In 2020 the children’s book world lost one of its most loved and most important enthusiasts, Wendy Cooling. In a career spent transforming lives, Wendy was a teacher, an author and an anthologist but is best known as the founder of Bookstart, the flagship national programme of the charity BookTrust, which has done so much to put books into the hands of babies and toddlers and start a lifelong love of reading.
Wendy remained as adviser to Bookstart as she embarked on a 25-year freelance career during which she was a friend to libraries, bookshops, families, organisations, authors, illustrators and publishers alike. She informed and inspired numerous audiences at conferences and enjoyed a valuable role with Ibby UK, with Outside In World, the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award, Bookaroo Festival of Children’s Literature and many others.
Her friend and former colleague, Alexandra Strick describes how, three years on from her death, different projects in Wendy’s memory are set to enrich the children’s book landscape.
Wendy Cooling was a true pioneer. Unquestionably a free spirit, she was universally treasured and respected by all sectors of the book world. So it’s appropriate that the three projects set up in her memory have been established by different parties, thereby mirroring her independent nature, as well as her creativity and commitment to getting books into children’s hands.
Reflecting Wendy’s love of travel, Wendy’s House is an ingenious pilot project with huge future potential. Set up by Jo Williams, it involves establishing pop-up book tents in a range of venues. One ‘Wendy’s house’ is now in operation in a school in India, another in a library in Malaysia. The first two locations are particularly apt since Wendy loved spending time at Taktse School, and it was after a Bookstart talk by Wendy that Kuching Library staff set up their own scheme which subsequently spread across Malaysia.
Meanwhile a project from BookTrust will recognise Wendy’s role in originating Bookstart, which gifts book packs to millions of babies and toddlers each year and has inspired similar programmes all over the world. A travel bursary in her name, funded by BookTrust, will be awarded to an organisation or individual from the global south who is looking to set up a Bookstart-style programme in their own country.
Plus of course, no Wendy Cooling legacy activity would be complete without a new book. Ten years ago, Wendy and I worked with publisher Child’s Play to research and create an innovative tactile book, Off to the Park, uniquely based on the ideas, experiences and needs of blind and partially sighted children. This successful book was then followed by two more, also featuring carefully researched tactile elements – Off to the Beach and Getting Ready. I’m proud therefore to have written and researched a new tactile book for babies, which will be published by Child’s Play, Time to Play. Wendy was passionate about accessibility and I know how much she wanted to see another book in our series; Time to Play will build on the series’ success.
These three projects are all inspired by Wendy’s lifelong belief in giving all children the right to access great books. Wendy said: ‘If you can read, you can do anything.’
There could surely be few more suitable occasions on which to have announced the projects than the Yoto Carnegies award ceremony. The 2023 ceremony provided a perfect platform to share the news with both a physical and virtual audience, and to give the book world an opportunity to pause to remember Wendy together. It was also particularly pertinent, since it represented three years to the very day since we lost Wendy. Just before the 2023 winners were announced, Janet Noble (chair of judges) invited the audience to remember Wendy for her vision, her passion, her energy and her legacy.
Children’s book events still feel strangely incomplete, without her ‘larger than life’ presence. Wendy was someone who would never miss a party – and she was always easy to spot, with her striking stature, colourful scarves and distinctive jewellery. She was a source of boundless energy and incorrigible name-dropping, always ready to beguile her audience with a fresh stock of stories, fascinating book projects and tales from her travels. So it was lovely to hear her own name on so many tongues at the 2023 Carnegies ceremony, to share memories with others who had worked with her and to be able to enlighten those who hadn’t had the good fortune to know her.
Wendy Cooling will undoubtably remain best known for Bookstart. However, she spent a lifetime transforming lives in a wealth of different ways. She had already been a teacher, author and anthologist, before developing the concept that would become Bookstart, piloting it in Birmingham with the energetic Library Services without whom it would never have happened.
The Wendy Cooling Legacy Group welcomes any further approaches from parties wishing to link activity or projects to Wendy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexandra Strick has worked in the children’s book world for much of the past fifteen years. At Booktrust, she managed programmes including Bookstart and Children’s Book Week, and was deputy executive director. She regularly reviewed children’s books for the Guardian and is now a consultant to Booktrust on all aspects of disability and diversity.