"Authors, as role models, can be transformative": Pop Up Projects on engaging kids with books

"Authors, as role models, can be transformative": Pop Up Projects on engaging kids with books

Pop Up Projects is a social enterprise that works with educational, literary and cultural organisations to empower families from all walks of life to read more widely, write more creatively, and develop visual storytelling skills. The organisation works with over 300 published authors – from star names to first-time published – and almost every children’s publisher in the UK.

With some exciting new projects launching in the next couple of months, we asked founder and director Dylan Calder to share his hard-won insights about getting the next generation engaged with literature... and how publishers can help.

Your vision is to create ‘a more literate, creative society’. Do you think we have become a more literate, creative society - or less of one - in the seven years you’ve been running?

I think our education system is, on average, failing to produce more literate, aspiration-orientated citizens. Inequality is growing, division is cultivated by this xenophobic government, and too many children are being left behind. Britain is a less fair place than a decade ago.

Because Pop Up mainly works in learning communities (primaries, secondaries, SEND schools) facing substantial challenges - from intergenerational poverty to rural isolation - our knowledge is gleaned on the ground. What we see is a savaged, potluck educational landscape where, cut free from local authorities, many schools are either forced into privatisation or to fend for themselves. It takes clever, connected and visionary heads to use their strained budgets to embrace the power and potential of creative approaches to learning and teaching.

When we work with a school we ‘occupy’ their literacy, through our in-school children’s literature festival mode (Pop Up Festival): ‘taking over’ whole primaries and secondary key stages for half a term, putting beautiful literature and brilliant authors at the heart of learning. We’re doing this in over 500 classrooms this summer term alone. We try to stay in every school for an average of three years, to catalyse a small, generational shift in attitudes towards reading and writing. 

Our dream would be for every child every year in every school to interact and co-create with writers and illustrators. Authors, as role models in live contexts, can be transformative. If we could achieve this – say, by building an author-in-residence programme in every school – it would take us several giant leaps towards a more literate Britain. 

From your data and experience, what really matters to the next generation when it comes to reading, writing and books?

Children are not, should not have to be and perhaps never were passive listeners, sitting quietly while the novelist reads at them. This is a noisy, intertextual world, and at Pop Up we encourage children and authors to make noise when they engage with one another.

I think gaming has done something very special for millennials and successive generations, setting high standards for what interaction looks like. By inhabiting characters, be they unicorns or gun-toting pimps, players make independent decisions about what happens next in their stories. I think something similar happens when children work with authors in our in-class workshops. Writing with a writer, illustrating with an illustrator – through experiential encounters, these interactions bring inanimate books to life, and a transformation takes place.

We’re currently tracking over 1000 pupils and teachers in our partner schools in Kent, Shropshire and Peterborough across three years, and we regularly evidence a spike in enjoyment of and motivation to read and write following their authors’ in-class workshops. For instance in 2017, 77% (of 1000) pupils rated their book ‘excellent’ or ‘good’, 82% their author workshops the same, and 84% would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ read another book by that author. In tandem, 79% of (30) surveyed heads cited “pupils encountering more authors and collaborating creatively with them” as the highest ranked way of increasing opportunities to encourage writing for enjoyment in school.

Together with our authors, we’re challenging the mainstream idea of an author-event – a quiet reading, an in-conversation, a book signing – and I think this is key in making literature matter more for today’s young readers.

David Litchfield at Gordon Primary 2017 © Joel Ford

What are the red herrings?

Here goes:

  • Boys need specific genres, forms, characters to enjoy a story – they don’t
  • Gender-stereotyping on book covers is essential in hooking girls
  • Children prefer escapism to ‘real world’ stuff
  • Picture books are for little children
  • Comics are for lower-ability readers
  • Books with ethnic minority characters are for ethnic minority readers
  • Funny books have no learning potential

How has Pop Up used diversity as a driver of innovation?

Just as it’s important for young people to see themselves reflected in the stories they read, learning that people of different identities or heritages can be published authors can transform their attitudes and aspirations around storytelling.

To this end, established and emerging authors of diverse identities and heritages remain at the heart of our programming. For three successive years we’ve hit our annual target of 30% of authors-in-schools being BAME – not easy, when the actual percentage in children’s publishing is far lower. Fortunately there’s a small army of exceptional BAME authors in print who we can continue to mobilise, year in year out, but we don’t see significant numbers of new BAME authors regularly emerging onto the scene. For this reason we took the decision to address demand (and there is demand, from teachers and librarians up and down the land) with a Pop Up Creators talent development strand.

In 2017, we worked with Janetta at Otter-Barry Books to secure funding and bring five diverse under-24 year-old spoken word artists into print through the poetry anthology Rising Stars. Through our book-buying budget for Pop Up Festival we’re then purchasing approximately a quarter of the print run. This means we have an economic model to invest in books by diverse artists.

We’re also partnering with online illustration agency Inkygoodness to produce Pathways, a new digital showcase. This will introduce new, ethnically and linguistically diverse illustrators and comics artists - gleaned through universities, literature agencies and other cultural partners - direct to publishers, so they can diversify their author cohorts. 

And finally, we’re hoping to develop a really groundbreaking project with 10 children’s authors and an academy chain in the Midlands. Authors will co-create stories involving LGBTQ characters with pupils, teachers and families, and the Trust will then use this literature to build more inclusive cultures across all their schools.

What are the most important things publishers can do now to help get more books into the hands of more kids?

Work with us! We have a long track record of investing in the literature economy: between 2011 and 2018 we’ve spent a total £180,000 on buying books for schools and £565,000 on commissioning authors to deliver 2,400 workshops, community engagement projects and public events. 

We started out on the principle that books aren’t free and authors aren’t volunteers – crucially, we think it’s vital to communicate these principles to schools. Because we buy books at 40% discount rather than solicit donations, publishers and book suppliers all make money from our orders. By delivering 42,000 books to school libraries to date, we’re ensuring future generations of pupils access those books and, in many cases, they will go on to read – and buy – more by those authors.

What we would truly like to see is more publishers – especially the larger ones, with budgets and clout (the smaller, independent publishers are already more receptive to collaboration) coming to us to explore collaborations. Talk to us now to help us build Pop Up Festival into a truly national schools literature festival so we can get the neglected communities and families of this country reading and writing.