The Ryde Mennyms: An insider view of parallel session C

The 22nd annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 14 November 2015 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Steering the Craft: Navigating the process of creating children’s books in the 21st century’. This week on the NCRCL blog, alumni and current NCRCL students will be reporting on various aspects of the conference, including the speakers, panellists and parallel sessions.

The Ryde Mennyms: An insider view of parallel session C

By Judy Digby

This year I was part of the group presentation about a community crafting and storying initiative inspired by Sylvia Waugh’s Mennyms books. We came over on an early ferry from the Isle of Wight with a car full of the life-sized cloth figures and braved some slightly disapproving looks bringing them into the prestigious Portrait Room at Roehampton. But the project had been about adults and young people creating and playing and about how the characters invited interaction so we felt we had insights to share.

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The Ryde Mennyms making themselves comfortable in the Portrait Room. Photo via @Jane_S_Carroll

Carol Jaye, the Chair of Ryde Arts Festival and Jo Dodd, Library Supervisor, spoke in the parallel session about how they had dreamed up the project and secured funding. Jo shared data, which showed a steep rise in the borrowing of Mennyms books. Carol explained how she had overcome obstacles to make contact with Sylvia Waugh and involve her in the project from her Gateshead home.

Teresa Grimaldi, the artist in residence in the basement of the library, gave her account of the making of the figures, from inspiring collages and makers’ journals, lengths of calico and polyester wadding, buttons for eyes, charity shop finds and items stolen from family members. The sensitive way she allowed the participants to develop their own Mennyms and their own stories came across. Her other job is as atelierista in a Reggio Emilia nursery and she shared her understanding of the storying process in young children and how it related to the project.

On display were the newsletters produced by Hannah George, who unfortunately could not attend on the day. I read out her report about these broadsheets and we showed the Ryde Mennyms Facebook page. The newsletters combined strong images and faux reportage as the Mennyms emerged and events were arranged. Then I showed my PowerPoint about the making of Soobie, the blue Mennym, and the community building aims of the festival.

When the slide of Soobie appeared in the presentation, my husband interrupted in surprise, “Hey, those are my shoes.” “Not any more,” I said.

There was plenty of time for questions and discussion with the small but select audience. The ‘uncanny’ nature of dolls was raised but we described many instances of townspeople relating in an amused and friendly way to the inanimate and potentially scary figures. Cloth and sewing related metaphor in story making was another interesting thread. We were really gratified to find out that one of the group, who contributed searching questions, was a newly appointed executive at Seven Stories. In fact Soobie and Appleby have now gone up to nearby Gateshead to be part of an event in the library with Sylvia Waugh.

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The Ryde Mennyms enjoying the sun on Ryde Esplanade in August 2015. Photo (c) Julian Winslow.

The Mennyms have woven themselves into Ryde town life, travelling on the train, going to cafes and being part of a shop window spotting competition. A new chapter in their ‘lives’ was completed with their trip to the wonderful IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference and we were very grateful to be invited with them.

Judy Digby is currently studying for a Masters in Children’s Literature at the NCRCL at Roehampton. She has worked as a primary school teacher and as a local authority Teaching Consultant for Elective Home Education. She has a Masters in Education from the Open University and a special interest in reading difficulties. She has run a Creative Learning Centre for home educators and has devised and delivered arts-based courses for young people on the island and at Baha’i Arts Academies. She was attracted to the Ryde Mennyms project because it combined her love of working with textiles with her admiration for the Mennyms books and she was curious about whether creative crafting and storying in the community could come together and create something new.

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About Sarah Pyke

NCRCL PhD student currently researching LGBTQ adults’ memories of childhood reading as part of the AHRC funded project, Memories of Fiction: An Oral History of Readers’ Life Stories.

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