Sunday, 15 June 2014

A birthday party


On Saturday, Charlie and I attended the Lewes Children's Book Group birthday party, celebrating 40 years of bringing children, books, writers and illustrators together. The event was opened by Gillian Cross, a founder member of the group and author of many books, including 'The Demon Headmaster' series, which Charlie loves.

Gillian Cross opens the event

The book group celebrated its birthday with a fantastic line up of popular children's authors and illustrators: Emily Gravett, Christopher Lloyd, Ali Sparkes and Steve Cole.

The first presentation was by Emily Gravett, twice winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Nestle Children's Book Prize Bronze Award. Charlie had attended one of her first author events several years ago at the Ottakar's bookshop in Worthing, but he was far too young to remember. She stayed in my mind, though, because she was so unpretentious and so sweet to the children, as well as showing such outstanding talent as an author/illustrator. We still have signed copies of some of her earlier books, now well thumbed.

From the start, Emily showed a real rapport with the children in the audience, drawing them into her presentation by asking them questions and involving them in the creative process. She asked them if they knew what an author or illustrator was. Little hands went up all over the room.

She then gave us a highly entertaining and humorous account of how she had become an author/illustrator.

The first drawing she ever completed was of her kitchen clock. Her mother was so proud of the drawing that she stuck it up on the kitchen wall. However, a curious thing happened: the drawing started ticking, just like a real clock. Her mother was so alarmed by this that she called the neighbours round to listen - and they all agreed that yes, the drawing was indeed ticking. To Emily's horror, her mother threw the picture away.

This event left the young Emily convinced that she had magical powers. She decided that she would make the most of her powers by becoming a witch.

One morning, she crept out of bed early, clutching a broomstick, determined to find out if she had the requisite power of flight needed to become a witch. She jumped from the top of the stairs - and fell hard on the floor below, breaking her nose in the fall. 

That was the end of her ambition to be a witch. But she still loved drawing.

Emily's first observational drawing, aged five: a drawing of her mother
Emily left school at 16 with a grade A in GCSE Art. The school career's counsellor advised her to become a hairdresser because she was arty and good with her hands. Instead, Emily went to live on a bus and travel round Great Britain.

For eight years, she continued travelling the country in a variety of vehicles, always drawing. Then something happened to change all that.

Her daughter was born. The trouble was that she cried and cried and cried. Nothing would calm her. Emily was at her wit's end. Then, one day, she decided to read to her - and the crying stopped.

Emily read countless children's books to her daughter. Realising by then that she wanted a career, she applied to Brighton University for an illustration degree course. Her first book, 'Wolves', was published by Macmillan after she graduated, having won the Macmillan Prize for Children's Illustration. From then on, she worked as an author/illustrator which, she told us, was the perfect job because she could do what she loved best all day long and could work in her dressing gown and slippers if she wanted.

After this potted autobiography, she read two of her books to the audience: 'Dogs' and 'Monkey and Me'.

At this point, Emily told us she was going to help us to create our own children's book. This was a wonderful way of demonstrating the process to the children. She asked children for their ideas for a main character and hands shot up all over the room. She chose the suggestion of an alien.

The format was based on the story of 'Monkey and Me' and this was the entertaining tale that the children in the audience came up with:

Alien and me, alien and me, alien and me, we went to taste, we went to taste...

A balloon

Worms on toast
A frog

Ah, at last - something tasty!

At the end, Emily asked the children what they had now become. The answer, of course, was: author/illlustrators! It was a wonderfully neat way of ending an inspiring and entertaining presentation.

We had a break for refreshments at this point. On our way back to our seats, I spotted Christopher Lloyd and had a brief chat with him about home education, as I knew he and his wife had home educated both their daughters. I had seen a clip of him on The Wright Stuff, speaking in favour of home education, and told him how impressed I'd been by his speech. People can be so prejudiced against home education and it is rare to see someone win an audience over so adeptly. You can see the clip here.

Apparently, the UK has one of the highest numbers of home-educated children in the developed world - as many as 100,000 children are educated by their parents. What does this say about our school system?

