Oxford Children’s Book Group Conference: Story Sacks, Series, and Cinderella

If the Oxford Children’s Book Group are going to be so kind as to hold a conference 20 minutes’ walk from my house, all about stuff I love, it would be churlish not to pootle along. Even if I am a week away from deadline and my flat looks like someone has attacked it with post-it notes and dirty mugs. (I’m pretty sure I remembered to put something other than pyjamas on. If not, thank you all for being so polite.)

The Ways Into Reading conference had a cracking line-up and I can’t write up the whole shebang (deadline! ahahaha), but a few personal highlights:

  • The Phoenix magazine standTom and Caro Fickling from The Phoenix, on why comics have value – especially when the shelves that carried the Beano when I was wee are now filled with miserable brand tie-in magazines (not comics) full of adverts and freebies. I already loved The Phoenix but they made me feel quite airpunchy on its behalf. They have a 50/50 gender split in their readership, and I think are genuine pioneers for ungendered content and marketing.
  • Vineeta Gupta from OUP on their unique Children’s Corpus, which provides data about children’s writing to guide their children’s dictionaries, but also gives a gobsmacking insight into what children choose to write about. Mums, mainly – and magical worlds. The most popular female character for kids remains Cinderella; the most popular male is that child-friendly cold-blooded assassin, James Bond. And yes, in girls’ writing common words are pink, beautiful, flower; for boys it’s robot, weapon, destroy. (I’m hiding under the sofa and crying, if you’d care to join me.)
  • Victor Watson (former Seven Stories Chairman, editor of the Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English) on series fiction. I come to this stuff purely as a child reader and a fling-it-at-the-page writer, so it was proper fun to switch my academic brain back on and start slotting series into his taxonomy – which, as he points out, most series wildly resist by changing over time (both because the world keeps moving – Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series was written from 1943-1978, but in story-time it’s just 4 years – and because authors keep moving too). He also raised a Blyton theory which I am desperate to investigate further. Watch this space.
  • Tracey Corderoy, oh my! I’d heard wonderful things about her author events and as someone who does those, I’m always madly curious to know what other people do. (Not to nick anything, just to know what’s expected!) Good golly, if I ever manage one tenth of her creativity, wit and warmth I will be doing a grand job. I can’t promise to bring a hutch full of ducklings to a book launch, but she’s made me think I ought to try. Anyone got a bookshop I can have a campfire in next April?

I felt a bit guilty, abandoning my desk for the day. But honestly, a day of listening to other people talk about kidlit might be the best possible thing a deadline-addled writer could have. It’s a roomful of passionate readers, librarians, teachers, academics, authors, bloggers, professionals willing to give up a Saturday to whisper over your shoulder: Here’s why you’re up at midnight trying to get Chapter 12 to make sense; here’s why you should keep going.

Also: there were really good sandwiches.

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