In a further feature linking in with World Book Day (which seems to last at least a week these days), writewyattuk reports back on a recent family day out at Seven Stories in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Despite all the hard work over recent years by its dedicated team, the North-East based Seven Stories National Centre for Children’s Books remains something of a well-kept secret.
The fact that it’s tucked away in Tyneside might have something to do with that. Those flaky media types don’t tend to get away from the capital too much, despite a mere three-hour rail link from King’s Cross. Yet still the visitors come.
Just think how lauded a similar facility might be if it was based in West Kensington, or maybe even Oxford. But despite past battles over funding, Seven Stories continues to draw in notable guests and exhibitors, and remains right where it always was, with good reason.
While hand-outs from the city council have been threatened, Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund assistance has helped this thriving concern, which aims to celebrate the love of reading across the generations.
Its mission is to champion children’s lit as an essential part of our childhood, our national heritage and our culture, and Seven Stories is the only UK centre dedicated to the art of children’s books. And despite my talk of best-kept secrets, I should add that it boasts more than 70,000 visitors a year, with some of the biggest names in this art form having dropped by to help publicise and stage exhibitions and events.
Its very setting is pretty impressive, located in a converted Victorian warehouse on the Ouseburn, a tributary that flows into the Tyne by the quayside, its seven storeys (see, it all makes sense) housing galleries for exhibitions, performances and creative space, as well as a specialist bookshop and café.
Telling the story of British children’s lit from the 1930s to the present day, it includes original manuscripts and illustrations from more than 100 authors and illustrators, including Judith Kerr and Enid Blyton (with more about those two shortly).
You can follow a publication from first scribbles and dummy copy, from roughs to final artwork, and from letters and correspondence to the finished product. But this is no dry collection, its exhibitions aimed at inspiring the young as well as the not-so-young visitors, while offering a unique resource for researchers.
Since it first opened in 2005, there have been around 30 exhibitions, some of those later touring the nation. Seven Stories has a proud local identity too, working with more than half of the schools in the North East and 85% in Newcastle, welcoming more than 10,000 school visitors and offering outreach work in schools and communities, encouraging that love of reading and realisation of learning and creativity – irrespective of background.
It was still winter when I called, yet turned out to be a cracking Spring day – the kind that suggests the dark nights will soon be behind you and reminds us the best is to come.
My football team had won at Gateshead the previous day, and we were enjoying a short half-term break, taking in the delights of Newcastle with locally-based friends, strolling along the bustling quayside, down to the mighty Tyne Bridge and back, a Sunday morning craft market setting the tone. And then we were off to Lime Street.
You enter Seven Stories at the third floor, but we headed straight to the basement, following our eager young guide Alex, six, a comparative veteran with a few past visits under his belt. We made for the Creation Station, my youngest daughter – no slouch when it comes to joining in – taking up residence alongside him at a craft table, the two of them getting to work on a few inspired drawings.
Outside we could see the Sea Song Sang, the moored Seven Stories solar-powered storyboat, made from recycled materials and a fine example of what we might have in store on our journey. Soon, we were climbing the stairs (I should point out there is a lift, and the building is wheelchair-friendly), although that monster late breakfast bap we’d demolished on the quayside ruled out a cafe visit on this occasion. Maybe next time.
Pausing only to decide on visiting the third-storey shop last, we headed straight to the fourth floor Sebastian Walker Gallery, named after the late founder of the Walker Books empire that brought us such classics as Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Jill Murphy’s Five Minute’s Peace, and Martin Handford’s Where’s Wally?
On this occasion it housed The Adventures of Enid Blyton: Mystery, Magic and Midnight Feast, and what a way to start. “Shall we go in, children?” I asked. “Yes … let’s!” came the reply. Well, maybe I made that response up, but you get my EB-esque drift. Before you could say Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy, we were inside.
Now, Enid’s something of a conundrum, remaining something of a divisive figure in children’s lit. I too hold with a few of those misgivings. Judging by the documentaries I’ve seen and much of what I’ve read, here was a woman of her time maybe, but not strictly likeable or a perfect mother. But what I can’t deny – however archaic the style sometimes and certainly the sentiments expressed – is that she opened the door on a world of adventure for my generation and many more.
Enid provided a key part of my reading education too, and arguably opened my eyes to a quest for exciting stories and adventures. I’m certain my idyllic childhood climbing trees, exploring woodlands, coastal paths and beaches would have happened anyway, but she helped encourage that mind-set – looking out for secret passages, smugglers and ne’er do wells.
