From the 1960s the idea of a centre for the study of children’s literature has been mooted. With the opening of Seven Stories in Newcastle-upon-Tyne the dream has finally become a reality. How did it come about? And what does it offer? Brian Alderson , a member of the Centre’s Collection Committee, explains.
Who now remembers Margery Fisher or trawls through the dusty files of her unique reviewing journal Growing Point ? Should anyone do so and come upon volume 6, no.6 (December, 1967) they would find an article by John Rowe Townsend urging the creation of ‘a centre for the study of children’s literature’. He requested responses and he and his editor found themselves in the midst of a debate which led to one academic institution preparing a blueprint for such a place and seeking funds to pursue the matter further.
Their endeavours foundered against a wall of indifference in the wider world and progress was left to the hardier spirits of a later generation. Round about 1985 there was a meeting at Newcastle-upon-Tyne which was addressed by Elizabeth Hammill on just this subject. Ms Hammill at that time was manager of the children’s department of Waterstone’s in Newcastle and was winning fame for the way in which she was involving the children and adolescents among her clientele in reading and discussing their current literature – but why, said she, was there no national institution which might do something to give more public status to children’s books (an echo of the Townsend piece).
Elizabeth Hammill was a tenacious spirit finding sympathy for, as well as incredulity at, her ambitious idea. She teamed up with Mary Briggs of Newcastle’s Department of Education and together they worked (and networked) towards a grand specification for the proposed Centre. Knowing that generous sentiments needed to be grounded in hard facts, their persuasiveness generated funding, in part from the book trade, but more importantly from outside sources, and by the mid-nineties charitable status was achieved. An office was set up and full-dress feasibility studies pointed a direction for the future.
Alongside the tortuous, and what would have been for some of us perilously frustrating, negotiations over planning and resources there also ran a fundamentally important process of demonstrating Purpose. Elizabeth’s scheme differed radically from Townsend’s through its emphasis on the need to build up a collection of children’s books together with the working papers out of which they emerged: manuscripts, artwork, the records and correspondence surrounding their gestation and subsequent promotion. This was garnished with Awful Warnings about Heritage which gave the project press-friendly glamour and would soon collect national publicity when, in 1995, the archive of the much-loved Queen Puffin, Kaye Webb, was ‘saved for the nation’ by the Newcastle team through private treaty just before it was due to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s.
By this time too an Acquisitions Sub-committee had been formed, meeting initially chez Shirley Hughes and having among its members Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen. Lists were drawn up. Authors and illustrators were approached in order to ascertain how readily they might contribute material to the collection, and thus – through the generosity of many of them – clear proof was shown for the potential of the Centre.
The first exhibitions
At this point, the most spectacular demonstration of the Centre’s potential lay in a sequence of exhibitions that were organised under its banner, even though it possessed no recognised home of its own. The first, ‘Daft as a Bucket’ an exploration of the work of Colin McNaughton, was expansively displayed on the top floor of Newcastle’s Discovery Museum and was one of the finest children’s book exhibitions I have ever seen. It fulfilled perfectly what had now matured as the twin aims of the organisation: first giving penetrative insight into the making and publishing of children’s books and, second, doing this in a way which does not exclude children as visitors to what is really their own territory. Elizabeth Hammill, who is now Artistic Director of the Centre with Mary Briggs as Chief Executive, has double gifts as both administrator and showman and in the years that followed ‘Daft as a Bucket’ she paralleled her performance there with a Grimm show at the Newcastle Playhouse in conjunction with some Christmas pantomime versions of the stories; a huge exhibition on ‘the world of folktales’ at the Arts Centre, keyed in with a detailed educational programme, and a celebration of the work of the picture-book artist Kim Lewis at the Shipley Art Gallery at Gateshead.
Finding a permanent home
Events such as these helped to confirm the credentials of the Centre as an organisation with creative as well as curatorial vision, justifying the campaign to find it a permanent home. That happened with the beginning of the new century when funds allowed for the purchase of a former flour-mill in the Ouseburn Valley – a remarkable tidal riverrun cutting through the hills a little to the east of the city centre and, by strange coincidence, a setting that had inspired the fantasy of David Almond’s Heaven Eyes . Here the seven-storey building has been transformed from its earlier run-down self to a four-and-a-half million pound architectural masterpiece – and one wonders how the builders enjoyed refurbishing its back wall with their scaffolding poked into the river-bed.
