At the end of October I was lucky enough to attend the annual Youth Libraries Group conference. The theme this year was ‘Diversity, Variety and Choice’ and the conference was run in partnership with the Community, Diversity and Equality Group. Not only was this my first time at conference, it was also my first ever visit to Scotland, with the lovely Beardmore Hotel in Glasgow the venue for the weekend.
Diversity (or the lack thereof) in books for children and young people is a topic that has been hotly discussed and debated in recent months and, coming hot on the heels of controversial remarks from author Meg Rosoff on the topic, the timing of this conference felt very apt.
I was therefore full of excitement and anticipation as I settled myself into my seat for the first session of the weekend, ready to ease in gently to a programme packed full of speakers, workshops and book-related discussion.
There was to be no easing in gently here however. The opening speaker was Karyn McCluskey AKA “The Violence Lady.” With years of police experience behind her, in 2005 Karyn set up the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit with her colleague John Carnochan. Karyn regularly works with some of the most difficult and damaged people in society and bluntly outlined the way in which violence makes you physically ill and how certain risk factors can mean children are more likely to become violent in later life.
Having Karyn as the first speaker was genius programming on the part of the conference organisers – Karyn spoke passionately about the crucial importance of engaging with parents and early intervention in producing more “dandelion children” – children that survive and thrive in the most difficult circumstances. So much recent research has made explicit the positive link between reading for pleasure and the life chances of children and, after listening to Karyn speak, I think we all felt fired up and ready to get out there and change the world.
The importance of early intervention and interactions is a topic that came up more than once at this conference. On Day 1 I attended a workshop with Anna McQuinn of Alanna Books that was packed full of useful tips for leading sessions with under fives (and their carers) for whom English is not a first language. And on Day 2 Barbara Band and Jonathan Emmett had a lively and refreshing discussion on motivating boys to read. I was pleased to find that this did not cover the usual ground of looking at boys of Key Stage 2 age but instead focused primarily on picture books and the messages boys are faced with around books at a very early age. Top quote from this session: “Making a picture book cute is [generally] like spraying boy repellent all over it!”
One of the most exciting elements of the weekend was the Carnegie & Kate Greenaway medal presentations on the Friday evening – we got to have a look inside William Grill’s sketchbooks and Tanya Landman read us a story! This was also the point at which the exciting announcement of the new Amnesty CILIP honour was made – from 2016, one book from each of the Greenaway & Carnegie shortlists will be awarded the honour – a special commendation for books that, as Nicky Parker of Amnesty International explained, “most distinctively illuminate, communicate or celebrate human rights.” This year’s Carnegie winner, Tanya Landman, will be on the inaugural judging panel and more information about the honour can be found on the CILIP blog: http://www.cilip.org.uk/blog/why-we-launched-amnesty-cilip-honour
As the title of this conference would suggest, the programme was extremely diverse – at times I wished I could use a time-turner, Hermione Grainger-style, so I could attend more than one session at the same time. Other personal highlights were a chance to find out more about the work of IBBY from IBBY UK chair Pam Dix; and the publisher showcase – with just a 3 minute slot and the threat of Paddington bear being hurled at them if they overran, we got straight to the heart of what the publishers really wanted to promote! The chance to chat to publishers in more depth in the tea breaks was really useful too (and they gave us some fabulous cakes!)
The absolute best thing about the whole conference though was the opportunity to see so many authors and illustrators talk about their books, their own experiences and what diversity means to them. Panels on topics including illustration (Catherine Rayner; Emily McKenzie; Ross Collins; Holly Sterling); mental health (Jenny Valentine; Brian Conaghan; Martin Stewart); graphic novels (Mel Gibson; Paul Register; Liz Payton) and Africa (Gill Lewis; Ifoema Onyefulu; Stephen Davies) made for lively and illuminating discussions whilst individual authors spoke passionately about topics very close to their heart – I found Sarah Crossan, Lisa Williamson and Sita Bramachari particularly inspiring.
I came away from conference with bags full of books (note to self – take a wheelie case next time!), buckets of enthusiasm and lots to read up on and think about. I feel as if my own reading world has grown bigger and more diverse and that can only be a good thing for myself and the children and young people I work with.