Opening up the Aidan and Nancy Chambers archive

In 2016, Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books acquired the prestigious archive of Aidan and Nancy Chambers as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures project. In doing so, it gave a home to one of the most important British children’s literary archives in the country. In this blog post, Newcastle University Research Associate Dr Hazel Sheeky Bird, who is working on opening up new research avenues into the collection, supervised by Dr Lucy Pearson, explains the background to this archive.

Featured image: 10th anniversary of Signal – 1980 Patrick Hardy, Aidan and Nancy Chambers, Lance Salway and Elaine Moss (from left to right)

The range of material held in the Chambers archive is truly impressive, hardly surprising given the contribution that both Aidan and Nancy Chambers have made to the fields of children’s and young adult fiction, literary criticism, publishing and education. Thanks to a grant from the Archives Revealed Scheme (funded by the National Archives and The Pilgrim Trust), research supported by Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit and the ongoing commitment and expertise of the Seven Stories Collection team, the Chambers archive will soon be available for use.

In 1969, Aidan and Nancy Chambers established Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books (1969-2003), one of the first journals dedicated to children’s literary criticism and home to the Signal Poetry Award (1979-2001). Through their own Thimble Press, they also published highly influential works of children’s literary criticism, invaluable guides to the best books for children, and Aidan Chambers’ seminal works of children’s literary criticism (‘The Reader in the Book’ [1977]) and on education (The Reading Environment [1991], Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk [1993]). Added to this is Aidan Chambers‘ work as editor of ground-breaking YA MacMillan Education imprint, Topliner (1968-1980), his own award-winning ‘Dance Sequence’ of young adult  novels as well as books for younger readers, and his work as editor of Turton & Chambers, an independent publishing house dedicated to publishing books in translations. What becomes clear on delving into the archive is the richness of the material and the wealth of opportunities it offers researchers.

Final cover artwork for Ted van Lieshout’s The Dearest Boy in all the World (1990).


Let’s take the Turton & Chambers (T&C) material as a quick example. Beginning in 1989, this was a co-equal venture between David Turton, owner of The Singing Tree children’s bookshop in Perth, Australia and Aidan Chambers: Turton provided the finances and Chambers the editorial expertise. According to T&C’s promotional material, their aim was to ‘publish the rare, the unusual, the extraordinary, the refreshing’ (Company Notice, T&C, Books for Young Readers, Aidan and Nancy Chambers archive, Box A, file 11, p.2.). Books that, for Chambers, allowed readers to ‘extend their range of thinking, their imagination’ (Niki Kallenberg, ‘Features: Publishing the kind of book I wish I’d written’, Scan, 9(3), June 1990, 4-9 [p. 5]) in a way he thought was impossible in their own language. Over the course of three years, T&C published 16 books, mostly prose, translated from French, German, Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch. Many T&C authors, such as Maud Reuterswärd (A Way from Home (1990), Noah is my Name (1991), both translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate, Tormod Haugen (Zeppelin (1990), translated from the Norwegian by David R. Jacobs) and Peter Pohl (Johnny, my friend (1991), translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson), were all award-winning novels either in their country of origin or in Europe. Sometimes stylistically challenging, often unusual and innovative, always thought provoking, the T&C list remains relevant and genuinely engaging for readers of all ages.

Illustration by Tord Nygren for Maud Reuterswärd’s Noah is my Name (Turnton & Chambers, 1990), p. 80.

Aidan Chambers’ correspondence with Anthea Bell, perhaps best known for translating René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix books, offers fascinating insights into many aspects of their work and lives. Letters illuminate the relationship between translator and editor, the practicalities and realities of working as a translator, and the nuanced and detailed discussions that took place between Chambers and his translators to ensure work of the highest quality. Letters also reveal the warm relationship between Aidan Chambers and Anthea Bell. Writing to Bell on 13th July, 1989, Chambers describes the ‘nerve-wracking’ process of bringing two books to print ‘without the support of a design department’ and comments that despite any resulting shortcomings, ‘at least the books will come from strong personal commitment and extraordinary good will and generosity from those like yourself who have helped with translation and editorial work’ (Box A, file 1).

Happily, the T&C archive has been examined and catalogued as part of a bigger project to fully catalogue the Aidan and Nancy Chambers archive, which will take place over the next 18 months. Work is now underway cataloguing the material for the 100 editions of children’s literature journal Signal, edited by Nancy Chambers. Taking up almost 30 archive storage boxes, the team has begun to weed, process and re-package the material, prior to creating the catalogue. This is a delicate process: a balance has to be found between preserving materials that clearly demonstrate the production processes of the journal with the demands on storage space, the research value of the material, and the ease of use for future researchers. Added to this, is the need to condition check all material prior to re-packaging to ensure that no unwanted substances, i.e. dreaded mould, are transferred into the Collection. All of this adds up to slow and careful work: the weeding process alone will take two months.

The end result will be worth it. Enquiries are already coming in from researchers keen to access the Chambers archive and the team is working hard to get the material ready for them.

Thanks Hazel! We’ll look forward to hearing more about what you’re discovering in the Chambers Collection as your project progresses.

Children in the Archive and the City: Collaborative Practice with Seven Stories

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 takes the form of a collaborative, creative practice-based PhD between the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University and Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, and forms part of the Vital North Partnership.

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.
Reading sill in the Story Station, Level 4 of Seven Stories’ Visitor Centre. Image source: Daniel Goodricke.

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.”

