A guest blog from…The Children’s Bookshow

The Children’s Bookshow is a charity that inspires school children with a love of reading through an annual programme of in-theatre and digital performances and in-school workshops with the very best authors and illustrators from around the world. In previous years, Give a Book have supported some of their events with book gifts for children taking part. We asked Kate Arafa from the Bookshow how they have been continuing their mission over the last year.

Last November, I woke up at the crack of dawn and let the cat out into the garden. It was still dark and there was the smell of wet, cold, autumn days and I was immediately overwhelmed by the thought of The Children’s Bookshow!

In normal times, during the autumn, our team would be up with the lark and trekking across country to beautiful, iconic theatres where we would welcome our artists and streams of excited children and their teachers. It’s the most thrilling point in our year and the culmination of months of work to produce 15 live theatre performances and 60 in-school workshops with some of the world’s best authors, illustrators, poets and storytellers.

There is something very special about seeing children arrive in a theatre, some visiting for the first time, and the excitement and delight that these buildings induce. The Children’s Bookshow is the only children’s literature organisation touring work to large scale venues nationally and it feels so important to us to give children the experience of seeing an artist live.

Neal Layton LetterNot last year though. As a result of coronavirus The Children’s Bookshow was unable to stage our live events and with great disappointment we had to cancel our tour. However, our small team pulled together and since last March we have delivered some amazing projects to help inspire children and their teachers with a love of literature.

Letters from Lockdown involved 20 artists including Quentin Blake, Posy Simmonds, Neal Layton and Catherine Johnson to name but a few.

Each wrote a letter sharing their own experience of lockdown with children across the country. Then at a time of so many restrictions we wanted to reach out beyond our shores with a project called What Makes You Smile. 10 artists took part including Satoshi Kitamura in Japan, Ulla Saar from Estonia, Mikel Valverde from Spain and Jorg Muhle from Germany – some illustrations were moving, some were beautiful and some made us laugh out loud!

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the world after the killing of George Floyd we created a project called Let’s Celebrate Black Lives. The Guardian gave us 160 sets of Black History wallcharts for free which went out to schools with over 4900 copies of a powerful and moving picture book called The Undefeated by US writer and poet Kwame Alexander, alongside a set of brilliant teaching resources. We have had great feedback:

The Undefeated cover

I am a Year 6 teacher in an inner city, ethnically diverse primary school. We have committed to increase the representation of people of colour in the books we teach and more conversations around Black History and significant people of colour in all areas of the curriculum. Our kids are from low income homes and many of them do not have any books at home, let alone books which feature people who look like them. It would mean a lot for them to have this.”   Holbeach Primary

As a team we were keen to be able to get back to our core mission of producing live events for children, bringing them that immediate connection and the joy of engaging with an artist live. How to do this in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic?

We decided to trial a digital author event. We wanted to create some of the magic of a live performance even if it was being watched via a screen. We decided that our events needed to be live and not pre-recorded. Alexis Deacon, award winning picture book creator of classics like Beegu and Croc and Bird agreed to take part and on 9th December he was beamed from his studio onto the whiteboard in classrooms in 5 London schools. It was a fantastic event and we had great feedback from schools:

‘The class loved hearing a story before its release; they loved hearing Beegu performed by its author; they loved guessing animals in eggs; and they especially loved the drawing tutorial (they can’t wait to practice the alien ones!). It goes without saying that they loved asking a question and receiving signed copies of the books.’ Halley Primary

Delighted by the success of this event we were keen to try something on a larger scale that would reach more schools. We planned to deliver a series of 6 Digital author performances to celebrate World Book Day at the beginning of March. Our aim was to reach 10 schools for each performance, charge a small fee per child and be able to provide all children participating with a copy of the author’s book.

However, once again our plans had to change because of circumstances beyond our control. With the announcement of a new national lockdown after Christmas we realised that our model for the digital events was not going to work as not many children would be in school. We also felt that it was the wrong time to ask parents and schools to pay towards an event. So we adapted our plans and began to think of our digital series as a free festival, open to more schools as well as children working at home, a way of sharing and celebrating excellent literature with a larger audience.

We managed to book an outstanding programme of authors and illustrators including poets Michael Rosen and Kwame Alexander, storyteller Daniel Morden, novelist Catherine Johnson and author/illustrators Neal Layton and Jo Empson. The response from schools has been extraordinary and very exciting. To date we have had 814 schools registering to take part in multiple events!

World Book Day is an important part of the school calendar and teachers are always looking for activities that work across the whole of the school on a limited budget. Through our Digital Festival The Children’s Bookshow can support teachers and give them a programme of excellent events that will help to inspire their children with the pleasure of reading.

As an organisation we can’t wait to get back into theatres and to deliver our national tour! However, all the restrictions of the last year have made us change and adapt and we have found new joys and ways of working which have been good for us as an organisation. We will never be persuaded away from live performance but our foray into digital events has shown us the scope and possibility that embracing technology can achieve. I think digital events and live streaming will be part of what we offer in years to come, a way of enhancing our work, reaching more children and showcasing our live performances in theatres.

Thank you to Kate for this wonderful insight into their work over the past year! We eagerly await the day their in-person events can happen again, and are pleased to be able to work with them to spread the pleasure of reading.


Sign up to the Give a Book mailing list