Marvellous Imaginations – Excitement, enthusiasm, and new insights

The 23rd annual IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference took place on 5 November 2016 at the University of Roehampton. This year’s theme was ‘Marvellous Imaginations – Extending thinking through picture books’. 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.

Marvellous Imaginations – Excitement, enthusiasm, and new insights

By Mark Carter

Somehow I have managed to reach the ripe old age of 37 without ever having attended any type of conference so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of the IBBY/NCRCL MA ‘Marvellous Imaginations’ conference but I went away full of excitement, enthusiasm and new insights into the world of picture books. One of the final speakers of the day, Jane Davis from The Reader, began her talk by saying that she felt like she was home – all the things she had heard or seen through the day were things that were already in her head or in her heart and I wholeheartedly agree.

The day began with a talk by Martin Salisbury, who talked about the notion of ‘Visual Thinkers’ and of drawing and image as a form of thought. He showed us some beautiful examples of work from his students and former students who are blurring the lines between author and illustrator, and picked up on Oliver Jeffers’ coining of the term ‘Picture Book Maker’ as a more appropriate term than either author or illustrator. One aspect of David’s talk that I found absolutely fascinating was his discussion of what he called the ‘culture clash between makers and thinkers’. He suggested that the makers and ways of making are too often thought of as being something separate from the scholarly work that is done purely in words and scholarly articles. He gave some excellent examples of people who are beginning to present their research and theory in visual terms, including a PhD student who had presented their academic paper on Wimmelbücher as a Wimmelbuch! (And in case you don’t know (which I didn’t) Wimmelbuch means ‘teeming book’, a book teeming with visual details)

Vivienne Smith from the University of Strathclyde was next with a brilliantly energetic and inspirational talk on reading and play which lamented the fact that all too often play is seen as something different from reading; particularly in the current school system where the aim of reading education is purely about decoding the words on the page. Unfortunately this fails to teach children how to become sophisticated or meaningful readers or to appreciate the great possibilities of literacy – something that can really only be achieved by playing with words and language. The current mode of teaching reading, Smith argued, is incredibly limiting, particularly for children of deprived backgrounds who may not experience opportunities to explore texts outside the classroom. As Smith rightly observed, playing with language is how we learn to control language and the ability to control language is a source of significant power in society. ‘Good books’, she said  ‘help children understand that they are powerful’. Smith illustrated her points wonderfully by reading to us extracts from a number of books, including Claire and Kes Gray’s Oi Dog! and Colin McNaughton’s Don’t Step on the Crack, contrasting their wonderful playful anarchy with the rather unimaginative phonic decoding text of Julia Donaldson’s school reading scheme book, Top Cat.


Image via illustrator Jim Field

Next up was a fascinating panel discussion chaired by Sita Brahmachari who showed us a video illustrating how she had adapted Shaun Tan’s The Arrival for stage. All four women were using picture books for different but connected reasons: Miranda McKearney, founder of EmpathyLab is exploring how by using carefully selected texts, children will develop empathy and in so doing engender real social action. Harriet Goodman uses picture books to engage children in philosophy through her organisation Sapere which encourages children to think creatively, collaboratively and caringly, and Nicky Parker from Amnesty uses picture books to explore human rights and through their engagement with texts move from ‘Knowing to feeling’.

After this fascinating discussion which I wish could have gone on longer, a series of parallel sessions began. It had been hard to choose which one to go to but as I am an occasional illustrator who is very interested in the dynamics of collaboration I decided to attend the session by Bruce Ingman who spoke to us about his many collaborations with Allan Ahlberg, particularly referencing their book The Pencil and their upcoming work which I believe is going to be called The Worst Book I’ve Ever Written – a brilliant story of Allan trying to write a book and all of the things that go wrong in the process. To hear Bruce take us through the process of creating a book and the challenges and possibilities of collaboration was terribly exciting; and to see the dummys and sketchbooks connected with the books was absolutely fascinating. He also talked a lot about his own journey through illustration and his artistic influences from Gauguin and Matisse to Quentin Blake under whom he studied at the RCA.

Bruce’s talk was followed by Heather Phipps who presented her research  on imagination and diversity where she shared some of the interesting responses children of differing backgrounds gave to a range of picture books.

Following a much-needed lunch break after all that we were eased back into the afternoon with reports from the IBBY conferences in New Zealand and UAE, showing some quite different projects taking place in those countries.

A well deserved plug for Bookbird, the IBBY UK journal, was followed by picture book makers Laura Carlin and Carol Thompson in discussion with Piet Grobler who spoke about their work and it was fascinating and inspiring to hear how they approach their work and how they try to create and develop meaning to their work. I was particularly interested in Laura’s description of the genesis for her wonderful book A World of Your Own which had originally been commissioned as a book to teach children how to draw. This was problematic, said Laura, because she realised that ‘children can draw far better than adults’. She wanted to get away from the notion of ‘good’ drawings and ‘bad’ drawings that many children experience and celebrate the diversity of creative expression. I was also touched by Carol’s attempts to incorporate diversity in a very natural way in the way she depicted the same-sex parents in her illustrations for Leslea Newman’s Daddy, Pappa and Me and the way she normalises boys and girls dressing up in non-gender specific clothes in her book Dressing Up.


Image from A World of Your Own via Laura Carlin

As someone who is not professionally involved in children’s education I admit I wasn’t expecting to get much from Charlotte Hacking’s talk on behalf of the Children’s Literacy in Primary Education but it was one of the highlights of the day for me. Charlotte spoke with such passion about the importance of picture books and the great work of the ‘Power of Pictures’ project which aims to teach teachers about the great potential of picture books for a very wide range of readers. This project aims to open up the world of picture book making to teachers and show them how text and image work together and what rich possibilities for learning and thinking are present in picture books. Charlotte gave an excellent read-through of Emily Hughes’ Wild to perfectly illustrate her point. I was particularly interested to hear about the work they are doing with picture book makers themselves and making sure that visits to schools are meaningful for teachers and pupils.  I was sad to hear that of the many authors/illustrators that CLPE work with, many were unknown by teachers – something that showed there is much work to be done in making sure schools are aware of the great wealth of current picture books that are available.


Image via The Storybarn

As the sun began to set, Jane Davis from The Reader spoke to us about their current ambitious project. The Reader is an organisation planning for a reading revolution through reading groups and schemes which include adults and children. Following the acquisition of an underused mansion in Liverpool, Jane and her team set about creating a national reading centre. After realising that the terms of a half-a-million pound grant prevented them from repairing a roof, they used the money to create Storybarn, a wonderful reading space for children which was born from the success of a two-week reading scheme for disadvantaged children.

The day formally closed with the Inaugural Klaus Flugge Prize which went to Nicholas John Frith for his beautiful Hector and Hummingbird and although I had to dash off to catch a train others moved on to drinks and cakes to celebrate 40 years of Anderson Press.

My brain is still buzzing with excitement at the many wonderful things I saw and heard and my wallet is considerably lighter with the number of books I bought. Returning to the world of academia following many years in the wilderness the day was for me a wonderful affirmation of the path I am now taking and with the obvious passion and drive of those present fills me with hope for the continued future of children’s literature and its study.

Mark Carter is currently in the first year of the MA in Children’s Literature by distance learning at the University of Roehampton. Mark has a particular interest in picture books and social censorship in children’s literature. He is also an illustrator and working on his first picture book.


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