Wednesday, 23 September 2015

"A Twit's Story at Seven Stories"

Over the past two months we have been very lucky to have been host to a wonderful work placement student all of the way from Spain.  She has been working so hard on our book and archival collections that we don't want to let her leave (we might get in trouble if we lock her in the store - we would keep her supplied with cake and tea!). Here is her account of one of her (many) projects here: 

When I first wrote to Seven Stories about the possibility of having me for an Erasmus+ placement at the Collection and Exhibition department, I thought my chances were quite slim. After all, I was just a Spaniard finishing a Library and Information Science degree whose experience regarding archives was really quite minuscule. But I guess archive collection fairies do exist (they do! They do!), and perhaps my letter really showed an excess of excitement about the idea, so I did find myself at Seven Stories Collection Team office one grey morning in early August, having tea with the fairies. Hooray!

Ever since, I’ve been fiddling with a number of different collections, both comprised of books and original material, but the one collection that has taken up most of my time is David Wood’s. Now, Kris and Danielle, who are in charge of processing original archival material, both say they did not assign me this collection to give me a fright, and I choose to believe them, because they are otherwise really lovely people. But the fact is, it is quite an unusual one! It is huge, for starters, spanning from 1954 to 2013 and filling up 137 archival boxes, and though they are many plays represented in other collections, David Wood is the only playwright with a collection of his own. It also came in three different lots (or accessions), which were at different stages of processing. We needed to take some files out of your ordinary cardboard boxes into those nice minty-coloured, acid-free archival boxes, so that we could list their contents and restructure them in a way that was consistent with the tree structure created when cataloguing the first accession!

But, in all seriousness, I actually think I was really lucky to be assigned to David Wood, because I feel like I learnt an awful lot from it all, and the material is absolutely delightful to go through. The main feeling that I’ll take home with me is, I think, that cataloguing for an archive is a bit like reconstructing a story, and hopefully you will come out at the other end of the process being able to tell it to other people, both from beginning to end or just cherry-picking the juicy bits! Hopefully, that is what I’ll manage to do with this post!

David Wood is known as the ‘national children’s playwright’ and his commitment to providing children with challenging, entertaining, high-quality theatre is evident in everything he writes. He puts it brilliantly on his website:

“In all my plays there is a determination not to patronise children, rather to emotionally involve them in a strong and fast-moving storyline. They offer opportunities for imaginative set, costume and lighting design, for special effects and, sometimes, puppetry.  They all have “lots of suddenlies…” A Canadian children’s book publisher, with whom I was once interviewed on television, when trying to explain what works for children, told how her own daughter, aged 8, put down a book, saying how much she had enjoyed it. “Why?” asked her mother, mainly out of professional interest. “Lots of suddenlies” came her daughter’s reply. It’s been my motto ever since.”

The Seven Stories collection holds exactly 65 plays, 21 books, and 13 film, TV and radio adaptations. As you can imagine, he had to start at an early age to get so much done! Indeed, the archive includes a notebook with his very first play, written at the age of 10 for a fundraising event. The effort granted him an award from the Enid Blyton’s busy bee club!

Notebook with David Wood's first play, programme, a review in the local newspaper, and the Busy Bees award
 Kudos from the Queen Bee

David Wood’s name is invariably paired with Roald Dahl’s, as the former adapted many of the latter’s novels into plays, such as the BFG, or Danny, Champion of the World, or The Witches, or James and the Giant Peach, or Fantastic Mr Fox, or The Twits! Even a version of Matilda that did not see the light in the end, but is most welcome to stay here at Seven Stories among her Dahlesque peeps. (We’re sure she’d love it here at the archive!) He’s also famously adapted novels from other big names in children’s literature such a Philippa Pearce (Tom’s Midnight Garden), Judith Kerr (The Tiger Who Came to Tea), Michael Foreman (Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish), or Philip Pullman (Clockwork). Additionally, he has written his fair share of plays based on well-known folklore and fairy tales, though they are all rather peculiar versions. Marian and the Witches’ Charm may be based on Robin Hood but he is not in it and the cast is all female! Also, his Goldilocks is titled ‘The Porridge Pincher’. Isn’t it easy to see why David Wood and Roald Dahl’s books are such a fine match?

Still, he is probably best-known for his original musical play ‘The Gingerbread Man’, about a heroic anthropomorphic biscuit who lives in a kitchen cupboard. This play is actually very representative of David’s production, in that his works often exist in various forms and target different audiences over the years. He first wrote it in 1977 but since then it has had twelve West End seasons and toured widely, both in the UK and abroad. The production put up by David Wood’s own theatre company, Whirligig Theatre, even got broadcast by Channel 4! It also got adapted into two storybooks, an audio play, and a model animated TV series. It is a really good thing that David Wood has written us lovely introductory notes explaining the context for each play in the Seven Stories collection, since they have been incredibly useful for organising the documents and often managed to be extremely witty and informative at the same time. We are using them as archive material of their own! 

