In the lead-up to this year’s joint SLA + YLG conference, dubbed #SLAYLG17, I often joked to my friends that it was really all a ruse: SLAYLG was for trainee watchers, and not for librarians who focus on books for children and young people.
By the close of the conference, it was clear to me that it was both.
Now, as any self-respecting Buffy fan will tell you, a watcher is a trainer or guardian for a slayer (girl who is meant to save the world by killing monsters and demons and vampires). Watchers are usually British trained librarians, partly due to the location of the watcher’s council, in London. A watcher’s role often requires a lot of research, teaching ability and adaptability to the lives of their typically teenage charges.
#SLAYLG17 was my first professional conference. I am currently doing my masters in library and information management, and hold the student position on the YLG Northwest committee.
As a student, I paid for conference myself and would advise anyone who is thinking of doing their masters to start saving a little pot of money, which you can draw upon to attend special events like this.
The conference was held at the Majestic Hotel in Harrogate from Friday 23rd – Sunday 25th June 2017. The theme was lightbulb moments, powered by librarians.
On arrival at the hotel I asked a group of school librarians, who turned out to be from the north-west if I could join them for tea /coffee whilst we waited for lunch to be served before starting the day’s activities. I’ve since kept in touch with a few of them via twitter.
Following lunch, the exhibition opened (I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many ARCs and proofs in my life!) and we were led to the formal welcome and introduction, which explained what was going to happen during the weekend.
The introduction was hosted by the chairs of the SLA and YLG, and local children’s poet, Sue Hardy-Dawson, read some of her work.
This was followed by a presentation from Amnesty international and Chicken Shed theatre, ‘Dreams of Freedom’. The two presenters talked about how the Amnesty CILIP Honour came to be, how Chicken Shed started and how the two groups came to be working together on various children’s theatre projects. My favourite moment from their talk was how they could show the positive effect the projects have on children, and how books were helping children to express themselves in ways that they had previously found difficult.
The following session was a presentation by Paula Wride, a librarian and archivist from the well-beloved children’s literature archives, Seven Stories. This focused on the legacy of Eileen Colwell, who was a pioneer in the field of children’s librarians, and a founder of the Carnegie award. Eileen herself was one of the first people to insist that children should have their own library space, tailored to their needs.
This led into the publishers’ roadshow, during which various publishers did very fast ‘elevator pitches’ about their hottest and newest titles. My favourite pitch came from Anderson press who wore ‘votes for women’ sashes to promote a new YA title inspired by the suffragette movement (Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls). As a Mancunian (as Manchester is the birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst) it is a piece of history that is very dear to my heart. I had spoken to Harriet from Anderson Press very briefly earlier in the day and explained my own link to Manchester’s feminist history and she kindly saved me a proof of that title.
After the roadshow, everyone dashed off to their rooms to get ready for the Harry Potter 20th anniversary dinner. I’d made my own version of a Hufflepuff uniform for the party, and was easily the first person ready to go.
There were some amazing costume efforts including Professor Trelawney; Hagrid; Moaning Myrtle and many more. The dining room was decorated with themed bunting and posters, and each guest received some Harry Potter goodies. I sat with the school librarians who I had met earlier in the day, and so my table comprised of Mad-Eye Moody, Rita Skeeter, Luna Lovegood, two Gryffindor students and two muggles.
Partway through the dinner, the winners of the fancy dress competition were announced. Rita Skeeter came 1st, Hagrid was 2nd, and moaning Myrtle, complete with toilet seat was 3rd. The atmosphere in the room was great, and as a casual cosplayer myself I was enjoying seeing how much effort everyone had put into their outfits.
After dinner we had a talk from Laura Dockrill, YA author of Aurabel and the upcoming Big Bones. Laura read from a few of her books and signed the sampler of Big Bones for me.
Unfortunately, the wine had gone to my head after the long day so I didn’t join everyone at the bar after leaving the dining room, and went to bed instead.