In an article published in The Telegraph, Christopher wrote:

'ONLY CONNECT – that famous dictum at the start of EM Forster novel Howard’s End – is still the best advice for anyone involved in learning and education. Connecting knowledge allows young people to follow their curiosity... whereas chopping it up into fragments, as we mostly still do in school, presents a view of the world about as engaging as a window-pane of shattered glass. A big picture perspective provides narrative context and lateral links – essential ingredients for making information relevant and interesting.

In a world where everything changes so fast it seems crazy that we continue to base our education system on outdated Victorian structures, timetables, school bells, arbitrary subject disciplines, syllabi, curricula, rote learning and endless examinations. If a child gets bored at school, blame the system – it’s not the child who has failed.

Christopher's description of replicating school at home and how boring this had been for his children made me think again about the way I was home educating Charlie. I still believe that Charlie needs to work on certain subjects daily, whether he wants to or not, but I can also see that all subjects can be covered through a topic of the child's own choice. As Christopher describes in his speech on The Wright Stuff, one of his daughters soon became as bored by work at home as she had been by work at school. So, he did something different: he asked her what she wanted to study. And she said: penguins. This project led to a trip to London Zoo, a study of the Antarctic, an exploration of why penguins live in groups, creative writing about penguins, an examination of ice and why it melts - in short, as Christopher said, "It's amazing, you can teach everything you can wish your child to learn through penguins!"
Anyway, Christopher wasn't at the event to discuss home education, although, funnily enough, the books he was promoting were the result of home educating his children. He had looked for books to share with them which connected natural history and human history - and found nothing. In the end, he used his background in journalism and history (he is a graduate in History from Cambridge) to write a book called 'What on Earth Happened? The Complete Story of Planet, Life and People from the Big Bang to the Present'. It was great, but it was too dense for young readers. So he then came up with the idea of a 'wallbook': a visual overview of world history in pictures and captions.

Since producing this first wallbook, Christopher has developed more in the series, published by his own publishing company, whatonearthbooks. Subjects covered include: Shakespeare; science and engineering; history; natural history; and sport. There are also mini editions and poster editions.

Demonstrating an unfolded wallbook

Christopher's ambitious aim, during his presentation, was to cover the history of the world from the Big Bang to the present day in 45 minutes. To help him, he wore a special coat, hand sewn by a kindly next-door neighbour, featuring pockets for objects which exemplified each stage of history.


It was a breathless, fascinating and entertaining presentation, which kept the children (and adults) mesmerised till the end.
Afterwards, Charlie and I spent some time looking more closely at the giant wallbook, before buying an edition to take home with us.

 After this, it was time for Gillian Cross to cut the cake.

And there was lots of free cake - and some delicious homemade biscuits - for us to take home. 

Unfortunately, we couldn't stay for the events by Ali Sparkes and Steve Cole, but I hear that both were well attended and just as successful as the first two.

As we walked home, I explained to Charlie why I felt it was important that he kept on with English, Maths and handwriting every day. But, I pointed out, if he worked hard at his lessons first thing in the morning, then he could have the rest of the day to study whatever he wanted. What would he like to study? 

Without a moment's hesitation, Charlie replied, "Art". 

"Doing it yourself or looking at other people's?"


So that is what we will be doing next week. 




  1. You met Christopher Lloyd - I'm so jealous. That man is an inspiration - oh lucky you:)
    Infact I'm jealous of the entire day you spent at that wonderful event. My children would have absolutly loved every moment.

    I am actually rendered a little speechless by the utter awesomeness of all this. All I seem to be able to think is that I'm just so jealous:)

    Thanks so much for sharing this with this weeks #homeedlinkup

  2. Emily Gravett sounds wonderful!

    I took my then 7yo to see Christopher Lloyd, but he got twitchy during the (quite long) introduction and wanted to leave. We saw a bit of the main presentation but missed most of it. I was very disappointed!

  3. So jealous! I looove Emily Gravett.

  4. You won the book giveaway:) I need your address so please email me via my blog.