Saturday 4 July 2015

Meet the people behind: The Bath Children's Literature Festival

On Monday July 6th general booking opens for this years Children's Bath Literature Festival. 
It's the UK's largest designated children's festival,  with masses of events, just for kids. 
Gill and John McLay are the (very hands on) artistic directors, they began it in 2007, and they are back programming it again this year.
I have been a steward at the festival since 2008 and seen masses of brilliant illustrators and authors as a result.  My kids have grown up alongside it, they've stewarded at lots of events, and rather take it for granted.  So, I think, do lots of people who live in Bath.  So I stepped away from being a steward, and a Bathonian, and asked the artistic directors a few questions about their part in it all - just to get a little perspective on this wondrous annual happening:  

What on earth made you start it?

JOHN – Ha! We’d moved to Bath and there was a thriving LitFest – but it had very few children’s events. Hay, Cheltenham, Edinburgh all seemed to have great children’s events running alongside their adult programmes, but Bath didn’t seemed interested. We tried a couple of times to get involved and offer our help, but it came to nothing. So we decided to set up our own! 10 days. Fully-formed. The best names we could. National sponsors. It was a lot of work.

Who were your first headliners and was that first festival fun? Terrifying? Exhausting?

JOHN – We used up a lot of favours that first year. We had Jacqueline Wilson, Julia Donaldson, Neil Gaiman, Francesca Simon, Eoin Colfer, Darren Shan, Lauren Child, Allan Ahlberg, Harry Hill, Anthony Horowitz, Felicity Dahl. It was awesome. It was definitely exhausting. It consumed everything for about 12 months but we had a lot of help. The organising committee and volunteers were just as dedicated and tireless as we were.

Then, six years in,  you took time out – why was that? 

JOHN - We thought we wanted to do something else – after six successful years. And we did – Gill started her Literary Agency and I began writing. But we soon realised we missed it and that we had the capacity to do it still, despite some organisational frustrations, which – thankfully – are now a thing of the past.
We also came back after working with the Bath Festivals new team and realising that we could really work with then and ensure that festival celebrates 10 years when it is truly at the top of it’s game. We still feel very strongly that when people say "children’s festival" it’s Bath that we want them to think of.

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Now you are back as hands on artistic directors, stewards, tea boys and sandwich buyers, who are you most excited about having this year?

JOHN – We really think this is the best line-up we’ve ever put together. The brochure looks brilliant and it’s going to be a busy 10 days. I think I’m most excited about the illustrators we are featuring this year – top emerging talent such as Rob Biddulph, Benji Davies, Rachel Bright, Chris Haughton, Chloe Inkpen and Steve Antony. Also the legends that are Judith Kerr, David Roberts, Mick Inkpen, Nick Butterworth, Michael Foreman and Helen Oxenbury.
GILL – We were very aware this year that we wanted to  make it clear we were back and with that show the industry that we want to endorse and help raise the profile of new authors. With this in mind we have put together Bath Picks. These events are chaired by either John or myself and they are books that we personally champion. We want people to try them and feel really confident that they’ll agree with us. This year we have Sarah Crossan and Shane Hegarty to mention just a couple. We also have a lot of Middle Grade authors this year with Helen Skelton’s Amy Wild, Fleur Hitchcock (aw - thanks), David Baddiel and Liz Kessler and loads more. . .
Our greatest excitement is having everyone back generally though – we love the atmosphere of the festival and we can’t wait to share it again.

Correct me if I’m wrong,  but I believe around 10,000 children’s books are published each year? How do you choose who to have, and how much notice do you have to give to book the big names?

JOHN – The Megastar authors are often booked a year in advance. We start planning the next festival the moment the current one is confirmed, designed and at the printers. The bulk of our meetings with publishers – the pitch meetings – take from the November beforehand. We try to have a mix of big names, fresh talent, popular regulars and local authors. We love character costume events and a bit of celebrity sparkle as well.

What are the biggest headaches?

JOHN – Probably all to do with not selling enough tickets to events that we know are going to be brilliant. There are a lot of events to choose from – nearly 120. We have some big audiences, sure, but we want every room full and we take it personally when tickets for one of our favourite events doesn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

Where do you see the festival in 5 years time?

JOHN – Still going strong, possibly slightly bigger, and hopefully attracting not only big and growing audiences but also the biggest and best names in the children’s book publishing world. So many new books are published each year that there is always something new and interesting to showcase.
GILL – We have new initiatives up our sleeve too so I hope that in 5 years time we’ll have some of these in place too! Watch this space

Twix or crunchy?
JOHN – Twix.

GILL - Crunchy

The festival runs from  Friday 25 September to Sunday 4 October. To view the programme for this year: click here

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