by Anne-Marie Conway
I was on my third glass of prosecco at an end-of-year event when I was approached by Lucy, the head teacher of my son’s school. ‘We’re going to start fundraising for our new school library,’ she said. ‘And we’d love you to get involved.’
The original plan was for me to say a few words at fundraising events. As both a parent and the author of several best-selling children’s books, Lucy probably thought I’d be a decent frontwoman. What she didn’t realise is, that while I’m perfectly happy talking and engaging with children, I can’t think of anything more scary than addressing a room full of adults. Thankfully, I had another idea, possible fuelled by the prosecco – one that would still lead me out of my comfort zone, but in a good way.
It was June 2018 and the Archer Academy in North London had been open for five years. My son was one of the first cohort at the new free school and had just completed his GCSEs. It’s a great school, but its divided into two campuses and its upper school campus doesn’t have a library.
Lucy’s request came just as I had finished editing my seventh novel, Unicorn Girl, a story for 9-12 year olds about a troubled girl and the friendship she develops with a lost unicorn.
With a moment of synchronicity that sealed my decision, I realised that part of the plot for Unicorn Girl revolves around the heroine, Ariella, finding a book in a library. I decided more or less on the spot to by-pass the traditional route to print and publish the novel myself. It was a scary prospect, but it meant that I could donate profits from the first 5000 copies straight to the library appeal.
I found a publisher in SilverWood Books and quickly discovered how much I had more or less taken for granted with my other six books being published traditionally. I needed original artwork for the front cover. I could include black and white pictures inside, but I wasn’t sure how to source them. I needed to market it and launch it and get it into the hands of readers. There were more than a few moments when I thought: ‘What on earth have I done?’
The answer was simple and so compelling that those moments never lasted for very long. I am a passionate believer in school libraries and while I’d never particularly thought of myself as a library campaigner before, this was personal.
I started my career as a primary school teacher and still work part time as a drama teacher so I’ve seen at first hand the importance of a library to a school. They are places where students can go when the politics of the playground or peer groups gets too much. They are safe spaces to browse and learn and imagine. They are sanctuaries where the syllabus is not the main measurement of a child’s worth. They are often the first places – sometimes the only places – where a child can discover new books and fictional worlds that may, on some level, chime with their own and help them through difficult times.
But as anyone in education knows, libraries are also the Cinderella of many schools and no-one’s found the glass slipper yet.
Finding precise data to show this is tough because it’s been collected piecemeal over the years. But it’s been reported that schools lost 280 librarians in two years, according to the Department for Education’s School Workforce data for England between 2012 and 2014. And a child without a school library has less chance of finding one in the outside world because 449 libraries closed in England, Scotland and Wales between 2012 and 2017, according to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). No wonder the Great School Libraries campaign was launched in September by the School Library Association (SLA) and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). They want better funding, inclusion of school libraries in the Ofsted framework and a national plan for future school library development.
Unicorn Girl was a grassroots initiative that slotted naturally into a wider debate and I was touched by how many people wanted to help. One by one, the list of hurdles ahead of me melted away.
A good friend and artist, Franda Wargo, left her oil paints for a few days to come up with the beautiful watercolour of a girl and a unicorn that now graces the book’s cover. My 20-year-old niece Shannon overcame shyness and insecurity to draw six exquisite pencil sketches that readers on school visits (and Amazon) tell me are amazing. Another friend has helped with marketing and yet more friends and school parents threw me a launch party that still rates as one of the best nights of my life. I even have a celebrity supporter. EastEnders actor Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell) has a daughter at The Archer and he has been nothing but gracious and generous with his time, talking to journalists and raising awareness of Unicorn Girl and its cause.
But in the end, I am a writer and what also matters to me is whether my readers enjoy the book. It’s still early days but I can honestly say that the response has been overwhelming. I have begun visiting schools, with a creative workshop developed specifically around Unicorn Girl, and it’s been amazing to see the children, girls and boys, so engaged with the story. A friend of mine said that her kids nagged her to read until 9.30pm at which point she insisted it was time for lights out. It’s less than a month since it launched but Unicorn Girl already has 44 five star reviews on Amazon.
I want to say this – not because I’m boastful – but because we don’t have a juggernaut publicity machine behind us or distribution in a national chain of bookshops. Yet feedback and my gut tells me this is a good book and I’m proud that I decided to use the IP I created for a good cause.
So I dodged the bullet that would have made me a keynote speaker at the Archer Academy’s fundraising events, but my head is still firmly above the parapet. To other writers who aren’t sure how that would make them feel, I can only say; sometimes it’s really nice to be reminded that there are other ways of doing things.
Unicorn Girl is available through Peter’s, all good bookshops and on Kindle or Amazon. If you would like Anne-Marie for an author visit, please visit her website www.annemarieconwaybooks.com
This is a guest post by Anne-Marie Conway and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.