I got up around 7.30 am on the Saturday, feeling a little tired but otherwise ok. I joined a few people who I recognised from the North West YLG committee for breakfast. There were more vegan options at breakfast than I had expected to see, and so I filled up as much as I could (my advice to fellow vegans would be to take plenty of snacks with you to conferences as vegan options can be very limited, with small portion sizes).
I had hoped to attend the Aliens Love Underpants 10th Anniversary breakfast session but unfortunately couldn’t find the room. Ah Well!
Saturday began with Welcome to the day introduction for the day delegates, leading into “The Big Debate: Has the Carnegie Medal helped or hindered getting controversial books published?” This discussion was led by Joy Court, with a panel of authors: Melvin Burgess, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Gillian Cross, Will Hill and Lisa Heathfield with the publisher’s perspective from Liz Cross of Oxford Children’s Books. Key points raised during the discussion was how few YA titles make it into the winning selection for the Carnegie award, but also how the award has highlighted titles that have had controversial topics woven into their main plots.
As part of the conference, attendees could select optional sessions to attend during the Saturday.
The first optional session I attended was looking at ‘Illuminating inclusion’, led by Jake Hope (eagle eyed readers might remember Jake from the Carnegie anniversary blogs during which Jake has been reading and reviewing all the past winning titles, which is no mean feat, especially as being a part of the Carnegie team means reading all 140 long list titles as part of the role. You can read Jake’s anniversary blog here: http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/anniversary-blog.php). This session looked at themes of inclusion within children’s and YA fiction. The author, Glenda Millard, whose novel, The Stars at Oktober bend was shortlisted for the Carnegie award was meant to be present to discuss her novel, but couldn’t make it due to illness. Instead, her publisher stepped in her place to deliver a reading from the novel.
Following on from a Where’s Wally coffee break, the second session focused on ‘Teenage mental health & reading’. This was led by Nicola Morgan, a leading expert in children’s mental health, and writer of books including Blame My Brain and The Teenage Guide to Stress. The authors who took part were Sara Barnard, Tamsin Winter and Katie Thistleton. Both of Sara and Tamsin’s latest novels look at selective mutism aimed at different age brackets – A Quiet kind of thunder is YA, and Being Miss Nobody is aimed at 9-11+ readers.
Katie Thistleton, who some may recognise as being a host of CBBC (I recognised her from seeing her introduce the remake of The Worst Witch) has a book, Dear Katie, due out later this year, in which Katie, with the help of a team of suitable experts and advisors, responds to fans letters about their problems with advice. Katie explained that some of the letters she had received were truly heart-breaking, and that she and her team arranged for help for those people as she knew that their needs were greater than the book would be able to offer. These submissions were not included to protect the privacy of those individuals. Main topics that will be included in the final book will include advice on how to deal with bullying, making friends, first kiss, and where to get advice for various topics that might not have been included.
After lunch, the third workshop was led by Amy McKay, winner of the librarian of the year award, and was entitled ‘Stealth Librarian’. This was easily one of my favourite talks of the conference, and one of the two occasions where the idea of a librarian being a watcher really resonates. The main section of Amy’s session was about how she teaches the pupils at her school how to survive a zombie apocalypse. Dealing with zombies 101 is something a watcher would really know about. Now, zombies aren’t real, unless you’re doing a zombie walk of course. However, the point of the exercise was to encourage participants to think about all the types of fiction they consume, as well as to build familiarity with the library. I’ll admit I’m rather jealous of the pupils that get to take part in some of Amy’s activities as they looked amazing. If I ever get to work as a school librarian, or in a situation where the audience is YA, this is definitely something I want to run.
Books glorious books
For the last session of the day I’d opted for the exhibition. If any of you reading this get to attend a similar conference, my advice is to always opt to do the exhibition last. The pictures of my haul will explain why! During the exhibition, attendees get the opportunity to speak with publishers, and pick up arcs, proofs, samples and other goodies. As many exhibitors bring finished and currently released books, you can often get some of these as well if you time it right as they don’t usually want to take books home with them again. My favourites that I received included the hardback V&A edition of Little Women, Hufflepuff edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner.
