A Life With Books: Mairi Kidd

If you really love and value books, finding a way to work with them has to be the dream job. But what does that job look like? How do you find it, and what impact will it have?

Whether you’re actively looking for a new path, or simply appreciate knowing more about the world of books, there’s nothing like hearing from people who are directly involved in creating, promoting and interpreting children’s literature.

Mairi Kidd’s ‘life with books’ encompasses all these roles and more. She’s headed a national education resource agency, been Managing Director of an award-winning children’s publishing company, and led on Literature, Languages and Publishing at Creative Scotland. She is a children’s author in her own right, and has written and spoken on promoting equalities in publishing. 

This diverse portfolio has given Mairi unique insights and it’s one she will be drawing on in her new role as Chief Executive at Seven Stories, the UK’s national centre for children’s books in Newcastle upon Tyne. We’re delighted to welcome her to Cast of Thousands for the first in a new series of interviews.

Hi Mairi, and many congratulations on your appointment! You must be really busy, so it’s great that you could find the time to talk to us. How did your first week at Seven Stories go?

Thank you! As you'd probably expect, my first week has been an odd one thanks to the pandemic. I've met most of the team at Seven Stories virtually and spent most of my time thus far at my screen in the spare bedroom at home when I would dearly love to be saying hello to everyone in person and on-site in our beautiful building in Newcastle. The welcome I've had from the team and more widely has been lovely, though, and the timing is good as I'll be hitting the ground running planning for reopening of the centre once lockdown eases with what I hope will be a hugely inspiring programme. 

Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books in Newcastle upon Tyne
 


How did you arrive at this point in your career? Can you give us some insights into the route you’ve taken through the book world to get to your current role?  I didn't start out thinking I would work 'in the book world' and I'm not sure I even really had a concept of the publishing industry when I was younger. I've always been a 'story person', but in my early career focused on bringing stories to life for children and young people on stage and on screen. I had studied children's literature in Gaelic at university and had even written and illustrated a couple of books which were published by Acair in Lewis, but my first professional role was running a theatre-in-education company with two collaborators. That was a great start as we did everything - writing, acting, set-design, marketing, funding applications - and we performed to thousands upon thousands of children, learning what worked and what didn't very quickly. 

I began doing bits of work for the BBC at that time too, in writing and production. In my late 20s I was appointed CEO of Stòrlann, the organisation that coordinates the production of resources for Gaelic-medium education. That's where I first had the chance to develop an interest in publishing - we co-editioned, versioned, commissioned and published original work - and in organisational development. I went from there to Barrington Stoke as Managing Director (more on that below) and then onto more developmental roles, lecturing and consulting on publishing and then working as strategic lead for Literature at Creative Scotland, Scotland's (rough!) equivalent of Arts Council England. 

That brought me full circle in a way, back to working with third-sector organisations whose mission is to make books and reading part of people's everyday lives. This rather roundabout path to Seven Stories means, I hope, that my skill set is a fairly diverse one, suiting an organisation with a remit straddling arts programming and heritage, on-site in our museum and on the ground in communities.  


Barrington Stoke is known for publishing books that are accessible and appealing to reluctant readers, as well as those experiencing reading difficulties - including dyslexia. Can you tell us a little more about that aspect of your work? What did you learn from your time at Barrington Stoke, and what do you still carry with you? Are there any achievements you look back on with particular pride or interest?

I learned a lot in my time at Barrington Stoke, both in terms of the specific barriers that can prevent a child becoming a reader, and in terms of the cut and thrust of the commercial book world. I already had a particular interest in text accessibility from Stòrlann - Gaelic was expressly suppressed for generations, meaning that many fluent speakers don't read or write it confidently as it formed no part of their formal education, and today many children come to it as second-language speakers. The Barrington Stoke approach is something that chimed with me completely and I'll most certainly be making sure Seven Stories uses dyslexia-friendly layouts and thinks about other ways of making text - and books more generally - accessible going forward. I will always remember a letter from a boy called Hughie who wrote to say, 'before i herd of Barrington Stoke I codn't read any boke but now i can read all of them.'

