There’s no job description for the Children’s Laureate. The Laureate is appointed for two years and is supposed to raise the profile of Children’s Literature, but can do it in whatever way she or he wants. The Laureate must agree to take on four specific official Laureate events each year, but the rest is up to her/him. The current post holder, Laureate Jacqueline Wilson, explains what she decided to do when she was appointed and describes what is involved.
I felt very pleased and proud to be chosen as the Children’s Laureate, but also a little apprehensive. There have been three excellent Children’s Laureates before me, Quentin Blake, Anne Fine and Michael Morpurgo. They all worked energetically and imaginatively, playing to their strengths. Quentin showed us book illustration as an important art form, Anne started the concept of a home library and worked on picture books for the blind, Michael travelled far and wide to show the joys of storytelling. As soon as people knew that I was going to be the next Laureate they all started wondering what I was going to do.
I thought hard about it. It wasn’t enough to say I wanted to introduce as many children to the joys of reading as possible. I needed to be more focused, more specific. I also wanted to unite and involve as many people as possible. I’m not on my own when it comes to arranging Laureate events. Chris Meade and Nikki Marsh from Book Trust administer the Laureateship, and Nikki Potter assists part-time with publicity, though of course I also have my own wonderful publicist Naomi Cooper. Mary Vacher from Random House is also a tower of strength. Waterstones sponsor the Children’s Laureate, so Wayne Winstone sits on the panel and he contributes enthusiastically.
I wanted to find a way of pleasing everyone professionally involved: administrators, publishers, booksellers, librarians and teachers. I wanted to please as many children as I could. I also wanted to please myself!
I tried to think of the best way to get children hooked on books for life. I’d become a reader because my father read aloud to me, though his choice of reading material was eclectic to say the least. He read aloud cartoon strips from the newspaper, plodded through all three The Magic Faraway Tree stories, and then tackled David Copperfield. I missed out on most nursery classics, but caught up with them when I read aloud to my own daughter. She was a fidgety baby, but the one magical way to keep her quiet was to cuddle her on my lap and show her a story. We were soon roaming through the whole magical world of children’s literature, taming Wild Things and entertaining Tigers to Tea.
Emma could read for herself by the time she was five but neither of us wanted to give up our reading aloud sessions. This was marvellous, because I could read her great fat classics with small print, books she wasn’t ready to tackle by herself. We made friends with the March sisters and Katy and Sarah Crewe, and encountered Irene’s magical grandmother and Heidi’s gruff grandfather.
Emma was very happy to read to herself too, but we continued our daily reading aloud sessions until she was at secondary school. I knew many other parents who read aloud to their children and they all became very keen readers. I talked to nursery school teachers who said they could always tell if a child in their care had been read to regularly. They were brighter, their vocabulary was better, and they knew how to concentrate.
Reading aloud to children
I decided to do my best to promote the whole idea of reading aloud to children. Chris and Nikki and I went to see Culture Minister David Lammy, and I tried hard to get him to initiate a National Reading Day. Wayne did his utmost to promote story-telling sessions in all Ottakars book stores. Ros Bartlett from the Federation of Children’s Book Groups organised big reading aloud events. Many libraries launched special reading aloud sessions, and the Chatterbooks groups were particularly supportive. School teachers wrote to me and said they were starting up special reading sessions just for the sheer joy of it – and blow the curriculum! Philippa Dickinson, head of Random House children’s books, had the mammoth task of producing a full colour paperback of Great Books to Read Aloud, cleverly compiled by Julia Eccleshare in a matter of months. Naomi and I approached many celebrities, asking them to write a paragraph about their favourite books to read aloud. All the writers approached gave us lovely pieces, and there were interesting contributions from Cherie Blair, Michael Palin and many others. Elaine McQuade and Scholastic Book Fairs promoted this fantastic book of suggestions for all they were worth, and many libraries and all the book chains had it on sale, with special displays.
I talked about my reading aloud campaign on television and the radio, and gave interviews to newspapers and magazines. I did many talks both to adults and to children, reading aloud extracts and discussing favourite books. I particularly enjoyed a joint event with Malorie Blackman. I had tremendous feedback. I was so touched when proud new dads said they found the Great Books suggestions very useful, and grannies said they’d rediscovered special favourites to share with their grandchildren.