Creative workshop as part of the Sensory Spaces event. Image source: Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books.

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.

Seven Stories Visitor Centre is located at the heart of the Lower Ouseburn Valley. Image source: Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, photographed by Damien Wootten.

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.

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council‘s National Productivity Investment Fund and is supervised by Professor Prue Chiles, Professor Adam Sharr and Professor Matthew Grenby, whose collective expertise include the design of learning spaces, architectural phenomenology and children’s literature.

To follow the progress of the project, including research findings and workshop outcomes, please revisit the Vital North Partnership blog from time-to-time, or follow us on social media at @reimagining7s (Twitter) and reimagining7s (Instagram).  If you’re interested in taking part in the research, please feel free to contact Daniel at or

Q&A: Museum Studies MA placements at Seven Stories

This year, Newcastle University Museums Studies MA students Amy and Anna undertook placements with Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books. Hear about how they found their placement experience in this post…

Hi Anna and Amy! Please introduce yourselves.

Hello! I’m Anna and I live in Gateshead, although I am originally from Northumberland. I came to the Museum Studies MA course with the aim of beginning a career in the museums sector, alongside developing my practice as an illustrator.

Hi, I’m Amy and I’m originally from County Durham. I moved to Newcastle 5 years ago when I got my place at Newcastle University to do my Ancient History BA. I decided to do the MA with the intention of (hopefully) being able to get a job in museum learning after. And after all there’s no better place for history than in a museum!

Newcastle is home to many museums and attractions, including the Baltic art gallery and the Sage Gateshead. Image: Newcastle University, photography by Chris Bishop
Newcastle is home to many museums and attractions, including the Baltic art gallery and the Sage Gateshead. Image: Newcastle University, photography by Chris Bishop
Tell me about the Museums Studies MA course – how are you finding studying at Newcastle?

Amy: I’m loving it! I couldn’t think of a city more suited to a Museum Studies course than Newcastle – there are so many museums and galleries on your doorstep you’re spoilt for choice. I love Newcastle and can’t imagine leaving!

Anna: I could not have asked for a better experience, in all honesty. The course at Newcastle has a great reputation and as I was keen to stay in the North East to help contribute towards the growing arts industry here, it was the perfect choice.

What attracted you to do a placement at Seven Stories?

Anna: What didn’t attract me! Having specialised in creating illustrated books during my undergraduate degree, I have had an interest in the work that goes on at Seven Stories for a while. I previously had some of my illustration work displayed in the visitor centre, which I found very exciting.

Amy: I’m a long-time fan of Seven Stories. I actually came to the opening in 2005 and met Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt; I LOVED Jacqueline Wilson’s books so Nick Sharratt drawing me my own Tracey Beaker, on the cover of my tattered book, is one of my favourite childhood memories.

St. Wilfrid's Primary School visit Seven Stories. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books, Image by Richard Kenworthy
St. Wilfrid’s Primary School visit Seven Stories’ Time to Get Up Exhibition. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, Image by Richard Kenworthy
So, what have you been up to on your placements?

Amy: I’ve been based with the Creative Learning and Engagement team and I’ve been able to learn a lot about Seven Stories offerings, both onsite and in schools.

I’ve shadowed EY, KS1 and KS2 workshops as well as spending a couple of days with Creative Associates learning about the Reader in Residence and Reading for Pleasure offerings.

I’ve also being analysing and interpreting data regarding the learning programmes and spotting any trends and patterns.  

Anna: I have been primarily based with the Seven Stories Collections team. My main job has been to catalogue the Fritz Wegner collection, which Seven Stories acquired in 2017.

I have had the opportunity to work in the visitor centre on the de-installation of the Comics exhibition, and on the install for the new Where Your Wings Were exhibition. The tasks I was involved with included removing and packing artworks and display items, assisting in the hanging of artworks, and sourcing some images used in the displays.

David Almond's notebooks, part of the Seven Stories Collection. Image: Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children's Books
David Almond’s notebooks, part of the Seven Stories Collection. Image: Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books
How is your placement helping you to develop the skills you’ll need for a career in the museums sector?

Anna: I came to the MA course at Newcastle University with little practical experience of working in a museum environment. The placement has helped me put my theoretical knowledge from the MA course into practice. Working at Seven Stories has given me access to experts in the industry and enabled me to work directly with the collection.

Amy: I already have experience of delivering workshops and activities so doing my placement at Seven Stories meant that I could work with data, figures and reports to learn first-hand how data interpretation can be used to inform the future progression of a learning programme.

It’s something I normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do and I’ve really enjoyed doing something different!

Seven Stories. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books, photography by Richard Kenworthy
Seven Stories. Image: Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, photography by Richard Kenworthy
What have you learned from your placement at Seven Stories?

Amy: I’ve learned so much but my favourite part was learning about how much stories and reading can positively impact a child’s development and ultimately improve their academic performance and confidence.

Anna: I’ve learned that a huge amount of hard work, dedication and love goes into maintaining the collections! Before beginning my placement, I was of the belief that museum roles are well defined and separate from one another. I now know that multitasking and cross-discipline work is becoming a more common way of working.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Anna: I would like to thank all of the wonderful staff I have worked with. As an illustrator, it has been an absolute delight to work with original artworks, and it has really inspired me in my own practice.

Amy: I didn’t know it was possible but my time here has made me an even bigger Seven Stories fan!

Thanks Amy and Anna! It’s been a pleasure to work with you both and good luck with the rest of your MA studies!