At 16.25 there was a tea break with ‘Dear Zoo @ 35’. The author, Rod Campbell in conversation with Stephanie Barton. This session was really sweet, as Rod explained the inspiration behind some of his characters, including how Buster was based on the child of a neighbour of whom he had spent time with and had adored very much. It was great to see some of the sketches that were used in the creation of his books.
Following on from Rod Campbell’s talk was a speech by Chris Riddell, ‘My Love Affair with Librarians’, introduced by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Chris did a live drawing of Kevin, whilst Kevin talked about some of the work that he and Chris had done leading up to Chris becoming Children’s Laureate in 2015. Chris then talked about how he feels about librarians, showed some of his other sketches and shared anecdotes from his work history as well as a few light-hearted jokes looking at the current socio-political situation in the UK.
After this session, everyone went to get dressed for the Gala dinner. As it was a more formal occasion, I opted for a blue 50’s style dress. After getting ready, I joined everyone for a drinks reception which led into the formal ballroom where the exhibition had been previously held. We were informed that we had a present from Lane Smith, as he was disappointed that he could not make the occasion, and so we all received a signed copy of the Kate Greenaway award winning book, There Is a Tribe of Kids.
During the dinner, several speeches were given, including Carnegie, Kate Greenaway and Amnesty CILIP Honour Presentations and YLG Honorary Membership (given to Chris Riddell). After food was served, the guests could approach the authors present to have their books signed. I had books by Chris Riddell, Gillian Cross, Lauren Child signed, along with a proof of Sarah Crossan’s new novel.
After the gala dinner there was the option to go into the bar, but I opted to go pack my bags ready for the following morning.
I got up around 7am and went down to breakfast, then attended the breakfast session, ‘A Murder Mystery Breakfast with Robin Stevens. During the session, Robin talked about her novel, The Guggenheim mystery, the sequel to Siobhan O’Dowd’s The London Eye mystery – she was approached by the Siobhan O’Dowd Trust to work on the book. Robin also had audience members vote on elements of a fictional crime which she then solved.
A very short AGM for the YLG was held at 9am, followed by an AGM for the SLA. I then checked out of my room prior to attending the welcome introduction for the day at 9.50am.
After introductions were given, the first talk of the day was looking at ‘The Forgotten Tradition of Radical Children’s Literature and its Relevance Today’ by Professor Kim Reynolds (Newcastle University and OUP). Elements of the talk looked at youth self-publishing and at Enid Blyton’s work in which the female had equal roles with the male (famous five is an example of this). The talk ended with a reading from We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen which was pleasant – I am used to reading stories to children at my local public library, but it’s been a very long time since somebody has read to me.
Next up was David Almond and Lauren Child in conversation. Both authors talked about highlights of their careers and Lauren outlined her hopes for her Children’s Laureate role.
Following on from this was the last talk of the day, ‘Young People’s Mental Health and Reading’ by Natasha Devon from the Self Esteem Team. Natasha’s talk highlighted how there is a growing need to help young people navigate societal and peer pressure as the online world is harder to escape from, and how targeted advertising can encourage more self-shaming than ever. Natasha showed some of the activities she runs during her school sessions and gave examples of reactions from pupils. The message that I took away from Natasha’s talk is how we (as librarians, supporters, teachers) need to provide teens and young people with the tools they need to avoid mental health issues being created or made worse, including showing boys and young men that there is more than one way to be strong. And also to show girls and young women that the images they aspire to are often false (eg photoshop, sfx).
Afterwards, there were some closing remarks from the SLA and YLG Chairs leading into the farewell lunch at 1pm and then home time!
Hope you’ve all enjoyed my diary log of the SLA + YLG conference! Check out #SLAYLG17 on twitter for pictures and conference highlights by some of the speakers and attendees.