Breaking New Ground with Dylan Calder from Pop Up Projects

How do we make books irresistible? The power of active involvement and ownership - for everyone 

Pop Up is a not-for-profit company established in 2011 to provide rich and meaningful literary experiences for families and schools. It started out by hosting innovative, activity-based children's literature festivals which were delivered in community settings. 

Since 2015 the Pop Up Festival has grown and developed to become a schools-based programme that has already worked with 300+ authors and is set to work with many more. 

Collaboration, partnership and a passionate commitment to diversity and inclusion are strong features of Pop Up’s practice. This year they’ve been working alongside literature agency Speaking Volumes to promote Breaking New Ground, a catalogue profiling more than a hundred British writers, illustrators, poets and storytellers of colour, and in December they’ll be launching Pathways into Illustration, a two-year learning and development programme for artists from diverse backgrounds which they’re running in partnership with The House of Illustration in London.

Dylan Calder is Pop Up’s Executive Director. He spent fifteen years working as a communicator and writer in education, designing and teaching creative writing programmes in deprived and inner-city schools around the UK before co-founding Pop Up, so he knows first-hand what motivates and inspires children and is driven to make literature exciting and accessible. 
"Pop Up was set up to create interactions with literature, and everything we do is about treating the child not as a passive listener but as an active participant" 

Cast of Thousands caught up with Dylan Calder after a Breaking New Ground event to talk about playful interactions with literature and the importance of diversity in books for children and young people everywhere 

Let’s talk about making literature accessible and exciting! At Pop Up you’ve taken unconventional routes that put children and young people at the heart of meaningful experiences with books – from the immersive environments and playfully exciting approaches of the original Pop Up events to the energy and possibilities of engaging directly with an author or illustrator in more formal learning environments. Can you tell us more about that? Where did that approach come from?

There can sometimes be quite an academic approach to traditional literature festivals, with panel discussions and people talking about the craft. There used to be this standard format to how you present it, and I’m not a passive listener, like many kids I find it difficult to sit for more than five minutes and listen to somebody reading something. But I knew from previous work that kids just love writing and reading… it’s the conditions in which they read and write that make the difference. And there was this moment when I had an opportunity to pull this thinking together with a group of people to form an organisation that would address some of these things. I think Pop Up was set up really to create interactions with literature and everything we do is about treating the child not as a passive listener but as an active participant in literature in one way or another. That doesn’t mean they can’t sit quietly and listen to a story, it means they have an opportunity to ask questions and help build stories and other stuff, so interactions with literature are at its heart.

Families taking part in a Pop Up Festival event. Image reproduced by permission, copyright Pop Up Projects CIC

And in your first five years of delivering public festivals, you developed that by inviting writers to create installations and experiences based on their books? That must have been quite something!

It was! We got authors to curate and design spaces, and we got great people – Michael Rosen was a curator, so were Marcus Sedgewick, Candy Gourlay, Philip Ardagh…. They got a budget and they had to work with student designers, they created these crazy spaces and they were amazing. The whole point of these festivals was to create an unusual experience in the local square or wherever, and you would get local families coming to it. I think writers were really attracted to the idea of bringing their writing to life in a three-dimensional space that wasn’t just a piece of theatre. I mean, they were quite experimental! The thing about children’s writers, is that they have boundless imagination….Marcus Sedgewick wanted to create a vampire ghost train experience using performers and puppets and music in this dark space, and it was brilliant. Laura Dockrill wanted to create a tour inside Roald Dahl’s head. And Sita Brahmachari wanted to turn one of her YA novels into a multisensory exhibition, so we created a gallery space with earth and water, it was brilliant! All these girls from across the site were attracted to it - it was like a teen feminist Glastonbury in there. It was just so not what you’d expect somebody to create out of their novel! 

That sounds really great! Finding playful and multisensory ways to bring kids and books together can be so powerful, can’t it? I suppose books can be a bit offputting, because there’s a lot of work needed to make them come to life inside your head. But if you create exciting shared experiences around those books, you open the doors to so many possibilities. And then if you want to, you can build on that approach with more formal learning opportunities. 

There’s some really great stuff going on around multisensory and investigative routes into learning, isn’t there? But much of it seems rooted in Early Years and SEN practice and doesn’t make its way into mainstream KS2, for example – where taking that approach could have a really powerful impact. I know you’re currently expanding your work with SEN schools. Do you think the practice coming out of that will have a broader impact?

We’ve just started working with 20 SEN schools across the whole of Kent following a successful three-year project with one SEN school there, and it’s really quite ground breaking for us in that it’s showing that there’s a lot of hidden stuff the mainstream should see. Our authors and illustrators are working with the teachers, co-developing resources around the books, some of them are very multisensory so there will be some great things happening between authors and teachers in these very diverse contexts and I think we’re going to see some remarkable and innovative practice coming out of that.

"Wherever they are, kids just love reading and writing. It's the conditions in which they read and write that make the difference" 

I love the idea of developing resources and approaches together, and I specially like the idea that what’s developed in SEN schools will make the crossing into other schools as well. You’ll have to keep us in the loop on progress! Tell us about your current Pop Up Festivals. How do they work?

