I am sitting here with about eight A4 pages covered in notes from the Oxford Children’s Book Group conference, wondering how to even start writing it all up. In summary: it was excellent. All of the speakers were interesting and informative and everything ran smoothly. The conference was held at the Oxford University Press offices, which was the perfect venue.
The day was split into ninety minute sections for the speakers. There were drinks and pastries on arrival, the same at mid-morning break and then a delicious buffet lunch. The OUP museum was also open for viewing, which I managed briefly after lunch, and Mostly Books were supporting with their travelling bookstall of relevant books.
My camera battery died at lunchtime so I have limited pictures but I spent more time making notes than taking pictures because the talks were so informative. All the talks were on the theme “Ways into Reading”, and the different methods available to encourage and support children to become readers.
The first speaker was Victor Watson, a retired lecturer and current author. His interest was in series fiction, which a child had described to him as entering a “room full of friends”. Series fiction is comforting to readers, you are returning to characters and places that you’re familiar with and you want to know more. He talked about how series fiction is often sidelined as being worthless, but argued against this premise. The series fiction author must provide a story that regular readers want, but make it different each time. He described the difference between progressive and successive series and the effect that time had on series written over long periods – for example the effect of the second world war and the sixties on series started in 1940’s and completed in 1970’s – and how different authors approached these changes. It was a fascinating talk, and I’ve requested his book Reading Series Fiction: From Arthur Ransome to Gene Kemp from the library.
Andrea Quincey from Oxford University Press talked about the perception of reading schemes and the aims of the Project X scheme. This was a great continuation from the theme of series fiction because reading schemes are series, however Andrea pointed out that becoming too attached to one series can have a negative effect so the aim is to create an interest in all kinds of reading. For some children, reading schemes are the only books that they come across in their lives so it was important to create something that will hold interest. Research states that the clearest indicator for a child’s future success is not economic status, family background or other social indicators but their ability to read. The details behind creating a 21st century reading scheme to hook children and the challenges faced in ensuring that the series can be read in any order but still make sense was fascinating.
As a picture book aficionado, Tracey Corderoy was my most anticipated speaker, and she didn’t disappoint. With a suitcase packed with props she exuded enthusiasm and wit. She talked about her childhood growing up in what she described as a grey and smoky Welsh town, in a school that was often closed due to chemical spills, and a childhood with few books. But being unconventional she turned into a literature student, a teacher, a parent and an author with 38 published books in three years. Tracey’s talk was all about setting children’s “senses on fire” – using colour, props, crafts and singing to pull out a story and make it an experience. She talked about how she tells children that if they write stories then they are writers just like she is; this particularly spoke to me because it’s something that I do with my children. Tracey was incredibly inspirational, and a very humourous speaker. This was the highlight of an amazing day.
Tom and Caro Fickling talked about comics, and specifically The Phoenix. Tom talked about how comics are a way into reading that works because the child ‘owns’ the books by discovering themselves. As adults we’re allowed to look at pictures but children are expected to dump pictures at a certain age. Caro wondered whether declines in literacy were correlated to the lack of decent children’s comics in the last few decades and about how today’s ‘comics’ are thinly veiled marketing devices based on characters with printed matter not designed to stand up on its own and are thrown with relief into the recycle bin – I could completely relate to this having small children who are only interested in the plastic tat attached to the front! They talked about the medium of telling stories visually and how positioning and page turns affect how a story is read. Another fascinating insight.
Vineeta Gupta from Open University Press talked about the Oxford Children’s Corpus. This is not a term I’d actually come across before but with a background in analysis I now want to work for them! The Corpus is an enormous database of words used in writing for children and, more interestingly, in writing by children. The writing by children was collected in collaboration with Radio 2’s 500 words competition which gave them access to 160,000 samples of writing and over seventy million words to analyse. The Corpus is used to create dictionaries full of words that children actually come across in daily life, and to give real-life examples. Analysis of connections between words (for example, how often a word is used ‘near’ another word) means that, for example, ‘zoom’ can be illustrated by Harry Potter zooming around a Quidditch pitch making dictionaries relevant for today’s children.
Andy Mulligan only just arrived in time for his talk, having a journey cursed by public transport problems (Trains? Today? Of course they’re not running…) His theme was dangerous books and contemplating at what point children go from wanting to read “Shadow the Sheepdog” (Enid Blyton) to “The Fault in Our Stars”, and is something like The Fault in Our Stars a children’s book? Should children read books that don’t offer them reassurance that everything is going to end well? His talk was fascinating and engaging and covered a range of experiences. I now have all his books on my wish list too, especially The Boy with Two Heads and Trash. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, do go.
Finally the day was rounded off with Bill Laar, educational consultant, whose passion for sharing books and words spun into the room of fairly tired attendees. It is quite lovely as a ‘grown-up’ to have picture books and poetry read to you by such an enthusiastic reader. The perfect end to a packed day!
Thanks must go to everyone at Oxford Children’s Book Group who put together such a smooth-running and informative event whilst keeping costs low; and to all the speakers and publishers who provided their services, especially Oxford University Press. I had an amazing day, got to meet up with some people I usually only know on Twitter, and learnt so much.