I found her Enchanted Forest and Toytown a bit sinister – like Rupert the Bear’s Nutwood – but could totally equate to Enid’s Island of Adventure and all the Famous Five and Secret Seven explored, even if I didn’t have a dodgy scientist in the family and was never left to my own devices and free of adult interference for six weeks every summer.
This Seven Stories exhibition drew on the very best aspects of that inspirational canvas and all its more memorable quirky features, alongside bite-sized chunks of the author’s own fascinating life story. And from the photographic displays and sight of Enid’s battered typewriter in her Green Hedges home area to some superb themed areas, there were lashings of fun to be had.
You could have your photo taken in the Land of the Fairies, if that floated your boat, and take a drive in Noddy’s car (and who wouldn’t want to?). My youngest wasn’t initially pleased as I acted the part of the school bully and cajoled her into trying on a Malory Towers style uniform for a photo opportunity, complete with lacrosse stick. But while she looked more St Trinian’s than St Clare’s, it was all part of the experience.
I certainly couldn’t resist a turn around Kirrin Castle or a chance to hide away in the Secret Seven shed. And it’s a testimony to Seven Stories that I came away from the fourth floor better appreciating Ms Blyton’s part in our national story.
As it turned out though, that experience was soon surpassed – for me at least – on the fifth floor, the storey dedicated to acclaimed North-East writer Robert Westall. While I would have loved to have seen more about Robert himself – best known for the World War Two era classic The Machine Gunners, published in 1975 – I was pleased to see another worthy recipient featured instead.
Anyone who saw the recent Alan Yentob BBC documentary about national treasure Judith Kerr will have been moved by this author’s story, and there was plenty here to add. Anyone who’s read the wondrous When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit will understand the gravity of her flight from Germany to England as a child, her outspoken father high on the Nazis’ hit list as an avowed anti-Nazi commentator, a prime candidate for book-burning in those dark days.
This Tiger, Mog and Pink Rabbit retrospective not only followed that heart-rending story but also told the tale of Judith’s colourful career from there, not just about family favourites like Mog and of course The Tiger Who Came To Tea. but more recent poignant works like My Henry too.
Like her Pink Rabbit memoir itself, offering a child’s eye view of 1930s Germany, the displays were dealt with sensitively yet inspired questions all the same about this shameful period in history, rather than just blatantly depicting the evils of Nazism and the Holocaust. It’s difficult to tell that tale without scarring younger generations, yet Judith’s measured words and Seven Stories’ channeling of them helped convey that message.
There are lessons too for us from Judith’s family’s approach to that torrid experience, that mix of humility and quiet determination, forgiving but never forgetting, and this exhibition showed a brilliant, rather touching documentary, including footage of Judith talking to local pupils about her experiences and career, as poignant in places as scenes in Goodbye Mog and My Henry.
Judith’s decision to donate her amazing artwork archive to Seven Stories ensures she will always be a key component of this centre, and this exhibition perfectly encapsulated that union. And we certainly couldn’t resist a quick sit down for a chat over a cuppa with her celebrated Tiger.
We weren’t done yet, but time was against us as we climbed the stairs and took in the Picture Books in Progress exhibition on the sixth floor. On another day we might have done it more justice, but we at least had the chance to take a quick look at more winning art exhibits.
Then it was up to the roof space to marvel at the artist’s attic, with plenty of fancy dress and costumes to hand again. We were just in time for the third of the day’s storytime sessions, engagingly told by one of the Seven Stories staff. Our friend Alex was happy to help when required too, one of several youngsters quick to point out key twists in the tale and colourful clues.
There was just enough time to wander around the well-stocked bookshop and make a couple of purchases, and pretty soon, we were outside again, ready to embark on the cross-country trek back to Lancashire. But we left with a view to a swift return to this national centre with true pulling power, one which proved – to use the local vernacular – proper ‘champion’ for its cause.
Besides, my eldest daughter later concluded, with perfect understated teenage wisdom, ‘that was quite good, actually’. And believe me, that’s as good as a five star review from any other source.
* The Enid Blyton and Judith Kerr exhibitions are about to end, but there’s always plenty to enjoy, and the Moving Stories – Children’s Books from Page to Screen exhibition starts in April. For details about Spring events, opening times and more, head here.