February 2014 – Imagine, imagine, imagine....
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A report into the Inclusive Minds ‘What About Me?’ day at Imagine Children’s Festival 2014
Boasting a wealth of innovative events, exhibitions, shows and workshops, Imagine Children’s Festival has quite simply become an unmissable half-term attraction for many families.
With ‘The Kids Takeover’ as the 2014 theme, and organisers describing it as ‘a dynamic, dazzling and uniquely diverse festival’ it seemed a particularly appropriate platform for our first major Inclusive Minds event. Following discussions with the organisers about what we could offer, we were invited to run not just one workshop, but an entire day of children’s book activity.
On Friday 21 February, hundreds of families flocked to the Level 5 function room to take part in ‘What About Me?’, a groundbreaking day of truly inclusive and accessible children’s book activity, developed and delivered by Inclusive Minds.
The day was launched for us by poet Kayleigh Goater, from the wonderful Life and Deaf, who performed her own poetry and told a new story co-written by the young people of Life and Deaf and Julia Donaldson: What the Jackdaw Saw. It was a fitting and powerful start to a memorable day. We were incredibly lucky also to have the BSL interpreting skills of Lee Marshall, who stayed on for the entire day.
Kayleigh Goater, Life and Deaf
This was followed by a workshop from Sean Stockdale, Alexandra Strick, and Ros Asquith. The team (fast becoming known as the three Maxeteers) talked about the process of creating a picture book, with Max the Champion providing the perfect (subtly inclusive) backdrop, before giving children the chance to make their own Max-inspired medals and bookmarks.
Children sporting their Max the Champion medals
Crucially, the day wasn’t just a series of consecutive workshops, but rather a vast array of diverse activities, many of which were on offer throughout the day, including quick-fire attractions such as sensory stories, courtesy of specialist Jo Grace, and the opportunity to make tactile bookmarks and learn to spell your name in Braille with ClearVision. Booktrust were also on hand to display their specialist Bookstart packs (Booktouch, Bookshine and Bookstart Star) and offer advice.
Curved House Kids encouraged children to design their own book characters with help from illustrator Ben Hawkes and writer Keith Tilbury. Their work proved immensely popular, and a huge inclusive gallery grew before our eyes, as the panoramic view of Westminster, Big Ben and the London Eye risked disappearing entirely behind a wall of pictures.
Thankfully there were more opportunities to scribble and create. For example our 10m long Inclusive Minds canvas ran the length of one of the walls and presented children (and adults) with the irresistible invitation to add thoughts and pictures. Artists were on hand to help and encourage, including Jo Empson, Claudia Boldt, Vanda Carter, Sarah Arnold, Trudi Esberger, Emily Stanbury, Sarah Underwood, Ian Ray and Tamara Webster.
Our ‘Meet the Artist’ chair saw a succession of famous book creators take turns to run short sessions meeting children, telling stories and drawing pictures, including a special appearance from Petr Horacek.
With so many families befriending artists and discovering new books, it was essential that Letterbox Library and Foyles were on hand to display a wealth of titles by the artists represented on the day, as well as sharing their immense expertise and arranging numerous book signings for eager children.
The three Maxeteers signing books
In the afternoon, an innovative multi-pronged workshop entitled ‘Re-imagine a Book’ raised children’s participation levels still further. Following an introduction by illustratorJane Ray, this vast drop-in session comprised a number of activities, offering children the chance to re-imagine some favourite books with the help of popular illustrators, including Jane Ray, Eileen Browne, Sarah Garland, Rebecca Elliott, Carol Thompson, Annie Kubler and Ros Asquith.
At one table, children looked at book jackets and tried redesigning them, considering how to broaden their appeal and flip gender stereotypes. At another table, children enjoyed adapting the artwork of popular books (kindly donated by children’s book publishers) to literally put themselves in the picture. On another again, children created hugely imaginative and inclusive comic strips with Louie Stowell, Gem Ahmet and Biz Stringer-Horne. The results were surprising - Louie’s own blog on the event describes how one young artist made a story about lions fighting the British army to save the jungle!
Luckily we had Rebecca Brand and Daniella Cesarei on-hand to capture some of the fabulous creative activity on film, and as soon as we manage to get some funding (any offers welcome!), they’ll use this to develop a promotional clip showing the value of what we do.
Discussing book jackets with Jane Ray
Towards the end of the day, as children finally started to disperse, attention turned to how we could build on their ideas and experiences. A panel comprising illustrator Jane Ray, Fen Coles, Co-Director of Letterbox Library and editor Sue Baker from Child's Play discussed how the concept of normal is presented in books, and what message this gives to children about society.
Zara Todd, Sue Baker, Fen Coles and Jane Ray in action
Chair Zara Todd adeptly managed the discussions as the panel reflected on issues such as whether boys really do only want to read about other boys (we’re with Jane Ray who believes this is a self-perpetuating myth) and how to create fairy tales without reinforcing stereotypes about evil stepmothers and cruel stepsisters (Sue Baker pointed out that Child’s Play solution is to avoid the terms like ‘wicked’ and certainly never to resort to equating moral stance with physical appearance).
Discussion was opened up to the floor from where Eileen Browne described how male protagonists still outnumber female characters by two to one, and how her publisher asked her to change a lead female character to male in the hope the book would sell better.
As the day drew to an end, Inclusive Minds closed the discussion by reflecting on the aims and achievements of the event – a day that did indeed ensure that all children had the chance to put themselves in books.
To summarise, we were thrilled with what the day achieved, and delighted to have done it all with so many artists who gave up their time for free, a range of wonderful partners and in particular our favourite inclusive friends Letterbox Library. We also couldn’t have managed without the help of Biatra Christou, Nikki Marsh, Sophie Hallam and Grace Russell who gave us invaluable support and kept the day running smoothly. Thanks also to the wonderful Bea Colley and all the Southbank Centre team and to those artists who had planned to attend but for various reasons were prevented for making it on the day itself (including Babette Cole, Rachel Bright and Guy Parker-Rees). Finally, many thanks also to all those who took the time to blog about the event or get in touch to share their comments (see the samples in the column to the right for examples).
We’re now really rather excited about where this all could lead… watch this space.
by Alex Strick, Co-Founder, Inclusive Minds
"It was a fantastic day, you should be very proud and thank you for letting us all share! I felt liberated, totally un-judged and that feeling is why it is so very important to me that you keep going with your work because my child must not feel those judgements or those barriers."
"'What About Me?' was such a bright and refreshing event. Superbly child-friendly, genuinely inclusive and starring a cast of exciting illustrators and authors. Surely there's no better way to encourage a love of books and reading than allowing all children to see themselves in stories."
"It was a brilliant and unique event - I've never been to any event which managed to bring together children, parents, authors, illustrators, educators, distributors and publishers! I hope there will be more events like it. The work you are doing is really important."
"Taking part in the event was really uplifting and rewarding. As well as realising what a lot of work there is to do, it was also reassuring to meet so many really interesting and thoughtful people working towards common goals. I hope you get the opportunity to organise many more events around this theme."
Children's book editor
"As a 'helpful Artist', my role ranged from drawing alongside a 3-year-old autistic child to being interviewed at length by a tenacious 6th former who was in the process of writing her own book about being brought up in a same sex family. The next 'inclusive' generation in the making.
'Inclusivity' is more than a mere concept or a philosophy, practising it is a perpetual challenge. Inclusive Minds convincingly demonstrates how children's books can help change minds and behaviour... and that we can all learn from."
"An absolute triumph."