Collaborating with publishers, diversifying the Seven Stories collection and helping children retain a love of reading are just some of the goals of Mairi Kidd, who joined Newcastle’s National Centre for Children’s Books as its chief executive six months ago.
The centre was founded in 1996 to stop children’s book manuscripts and other important items leaving the UK. The collection, which features artefacts from the Ahlbergs, David Almond, Shirley Hughes and more, is still at the heart of what Seven Stories does, and preserves the heritage of modern children’s books in the UK, says Kidd. “It’s important to have that legacy preserved here. Like every other museum, we want to engage and develop our collection.”
On site there is a large visitor centre with three floors of gallery space and Kidd’s team organises regularly changing exhibitions to show off its treasures. This summer there will be one exhibition entitled Once There Was Magic, featuring Harry Potter, the Narnia series, Cressida Cowell’s The Wizards of Once series and more (all displayed in Covid-19-secure pods), as well as another based around The Lost Spells (Hamish Hamilton), the prize-winning nature book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. And for younger readers, there will be a free exhibition about the seven basic plots in stories, featuring classic characters such as Mog and the Gruffalo.
Seven Stories also runs a huge outreach programme, ensuring children around the country can benefit from what the organisation has to offer. Children are often asked to help develop the exhibitions and there are online events for schools up and down the country. An event with Michael Morpurgo reached “thousands” of children, Kidd says.
Kidd wants to make sure the collection is representative, which will help engage all children. “At the moment publishing is looking to how our world can be a fair one in terms of representation and I believe collections have a part to play. For example, we received a Windrush grant and we are working to catalogue and make available John Agard and Grace Nichols’ holdings.”
Like all organisations, Covid-19 has affected Seven Stories’ income, which comes partly from fundraising and partly from trading (including book sales and café receipts). Kidd says she and her team have their work cut out to weather the next few years, but they threw themselves into lockdown, working with food banks to distribute books. Seven Stories recently won a “best lockdown project” award and is shifting a lot of its work online. It has launched a podcast that is linked to the Windrush project and is looking to move the exhibitions to an online space, too.
Another recent change is reorganising the on-site bookshop, which Kidd says has helped boost sales. “We have always had Newcastle’s only specialist children’s bookshop and offered a complete range, but we’ve actually reduced the range a little to give customers browsing confidence. Our old shop was almost poky. In pulling back the range a little, customers are engaged and we are seeing an uptick in sales as a result.”
Kidd says there is an ongoing challenge that is linked to the organisation’s location. People in the north of England are willing to travel down south for book-related business, but those down south don’t always want to do the journey up north, she says, only half-jokingly, and she is keen to stress that the north east has a real “literary energy”.
There is also an issue with the status of children’s books, and people not giving children’s literature the respect it deserves, Kidd says. Using the archive to challenge that narrative is key, she adds, as is forging stronger links with publishers. “We are so excited. For our exhibition about magic we worked with Hachette Children’s Books, Oxford University Press and more, and our exhibition about [Juliet Kerr’s] The Tiger Who Came to Tea is still touring the UK. We want to work with publishers who have ideas.”