The Pavee and the Buffer Girl by Siobhan Dowd and Emma Shoard, published by Barrington Stoke

In terms of the books, I look back with particular pride on the Little Gems early readers, on Emma Shoard's glorious illustrations for The Pavee and the Buffer Girl by Siobhan Dowd, and on so much amazing short fiction that it's hard to choose a favourite and so I'll just have to defer to the Carnegie Medal judging panel and mention Anthony MacGowan's Nicky and Kenny quartet that began with Brock and ended with Lark, which won the Medal in 2020.

Your profile at Creative Scotland described your commitment to “breaking down barriers to reading, and promoting equalities in publishing.” Can you tell us more about that, and how those interests play into your new role at Seven Stories? 

I think it's easy to look at books as a 'book person' and say they're a powerful agent for change. It's less intuitive to us to say, actually the history of books and reading is one in which structural inequality is very much in play - and we are nowhere near overcoming that. Access to books is far from a given - whether that be because of library closures, cuts in education budgets that remove support from children who need it most, or issues in representation from a UK publishing industry that is still dominated by one particular class of people from one particular geographical area. 

At Seven Stories I look forward to using our programmes and collections to explore a better future for children's books, and to making our centre and programmes fair. I don't believe in 'outreach' for 'hard-to-reach audiences'. People aren't hard to reach, organisations are.

What were your favourite books and stories as you were growing up? Are there any contemporary children’s books/authors/illustrators that you particularly admire?  

As a child I don't really remember having favourites but I do remember wanting to read EVERYTHING. I loved Mog, ripped through all the Blytons and Dahls, the family collection of Broons and Oor Wullie annuals (a sort of national Scottish literacy intervention), and all the Canongate 'Kelpies'. 

Anne of Green Gables got me into the classics and I promptly gobbled up my mum's childhood collection (which also included less 'classic' oldies such as the Cherry Ames series). I had subscriptions to things like The Storyteller - do you remember those packs of books, activities and audio cassettes? - and loved the library, especially the mobile that came to my grandparents' house. I read Joan Lingard, Mildred D. Taylor, Lois Duncan and Alan Garner and from there was off into Middlemarch, The Color Purple, Sunset Song and Discworld.

Judith Kerr donated her archive of original artwork and manuscripts to the Seven Stories Collection: see below for links

In terms of contemporary books, authors and illustrators, Jon Klassen's deadpan animals and inanimate objects are my favourite thing to happen in the last decade. I love Jackie Morris and have been delighted by the wider recognition Lost Words has brought her (even as it showed up the status issues still - STILL! - faced by illustrators). Yasmeen Ismail's books make me happy, as does anything by Ross Collins or Chris Haughton. I love Sita Brahmachari's writing, Sally Gardner's and Phil Earle's. Andy Stanton makes me howl with laughter. 

What I MOST love, though, is discovering new writers and illustrators, and I can't wait to do that in my new role.

I’ve read that you’re a fluent Gaelic speaker with an interest in languages and translation. How has this impacted on your work? What would you like to be able to set in motion in this respect? 

At a very basic level, I've spent half of my working life not working in English, which brings (I think, anyway) a useful 'outside' perspective. I would like to see many, many more books in translation on the book market here, and much, much more programming in community languages. 

We should be part of a global, multilingual world of children's stories, and I'm looking forward to exploring how that aspiration might inform Seven Stories programming.

If you could wave a wand and change attitudes in respect of children’s books (or the ways in which they are experienced and used) what would you do?  You’re allowed to be all-powerful, and to interpret this in any way you like...

Thank you - I love a magic wand!

With mine I would:

  • make sure every child has the chance to discover BOOKS and STORY before they begin to learn to read
  • open every library that has closed, with proper staffing and book budgets, and put a librarian in every school
  • make the publishing industry at all levels truly representative of the modern UK as a means to make our books representative of the modern UK
  • tackle the idea that 'progression' is the most pressing concern when it comes to children and reading
  • change the status of illustration to match the status of words, and give oral storytelling the same status

So - I'd be busy!

Over the course of your career, you’ve worked in diverse roles in many settings. What have you seen that’s particularly caught your eye in terms of active engagement with books and reading for children?  Which events/projects/interventions do you think have been especially notable, and why?  Are there any aspects of these approaches that you think should be rolled out more widely, or taken more seriously by policymakers?In terms of the policymakers, I think there's no mystery - and it's tragic that in 2021 I am about to write the following. 