 The Gingerbread Man in many shapes! A play manuscript and programme, a published copy and a TV episode list

Since his work was adapted for many foreign tours, the collection documents different cultural sensibilities about plays for children, both in the letters to overseas producers and through the notes that he sometimes typed up after attending a particularly thought-provoking production (including some baffled lines about witches getting banned from children’s plays). He is clearly someone interested in analysing different cultural perspectives, for instance when he adapted the Japanese opera Kureomon, he ended up writing a file of notes about how the British audience would receive it. 

Figure 4 - Programmes for different productions of the BFG, original Japanese programme of Kureomon, and David Wood's file of 'Thoughts on the adaptation of Kureomon for British audiences

'But David Wood’s works often underwent formal changes, as well. This is another aspect that makes this collection particularly valuable, because not only does it document David Wood’s original creative process, but also the rewriting of content for different media. Besides book proofs, drafts and scores, the collection includes scripts for a myriad of purposes: play rehearsal, introducing music cues, TV and LP recording sessions and whatnot.  Some media demand their own documents, and it is fascinating to compare David Wood’s proof text for a play programme with a treatment outlining the episodes for a TV show. Being a producer himself, he meticulously kept and filed legal and technical documents about the process of putting up a play, making the collection a gold mine for researching art production, copyright law, stage design, and other fields that some researcher will think of, I’m sure!

David Wood acting on the set of 'Seeing and Doing Computers', a TV series he was commissioned to write by Thames Television to introduce primary school children to the use of computers.
 Annotated treatment for the TV series 'Seeing and Doing Computers'

Also, David Wood is definitely a note-taking, letter-sending writer. The many files of correspondence in his collection show that he exchanged messages with key figures in the British cultural scene, both on the editorial and theatrical front, as well as the occasional TV producer. We are particularly lucky in having the correspondence between David Wood and Kathleen Hale, author of the popular series about Orlando, the Marmalade Cat (which David almost adapted for the telly!), as it shows the close friendship consolidating through witty letters between the two authors.

Re-packaging and re-labeling some of David Wood's correspondence

As for the notes, they range from a quick idea scribbled on a paper bag to a fully typed diary of the day he put a play for Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee! I confess the five(!) boxes about The Children’s Party at the Palace, an extravaganza featuring favourite children’s lit characters on a mission to get the Queen’s lost handbag back, might be my favourite materials in the collection. They are full of fantastically wonderful ideas that got discarded, and a hilarious account of how the production resulted, among other peculiar items.

Notes and programme for the play, plus a few personal items!
 All handbags are safer when escorted by a kidlit character guard

You see it’s no wonder I got so distracted that my time with the Seven Stories Collection Team will end before we complete the story. I mean, the cataloguing process. Luckily, if anything in this post piques your interest, Kris and Danielle and the other Collection fairies will be there to show you around the Wood.

- Paula Pintos. 

If you'd like to know more about the volunteering opportunities at the Seven Stories Collection let us know via 

If you'd like to find out more about the Seven Stories Collection, then 
email: or phone: 0191 495 2707 or comment on this blog.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Big Prop Shop

This week the wonderful Cathy, our Visitor Services Coordinator talks about the time she spent with us all at collections in preparation for our Rhyme around the World and Painting with Rainbows exhibitions:

My job at Seven Stories is Visitor Services Coordinator which means I spend most of my time working with the Front of House team at the Visitor Centre on Lime Street. But when we closed for refurbishment in May I had nowhere to go! So I was really excited to be asked to come and join the Collections Team whilst the builders took over Seven Stories.

Seven Stories is a museum and like any museum we collect things. These “things” are known as artefacts and the artefacts we collect and look after are original illustrations and manuscripts from British children’s books from the 1930’s to the present day. No wait, we collect more than that. We collect author’s first ideas, notes and squiggles and illustrator’s doodles and scrawls. And we collect books. We collect lots of books. But there’s no point in them hidden away in our archive, we want people to see them. So, that’s where our exhibitions come in. 

The Seven Stories Visitor’s centre has three exhibition spaces where we hang all the beautiful illustrations and display the author’s notes, scribbles and manuscripts for everyone to look at. But not only that, we also have lots of activities and props to bring the pictures and books to life. And that was my job. I had to source and buy all of the props for the Michael Foreman exhibition; Painting with Rainbows and the nursery rhyme exhibition; Rhyme Around the World. This was going to be a shopping experience of a life time.

