The FCBG contribution to children’s literature studies

by Professor Kimberley Reynolds, Newcastle University

I became professionally involved with the FCBG in the 1980s, when I was a mother of very young children and a doctoral student at the University of Sussex. I was lucky enough to be advised by Nicholas Tucker, who advised me to get involved with the Lewes branch to widen my knowledge of contemporary children’s literature (my research was on late-Victorian and Edwardian children’s books). I had missed the heyday, when I am told children and parents would fill the Town Hall for local FCBG events, but my timing was otherwise good since new members were needed and I was quickly invited to join the local committee. There I met Diana Rogers, one of the Federation’s most stalwart members. Like branches around the country, we organised a range of activities, from bookswaps to author visits. A particularly memorable one of these brought Gillian Cross, who had once been a member of the Lewes group herself I believe, back to Lewes.

Through the Federation and its annual conferences I met many writers, illustrators, publishers, journalists and activists in the world of children’s literature. The organisers of the conference had an unerring ability to spot the most interesting of the rising talents and to recognise among the established creators those whose contributions would endure. I remember vividly the 25th anniversary conference at Stratford where I first met Elizabeth Laird and Philippa Dickinson and first heard Malorie Blackman. And I am sure it was then that I enjoyed a masterclass in reading aloud when Martin Waddell read Owl Babies.

The networking I did at conferences stood me – and so my students, colleagues, and in due course several organisations – in good stead as over the years. For instance, I when I set up the MA in Children’s Literature and founded the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Roehampton University, where I was also involved in reviving British IBBY and had to run an annual conference of my own. It was also invaluable when we were creating the Children’s Laureate. I drew massively on what I learned about the world of children’s publishing through the Federation when I moved to Newcastle University to work alongside colleagues at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. The seeds for many of these activities were sown through activities organised by the Federation.

Just as important as the people I met and the events in which I participated were the books I tested with children locally for the Children’s Book Award. Observing children reading gave me the idea to conduct three national surveys of children’s reading habits and that in turn got me involved with BookTrust and Bookstart. The Federation was decades ahead of its time in involving children in its work: today collaborating with children in research and decision-making is considered cutting edge, but it has been a lynchpin of the Federation’s activities from the beginning.

My children are now grown up and I lived away from Lewes for more than a decade so I am no longer actively involved with the Federation. The terrain into which its activities fit has also changed: once the annual national conference was the principal place where anyone interested in children’s books came to learn what was happening, but now there are more conferences, roadshows, symposia and events than any one person can attend. Nevertheless, I continue to be a member of the Lewes branch, attending the AGM and other events when possible. I look forward to receiving the newsletter, the fabulous FCBG booklists, and Carousel; indeed, these are now my principal source of information about what’s happening in the children’s publishing industry, which is important for my work with Seven Stories and the Children’s Laureate.

I am just one of many people who now research and teach children’s literature in the UK and my experiences have been replicated across the UK. Although many of us have historical and theoretical interests, we all take into account the fact that children’s literature requires child readers and so the work of the Federation over 50 years has, often invisibly, underpinned teaching and research. I always point my students and colleagues towards the Federation and hope that I will be able to do so for many years to come. 

So, my career was rooted in the work of the Federation and every aspect of my professional life has some connection with the activities and legacies of this original and dedicated organisation. I offer 50 years of thanks and congratulations on behalf of the academic community.

With thanks to Professor Kimberley Reynolds for this blogpost. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the FCBG. Professor Kimberley Reynolds is Professor of Children’s Literature, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, at Newcastle University. She is the author of the award-winning books Left Out: the forgotten tradition of radical publishing for children in Britain 1910-1949 and Radical Children’s Literaure: future visions and aesthetic transformations. Look out for Reading and Rebellion: an anthology of radical writing for children, 1900-1960

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