Oxford Children’s Book Group Ways Into Reading Conference, Saturday 12 October

Amazing, what one tweet can do. That was all it took to alert me to this super event that took place at the Oxford University Press last Saturday. Thank you, Anne-Marie, aka @Childledchaos! If, as I opened a bleary eye that morning, I hadn’t spotted that you were on your way there I’d have missed out on a truly exciting gathering of authors, publishers, librarians, literary consultants and many others who take delight, as I do, in all kinds of children’s books.

No time to register. Gatecrasher that I was, I arrived too late to hear much of the first speaker, Victor Watson (A room full of friends – the appeal of series fiction) but not too late to hear about his own books. Setting his Paradise Barn series in the Second World War, Watson uses the evacuee experience as a marvellous springboard for adventure stories.

Next came Andrea Quincey of OUP, who spoke about OUP’s current reading scheme, Project X, which features four main characters who can shrink to microscopic size simply by twiddling their watches. Illustrated in animation style (think Toy Story) the series looks fun and clearly goes down well with children. This is all right and good, but I was a little sad to witness the usual bashing of poor Biff, Chip and Kipper of The Oxford Reading Tree. It seems it’s now de rigeur to sneer at this scheme – why? It was funny, well-drawn, with great characters and wonderful adventures, and it was what taught my sons to read (ironically I had to borrow the books from a friend, as my sons’ school didn’t catch up with the scheme until after they’d left).

Tracy Corderoy’s ingenious ways of making her stories come alive with face paints, crafts, mermaids tails and other costumes bowled me over. She exudes creativity and fun and her dedication to her audience is tremendous – even to the point of learning magic tricks because someone had booked her to do them! I hope for her sake that particular bookshop doesn’t move on to trapeze and highwire acts.

Last event before lunch: a fabulous presentation of The Phoenix by Tom and Caro Fickling. This wonderful comic fills a huge gap in children’s reading and I am only sorry that my family grew up in the desolate Post Look and Learn, June & Schoolfriend, Princess (no one remembers that one, the best of all) Era, and before the dawn of The DFC and its offspring, The Phoenix. They have so missed out. Tom and Caro explained how a good comic not only develops a child’s reading and imagination, but can also, through games and stories, help them with arithmetic, general knowledge and so on without the child even being aware of it. Clever, eh? Ooh yes and we each got a FREE copy to take home. Huzzah! All I need is a packet of jelly babies and a quiet spot and I’ll be in heaven.

The afternoon held an interesting examination of children’s use of language by Vineeta Gupta of OUP, and a jolly romp through stories ranging from picture books to W Somerset Maugham by Bill Laar, Education and Literacy Consultant.

But what made the whole day for me was a talk on Dangerous Books by a writer till now I’ve only been dimly aware of: Andy Mulligan. Writing as I do for age 9 years and above, Mulligan’s analysis of the darker side of human nature, and how to portray it in children’s books, was invaluable for me to hear. Speaking without any notes, he came across as a wise, thoughtful, utterly likeable man with a wonderful, understated sense of humour; his account of being forced, at a recent literary festival, to bend his talk about his current book The Boy With Two Heads into a classical framework as the organisers had advertised it as ‘adding to our knowledge of Ancient Greece’ had me in stitches. As the conference ended, my biggest fear was that he’d leave before I could buy his books from the bookstall run by the excellent Mostly Books of Abingdon and get him to sign them.

I needn’t have worried. I now have The Boy with Two Heads and Mulligan’s first Ribblestrop book to move on to once I’ve finished The Phoenix.

Just one problem: I might run out of jellybabies.

THANK YOU, Oxford Children’s Book Group, for welcoming me despite my lateness and non-membership status. I’m delighted to have put those things right (well, not the lateness – the Time Lords are very strict about that sort of thing) but at least now, as a fully paid up member, I’ll hear about any future conferences in plenty of time.

For excellent coverage in more detail of this conference, go to http://childledchaos.me.uk/2013/10/14/oxford-children-s-book-group-conference-2013/

(First published 14th October 2013.)

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