Frank Cottrell Boyce

Have you ever met someone and been instantly blown away by them?  That happened to me yesterday. I was at a one day conference given by CWIG (Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group).  In the audience were 90 CWIG members, a mixture of writers, poets and illustrators.  Librarians and readers would have died and gone to heaven if they’d walked in off the street and seen who was in there.

In the morning I’d given a talk with Tony Bradman and listened to Anne Cassidy, Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore give their turn. We were all excellent, for sure. Then came Frank.

Image © Guardian newspaper

He walked on the stage looking slightly bemused as if he couldn’t quite figure out why he was there.  Then he looked at us, seemed to think, ah yeh, smiled and a hundred hearts melted (even Steve Barlow’s). We’d been to enough conferences and listened to enough keynote speakers to know when someone special was in the room. We knew, already, that he was the man.

What is it that makes one person stand out above the other?  We were all talented people in that place. Between us we’d been on more shortlists than I’ve had hot dinners but as soon as Frank spoke there was no doubt why he had been invited to round off the day, to be the star turn.

What he did was simple. He reminded us why we wrote and illustrated for children. He reminded us that while technology may have changed, kids haven’t. They still need to hear stories; they still need to be read to. Only then do they become fully rounded, fully human. Only when they have had the thrill and pleasure of listening – really listening – to a story well read do they have the tools to  meet life and all it chucks at them.

Frank told us stories, in his soft Liverpool accent to illustrate.  He told us about meeting a bunch of hard teenage lads in Glasgow; lads so big they ‘needed their own postcode’. He’d finished reading them an extract from his book, Cosmic, then had stopped for questions.

  A hand went up. ‘Read some more,’ one of the big lads told him.

‘Well, you can get the book out of the library later and read for yourself…’ he suggested.

A second hand went up. ‘Read some more.’

Frank gave the same answer. A third hand went up. A hand so enormous it ‘could change the weather.’ ‘Will you just read wee man,’ he was ordered, leaving him in no doubt where his teeth would be if he didn’t.

And so Frank read.

Of all his anecdotes that one resonated with me most. I remembered my early teaching days back in the 1970s. I remembered being so unsure of myself, not knowing if I had the bottle or the ability to take on this huge task of educating 35 kids, 6 times a day, day in day out. And I remembered how all that anxiety melted away when I read to them. When I read, they listened. When I read, the classroom was filled with calm. I didn’t know it at the time but a kind of magic was taking place.

Reading to children was why I loved teaching.

Reading to children was why I became a writer.

And now that I’ve remembered that, I won’t ever forget.

Frank Cottrell Boyce signing at the CWIG conference

left to right: Rose Impey, Michaela Morgan and Bali Rai

The specs have it!  Illustrator Sarah McIntyre and me.

I wished I’d taken more photos to share with you. And I wished I looked like a Moomin.

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