Bath Children’s Literature Festival gears up for biggest year to date

Bath Children’s Literature Festival gears up for biggest year to date

David Walliams, Philip Pullman and Children’s Laureate Lauren Child are just some of the authors and illustrators lined up to take part in this year’s Bath Children’s Literature Festival (BCLF), which is gearing up to be the event’s best year yet, according to artistic director John McLay.

McLay, who runs the programme with his wife Gill, told The Bookseller: “We are so grateful to the publishers who support us by sending their biggest names. Every year we think it can’t get any better, but it does. I think it reflects how vibrant children’s publishing is right now.”

Child will open the festival in a conversation with Gill McLay; Walliams’ event will celebrate his 10th anniversary of publishing children’s books with HarperCollins; and Pullman will reveal how he builds his fantasy worlds. Other authors and illustrators participating include Terry Deary (who has been publishing the Horrible Histories series with Scholastic for 25 years), Tom Fletcher, Dermot O’Leary, Lucy Worsley, Harry Hill, Nadiya Hussain, Ade Adepitan and Zindzi Mandela-Hlongwane, who has written a book about her father, Nelson Mandela.

There will be events for young children with characters such as Maisy, Peter Rabbit and Paddington, and authors David Roberts and Vashti Harrison will talk about their feminist titles, Suffragette: The Battle for Equality and Bold Women in Black History respectively.

The festival has also launched an initiative called Share the Story, which enables those buying tickets to donate £5 towards the cost of a ticket for a child who wouldn’t normally have the chance to attend. Donations can be made online or at the Bath box office, and 100% of the money raised will be used charitably.

Lauren Child (© National Trust)

Beginning with a bang

The McLays launched the festival in 2007. The Bath Literature Festival (BLF) wasn’t at the time looking to expand its children’s offering, so the couple decided to launch a dedicated kids’ event of their own. Jacqueline Wilson was the first author to confirm she would attend, and the Daily Telegraph and Waterstones were keen to act as partners, so the pair launched a “fully-fledged, 10-day event festival straight out of the gate”. They are “unashamedly commercial” and want the event to be “a big, book-based show for kids”.

While some school events are run by BLCF, the McLays feel that children should come and listen to authors and illustrators because they want to, not because they have to. “If they are inspired to create something, to draw, to write, to look up something about dinosaurs they didn’t know, great,” John McLay said. “But fundamentally it is about putting young people in front of their literary heroes.” Over the years it has welcomed huge names, including Mal Peet, Brian Jacques, Julia Donaldson and Diana Wynne Jones. Martin Brown has made the most appearances, closely followed by Peter Rabbit.

More than 99% of the performers are booked via their publishers, and while the festival shies away from having “themes”, it does seek to be highbrow and to market the programme in such a way as to create the longest ticket-selling period possible.

Securing the best line-up is key to the festival’s success, but the financial side hasn’t always gone to plan: the McLays lost about £25,000 of their own money in the first year. “We nearly didn’t do a second year, but we took on board everything we had learned, and used fewer venues, reduced our overheads and sold more tickets. In years two and three we had enough of a balance to break even by the end of year three. That was without taking out a single penny in wages in all that time.”

In 2009 the McLays passed the event on to BLF when they had their son, Charlie, but stayed on as artistic directors. They took a break in 2013 and 2014 to “re-charge”, but missed it so much that they came back to it in 2015.

They have been looking after the line-up ever since, although John McLay (pictured right) said they now get a break from the “heavy lifting”, adding: “Lots of the jobs that we used to do—like moving furniture into our green rooms—we now don’t have to do, which is nice. Our neighbours used to love it when once a year a huge articulated lorry would pull up outside our house and dispense 50,000 festival brochures onto our front lawn.”

The imitators

Since the launch of BCLF, many similar events have sprung up across the country and John McLay said he feels like a pioneer to “some extent”, as many other organisers credit him with inspiring them to set up their festivals. He thinks there is room for them all, especially given that the children’s publishing industry is getting bigger, with more and more authors and illustrators who can fill venues of 500 or 1,000 seats. Publishers are far more aware of how their creative talents need to market themselves at live events and doing a good gig can pay huge dividends, he said.

However, costs—especially for venue hire—are rising and public funding is falling, so the team needs to sell more tickets to “keep up”, he added.

“We need to rely on business sponsorship more and more, which is a challenge. We feel the pressure each year to keep delivering an amazing programme of events but there are simply so many amazing children’s authors and illustrators and storytellers and poets out there right now—all at the top of their game—that we do not think the well will run dry just yet. [BCLF] should have many, many years of good vintage to come.”