Editor Susan Houlden on this year’s colourful CBI Conference

One of our editors-extraordinaire, Susan Houlden, was let out for the recent CBI conference and very kindly jotted down what she thought of the whole shebang…

GET TOGETHER: Children’s Book Collaboration was the theme of the Children’s Books Ireland Conference May 2011.
I crept out of my editing ivory tower to venture forth into the ‘real’ and wider world of children’s books, and came away from the conference energised and inspired.

So much work and thought went into the line-up and Mags Walsh and her team at CBI should be taking bows centre stage. Lots of ‘people in the business’ were greeted and we played catch-up.

Both days played to a packed audience, standing room only. All of the ‘acts’ were outstanding in their own way but these, for me, were the highlights (some such as iBbY, Áine Ní Glinn and Derek Landy) I knew from before:

Jane Davis of The Reader Organisation and Karen Bertrams the library advisor from Holland were truly inspiring. You can teach an old dog new tricks.

For The Reader Organisation, you can visit their website www.thereader.org.uk and blog www.thereaderonline.co.uk. Jane was someone who grew up in a rough-looking street and dropped out of school but reading provided a lifeline. It was amazing to see Jane’s photos of people, with all sorts of issues going on, finding something sustaining in listening to someone simply read aloud. Sometimes the simple ideas are the best. You can see the potential for reaching people, from the sick and vulnerable to those with ‘learning difficulties’ to people new to English and those with Alzheimers. The great news after the conference was that Dublin City Libraries and the Home School Community Liaison Scheme, funded by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature are to appoint a Reader-in–Residence – a seed for potential growth of the reading net in Ireland. You can’t help thinking, wouldn’t it be great if each school, hospital and nursing home had a reader-in-residence?

Karen Bertrams was another person bursting with new ideas and a ‘can-do’ attitude for libraries. I loved the idea of using colour in libraries, from the walls to brightly coloured info desks. In Holland architects talk to the children and teenagers about what they would like a library to be and take on board their ideas. The results are some amazing-looking spaces – not a dusty shelf in sight! Karen had so many ideas from using inspirational art and ground-breaking images of modern architecture such as Dubai buildings to dressing-up boxes and sprawl spaces. I know many Irish libraries have bean-bag corners and gaming stations and put on performances and readings, but in Holland they take this one step further with media bars, how-to days for X-Box and Wii, music chairs, cinetables, people showing their passions for juggling, kick boxing, football, music, art. Karen dreams of having library spaces at airports … I was hoping there were some librarians in the room.

The authors featured took to the stage like naturals. The picture-book slot with Helen Oxenbury, John Burningham and their editor David Lloyd was slick and professional but showed a real affection for each other and their work. We were given a rare glimpse into the collaboration behind the making of a picture book: There’s Going to be a Baby. And even after forty years in the business, this team is still trying new things.

Louise Rennison and Philip Ardagh were perfect foils for each other and performed a humorous stand-up on the background to their books. It was clear they drew on their own childhoods. Perhaps that ability to capture the inner child is what makes them so great at what they do. The same could be said for the panel of the hugely popular Judi Curtin, Sheena Wilkinson (basking in the glow of recent awards and recognition), John Newman and an endearingly whacky Garret Carr. They all seem able to conjure up child characters and situations which strike a chord with young readers and have them coming back for more. They certainly made their audience laugh and connect.

The designers and illustrators were represented by Emma Byrne, from The O’Brien Press, Chris Haughton, Chris Judge and Steven Simpson. They each presented, at breakneck speed, a fascinating glimpse into what inspired them in children’s illustration and design: from the classic and perhaps the obvious such as Richard Scarry to the more unusual graphic novels and illustration work from Korea and other art-rich countries. You just have to see glowing careers ahead of this young talent. We could have done with some more question-time with these scarily talented folk.

In fact, there was so much talent in the room and so many people with a true passion for children’s books (even if some of them have come to children’s books by accident) that you couldn’t help but feel caught up in it and hopeful for a bright future for children’s book collaborations in Ireland and further afield. Wouldn’t it be great to bottle some of this feeling for days when you cannot see why the beginning of a novel is not quite working or why we just don’t care enough about a character? Unfortunately some books need a good old-fashioned index and that’s where I’m heading as I climb my ivory stairs.