The Federation of Children’s Book Groups held their annual conference over the weekend and I was delighted to be able to attend. It was an inspiring event, with celebrations to mark 20 years of Giraffes Can’t Dance, 20 years of The Gruffalo and 30 years of Elmer. The importance of diversity in children’s books and using stories to build empathy were highlighted in many of the talks that I attended.
David Stevens and Aimée Felone have set up a new publishing company called Knights Of with diversity and inclusivity at its core. They will be opening an inclusive children’s bookshop in Brixton this year and creating pop-up bookshops throughout the UK and Ireland.
Miranda McKearney from EmpathyLab spoke about the scientific research, which has shown that reading promotes empathy. When we identify with the feelings of a character in a book, our brain does not distinguish between the real and fantasy worlds. The more we immerse ourselves in a story, the more empathetic we become. Social media demands that we respond, respond, respond. In contrast, a story welcomes us in and gives us the space to breathe and dream. Jane Ray spoke about the importance of visual literacy and using symbolism in our stories, as children’s vocabulary for feelings can be very limited. Sita Brahmachari compared a character in a book to an artichoke – where we need to strip away the layers to explore the other person’s experience.
Throughout the conference, many authors spoke about a difficult challenge or a personal experience that they faced and how they used these experiences as inspiration for their writing and in doing so, turned a negative into a positive. Frank Cottrell Boyce revealed in a very inspirational talk that he has a blood disorder which causes his skin to turn a bright yellow colour. It also led him to be teased about it at school. But he turned the experience around to create The Astounding Broccoli Boy, in which the protagonist turns a green colour.
Holly Smale spoke about being bullied at secondary school for being different to others. She turned to stories to help her through it and used her experience as inspiration for the hugely successful Geek Girl series, which has sold over 1.4 million copies and has been translated into 34 languages. Holly also spoke about using stories to empower young people and referred to the importance of stories in building empathy.
Ross Montgomery worked as a primary school teacher for 7 years, before he became an author. He learned some valuable lessons working closely with an ICT assistant who was deaf and used this experience as inspiration for his story Max and the Millions. In writing the story, he hoped to raise awareness of the difficulties that a deaf person can face.
Amy Wilson draws inspiration from her stories from real life and from the natural world. She mentioned the opening of her story Snowglobe, in which a boy is poking the main character in the back in the classroom and said that it was based on an actual event that happened to her.
On Sunday, Nikki Gamble led a discussion on non-fiction books (or should they be called information books, educational books, or knowledging books?) A new edition of her text Exploring Children’s Literature: Reading with Pleasure and Purpose will be available later this year, which will include a chapter on non-fiction books. However, Nikki found that she could not cover everything that she wanted to say on non-fiction in just 10,000 words, so this edition will just focus on history books. Laura Knowles and Sam Hutchinson discussed the “expert” of a non-fiction book and how important it was that they could communicate with children. They looked at the design of the books. Illustrations were preferred over photographs for several reasons, although Nikki spoke highly about photographs that show something in a new way. (for example Elephants by Steve Bloom)
These were some of my highlights from talks/panel discussions that took place at the FCBG Conference last weekend. If you would like to hear more about the conference, come in and talk to us in the Curriculum Centre. To learn more about the Federation of Children’s Book Group, take a look at their website. And for more information on EmpathyLab and Empathy Day (11th June 2019) take a look here. And read a BBC article about bringing diversity into Children’s Books here.