Chris Riddell Children’s Laureate 2015 – 2017, saddles up his donkey Hubris and vows to continue to champion libraries in a new role
It was a big, dark hotel in Russell Square. The conference room, one of a half a dozen, was cavernous and sparsely peopled. There was a problem. Derailment, points failure, shortage of train crew, leaves on the line, I forget exactly what, but attendees were delayed on trains heading into London. This was the School Library Association Conference and awards ceremony for outstanding school libraries, and I had been invited to say a few words and hand out certificates. Congestion on the rail network eased and the room began to fill only for another problem to arise. The certificates were delayed, somewhere north of Potter’s Bar. ‘Why don’t I draw some?’ I suggested, far more confident in my illustrative skills than my oratorical ones. Kevin Crossley-Holland, the president of the SLA looked relieved as I set to work on lettering and illuminating sheets of A4 photocopy paper. The rest is history – at least it is for me. That day, I sat and listened to school librarians talk about the things they do. I heard about and saw pictures of astonishing school libraries. I learnt about how transformative school libraries could be in the hands of trained, well-resourced school librarians. And that was the rub. Librarian after librarian spoke uncomplainingly about the challenges they faced. Their stoicism was both magnificent and heart-breaking. As I listened I remembered the librarians I had known through my school days; the librarian who introduced me to The Hobbit, the librarian who gave me a prize for my science fiction story, the fearsome librarian who stood guard over my senior school library ensuring that it was a sought after haven from the hurly burly outside. I also felt guilty. I realised, listening to Kevin Crossley-Holland’s characteristically eloquent speech that I, like so many others, had taken school librarians and the invaluable work they do for granted. It dawned on me as the awards were announced and librarians accepted them with stories of budget cuts and redundancies, that what was happening to school libraries and school library services was a scandal. I met lots of school librarians that day and spoke at length with Kevin afterwards and a vague plan began to form in my brain. I wanted to do something to help, but I wasn’t sure what. Then I thought about the post of Children’s Laureate. I had been asked a couple of times if I’d like to be considered and each time, though flattered, I’d felt that I wouldn’t have been able to commit to the rôle in the way it deserved. That day in Russell Square changed that. If they ever ask me again, I decided on the train home, I’ll say yes.
A year later the Laureate steering committee asked me, for what I suspected would be the final time, whether I’d like to be considered. I immediately agreed and several months later I found myself standing on stage at BAFTA while Malorie Blackman handed me the Children’s Laureate Medal before skipping off stage rather too gleefully for my comfort. But I was on a mission, as Children’s Laureate I wanted to talk, draw and write about school libraries, I wanted to tell as many people as I could about the importance of the work school librarians do and why we need more, not fewer trained librarians in our schools. With the Laureate medal around my neck, usually metaphorically, I gained access to many places that a scruffy, middle-aged political cartoonist wouldn’t usually be invited into. I sat on stage at the National Theatre, spoke and drew on radio 3, 4 and Six, warmed breakfast TV sofas and hobb-nobbed at the House of Lords and Buckingham Palace. Wherever I went, I talked about school librarians and their libraries. It is impossible to know if this made any difference but, on a personal level, it felt good to champion a profession so often taken for granted.
This year Kevin Crossley-Holland stepped down as president of the School Library Association but will continue as an esteemed patron. Being a writer and poet of great foresight, he has trained an apprentice to assume his former duties. I’m honoured and humbled to say that I am that apprentice. My metaphorical mule, Hubris, who served me faithfully during my Laureateship, is going to be saddled up and pressed back into service. In the next few years I want to visit as many school libraries as I can as well as knocking on the doors of government, when we finally get one worthy of the name, and asking them this: if our prisons are required by law to have libraries why aren’t our schools?