Last Thursday evening, Dom and I put on our finery (in the face of conflicting advice from Twitter, I went for the knee-length rather then floor-length dress) and met up with Nosy Crow author/illustrators Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson, Lyn Gardner, Axel Scheffler and Philip Ardagh and 396 other guests at a very glamorous dinner party thrown by The Book People Red House at the ballroom in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. It was associated with their involvement with the Southbank Imagine Festival (no link available, because it’s over now) at which Nikalas, Tim and Lyn performed, and it was billed as “a celebration of children’s books”.
Dinner menu for the evening
The chef was Jamie Oliver, and the food (made in a specially constructed marquee on the balcony behind the ballroom) was children’s (or children’s-ish) book-themed: Essex fried Peter Rabbit and Lord of the Onion Rings was on the menu. At every place on the six or so long colour-coded tables, there was a rather lovely little book containing, as well as the menu and the guest list, the favourite books that various authors and illustrators had chosen to send to children in care via Letterbox Club. Here are the 20 choices I particularly approved:
Philip Ardagh chose Comet in Moominland
Clara Vulliamy chose Dogger
Mick Inkpen chose The BFG
Axel Scheffler chose Anton Can Do Magic
Chris Riddell chose Flat Stanley
Emily Gravett and Nick Sharratt chose The Giant Jam Sandwich
Lyn Gardner and Paul Collicutt chose Where The Wild Things Are
Petr Horacek chose The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Polly Dunbar chose Not Now Bernard
Clare Beaton chose Each Peach Pear Plum
Justin Fletcher chose Dear Zoo
Betty Birney chose Charlotte’s Web
Marcus Sedgwick and Ciaran Murtagh chose The Dark is Rising
Morris Gleitzman and Mary Hooper chose Just William
Jenny Valentine chose To Kill a Mockingbird
Joanna Nadin chose The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
Jacqueline Wilson chose Ballet Shoes
Steve Cole chose Marianne Dreams
David Melling chose The Cat in the Hat
Darren Shan and Cathy Hopkins chose The Secret Garden
In fact, every guest was asked to bring with them to the event a book to give to a child in care together with a postcard saying why we’d chosen it. I chose A Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce. I wanted to choose a novel, but one that wasn’t too challenging – one that could be read to a six year-old but that a twelve year-old might read. It’s a book about the power of imagination. And, though I don’t think it’s a defeatist book, it is, at the end, a very pragmatic one: Ben can’t have what he wants but he learns – painfully – to want what he has. I left it late, and went into two Waterstones without finding it before I went to the London Review of Books bookshop where they had the 50th anniversary edition. The fact that it was the 50th anniversary edition made me swither a bit: it felt a bit behind the times to buy something for a child who might not have been exposed to many contemporary books one so firmly set in the past. But I read the last few pages and, as always, was tremendously moved by them, so I bought it anyway. I can only hope that the child who gets it loves it as much as I did when I read it (and re-read it) as a child.
There were speeches.
First up was Michael Morpurgo, who talked about the pleasure of speaking to a room full of people who spent their lives “bringing books to children and children to books”. He spoke of the passion in the room – passion that lay behind things as diverse as the drive to write children’s books and The Book People’s Seni Glaister and Sara Cooper’s plan to walk to the North Pole in aid of the children’s hospice service, Shooting Star CHASE before singing us all the verses of the Barleycorn song (sorry about the visuals here!) with its advice to “put your trust in tomorrow” from the play (not the film) of War Horse.
Michael Morpurgo about to burst into song
Jamie Oliver then confessed that he hadn’t read a narrative book in his life, something he put down to his dyslexia, but then spoke about the pleasure his daughter, Poppy, aged nine, got from immersive reading: “Apparently, books are amazing because when the author allows you to have your own imagination you are always surprised… It’s an incredible power that you have.”
Speaking of a visit to a school at which 75% of children qualified for free school meals, but where all the children appeared to have smartphones, Jamie Oliver expressed a hope that “what Poppy loves: books and paper and private time” would survive the onslaught of our excitement over technology.
Jamie Oliver, chef for the evening, addressing the audience
Anthony Horowitz, on characteristic agent provocateur form, kicked off his speech by suggesting that publishers weren’t necessary any more. They provided, he said, too little in the way of advances and promotion when they were really needed at the start of an author’s career. He talked the audience through some of the opportunities to self-publish via agents initiatives, via Amazon and via Apple. He suggested that it was only a matter of time before The Book People began publishing books, saying that publishers were nervous of The Book People’s power… and nervous of powerful authors too: “Publishers need me”, he said. He poked particular fun at what he saw as the infantilising world of children’s books, describing a meeting with Walker where they’d asked him to choose what mug he wanted his tea in: “They weren’t just going to publish me, they were going to breastfeed me.”
So far, so near the industry knuckle. He concluded, though, by turning the speech around (a bit too late for some in the audience, but there were others who thought he was hilarious). He read a passage from a self-published book, and pointed out its flaws… flaws, he said, that his editor at Walker, Jane Winterbotham, wouldn’t have let him get away with. He said that authors needed the rigour of the editing process to which publishers dedicated themselves, suggesting that, if publishers were a little less interested in literacy, education, good grammar, story and characters and a little more interested in making money, they might have “fewer problems”.
He said he agreed with George Orwell that “writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” He suggested publishers were similarly driven and that, “if we are in intensive care, I am strangely relieved that we are there together.”
Anthony Horowitz in agent provocateur mode preparing to talk to the crowd
Jude Kelly, Southbank’s Artistic Director, was more upbeat and less inflammatory. She spoke about the degree to which, in the UK, children were excluded from daily life – we only, as adults, tend to meet our own children as we go about our business – and were particularly excluded from cultural life, which was why events like the Imagine Festival were important. 13,000 people (“a torrent of children and an army of buggies”) had attended the ticketed events and thousands had come to the free events.
Lemn Sissay spoke of the work of Letterbox Club; of the courage and strength of children in care, who he described as “superheroes”; and of the need to judge governments by the quality of their care for the children for whom they were in loco parentis. Daljit Nagra read an embellished version of Too Many Daves by Dr Seuss. Aoife Mannix read the poem she’d written that night inspired by the places that people at the event told her that they had chosen when they wanted to “satisfy the need to read” as children. And Alex Gwyther read a poem he’d written in the course of the evening which was a toast to his future children’s first (book-inspired) words. If I ever get hold of links to the text of the last two poems, I’ll bung ‘em in here.
Tim ate my Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chocolate pudding, but I did offer it to him as he’d clearly particularly enjoyed his own.