – with titles like The Hunger Games and Divergent dominating bestseller lists – so it was really interesting to watch the young people discussing utopias with Professor Grenby. Books can help children to identify with and shape the world around them, and exploring utopian worlds provides positive models for children to explore how society might develop in the future.”
And I’ll leave it to Professor Richard Clay to have the last word: “the whole crew loved filming at Seven Stories. So big thanks to your team, that great school, and those fab youngsters. The sequences we shot look wonderful!”
I’m looking forward to watching the documentary, and if you miss it tonight, then make sure you catch it on BBC iPlayer!
Today, Newcastle University has made Michael Morpurgo an Honorary Doctor of Letters for his outstanding achievements as a children’s author and supporter of children’s rights, and recognising his strong connections to the North East.
Michael is a true champion of children’s books. In an award-winning writing career that has spanned 40 years, he has published over 150 books for children, including War Horse,Private Peaceful and Kensuke’s Kingdom. He was the third Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005, a scheme he helped to establish. In 2006, his services to children’s literature were recognised when he was awarded an OBE. Michael and his wife, Clare Morpurgo, are also the founders of Farms for City Children, a charity which has now offered over 100,000 children the opportunity to experience a working farm in the countryside.
In her citation, acting University Librarian, Jill Taylor-Roe, said: “Michael Morpurgo, who we are honouring today, is one of the finest storytellers of our generation.”
Michael Morpurgo accepted the award by saying: “I am delighted to receive this degree from Newcastle University’s School of English. What a huge honour and from a city that is home to the wonderful Seven Stories, who look after my archive and for which my wife Clare and I are joint Patrons. It feels a bit like coming home.”
The judging panel said that this collaboration was “an exemplar of how a school of English could engage in knowledge exchange. The initiative has transformed the way staff seek to apply their knowledge and unlocked a number of additional collaborations in the area of English literature.”
Pro-Vice Chancellor for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor Julie Sanders, said: “I am immensely proud that the work of the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics with Seven Stories has been recognised in this way. The KTP project is a model of what purposeful partnerships and collaborative working can achieve.”
For Kate Edwards, this award “recognises that Seven Stories and Newcastle University are leading the way in bringing together research and engagement expertise to create rich, authentic and people-centred experiences that explore literature for children.
Dr Jessica Medhurst, our KTP Associate, took the application of research and interpretation of Michael Morpurgo’s archive to a different level, culminating in a landmark exhibition, that opened at Seven Stories in 2016. Our unique collections and curatorial experience, alongside the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics’ subject knowledge and research rigour are opening up new opportunities for experimentation, with the goal that research and our collections are shared with the public in ways that are relevant, accessible and engaging.”
Many congratulations to all of my colleagues – an amazing award for an amazing project!
Professor David Leat and Ulrike Thomas describe enquiry and project based learning as an approach which “encourages schools to use the resources for education that exist in their community and locality.” Engaging with the community “takes students to new places, allows them to meet new people… this gives them raw material from which to construct more positive identities, overcome stereotypes and prejudices and inform their aspirations.”
The Year 6 class spent their first school term studying Beverley Naidoo’s book, Journey to Jo’burg, which has been in print for 30 years and is represented within the Seven Stories Collection. The book was released during Apartheid and banned by the South African Government. It tells the story of black South African siblings, who risk an illegal, 250km journey to find their mother, a servant in a white household in Johannesburg, because their baby sister is gravely ill.
Seven Stories Learning and Participation Manager Debbie Beeks. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, photography by Richard Kenworthy
The children made mining heritage connections between the North East’s coalmining tradition and the goldmines of South Africa that feature in the story. They met Dave Temple, an ex-miner who led the South African miners’ solidarity campaign with the National Union of Mineworkers. This helped them to make connections between the local and global communities.
The project culminated in the Year 6 children inviting Year 5 and Professor David Leat to visit their pop-up ‘Museum of Freedom’ in Seven Stories’ Attic, which they curated themselves. The objects that they displayed in the Museum of Freedom were created using Seven Stories’ Artefictions approach, which sees the creation of artefacts from fiction, to tell the story in exhibition-form.
“Interesting. It made me want to learn more.”Year 6 student, Mountfield Primary School
“I feel proud, back then I wasn’t that ‘into it’. Reading Journey to Jo’burg got me into our project.” Year 6 student, Mountfield Primary School
“The Naidoo archive offers such rich and powerful source material for children to explore literary heritage and world history. It’s vital that Seven Stories is able to open up the archive for children to make sense of the world and have ownership of their future narratives. It was a privilege to be part of this project and to research and learn alongside year 5 students and their class teacher at Mountfield.” Debbie Beeks, Seven Stories
In evaluating the approach and impact of this project, Debbie Beeks and Gary Robson (Year 6 Teacher at Mountfield Primary School) found that the Arts Council England Quality Principles and Newcastle University’s Community Curriculum Making research had complementary characteristics. These gave them a common language and frameworks to explore the rich artistic opportunities that the collaboration presented. The children were able to navigate literature and the arts, from the local to the global, through their own learning journey.
“From talking to and watching the students I am certain that many of them will remember this project into their adult life. This is a brilliant illustration of how ‘going places, like Seven Stories, meeting people like Dave and Debbie, and doing and making things, like the pop up museum’ takes the curriculum onto a another level of meaning.” Professor David Leat, Newcastle University
Collections of the Honour List books are then circulated around the world, travelling between institutions, conferences and book fairs, which fulfils IBBY’s objective to ‘encourage international understanding through children’s literature’. And this year, Seven Stories were lucky enough to recently host the IBBY Honour List for Illustration!
Having such an amazing international collection in Newcastle also seemed like a great opportunity for Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit, so I got in touch with colleagues there and organised opportunities for staff and students to explore the Honour List.
First, I took the collection up to the University to the Children’s Literature Unit Graduate Group. We spent around an hour looking at the different items and discussing which books we were particularly drawn to. Professor Kim Reynolds, who led the session, said: ‘I loved the way many of the authors and illustrators play with the idea of the book as an art form and the variety of shapes and ways of understanding “the book” they exhibited.’ MLitt student Jennifer Shelley said: ‘What really stuck me as a whole were the similarities (e.g. common themes such as empowered children) but also the differences: some books looked quite traditional and even old-fashioned, possibly because publishing of children’s books is at different stages in different countries.’
The same afternoon, Dr Helen Limon and the MA in Creative Writing students visited Seven Stories and explored the IBBY Honour List as part of their seminar. With this group, there was a lot of discussion about the different stories the books were telling. Student Caitlin Kendall said: ‘I thought the collection was really fascinating in that it seemed to highlight some universal themes for children such as belonging, identity, recognition and philosophy whilst at the same time highlighting some profound cultural differences in what is appropriate in literature for children in terms of narrative, illustration and message.’
I had two opportunities to explore the collection – my favourite item? So difficult to choose, but I particularly loved Zullo and Albertine’s Mon ToutPetit (La Joie De Lire), nominated by Switzerland. And with these charming illustrations, it’s not difficult to see why…