Hanley Swan Primary School, 23rd June 2023
Sometimes, when I'm sat in front of a class of wide-eyed children, waiting expectantly for what I'm about to say, I wonder how on earth I got here. When I was their age, my shyness meant that I could barely hold my hand up to answer a question, I had sleepless nights about school presentations as I got older, and even group critiques and seminars terrified me at University. Yet here I was, full of genuine excitement and adrenaline about what I was about to say to a group of little strangers.
I have analysed the reasons behind this new found confidence a lot, and while I still can't fully explain it, all I can do is go on my gut instinct - this feels right to me. This feels like I was meant to do this. I might not be the best speaker - I do have a tendency to lose track of my thoughts (especially when a child asks me a really great question) - but the more school visits I do, the more confident I become at working out how to talk to different age groups about what I do. I never want it to be boring for the kids, so I launch straight into reading a book or two, talk briefly about how it all began, then I let the children lead the conversation by inviting them to ask as many questions as they like. Finally, if there's time, I love seeing their own illustrations - watching them design their own "greatest cakes" is a real joy.
From the moment that I received the first email from Sally (class 2 teacher), I had a good feeling about this visit. Her enthusiasm for my visit meant that I was equally looking forward to it. I was welcomed into the lovely little school by every member of staff, who made me feel part of the team straight away. The school itself is situated in one of the most beautiful locations I have ever been to, (the Malvern Hills casually providing the back drop) which just added to the overall experience. A local librarian started the day with an assembly to encourage their Summer Reading Challenge, then it was on to my first real meeting with the students - Reception. A gorgeous little class full of questions and creativity, they listened so well to "The Greatest Cake" and "Bonnie's Ball". They all knew what authors and illustrators were, and asked some really interesting questions. I loved watching their drawings of cakes come to life, as they were allowed to draw on clipboards on the carpet. What I really love about Reception is the way that conversations go off at a tangent, and before you know it, you're in a deep discussion about Seb's snake drawing or you're being shown their latest science project (caterpillar's transforming into butterflies). The fascination of learning at this age is glorious to watch. Thank you to Paul for letting me share snack time with your class too!
I suppose I always want the purpose of my visit to inspire every child to do the thing they really love. Not every child is going to want to become an author or illustrator, but I just want to encourage them to aspire to work towards the thing that they are passionate about. I'm not sure how to tell them that they already know what their career choice should be. I truly believe that they already know. Life has a way of pushing and pulling you in all kinds of directions, and it's hard to talk to Class 4, for example, about pursuing something purely for the love rather than "getting a well paid job". It always feels like a bit of a shock to the system suddenly talking to a class of 10 year olds, who seem much, much older! What an intelligent bunch they are. So many questions that really made me think. At that age, they are always interested in how many books I've sold and how much money I have made! Luckily, due to the fact that I'm a terrible business woman, I can never give them a definitive figure, and all I can tell them is that I'm surviving! Probably not the most inspirational thing to hear at that age, but it's the reality. I read an interesting article recently about the importance of author/illustrator visits at every stage of their journey - whether they are just starting out, or they are well known and successful - it's important to show children the process and the journey. I suppose it's easy for children to think that the "overnight success" story is the thing to aim for in this digital age, but it's so vital that we keep showing them that nothing in reality is an overnight success, and more importantly, if you work hard for something, the rewards are even greater (not necessarily financially).
I had some great fun doing some live drawings for class 2 and class 3, even if my dinosaur and sloth drawings maybe highlighted that I do have to WORK at my illustration craft! I've never done a draw-a-long before, but I definitely think this is something I would like to do more of. I must say that every single child's drawing was a thousand times better than mine. I stand by my belief that actually every single person CAN draw, the people that say they can't mean they can't draw something that looks like a photo representation of that thing. Well what a boring thing to aspire to - there is much more personality and character in your drawing of a sloth than any photo. Your drawings are like your handwriting - unique to you, and therefore should be celebrated.
One question from a child that has stayed with me is: "Are you proud of yourself?" Fighting back the wave of unexpected emotion, the answer was of course, yes. This life that I've chosen is a real privilege, starting with the fact that I was able to choose it. It really is only possible from the support of family and friends, because my goodness, it is constantly hard work. But the hard work never stops feeling enjoyable. It's a lifestyle, it's not just a job. It took my a long time to identify that I would never be truly happy in any other career, so all my time and efforts just had to go into the one thing that I have always loved doing - drawing. Not just drawing: storytelling through drawing. It was only in my early twenties during a college course, that I was made aware that people actually made careers out of illustrating children's picture books. It genuinely blew my mind when a college tutor invited a working children's book illustrator to come and talk to me about page layouts and design. This college course came at a time when I had already attempted a University course in Media Studies (yes, you guessed it, not the course for me!) so I had already made a few wrong decisions about what I thought I should be doing. I can't help thinking what if an author or illustrator had visited my school in those early years when I was already in love with drawing stories?
An enormous thank you to Hanley Swan Primary School for one of the best school visits I've ever had. The positive and supportive culture of the school shone throughout the day and will stay with me for a long time. Quite frankly, I didn't want to leave. Thank you to Sally for this gorgeous display of the children's cake drawings too: