Organising the Manchester Children’s Book Festival – ‘we shout at each other a lot’

We don’t have to go and search for James Draper in the end, as he walks through the revolving doors of the MMU just after we have arrived. He is wearing business shorts and espadrilles on this hot day, and first takes us up to meet Kaye Tew in her office, before we head down to the MMU café to wait for her.

James Draper of the Manchester Children's Book Festival

James buys us drinks and the Photographer warns me not to spill Coke all over her camera, but I point out there are other valuables in between it and my drink.

James – ‘And brochures as well. We’ve only got 20,000 of them.’

‘I’ve got two.’

J – ‘You can have a box full if you want.’

We talk about the weather, as you do, and James mentions the pretend window in his office, looking out over the interior of the MMU building, and then we move almost seamlessly to his age.

‘When I met you two years ago, I thought “he’s very young to be doing this.”‘

J – ‘I am doing this.’

‘Yes, why are you doing this?’

J – ‘God knows. Carol Ann Duffy told us to…’

‘OK, so she just said “we’ll have a book festival?”’

J – ‘Yes, that’s what she said.’

‘And you…’

J – ‘You two will do it.’ We laugh.

Kaye joins us. ‘I’ve been planning a zombie invasion this morning.’

‘James has been telling me it was Carol Ann who made you start the book festival, and that it had to be you two specifically.’

J – ‘What she wanted to do when she became the poet laureate, was to do a big event in Manchester, because that’s where she lives, that’s where she works, and she wanted it to be for children, because there was no specific children’s festival in Manchester.’

Kaye – ‘She’d been doing an event for me, after she became laureate, for a primary school, and I remember her looking at the audience and saying “this is our audience, for the festival.” Because I did the schools outreach…’

‘OK, why, and what exactly is the schools outreach?

K – ‘We, as a university, want to engage with prospective students, and the earlier you engage those prospective students, the more children you reach, and the more chance there is that they will come to MMU. But more importantly, we can help raise the aspirations for children. Particularly in inner city schools, and that’s my particular remit. I work with primary schools and 11 to16. We do specific recruitment events, but this also works. It fits really nicely in the aspiration ratings, so having a project like this, gives me a platform to go out and work with those extended projects, and just raise the profile for this activity. We work with all schools, private schools in leafy suburbs through to inner city primary and secondary schools.’

J – ‘We didn’t do too much primary before we started this.’

K – ‘No, very little.’

J – ‘So this has been…’

K – ‘…it made the transition through Year 5 and Year 6. And then bringing them into secondary school, that works really well. Secondary schools do a lot of work around transition, and we get involved to help them.’

J – ‘It fits on top of my main role as manager of the Manchester Writing School more generally, because we were already doing public events but mainly for adults. Not really anything for children, at that stage.’

K – ‘I was a student at the Manchester Writing School myself.’

Kaye Tew of the Manchester Children's Book Festival

K – ‘I started as a member of staff in the English department and I set up a schools outreach programme. It was up and running by about 2005 and we had Carol Ann Duffy, and various other children’s writers and I thought “we should be using this,” and I thought creative writing because that was my area of expertise anyway, but also, it’s sexy, it’s something that teachers are interested in. It’s something that people just enjoy…’

J – ‘Yes.’

K – ‘…and not realising they are actually acquiring skills, and that’s what they lose in schools. What was interesting was the number of teachers who came and said “we don’t know how to teach creative writing; it’s something we’re really scared of.” It’s almost taught like a science now, you know. There are rules and the rules have to be learned. That side of things has really changed.’


K – ‘A lot of pupils are being taught to pass exams rather than engage with their teacher and be excited about it, and that’s what Carol Ann wants.’

‘I suspect teachers are scared.’

K – ‘Yes, and not because they are not creative. One of the first things we did was put creative writing on for teachers, and two things came out of it. The teachers said they’d had loads of fun, they’d really enjoyed it. Secondly some of them said it was the first time they’d been creative in years, and they hadn’t realised how scary it was, and when they asked kids to write stories and share it with the rest of the class, it’s harder than you think it is.’

‘It is stressful.’

K – ‘That’s where James and I came together and we then created a full creative writing course which is now embedded in the MA. So that’s where we swapped over. I look after the children, as James keeps reminding me, and…’

J – ‘…and I look after the adults.’

‘So your educational background, Kaye, you have actually done the course here?’

K – ‘Yes.’

‘And you, James?’

J – ‘Exactly the same,’ he laughs, ‘undergraduate degree in English here and a MA in Creative Writing. We’ve both written novels, which is part of the creative writing.’

k – ‘We’re going to publish an undergraduate anthology…’

J -‘… that we’ve also worked on.’

‘I wondered whether you as a director were “just” an office type, who runs the show and knows what’s best, but you’re actually creative as well?’

J – ‘Oh, yes.’

K – ‘I think.’

J – ‘We always say this (the mcbf programme) is the most creative thing we’ve done in years. Actually writing this brought it all together. The events have been chosen and selected for different age ranges and the whole shape of the thing assembled in a very deliberate way. We absolutely don’t run to publishers and say “who can you send us for free, or what would you like to do?”’

K – ‘I think that’s why Carol Ann said she wanted us to do it, we’d get free range to do whatever we want. Carol Ann has opened a lot of doors.’

Kaye Tew and James Draper of the Manchester Children's Book Festival

‘How do you decide who to invite?’

J – ‘Last time it was very different. The one we did in 2010 was a smaller pilot put together very, very quickly. Carol Ann wanted us to do it soon after she became poet laureate. Her first big thing. At that stage we wanted to avoid clashing with the International Festival. That’s why we’re every two years, so we’re not up against that. We put it together very quickly and we relied on Carol Ann’s address book and also the contacts that we already had. We’ve got writers in-house in the Writing School team. We can ask them who’s got a good performance, who’s popular, and we went to the libraries as well. They know the writers, and they know the work extremely well.’

K – ‘We know a lot more now.

‘Yeah, you will do.’

J – ‘So having done it in 2010 quite quickly and ferociously, we’ve got a good sense of what kind of events worked well. Someone can be a very good writer but not such a good performer.’

K – ‘Who can pitch the mark?’

J – ‘Very important. Again, we weren’t sure about that at all, last time, but through doing it we’ve got a real sense of what level of age…’

K – ‘We did stuff in 2010 that carried on. We are building a bank now of writers that we know, that schools really want.’

J – ‘And that’s what we want to do; we approach a school saying we’ve got this author, that’s where we will test them out. We wouldn’t just put them straight into the main festival.’

K – ‘We’ve got Steve Cole back this time. He went down so well last time, we’ve actually extended Saturday. We’re trying to make sure that we’ve included as many of the authors as we really like. There will be zombies.’

We discuss what time Steve will be there. ‘So he’s there, after Curtis Jobling?’

J – ‘Curtis was another one we didn’t know.’

K – ‘What a nice guy!’

J – ‘We brought him to Chorlton library for a small event, and he was so fantastic we’ve got him for two different events.’

‘Yeah, I know. A year ago I’d never heard of him, and when I met him and saw him in action, I thought “wow!”’

K – ‘That’s what we were like. We’ve learned a lot since last time. We were trying to cram too much into one day. There was lots of overlap.’

‘It meant you had to choose what to miss.’

J – ‘Basically we had almost all our public events on one day, but this time we’re spreading them across the week.’

K – ‘Another thing that’s different this time is our partner organisations. There are activities happening everywhere. When we started putting the programme together, we called a meeting with all the museums and galleries and everyone that was going to be involved, and we just said, “right, what do you want to do?” and people came forward with ideas and that was brilliant. There’s a link-up between organisations doing similar things.’

J – ‘We are going to make sure that people aren’t competing with each other.’

K – ‘Behind the scenes we are creating the Greater Manchester Learning Network which is going to be a platform that will link between the museums, galleries and theatres. Anywhere that’s got anything creative to offer to a school can be part of the creative learning network.’

J – ‘It may be hard to stop, things will just keep on going.’

K – ‘Last year we did a shared project with the Literature Festival and the Museum of Science and Industry; the thing that Julie Bertagna was launching.’

J – ‘You were sent to the back…’

K – ‘You misbehaved.’ She giggles. ‘Why did she send you to the back?’

‘To prevent her feeling nervous. And not take photos.’

K – ‘Well Julie’s appearing, so you’ll be sent to the back again.’

