A Thousand and Seven Stories: Working in the Seven Stories Archives in Newcastle

Thanks to the support of many colleagues, I was able to take this academic year to study in Britain on a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship. Initially, I had wanted to apply somewhere in London. I am doing archival work on publishers who publish(ed) for a Black British child audience, and many important archives are in London, including the London Metropolitan Archives, the Black Cultural Archives, and the George Padmore Archives. But sometimes things don’t work out just the way you had planned, and this was one such case; the university that offered me space and place and time to think was Newcastle University, in the far north of the country. Despite the university’s distance from London (three hours by train—making for a very long daytrip at minimum. . .), they had one asset that London didn’t have: the National Centre for the Children’s Book, Seven Stories Museum and Archives.

I had been to Seven Stories before, but was uncertain if I would be able to fill my time there. I knew that their authors’ and artists’ collections did not include many Black British or other minority ethnic writers (and if you are one, and are reading this blog, then think about Seven Stories as a place for your archives!). I knew they had the archives of Leila Berg, the radical author and editor who created the Nippers series. She had actively recruited Black British writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s to write for the series. So I began there.

Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose's New Beacon Bookshop.  Illustration by Richard Rose.

Petronella Breinburg was one of the authors that Leila Berg recruited by visiting John La Rose’s New Beacon Bookshop. Illustration by Richard Rose.

Considering Leila Berg’s reading series (she didn’t want it to be called a reading scheme, but Macmillan insisted on marking the books with colors to indicate levels) started me thinking about those books that teach children how to read, and when they started to be multicultural. Here was one of the first revelations at Seven Stories, because they not only have a number of early reading texts in their book collection, they also have a collection of Ladybird Books, and I was able to look through them. Many people make fun of the Ladybirds (there have been several recent parodies, both official and unofficial) but I was surprised to find that even though Peter and Jane, the Ladybird Reading Scheme protagonists, live a boring, middle-class life, multicultural Britain is never far away.

Multiculturalism is everywhere in Britain (but mostly on trains)!  Illustrations by Martin Aitchison from the Ladybirds Boys and Girls and Where We Go.

Multiculturalism is everywhere in Britain (but mostly on trains)! Illustrations by Martin Aitchison from the Ladybirds Boys and Girls and Where We Go.

Multicultural Britain is also a part of the work of many of the authors in the archive. I recently gave a talk on (white South African-born) Beverley Naidoo, who wrote books about her home country’s apartheid regime, such as Journey to Jo’Burg, and then went on to write about Nigerian and Somalian refugees in Britain in her Carnegie medal-winning The Other Side of Truth. I was curious about what led her to write about these refugees, and found many supporting documents in the Seven Stories archive that allowed me to build up a picture of her long-term interest in the subject. I am looking forward to examining the archives of Bernard Ashley, author of The Trouble with Donovan Croft, and Michael Morpurgo, author of A Medal for Leroy, to learn more about their thought processes in writing and revising their books, and their publishers comments about them as well.

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the archives for me at the moment, though, is their book collection, which provides a wealth of resources for building a picture of Britain as it changed over the course of the twentieth century. The book collection holds a number of magazines, story papers, comics, and annuals from Boys’ Own to Empire Annual to World of Wonder and Beano. These often overlooked resources can provide a snapshot of acceptable attitudes toward race and diversity over time. Golliwog figures have disappeared when once they were prevalent in the comics, for example. And stories about savages and cannibals were exchanged around the 1970s for non-fiction “tourist” style pieces about the islands of the Caribbean.

Spot the difference: two Puffins published a year apart, in 1963 and 1964.

Spot the difference: two Puffins published a year apart, in 1963 and 1964.

The book collection also includes Kaye Webb’s collection of Puffins. Kaye Webb, who was the longtime editor of Puffin, was the first major figure that Seven Stories “archived”—her papers are all there, a massively important collection that will serve researchers like me for years to come. But in the book collection, there is a visual sense of the way that publishing changed over the time of her tenure at Penguin (she was editor from 1961 to 1979) and beyond, for the archives include copies of more recent Puffins.

Seven Stories has journals for all kinds of researchers interested in children and their books.

Seven Stories has journals for all kinds of researchers interested in children and their books.

When I can tear myself away from the book collections, I have been reading through several years of Multicultural Teaching, the journal edited in the 1980s and 1990s by Gillian Klein. These were brought to my attention by Collections Officer Paula Wride, who had heard one of my lectures and thought they might be useful. They have, indeed! I am certain that several articles will find their way into my next lecture, on Stephen Lawrence, Mary Seacole, and the National Curriculum (November 18th in 152 Robinson Library, 5:30 pm, in case you happen to be in Newcastle next week). The book collections include many complete or near-complete runs of the major children’s literature journals from literary, education, publishing and librarianship perspectives. Although I’ve been in university libraries that hold several of these, it is rare to find so many—from so many different approaches—in one place.

I came to Seven Stories in September thinking that I would not find resources enough to keep me busy all year, but now I realize the wealth of information that can be gleaned about diversity in Britain from what they already have. With a dynamic staff who love and understand books and are thoughtful and celebratory of authors and researchers, I know that my year at the archive will leave me hoping to come back for more.

If you want to learn more about Seven Stories archives and/or arrange your own visit, you can visit their website’s Collections page: http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/collection/collection-highlights.

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