Julia Miller is the Chair of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, a flourishing self-funded voluntary organisation which aims to nurture and promote a love of reading children’s books. We asked Julia about her role as figurehead of the organisation and to outline some of the noteworthy events in its calendar.
The Federation of Children’s Book Groups (FCBG) was set up in the 1960s. Could you please give us a brief overview of the FCBG and its objectives?
The Federation was the brainchild of Anne Wood, known to many of us now for her Ragdoll and Teletubbies television work, but in the mid 1960s, as a former secondary school teacher, Anne was keen to provide parents with information about children’s books and to focus attention on reading, particularly in areas where bookshops and libraries were hard to come by. Initially the groups evolved from her periodical ‘Books for Your Children’, but soon they took on a life of their own and the national ‘Federation’ came officially into being in 1968. Anne is passionate about bringing stories into every house, through the shared pleasure of reading and reading aloud. The Federation exists to bring children and books together – all children, regardless of background. Its most important feature is its inclusivity. From its very beginnings, it has embraced everyone: from parents to teachers, to librarians, to booksellers and now to bloggers. Indeed, in some ways it is now returning to its roots as a ground level organisation, driven by the needs of children and the desire of parents and carers to share and promote the joys of books, of stories and of reading in all its forms. I am sure that Anne will delighted to see how people share so much of their own experiences and pleasures via their blogs. I am also sure that the rationale for the Federation’s birth in 1968 can still be echoed 45 years later: ‘there is an almost audible cry for help from parents up and down the country – and also a cry of rage against poor library and bookshop provisions for children’. How much has changed, and yet, how much is still the same.
On a more personal level, how did you become involved with the Federation and what does your role as Chair involve?
I became involved when my own children were young and they wanted a book group like Mummy had…a friend had heard of the Harrogate Children’s Book Group, we held an initial meeting with David and Jenny Blanch and some of our school gate mums and before we knew where we were, we were having tea with Jeremy Strong and Rick Riordan in our own homes! I felt strongly committed to the Federation’s vision and offered to help at national level, firstly with the newsletter and then as Vice Chair and interim co-ordinator of the Red House Children’s Book Award. As Chair, my role is very much that of facilitating the work of the rest of the national Executive, supporting local groups and representing and promoting the Federation at every opportunity.
How many FCBG local groups are there at the moment and what does their work involve?
There are currently 28 groups though we have new groups starting every year. The most important part of being in a children’s book group is to have fun! A group can do as little or as much as it wants. Some groups are primarily testing groups for the Red House Children’s Book Award, others are run by parents who hold parties, activity and craft workshops, all based around children’s books or some of our own themed events during the year, others bring in children’s authors and illustrators to local schools and for their families, others hold adult events such as dinners with authors or publishers to discuss children’s books. Every group is different and everything they do is driven by their own membership and expertise. The most important thing is that children gain from the experiences.
The Federation runs a varied programme of events throughout the year. Could you tell us a little more about these events?
The first event of the calendar is the national Award Ceremony for the Red House Children’s Book Award. Details of this award are on our web site www.fcbg.org.uk but the most important element of the award is that it is the only national ward voted for solely by children. Although the shortlist of 10 is selected by the children of the Federation voting in the shortlist is open to every child. We hold the ceremony as part of the Imagine Festival at the Southbank Centre in London in February with a VIP lunch for our children and an hour-long extravaganza in the Queen Elizabeth Hall for everyone.
We then have a national conference around Easter time, giving groups and members the opportunity to meet each other, share experiences and thoughts and also catch up with new books, up-and-coming authors and long-standing and respected authors and illustrators. The conference is open for anyone to attend and is great value for money.
In May we celebrate the story with our National Share-A-Story Month. Each year we decide on a theme and then provide resources for our groups to use, although they don’t have to follow the theme if they don’t want to! The most important thing is the enjoy the power of the narrative. We often have a national launch at one of our book groups but you don’t have to be a member to participate.
Non-fiction is often over-looked, but it has its own story and narrative, often very powerful, and for many children young and old) ‘factual’ books may be their preferred reading matter. The Federation therefore instigated National Non-Fiction Day on the first Thursday of November to celebrate the world of non-fiction. Each year we hold competitions, provide downloadable resources and invite non-fiction authors and illustrators to join us in promoting this under-valued reading resource.
What are your own personal highlights of the numerous events in the FCBG’s calendar?
Each one has its own highlights for me but I have to confess that the first Red House Children’s Book Award ceremony at the Queen Elizabeth Hall brought a tear to my eye. It was the first time we had been involved in such a major event in the time that I had been a member and to see the hall full with 850 adults and children with our logo on the screen and to hear Past Winner, Michael Morpurgo and new Winner, Patrick Ness speak so eloquently will go down as one of the best moments -particularly as I did a lot of the organising for it and to see it succeed so magnificently was a personal highlight.
What are your aims for the organisation while you’re at the helm?
In the last few years we have had a number of successes – the Award ceremony, the launch of National Non-Fiction Day, winning the prestigious Eleanor Farjeon Award, to be celebrated by our wonderful Children’s Festival on 9th November in Birmingham – I think my main aim is to build on all these recent successes and to promote the Federation as being as relevant today as when we first started in 1968. The most important part of the Federation is its group membership and groups need to be encouraged and supported. So, for me, my objective is to maintain the passion and commitment throughout the Federation that has led to all the successes and initiatives over the years.
This probably isn’t the first time you’ve been asked this question, but what was your favourite book as a child?
Although we were, and still are, a book-loving family, we didn’t have many books as they were so expensive to buy, so I tended to re-read the same books. I don’t have a favourite book, I read, and still do read, anything. I have little sense of discrimination! But I suppose, from all of them and bearing in mind my age, I enjoyed most the Famous Five and Malory Towers books of Enid Blyton just for her sheer ability to tell a story, the Greek myths and legends of Robert Graves that I would reenact and The Silver Sword of Ian Serraillier, about the effect of the war on children in Europe and their struggle to find a home and a family.
Following on from that, is there a contemporary children’s book which you would love to recommend to young readers?
Again, so many to choose from!! I have decided to recommend some based on the reading categories of the Red House Children’s Book Award. In the Picture books, I loved Sam Usher’s ‘Can you see Sassoon’ which was shortlisted for our award this year. The colour and attention to detail in each of those pictures was just a joy and I so wished my children were still young enough to have been able to read that book. In the Younger Readers category, anything by Gill Lewis – Skyhawk was just incredible. And in the Older Readers category we are currently spoiled for choice at the moment with so many gifted writers. I would urge everyone above the age of 12 to read Meg Rosoff’s new book Picture Me Gone. which I think is her best yet…and having met Michelle Paver at our Conference, I have to say how much I enjoyed her new book in her Gods and Warriors series, The Burning Shadows, which is a wonderful evocation of a long-gone world.
What do you think has been the biggest success of the FCBG to date?
It has to be the Children’s Book Award. Launched by Pat Thomson in 1981, it remains the only national award voted for entirely by children. It is renowned for picking the up-and-coming. It was the first award won by J.K. Rowling, it was the first major award won by Roald Dahl, it was the first award won in the UK by Rick Riordan…we can rely on our children to select the best books of the year and classics ,that the children of the future will also turn to time and again. The award is now sponsored by Red House, who have provided us with much needed financial support and security, but without the continual hard work of our Testing Groups and the volunteers who organise the book testing throughout the year the award could not exist in its current format. We owe them a real debt of gratitude.