‘I’m afraid so.’

K – ‘That’s going to be a nice day. It clashes with the graduation ceremony, though. We’ve got a graduation ceremony for four-year-olds here on that Friday.’

J – ‘Both are for children, so I’ll be having the afternoon off. I’ll be at the Midland Hotel washing plates for the gala dinner. That’s what I’ll be doing.’ Kaye laughs.

K – ‘So that’s a nice project, and that worked so well, we’re planning another one, which will run from October and be launched at the Manchester Literature festival, and run all year as the basis for a lot of our schools outreach work.’

J – ‘It never stops.’

‘For local book fans it’s nice that there are things throughout the year.’

Kaye Tew and James Draper of the Manchester Children's Book Festival

J – ‘It’s important for both writers and children that we don’t just do this every two years, but we have things going on throughout the year, like the creative writing courses and public events.’

K – ‘And it’s allowed us to respond to publishers and more authors. Publishers now approach us, and Scottish Book Trust, asked us to have Barry Hutchison for a week in October.’

K – ‘I forget what his new book is called.’

‘The 13th Horseman, one of the most wonderful books I’ve read for a long time!’

K – ‘Oh that’s good. I’d never heard of him until I was approached by them.’

‘He is so funny! We’re trying to meet up for an interview, and it might have to be Manchester in October.’

K – ‘We’ve got him for a full week so I’ll take him out to as many schools as I can.’

‘Do you both read children’s books?’

J – ‘No.’

K – ‘I do,’ she laughs.

J – ‘No, not really.’ We laugh. ‘I didn’t know anything about children’s books before we did this, and now I know an awful lot about them.’

K – ‘I used to re-read when feeling a bit fed up. I’ve got a shelf full of Blyton books, and I just re-read them. You don’t need to concentrate; it’s a trip down memory lane. After I had children I read as well, so I’ve kept in touch with children’s books. I read something by all the authors, before I meet them. Julie Bertagna was the biggest surprise because I hate science fiction, absolutely hate it, and I had to read it because I was making the introduction. And I couldn’t put it down! It’s brilliant! So you do get nice surprises. But you, James, don’t read them.’

J – ‘No, I don’t.’

‘So what do you read?’

J – ‘What I read? Dissertations, and student’s assignments. All I’ve read for the past couple of months is, some quite good, some very very good writing, very exciting original work by the students. The last thing I want to do is read [more]. I can’t read any more fiction, it would have to be the telephone directory, or financial reports. And emails. I tend to read in big chunks when I’m on holiday. It’s largely still’ – he hesitates – ‘not suitable for children.’ Kaye laughs.

‘If Carol Ann hadn’t forced you to do this, what would you be doing instead?’

J – ‘Well, the thing is, we were doing lots of stuff around this anyway, so it’s one of many big projects.’

K – ‘What we’ve done has allowed us to try to gather all of the different strands of our work. We worked in parallel; we just bumped into each other every now and then. What’s been interesting is that, we shout at each other a lot.’

Kaye Tew and James Draper of the Manchester Children's Book Festival

J – ‘We don’t argue. We have very, very lively… we disagree, we disagree about almost every single thing.’

K – ‘I think we do just fine.’

J – ‘We do fine. I normally win.’

K – ‘After the last one, you wake up in the middle of the night, and we spent every waking moment…’

J – ‘Absolutely, and by day three of the last festival I was hallucinating; the authors and the books and things just coming at me.’

Photographer – ‘Did you see the pirate wandering around?’

J – ‘Pirate? No, no, I’ve had therapy to deal with that.’

K – ‘You said “I never want to see you again,” and then the next day I was at home thinking “what am I going to do?” and I phoned you up and said “do you want to go for a drink?” We just needed to be with somebody who understood what we’d been through.’

J – ‘Yes.’

K – ‘And wasn’t going to ask a lot of stupid questions. It just works really well as a partnership. We are completely different.’

‘I find you interesting because I see you together so much, and you are totally different, but you make such a good [working] couple, it must be so much nicer…’

J – ‘It’s a triangle really. There’s Carol Ann as the figurehead, and she’s out there meeting people and seeing shows and feeding back to us what she thinks. It’s not something that could have been just Carol Ann. You need someone else, and there is so much new stuff that’s coming in, wildly ambitious stuff, and you need somebody who you can say “well what do you think about this, what should we do about that?” to.’

