It’s with the greatest of pleasure and not just a little bit of excitement that I can announce to you that over the next few months I’ll be acting as a kidlit correspondent for the “Best Family Festival” in the UK, The Just So Festival.
The Just So Festival, a family arts festival, was launched last year by Sarah Bird and Rowan Hoban. It takes the form of a weekend-long journey of the imagination, where everything from sandcastle masterclasses, barn dance mayhem, storytelling and drawing games from top-name authors and illustrators and a panoply of creative workshops will inspire children and parents alike.
David Lucas, Ellie Sandall, Steve Cole, Mini Grey and Frances Hardinge are amongst the authors and illustrators who will be at the festival. Over the next couple of months I’ll be interviewing some of them and reviewing their books and then, after the festival in August, I shall try to transport those of you who couldn’t attend in person by writing up those kidlit events I attended with M and J. As they say, it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!
So to kick things off, today I’m interviewing Rowan Hoban, one of the festival’s founders, and asking her all about the central role stories and books play in the Just So Festival.
Playing by the book: Where does the festival take its name from? Why did you choose this name?
Rowan: The beautiful wood where the festival is held, Barnswood, overlooks Rudyard Lake. At the turn of the 19th century, the lake was a pretty amazing place, where day trippers from industrial Manchester and the Potteries donned their best hats and came to enjoy fairgrounds, sideshows, boat trips and feats of daring, such as Blondin’s tightrope walk across the lake. Two of these day trippers were Rudyard Kipling’s parents, and they named their first son after the lake where they courted. We thought it was perfect to name the festival after Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, because of this lovely local connection and, of course, because the stories themselves are such family favourites.
Playing by the book: The festival contains lots of book and story related activities. Why are these so important to you? Why do you think they are such an essential part of a family festival?
Rowan: From our very first conversations about our fantasy festival, books, stories and magical literary allusions were right at the heart of it. We think that they are an essential part of a family festival because stories and picture books are one of the first ways in which children begin to let their imaginations run wild.
We’ve been to great literature events with our kids in the past, at literature festivals or in bookshops, but it has always felt like a bit of a shame to us that after watching our kids experience inspiring moments, and hearing brilliant authors, that the little shake they give themselves as the event comes to an end brings them to the inside a building or a marquee. Belief is suspended and you step into the world that the author is creating in front of you but that moment is so quickly lost as we try to figure out the bus times home, or pop into the supermarket for tea.
Wouldn’t it be amazing, we thought, if that moment of wonder and suspended belief could last much longer. Wouldn’t it be great if kids could enter the world that a children’s author creates at a reading or workshop, and then come out into a magical, enchanted place where more amazing experiences were just around the corner.
Playing by the book: Which part of last year’s festival did you enjoy the most? What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?
Rowan: The parts of last year’s festival that I enjoyed the most where when families were having a wild old time together. We had a great crazy barndance with Cut a Shine (who we couldn’t resist inviting back in 2011), and whole families where whirling and stomping together. I also loved the Honey performances by theatre company Pif Paf, which had whole families performing the bee bum waggle dance!
Playing by the book: What books are you reading at the moment, for yourself and with your children?
Rowan: I am reading The Long Song, by Andrea Levy, which I’m not far into but is already sucking me into the world of sugar plantation slaves in 19th century Jamaica. Most of my reading at the moment, though, is done in the wee small hours while feeding baby Gabriel, so I keep having to reread sections! Sarah, my fellow festival director, is reading a lovely Penguin classic edition of Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales for inspiration (at least she’d better be, I just bought it for her birthday!)
For the kids, it is Mr Gum all the way with Fin (7), we’ve been through the whole series at least three times, and his love of them shows no sign of abating. Oonagh’s (4) latest favourite is ‘Who want’s to be a poodle? I don’t’ by Lauren Child, which is about a very pampered poodle who would prefer, really, to be a more scruffy mutt. Jude (2) just falls about laughing when Ben gets eaten in Penguin by Polly Dunbar, over and over and over again!
Playing by the book: It sounds like a home full of stories, Rowan! And a festival full of adventures, that I suspect will inspire many tales in those who come for the weekend. I’m really looking forward to working with you and the festival, here’s to many flights of imagination and moments of wonder!
Disclosure: In return for “working” as a kidlit correspondent my family has been given a free family pass to this festival. You can find out more about the festival here. You can follow the festival on twitter here, and Facebook here.