The naming of the building Seven Stories makes of course for a witty pun, there being, so we are told, only seven narrative themes in all the world. Those of the building though certainly offer an almost complete gamut of what can be done with a children’s book. If we climb the winding stair from bottom to top – rather than riding the elevator – we encounter first The Engine Room, a play area where children and parents are offered space to read, lark about, or get engaged with various book-inspired activities and entertainments such as recording and playing back your own story. That lies one floor below the entrance hall, where is space for small introductory exhibits and, down a curved passage, an excellent café in need of no advice from trendy chefs. Next up is a gigantic children’s bookshop which struck me as perhaps over-dedicated to selling the wonders of the moment rather than giving professional attention to an in-depth stock of the often neglected back-list titles – a point emphasised by the wonders that occur in the two storeys above, the Robert Westall and the Sebastian Walker Galleries, where is to be seen the Centre’s Opening Exhibition ‘Incredible Journeys: Travel by Book’.
If an objection is to be levelled at this tremendous display it must be the contradictory one that it is too good for its own good. What Elizabeth Hammill and her team have done is to blend together a fascinating range of manuscript material and original artwork – some owned by the Centre, some on loan – which is then related to its published manifestation and duly annotated to bring out its historical importance or some quirk in its production. The idea of Journey is very loosely interpreted as a rough shaping principle but it allows several imaginative settings: the brilliant entrance-hall with its demonstration of the wonder of words (wonderfully decorated by Satoshi Kitamura), the world of characters with a theatrical dressing-room section for children to dress up in, the Topsy Turvy World: an upside-down room designed by Ted Dewan…
Almost all the great names of modern British children’s literature turn up somewhere or other on these journeyings – for me the two most impressive groupings being those devoted to Lucy Boston’s ‘Green Knowe’ books, with her son’s illustrations, and a movingly beautiful display of manuscripts, artwork and photographs which tell much of the labour – and the love – which went in to the creation of Tom’s Midnight Garden . The descriptions and explications within many of the labels for the sometimes interconnected exhibits are so detailed and so freshly informative that the whole show can hardly be absorbed in a single visit and one greatly regrets that amid all the pressures of preparing for Opening Day it was impossible to prepare a catalogue.
After such journeyings the two remaining storeys are a bit of an anticlimax: floor 6 being primarily reserved for administration, although digital apparatus for the customers is being developed, while floor 7, ‘The Artist’s Attic’, is an impressive loft-space, with all the original beam-work exposed to view – a site for the school-group meetings and workshops that are in the programme.
That hasty tour may mistakenly suggest that Seven Stories is not much more than a Very Superior Public Library. Children, their parents and their teachers in the region have flocked to see it and – on the evidence that I have seen – have found it an experience enjoyable in itself but also one to quicken a new appreciation of what children’s books have to offer. What must be stressed though is that this rewarding social role for Seven Stories is indissolubly linked to its founding principle of being a National Archive.
A National Archive
As you go up and down and roundabout you won’t see anything of that function for the very good reason that ‘the archive’ is at present lodged in a separate office-suite down by the great River Tyne itself. Here, under the eyes of professional staff, are the multitude of boxes and larger cases in which the manuscript materials are being conserved and stored until they find their own home. It is already a collection of daunting size – that early-acquired Kaye Webb archive being joined by a multiplicity of varied donations: Ladybird books from the publishers themselves, cartloads of boxes inscribed with such names as Philip Pullman and Peter Dickinson and case after case of artists’ drawings. Exactly how valuable it is to present-day enthusiasts – let alone posterity – cannot be estimated until the precise contents of the current accession lists can be fully assessed. (My own tinkering with such archives here and in the USA convince me that the juice of any holding lies in the completeness with which it represents every stage in a book’s growth, whereby half a-dozen flimsy letters or a sheet or two of sketches may count for much more than a wad of clean typescripts ready for the printer.)
The exploration of this material is an exciting long-term challenge to Seven Stories whose staff are now establishing a working relationship with the newly-founded Children’s Literature department at Newcastle University and with its Library. (An MA student is already working on the Robert Westall papers.) For, whomever it comes from and whatever its quality, every manuscript is at the centre of its own web of relationships and may need to be examined not just as a simple product of its author’s study (or garden-shed) but within a comparative framework of his/her career, its publisher’s policies, the aesthetics of design and production and a whole raft of comparative issues. Almost inevitably collaboration will be necessary to fill so tall an order, but then Seven Stories is a tall institution – a centre point, a growing point, and, if you like, a Northumbrian beacon for the future.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times .
The Centre for Children’s Books
30 Lime Street
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tel: 0845 271 0777