Beachy Books goes to The IOW Literary Festival

On Sunday 14th October Beachy Books attended the first ever Isle of Wight Literary Festival at Cowes in aid of raising funds for Northwood House.

It was also the first time my wife, Eleanor Bell, and illustrator of Jack and Boo, came along with me to help with our reading of Jack and Boo’s Wild Wood. I think because of this I was a bit more anxious than usual as I felt I had to plan things more. I usually just rock-up and wing it. No, I jest, of course I do days of planning for these things, honest.

We hoped for an audience of 40-50 people, having seen the size of the room before the event and was told by the organisers that most of the previous days’ talks had been sold out. My wife and I arrived nice and early, saying hello to the local Waterstone’s manager setting up books in the entrance to Northwood House. I erected a projector screen and got our books displayed on it. We have interactive versions of our books, with real turning pages, that look very impressive when I present in schools, so I thought that would work well in the cavernous room we’d been allocated.

We were all set. It was nearly time to start. And yet, still, I looked out on a sea of empty chairs. I’m sure Louis de Berniere never had this problem at his event!

Eventually a trickle of parents and children walked in and before long I realised this was all we were going to get. I was surprised given the publicity surrounding the event in the local newspaper and my face advertised on endless loop on a promotional video played on the ferry. Also our event was FREE, once families had paid to get into the main festival event. It must be noted we were not paid for the event nor offered payment. We felt it was a great cause and opportunity to promote and sell our books. Perhaps the “literary” bit of a literary festival put some families off? Perhaps nobody had heard of me and didn’t fancy it – very likely? Perhaps the event was never going to attract many families and children? Was it the cost of main entry to the festival? Was 10:30am just too early on a Sunday morning? Was it the slightly moody photo of me in the programme? Who knows?

But it didn’t matter because the children who were there – mostly a pre-school and reception age audience – got a personal and close-up telling of Jack and Boo’s Wild Wood and hands-on experience touching woodland finds like acorns, leaves, galls and conkers as we read the book. There were also loads of colouring sheets and a chance for the few older children who had come to write their own woodland-inspired story. The younger members of the audience wanted me to repeat pages, read them again, and when they had opportunities to count things they came up to the screen and pointed to butterflies and ducks. One helpful little girl wanted to help me turn the pages by pressing buttons on my laptop. We said the event would be interactive and it was!

We also had time to do a full read-through of our Christmas book, Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day. I usually pause between pages and get the kids to interact, ask questions, but this time I read it all so the poetic prose flowed. I had to chuckle, as I noticed a mum in the second row staring – possibly tweeting how crap I was? – into her mobile phone throughout my reading. Apparently she’d come with her kids while her author husband was doing a reading upstairs in another room.

I later found out from Eleanor that I had inadvertently skipped a line or two from the text. I hadn’t even realised. Reading from a book on a projector screen to your side, while standing facing an audience is tricky and needs practice. Apart from that my wife said my reading was brilliant – well, she had too! – and I admitted I’d love us to be able to do future Beachy Book events together as the dynamic between us really worked. It’s also very handy when we came to signing and selling books as parents didn’t have to wait so long because we split the work between us. And some children got some very rare Beachy Books signed by BOTH author and illustrator. Worth at least a few pence more on eBay one day I wager.

Eleanor and I also got to talk to the really engaged group of parents who had come along. They gained a personal insight into how we create the books and what inspires us, which was really nice. We got some great feedback and sold some books too. I discovered one of the parents was a local school teacher who later asked me to visit her school to do some readings and activities. So, all in all, it was a successful day and gave us valuable experience of preparing for larger events.

I’d like to thank the organisers of The Isle of Wight Literary Festival for allowing Beachy Books to change a few hearts and minds. Bring on next year’s festival!