Nicolette Jones is the children’s book editor of The Sunday Times and ‘Young people’s programme director’ of The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. Here at Book Events for Children, we are delighted that Nicolette took the time to answer our questions about what’s involved in pulling together such a high-profile festival.
‘Young people’s programme director’ of The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival sounds like an amazing role. Could you tell us a little about the responsibilities and involvement this entails?
Programming involves inviting the most interesting authors you can think of to offer the most entertaining events possible, and hoping they will accept. The biggest responsibility is to ensure that both the authors/illustrators/storytellers and the audiences have a really good time, with attention to every detail.
A festival of this size and stature clearly involves a lot of effort and organisation. Does the planning start as soon as the previous year’s event finishes? What are the stages of that planning process?
Some larger literary festivals do start to plan as soon as last year’s is over. Oxford is run, though, by people who also have other jobs, so the main work is only for about six months of the year. Although in fact some big names are lined up more than a year ahead. After having ideas, there are lots of practical steps, from booking venues to invitations to juggling times and locations, and discussing formats and finding chairs and introducers as well as organising booking forms, blurbs, book-ordering , pricing and ticket sales, publicity, designing and printing the programme, sorting technical and other requirements, organising volunteers, hospitality, catering and accommodation … fortunately not all are entirely my responsibility (except to check that all are in place).
Given the enormous variety of entertainment available to children, how does a literary festival continue to be relevant?
I think the joy of meeting writers in person and hearing them talk about their books, or seeing skilled illustrators draw live, and the opportunity to engage with them by asking questions or having a book signed, never diminishes, whatever other entertainment is available. The best performers (and we only have those) add something special to the rich experience of reading their work. It still excites me to meet them, at any rate.
The manner in which children relate to books is rapidly evolving, with the rise of e-books and apps. Does the increasing popularity of digital media have any influence on the curating of the festival?
There are events this year in which digital media will certainly be discussed. I think whatever form a book is read in, though, the Festival is about live human interaction, so in that sense it is the opposite of the digital/app experience.
What would you regard as the highlights of past festivals?
So many highlights. Sometimes the most memorable moments have been in smaller events. But Michael Morpurgo speaking in the Sheldonian last year was spellbinding as always. The year before it was very exciting to have four children’s laureates all together: Anne Fine, Anthony Browne, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. Last year too I was thrilled to have nine illustrators who drew live in the Festival tent. People who have made me laugh most over the past three years (for which I have been Director) include Jeremy Strong, Andy Stanton, Louise Rennison and Eoin Colfer (who is back again this year). But there have been special moments in all sorts of events: Harriet Godwin, writer and professional singer, singing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ unaccompanied in Hogwarts Hall during a Blue Peter Book Award event, for instance, or former actor Michelle Magorian reading part of her Goodnight Mister Tom, with all the voices, or Katherine Rundell telling us how she ties herself to her chair in order to make herself write; and we have had so many consummate performers: Caroline Lawrence, Cressida Cowell, Michael Rosen, Charlie Higson, Kristina Stephenson, Anthony Horowitz, Philip Pullmam … (the last four back again this year.)
I am looking forward to everything (I only programme things I would like to see), but Anthony is miraculous to interview – even if you throw him mundane questions, he makes a firework display out of the answers. As does Philip Pullman. Cornelia is a joy too (and this is a rare UK appearance, because she lives in LA) – she is charming and funny and eloquent, and I hope she will be wearing a fantastic dress in keeping with her magical books. We have a particularly rare and special event with Shirley Hughes and all three of her (now grown-up) children talking about life in their family – the interaction between them is just a delight to watch. Julia Donaldson, accompanied by her husband Malcolm on the guitar, is always enormous fun, and how could you miss Roger McGough? I am also interviewing the authors of two of my favourite young adult books of the year: Sally Gardner (Maggot Moon) and Annabel Pitcher (Ketchup Clouds). I think that will be like inviting your most entertaining friends round and having a great natter.
How would you describe this year’s festival in three words?
Something for everyone.
Each year goes from strength to strength in terms of enhancing the experience; every year we learn from the last. Ticket sales are also up every year (and already again this year); I would like to see every event a sell-out, with an increasing presence through the town and the university, so no-one is unaware of what is happening for those ten days.
What would be the line-up of your ultimate children’s literary festival? Past or present authors allowed!
Everyone I have ever invited earned their place to come again. But I have been working for some years on certain events that haven’t happened yet. I am hoping next year, for instance, we will have Neil Gaiman, Raymond Briggs, Terry Pratchett, Tony Robinson, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), Robert Muchamore, David Almond, John Barrowman (who has written teen books with his sister), Lauren St John with Virginia McKenna and actor Ruth Wilson, and some of the cast and screenwriters of Doctor Who. Also Tim Minchin and Michael Rosen on Roald Dahl, a pro- and con- debate about Tolkien, a Vintage Classics event with Jacqueline Wilson on Five Children and It, Michael Rosen on Emil and the Detectives, Andrew Motion on Treasure Island, and Anthony Horowitz on The Silver Sword. Also Helena Bonham Carter and Blyton’s granddaughter Imogen Smallwood discussing Blyton, Stephenie Meyer and the cast of Twilight, and Suzanne Collins. (All of these have already been pursued.) But am open to suggestions of favourites people would like to see. And of course part of the fun is to introduce some of the best new writers and illustrators (hence, for instance, Sally Gardner and Annabel Pitcher this year; Ros Asquith; Polly Dunbar with Tilly & Friends).
What do you see as the emerging trends in children’s fiction? For example, in recent years we’ve seen trends such as vampire fiction for young adults and the first-person diary style for younger readers, such as The Wimpy Kid series.
Sales of paranormal romance (not just vampires but werewolves, angels, zombies) are finally beginning a downturn. The Wimpy Kid has spawned lots of imitators, of which my favourite is Stephan Pastis’s Timmy Failure, out this spring. But I think we are seeing a rise in more traditional stories: adventurous, historical, domestic tales for 8-12s. The good news is that great new writers are being published, along with fabulously skilled new talents in picturebooks, even as computer-generated images are rife (which I think are dead on the page). I am constantly uplifted by the number of extraordinary books reaching me for review (I am also the children’s books editor of The Sunday Times). Libraries and bookshops (and festivals) are still places to revel in.