I worked alongside Alison, our Exhibition Curator and Gill our Senior Curator. Alison gave me a list of things she wanted for the exhibitions plus a budget. The budget was very important.

One of the areas I had to work on was Michael Foreman’s childhood home, or more specifically the living room. Michael grew up during World War 2 in a house that was also the village shop so the space had to look like it was the 1940’s. I’m a bit of a vintage lover and like to dress up in clothes inspired by this period in history, so I was really excited to be given the task of recreating this space. I read his book War Boy, looked closely at all the illustrations and scrutinised the text so I could decide on what needed to be included. I also made an awful lot of notes. 

There were so many things that I wanted to get, but remember that thing called a budget? Well, that meant that I only had a certain amount of money to spend so I had to do my shopping wisely. I also had to think about all the visitors who explore our exhibitions, some of whom are very young, so everything had to be safe to use. My list of ideas was huge, but Alison and Gillian kept me in check and we decided on a Morrison Shelter with a tea set, blankets for the shelter, and an old fashioned radio. When you visit do crawl inside the shelter, you might find some other things in there too. And don’t forget to switch on the radio.

This is Cathy in her Morrison shelter recreated for our Michael Foreman exhibition

Another unusual item I had to find was a tortoise. Michael wrote a fantastic story called The Amazing Tale of Ali Pasha based on the true story of Henry Friston, a 21 year old seaman who fought in the battle of Gallipoli and befriended a tortoise, Ali Pasha. Henry managed to smuggle the tortoise on board his ship and kept him hidden during the journey home. Michael knew Henry’s son who kindly loaned Seven Stories his father’s ditty box and Ali Pasha’s shell!  You can find out all about him in the exhibition.

For the Rhyme Around the World exhibition the biggest items I had to find were a pair of thrones fit for rhyming royalty. It took a long time on Ebay before I found the beautiful pair in regal gold that you’ll find in our exhibition, complete with a snoozing cat.

One of my favourite illustrations on display in Rhyme Around the World, and that I took inspiration from, is by artist Rebecca Cobb. It’s in the area all about food. Take a good look at it. You’ll find all the items that the children are playing with in the illustration, right there in our exhibition, for all our young visitors to play with too! The prop hardest to find was a spotty tea set, but I was determined to include it.

Other props I had to find were dinosaurs, cats and kittens, scruffy dogs, miles of ribbon, astronauts suits, sea creatures, buckets and spades, an arbour, crocheted blankets, a potty, crowns and tiaras, artists smocks, flickering  light bulbs, fluffy bean bags, pretend hay bales and lots and lots of flowers.

Over the following days all these things arrived in the post and we could hardly move for boxes and parcels. Every morning I’d have more things to unwrap; it was like all my birthdays and Christmas’s had come at once.

Then Gillian, Alison and the rest of the collections team had the really hard work of turning a whole year of planning and designing into actual exhibitions in just three weeks, ready for the re-opening of Seven Stories.

Now that I’m back working in the visitor centre, I’ve had so much fun watching all our visitors dress up and play with all the props and activities and become totally immersed in the world of children’s books. 

- Cathy, 
Seven Stories' Visitor Services Coordinator

If you'd like to find out more about the Seven Stories Collection, then 
email: or phone: 0191 495 2707 or comment on this blog.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

All About: Dragons

This month's subject of our animals post is one our favourites - the dragon! We here at Seven Stories don't doubt the existence of the dragon, they are definitely a cornerstone of animals in children's books! There is also a Seven Stories touring exhibition all about dragons and Vikings currently making its way around the UK, having already visited Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Ulster Museum in Belfast, it will be showing in Kilmarnock, Norwich and Carlisle over the next year. To find out more about A Vikings Guide to Deadly Dragons with Cressida Cowell, click here.

Draft typescript for Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons (Pierrot Publishing, 1979)
Our first showcase item this month is the collected correspondence, research and draft typescript from Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons. This is a true gem of a book, where Dickinson deadpan's his belief in dragons, and calmly lays out the scientific basis for why dragons could have existed. The above image is a late draft of the main text of the book, where he lays his claim and sets out his thesis.