We need a system that allows families a basic standard of living in which no parent worries about feeding their children and every family can have time together to talk and play. We need properly funded child and family services including (but not limited to) funding for libraries in communities, schools, prisons and anywhere else libraries can do their transformative work. And we need sufficient investment in education that all children can receive the support they need.

In terms of specific initiatives, I've seen so many - from Premier League Reading Stars to Reading Agency 'Lads and Dads' initiatives, Children's Books Ireland's 'Book Doctor' visits, Knights Of's inclusive publishing, and individual efforts such as Tom Palmer's unbelievable schools visit programme. 

Some of these address deficits I'd prefer we didn't have, and for that reason I'm going to select one that is all about a special experience - Live Literature from Scottish Book Trust. It's a model of match-funding for author visits I'd like to see available everywhere, and I'd like to see us enshrine the commitment from Cressida Cowell's Laureate charter and use the funding to make it happen - all children, everywhere, should meet an author at least once during their school career.

Thank you, Mairi, for responding to these questions with such sincerity and passion. I’m sure many of us share your hopes for the future of children’s reading, and wish you the very best of luck at Seven Stories – you will be well-placed to make a difference!

Further information and links

Seven Stories is a museum and visitor centre in Newcastle upon Tyne, hosting immersive, book-inspired exhibitions and playful activities for all the family. It runs a full programme of learning projects and events, and is the custodian of an internationally significant Collection dedicated to telling the story of British children’s literature from the 1930’s to the present day. 

For information about their digital offer, in-person visits and the Seven Stories Collection visit their website at sevenstories.org.uk

To view items from the Seven Stories Collection of original materials dedicated to telling the story of British children’s books from the 1930’s to the present day, visit their Collection page here

To read about the Judith Kerr archive held by the Seven Stories Collection, click here 

To explore the digital exhibition that accompanied Tiger, Mog and Pink Rabbit: A Judith Kerr Retrospective, an exhibition of original materials by Seven Stories which toured nationally, click here


Barrington Stoke
is a small, independent publisher with an award-winning record of pioneering “super-readable, dyslexia-friendly fiction to help every child become a reader.” If you’d like to find out more about their award-winning, accessible fiction for all children, including children managing dyslexia and other conditions, visit their website at barringtonstoke.co.uk 

In 2020, Anthony McGowan received the Carnegie Medal for Lark, published by Barrington Stoke


Here’s Mairi Kidd in her role as Managing Director of Barrington Stoke at the Children’s Books Ireland Conference in 2015, talking about “the art of concealing simple language while revealing an exciting imaginative world” for children who ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’ read

 

Click here to watch a facebook video of Mairi Kidd and Tom Morgan-Jones talking about their book, Strong Brave and True (10 mins)

Scottish Book Trust runs the Live Literature project mentioned by Mairi in this interview. To find out more, click here


Knights Of
publishes commercial children’s fiction “for every kid. Starting with who’s behind the scenes” and sets out to create quality content “with as many perspectives as we can squeeze into the making of each book.”

You can sign up for ‘honest updates on what it takes to make books’ on their website at knightsof.media


Tom Palmer
is the author running the “unbelievable schools visit programme” mentioned by Mairi in this interview. Find out more about Tom Palmer here 


Children’s Books Ireland
run the Book Clinics mentioned by Mairi in this interview. Find out more here


Mairi also mentioned the Premier League Reading Stars initiative from UK Football’s Premier League. Find out more here 

 

Books by Mairi Kidd

Scottish Fairytales, Myths and Legends by Mairi Kidd, published by Scholastic, 2020

Strong, Brave and True: Great Scots Who Changed the World by Mairi Kidd, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones, published by Black and White Publishing, 2019 


For Older Readers:

Feisty and Fiery and Fierce: Badass Celtic Women to Live Your Life By by Mairi Kidd, published by Black and White Publishing, 2020  

Warriors and Witches and Damn Rebel Bitches by Mairi Kidd, published by Black and White Publishing, 2019 



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