by Chris Routh (Reading CBG)
Over two years ago, we began to explore how our group could mark the 50th anniversary of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. As the University of Reading is the home of a Special Collection of Children’s Books, we had the idea for a joint exhibition; and after a couple of exploratory meetings we booked the venue for a three month period, which also coincided with the annual Reading Children’s Festival 2018. We planned to have three associated events, including one for families, plus a trail leading visitors from the exhibition through the adjacent Museum of English Rural Life and up to the Ladybird Gallery.
Our aim was to tell the story of FCBG with a particular emphasis on the Children’s Book Award, while showcasing some of the treasures of the University of Reading’s Special Collections at the same time.
Several past winners of the CBA were chosen for the exhibition because of their links with farms and farming; and the enduring popularity of stories about animals soon emerged as the main theme of the exhibition.
The result is a small but beautifully formed collection of items drawn from FCBG’s own archives and the University of Reading’s Special Collections. On entering, visitors will see a framed watercolour illustration by H M Brock of ‘This is the farmer’ nursery rhyme. Found purely by chance among the rolling stacks of the University’s Art Collection, this provided the perfect image to signal the historical dimension of the exhibition. Next to this is a poster of recipients of the Children’s Book Award since its inauguration in 1980. Six further specially designed display boards explain the history and ongoing work of the Federation.
The first of four display cases features books by a past student of the University, author and illustrator Kathleen Hale, who lived in the same building as the exhibition’s location. Most famous for her picture books about Orlando the marmalade cat, her books about Henrietta the hen are featured here, alongside letters exchanged with her publishers. The choice was deliberate – to link with the farm theme, the arrival of a couple of real chickens at MERL and the Spring Chickens event for families in May.
The second case focuses on books by four times winner of the CBA Sir Michael Morpurgo, who is also well-known as joint founder (with his wife) of Farms for City Children. A looped film from the associated website explains the importance and benefits of getting children into the countryside. The case also includes a copy of After the Ashes which won the Younger Reader category of the CBA in 2002. This a moving account of the impact of the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth set on a fictional farm in Devon, but based on real events.
The adjacent case is all about the Federation and includes the original dust-jacket for Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake, which was the first winner of the CBA in 1981. Displayed with permission of Penguin Random House whose archive is held at the University. This year’s CBA winners will be added to the display after the award ceremony in early June.
The tall display case features two further CBA winners. Snowy written by Berlie Doherty and illustrated by Keith Brown (winner of the picture book category in 1993) is about a family living on a horse-drawn canal boat. With the Kennet and Avon canal nearby, this made a perfect choice and we found some fabulous pieces in MERL’s object collection to match. Many of the other books featured in this case are about rabbits and hares including Harriet’s Hare by Dick King-Smith (overall winner in 1995); and Richard Adam’s Watership Down (1972), which provides another local connection having been inspired by the beautiful countryside on the borders of Berkshire and Hampshire.
With books dating back as far as 1887 (The Baby’s Own Aesop illustrated by Walter Crane), to the 2017 CBA winner Eagle in the Snow by Michael Morpurgo, the exhibition provides a (small) window on to the world of children’s books during the past 130 years. On display until 31st July, it is located in the stairwell next to the Reading Room and can be viewed during MERL’s regular open times https://merl.reading.ac.uk A related talk by Prue Goodwin on Rabbits in Children’s Literature will take place on Monday 18th June from 6.30pm. Although this is a free event, booking is essential. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to attend.
We plan to report on the three related events in a future blog.