Creative author projects
I hope Great Books to Read Aloud will stay in print, and hopefully be updated from time to time. Meanwhile I initiated another campaign, although this one is taking longer to get off the ground! Children frequently write to me, asking me all sorts of questions because they are doing an author project at school. I’ve been shown many of these projects, and although I’m always very complimentary I can’t help noticing that they’re nearly all remarkably similar. Children simply google my name or go directly to my fanclub website and print out all the information there, together with a few photographs.
I couldn’t help wondering if there was a more creative way of tackling all these author projects. I thought it would be a great idea to ask twenty or thirty well-known authors and illustrators to take part in a special exhibition. I thought each could have some sort of glass case with a display inside of a special manuscript or illustration, writing tools, lucky mascots, relevant books, photos, lists of favourite things, plus a list of suggestions of innovative ways of tackling a project. It would be fun to have a life-size cardboard cut-out of each author and illustrator so that children could have their photo taken with them.
I don;t want the exhibition just to be London based. I want it to travel to specific child-centred venues all over the country, where different authors and illustrators could visit and give talks and workshops.
Everyone is very enthusiastic about this idea too, but of course it’s going to need tremendous organisation – and generous funding! Julia Eccleshare has valiantly agreed to do the selecting and write the book to go with the exhibition. Book Trust appointed Sarah MacDougall who has drawn up a detailed feasibility study for the exhibition, calling it the Laureate Legacy! It all looks very promising so far, but this Laureate will have hung up her medal by the time it’s all in place. I hope the new Laureate will want to get involved.
Other Laureate tasks
These have been the two main projects during my time as Laureate, but of course there have been many other aspects of the job. I’m particularly pleased that one of my tasks as the Laureate is to present the Ottakars Children’s Book Prize to a new author. It’s sad that the excellent Ottakars book chain no longer exists, but I’m so pleased Waterstones have now taken over the sponsorship.
I’ve become very involved with the RNIB and their Right to Read campaign, and have done my best to support other child-centred charities.
I’ve been delighted to take part in various talks with the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and the head of Book Trust Chris Meade. I’ve taken part in the Book Start conference, and I’ve joined in general discussions about toxic childhood and controversy in children’s books. I’ve talked at the Gottenberg Book Fair in Sweden on being the Children’s Laureate to a big international audience and next year I will be addressing a thousand teachers, librarians and publishers at the Book Expo in New York.
Most of all I’ve tried to reach as many children as I possibly can. I’ve talked in bookshops and libraries and schools, in town halls and churches and shopping centres, I’ve taken part in huge events for disadvantaged children, and chatted to small groups of looked-after children, some as funny and fiesty as my own Tracy Beaker. I’ve tried hard to go to venues where I might find children who aren’t necessarily book worms. I’ve talked in the Eden Project in Cornwall and I’ve done big seaside events in the summer.
I’ve even been part of the Hayling Island Book Carnival, which was great fun. I arrived in a borrowed vintage Rolls Royce and had to judge the fancy dress and crown a little girl carnival queen. I also watched the ferret racing, and cradled the biggest ferret in my arms for a photograph – and got bitten in the process!
The Queen’s favourite children’s book
I was lucky enough to be the Laureate during the Queen’s eightieth birthday year. This meant I got to go to Windsor Castle for a television programme and see the Queen’s library, a wonderful treat. I pored over Shakespeare’s second folio and held the Queen’s favourite children’s book, Black Beauty, childishly inscribed Lilibet inside the front cover. I went to the Queen’s special birthday celebration at Buckingham Palace and contribute a piece about children’s literature for the programme. I was as excited as all the little girls in their party frocks, especially when I had to introduce the Queen to all my fellow authors and then sit in the royal box to watch the performance of David Wood’s play. He was sweet enough to include Tracy Beaker as one of the main characters – and she got to meet the Queen too.
It’s been hard work being the Children’s Laureate – but I don’t think we ever had such an enormously enjoyable time.
Jacqueline Wilson’s term of office will come to an end on 12 June when the next Children’s Laureate will be announced.
Great Books to Read Aloud can be downloaded from www.greatbookstoreadaloud.co.uk