'I am not going to prove that ninety-foot lizards once floated in the skies of earth and scorched whole villages with plumes of flame, because I don't think it can be proved... But I can put together a coherent theory which is at least as probable as the theory that dragons are completely legendary.'
Extract from above image, Peter Dickinson, c. 1979

Dickinson carried out huge amounts of research for the book, some of which is evidenced within the archive. He hunted out many mythical stories, from around Britain and the rest of the world. Included was also a map of dragon myths from around the UK, including one very near Seven Stories Collection home, the Lambton Worm (less than 10 miles away!). The book covers many points in an attempt to persuade the reader of the existence of dragons, as is shown below.

'How they breathed fire, why they dieted on princesses but were able to go for such long periods between meals, what they actually used all that gold for, why Chinese dragons look different, why there are no fossils found so far, and so on.'
Extract from the first letter sent to Pierrot Publishing, outlining his idea for a new book on dragons, Peter Dickinson, 16th March 1978

The Dickinson Collection is extensive, constituting a complete record of Dickinson's work as a children's writer spanning from the 1960s until 2006, and provides information on all aspects of writing, editing and publishing books for children during the period covered. As the majority of Dickinson's children's titles were published in both America and Britain, the collection provides a great deal of information on the publication of children's books in both countries and illustrates some of the differences in attitude and approach between British and American editors and publishers. The collection also documents the relationship between the author, illustrator and publisher/editor in the production of illustrated titles, and the complications which can arise in such collaborations. 

Felt model of 'R. Dragon' from Rosemary Manning's Dragon series, c. 1980
The vast majority of the Seven Stories Collection contains 2D works, a huge amount of archive and artwork material, and so it is a treat for us to find any 3D objects lurking amongst the stacks in the store. This is a particularly beautiful handmade example of the limited number of objects in our collection. Although sadly we don't know who made this dragon, we do have a photo of Rosemary Manning holding a very similar model, and it was donated to the collection alongside rest of Manning's estate in 2007. Lis Whitelaw, the executor of the estate, said the model was created to celebrate the publishing of the final book in the series, Dragon in the Harbour, in 1980.

R. Dragon is the star of the Dragon series, the first three of which were published in the late 1950s and early 60s, and the final book, after a reasonably long hiatus, in 1980. It follows a young girl, Susan, who is on holiday at the beach when she discovers a dragon in a cave. She befriends him and he tells her many stories of his past adventures, and they occasionally go out together too. He is not the kind of dragon that goes around eating knights, or at least not any more (having lost his teeth...), and is one of the most well mannered dragons you are likely to meet after learning his manners at the court of King Arthur. He isn't a huge fan of all the tourists, but that can be counteracted by bringing him something to eat - which is why in the model above he is shown holding an almond bun!

The Manning Collection, other than model dragons, contains a collection of drafts, correspondence, and a small amount of original artwork and other associated material relating to some of her books for children. We also hold first editions of all of Manning's books for children, along with some American and foreign language editions, and inscribed first editions of several books by Catherine Storr, who was a close friend of Rosemary Manning.  

The Dragon by Archibald Marshall, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone (Hamish Hamilton, 1966)
Finally, this month’s featured book from our collection is The Dragon published in 1966. The story was first published 36 years earlier in Punch magazine, and then appeared in Archibald Marshall’s Simple stories from Punch in 1930, illustrated by George Morrow.

The quotation from the jacket flap tells us this story for children is a rather unusual version of the 'traditional tale of the beautiful princess, the dreadful dragon and the princes who came to kill it, told with several hilarious differences and the drawings of Edward Ardizzone at his wittiest.' Although Seven Stories does not hold any of the original artwork for The Dragon, fans of Edward Ardizzone might like to know that we do have artwork for two of his titles Tim in Danger, Tim and Charlotte and for Graham Greene's, The Little Train.

This copy of the The Dragon is taken from the Elaine Moss Book Collection. A personal collection - from the 1977 winner of the Eleanor Farjeon award - it consists of 773 children’s novels, picture books and books about children’s literature. Donated to Seven Stories by Moss in 2003, most were published between the 1950s and the end of 1990s, and is particularly strong in titles published in the 1970s and 1980s.

'Elaine Moss is a British critic and librarian whose work as a commentator and reviewer brought serious attention to children’s books. Moss trained as a librarian and worked as a teacher and in publishing before becoming a freelance journalist and broadcaster. As selector of the annual Children’s Books of the Year exhibition and author of the accompanying catalogue from 1970 to 1979, she played an important role in recognising the trends and talents that developed in that period. She championed the promotion of picture books to older readers, overturning the traditional restriction of picture books to children who cannot yet read.'
Julia Eccleshare in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature 
(OUP, 2006)

To find out more about the Thimble Press, with whom Moss worked regularly, click here.

If you'd like to find out more about the Seven Stories Collection, then 
email: or phone: 0191 495 2707 or comment on this blog.