K – ‘There is nothing in here that I would say is mine, or James’s or Carol Ann’s.’

J – ‘Even though I look after the public events and Kaye looks after the schools, even within that, there is still the door locks, it’s very organic.’

‘What made you put Philip Pullman on as an adult event?’

K – ‘It’s not now.’

J – ‘It’s for all ages.’

‘You changed it?’

J – ‘He changed it. So we had to change the event slightly, to a retrospective thing of his work more generally.’

K – ‘For instance, Michael Rosen, we nearly killed him, we just had him going from nine o’clock in the morning until ten at night. We threw everything at him. I can’t believe he’s coming back, but when we contacted him, thinking there’s no way, he said yes.’

J – ‘He’s on from ten o’clock in the morning until ten at night again, but he asked for it. It was something he wanted to do.’

K – ‘It’s been nice being able to use some of the ideas that come from the authors. We’ve got Kate Fox for instance. I actually put her into the swimming pool, and by the time she’d done twenty lengths… She’s doing a brand new show, as part of our extended schools programme. We’re hoping to do a tour in schools next year. It’s been really exciting, and having the two year gap has allowed us to say “yes, we’ll try that.”’

J – ‘The other thing is, if we weren’t doing this we wouldn’t be out so much, we wouldn’t be talking to people. What this has given us is a concrete event that’s allowed us to go out and talk to people and network, and we seem to be doing that all the time, which is very important, particularly in the competitive university industry. We’ve got all these links to external organisations, the commercial stuff as well. My role has been the sponsorship and the funding, the academic enterprise side of it. When Kaye is in the swimming pool, I’m chatting up business.’

As the conversation veers onto even weirder topics, James and Kaye show off their respective writing competitions, for children and for adults, holding up the programme to make a point.

Kaye Tew and James Draper of the Manchester Children's Book Festival

It sounds like very hard work, but it also comes across as the most fun hard work I’ve encountered for a long time. Carol Ann Duffy knew what she was doing, picking these two.


11 responses to “Organising the Manchester Children’s Book Festival – ‘we shout at each other a lot’

  1. Pingback: When James and Kaye nearly killed Michael Rosen | Bookwitch

  2. Dear and surely lovely James and Kaye, you do realise that, apart from Carol Ann Duffy, you have mentioned those tough men Steve Cole, Curtis Jobling, Barry Hutchison, Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen – oh, and that Julie Bertagna who’s been before and Kate who was in the swimming pool. (Don’t think Enid counts.) Can’t help wondering if the amazing MCBF programme is a bit less one gender. It IS, isn’t it? Please say yes. Yours in hope.

    ps Though it was fun to hear how you work and how everything gets put together.

  3. You can jump down from there now, Penny! I have conducted an unscientific count of the programme, and found 16 ladies and 9 men. Girls win, I think.

  4. Thank you for your MCBF headcount, Bookwitch. Am now humbling about at floor level.

  5. Don’t humble too much. We need people on barricades and whatever else you can stand on to shout. I think a programme like this will always be fair, but a chat can easily become lopsided, simply because of who you suddenly need to mention.
    By now they will be busily checking you out…

  6. Thanks. It’s not personal. Just a niggling thing that I seem to notice about what seems quite a lot of book festivals although those particular names may all, as here, just be essential publicity angles.

  7. It was I who mentioned Curtis and Philip. Some of the others came up because they exemplified what Kaye and James have learned; people they hadn’t ever heard of. And Michael was just a wonder, being willing to come back for more back beating work.
    Less publicity angles, and let me get back to that when I can say stuff about Edinburgh. Tomorrow.

  8. Heavens. I know I shouldn’t have spoken! I was agreeing with you about the “big” names that would need to be mentioned, not that those persons sought the mention themselves.

    Will look forward to your Edinburgh post – and Michael is always a steadfast wonder.

  9. I’ll be there in the schools prog, Penny and so will Mary Hoffman! Also I believe LIz Kessler is on. Can’t wait to see Manchester again and to be part of this excellent festival. Hope it stops raining before July!

  10. Pingback: The grand opening | Bookwitch

  11. Pingback: Hunger | Bookwitch på svenska

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