On Tuesday 1 August, I took part in the first Can’t Put It Down festival. My audience was a group of three-year-olds accompanied by their mothers and grandmothers. How was I going to keep their interest for an hour? Well, I made sure the book I was using for the event was right for the age of the audience, though often you don’t know what age child is going to show up so you have to be prepared to be flexible. I find if I divide the session into three differing sections: sitting looking and listening, then moving about and finally creating something, a very young audience is less likely to become fidgety. I start by drawing on the flip chart and asking the children to guess what I’m drawing. If you’re an illustrator and gifted at off-the-cuff live drawing, then you could base your whole event on this; it’s always popular. I’m not, and so I have to practice beforehand. However, I can do it sufficiently well to catch the children’s attention and lead them into the story. Not being great at live drawing can have the advantage of not daunting an audience, especially an older audience who then feel inspired to have a go themselves.
By the end of the drawing, I usually have the three-year-olds’ attention and can read or tell the story. Being both the author and illustrator, I like to show the original artwork alongside the artwork in the book and involve a parent to help hold up the pictures. In ‘Flood’ there are many little creatures on bits of debris in the flood so we spend some time looking for them in the artwork. With an older audience, I will spend longer sitting looking at roughs and sketches.
After sitting through a story, a bunch of three-year-olds’ are needing to move about. So, I get out glove puppets of the characters and we act out a part of the story. It’s amazing how children with a puppet can lose all inhibitions. I have some books that lend themselves more than others to this activity: one where the children can use puppets to change the end of the story, another where they can make up new episodes. Sometimes I bring along props, like a large tree cut-out and have the puppets coming out of a hole. With ‘Flood’ I have the puppet characters steering their way through the flood to land. They hang on to each other’s tails with the hen at the back caught in the fox’s brush calling out ‘to the right!’ or ‘to the left,’ the fox pulling on the Ox’s tail, and the Ox bellowing out ‘ow’ and changing direction. All very noisy.
The final stage of the event is quieter: I hand out colouring sheets where, referring to the book, the children can match a creature with the bit of debris it’s sitting on to stay dry and also ‘little books’ for them to draw in. These ‘little books’ are made by folding and cutting a single A 4 sheet of paper; parents often want to be shown how to make them so they can do this activity at home. The children now have something they have created to take home, along with a ‘Flood’ bookmark and hopefully a signed copy of the book.
When it comes to school events there is a slightly different emphasis, although I still follow a similar pattern to a bookshop event. Often a school wants you to fit in with a theme. Schools can also ask you to cover every year group even though your books are picture books, so I have to know which of my books lend themselves to a creative writing task, or a story board task for the older pupils. The objective with all pupils but especially the top primary pupils is to inspire them to want to create something which then surprises them and their teacher and makes them proud of what they have done. To do this you have to free them from their inhibitions and preconceptions. The way I do this is by getting pupils, whatever their age to use the puppets to act out the opening of a story, set, for example on a beach and make it all come alive by talking about what can be seen, heard and felt. Then I ask them to do a ten-minute sketch of a place they know, their own beach, which will be the setting for their own story. For this exercise, I ask for A3 paper and black marker pens. When there are no pencils and rubbers involved everything becomes looser and more fluid.
Events are fun. Whether you are in a bookshop or a classroom, the most rewarding thing about them is being able to inspire your audience to want to do something they don’t normally do.