We have a core schools model that we trialled alongside the original festivals, and that grew to become the programme we now offer. Whole primaries, SEN schools and secondaries (or the whole of KS3) take part. We have relationships with around 45 publishers, and we put a different offer together every year. We employ about a hundred authors a year to deliver the programme and every teacher gets an INSET opportunity with their writer or illustrator, to learn about creative writing and illustration craft. We supply a set of the author’s books for each classroom and there’s a digital platform with resources around those books – the teachers create them and put them up, to share with one another. 

The Festival starts with a reading programme, where every class is reading their own book, and then all the authors go into that school over one week in June to deliver workshops. And we deliver that model in about 50 schools, so an average of about 15,000 kids a year are doing the programme.

Pop Up's 2019 Festival Brochure for schools

That’s quite something! What commitment do the schools make? Are you seeing an impact?

The model offers a chance to transform literacy in school by putting books at the heart of it, and we’re capturing some really significant impact. We like a school to commit to three years, and schools pay 50% of the true cost of this, so for a double full entry primary that can be £2,500 - £3000 a year that they’re putting into it, and then we secure the rest of the funding. 

To date, we don’t really allow schools to take part unless they bring all their children to it. We don’t want exclusion and we don’t want selection. When an Arts offer enters a school, often kids get selected to do it and kids get excluded from it. So that’s a founding principle for us – everyone is involved.

Good luck for next year! Where can schools find out about getting involved?

Anyone interested in taking part can contact us at  

Children taking part in a Pop Up Festival event. Image reproduced by permission, copyright Pop Up Projects CIC

You’re talking about writers and illustrators, so I guess illustrated books are an important part of your offer?

They’re really important. We’re currently building a project with Birmingham City University to evaluate the impact of a visual approach to literacy and literacy standards across the city, so we’ll be doing a programmme that’s pure illustration, comics, graphic novels and so on, and only working in schools that are really challenged and need their literacy invigorating. It’s an odd thing, but I’ve had senior leaders telling me that illustrated books “aren’t real literacy” and that their children “don’t need illustrated books” because they’re “capable of being challenged” and I think that prejudice exists everywhere, so programmes like this are really needed. We got into the political theory of hierarchy of text over image as a result, and we really want to show that if you take a more visual approach to literacy you’ll engage your boys better, you’ll engage your EAL kids better, and it’s a much more inclusive and fun way of working. There’s a whole world encoded in visual literacy, and there’s a complexity that quite often you don’t find in children’s writing which can be very plot-driven. Obviously there can be bad illustration, but when it’s good, it’s richer than anything, I think.

Well as you know, illustration matters a lot here at Cast of Thousands – and it’s obviously important to you, too. Tell us about Pop Up’s new Pathways into Illustration project. 

Oh, it’s going to change the world! Seriously, it starts in December and its so rich… What we’re aiming for with Pathways is that it will be largely for people of colour, largely BAME, but there is room within that for linguistic diversity and people from deprived backgrounds. Basically it’s a two-year programme for artists from diverse backgrounds that are under-represented in children’s publishing, and they will be tutored and supported to become the next generation of children’s illustrators. It’s funded by Arts Council England and we’re working with the House of Illustration in London and more than twenty publishers and universities.

It sounds great, all the best of luck to your participants! Promoting diversity and inclusion is a huge part of your mission at Pop Up, isn’t it?

Very much so. Our Pop Up Festival programme every year is 25-30% BAME authors, which means we commission our BAME authors 2 to 3 times more than we do our non-BAME authors, and we have to do that in order to reflect diversity, so it’s an important commitment for us. I grew up partly in a children’s home, surrounded by children of different ethnicities, so it comes naturally to me that we live in that society. But I think we’ve got to all be very mindful when we use words like diversity, it’s so easy to use, it does actually include things other than race, and I think the whole point is about having a mix, and that mix is going to infuse literature and infuse stories. There is a place for including and listening to and bringing in many perspectives. 

Children working with illustrator Ken Wilson-Max. Image reproduced by permission, copyright Pop Up Projects CIC

Which brings us to Breaking New Ground, a wonderful new catalogue profiling more than a hundred British writers, illustrators, poets and storytellers of colour created by literature agency Speaking Volumes. Along with others, you’ve written an introduction which makes really interesting reading. It’s a bit of rallying call to stand up and take action isn’t it? As you so rightly say, “We, as the creators, makers and gatekeepers of literature for children are responsible for what they read. We make choices on behalf of young readers – about what stories get told and by whom, what gets written and drawn, what gets edited, printed, platformed, programmed, reviewed, awarded, ordered, stocked, studied, taught – way before they get a chance to choose what they want to read.” So we have a responsibility to do that to the best of our ability, and that means ensuring diversity across the board, not least because 32% of primary-age children in the UK are from BAME backgrounds. But according to the groundbreaking Reflecting Realities research done by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, of more than 9,000 books for children and young people published in 2017 in the UK, only 1% featured a BAME main character. That figure rose to 4% when minor characters were included, but it still falls way short of reflecting children’s lives as they experience them. So change really is needed! 

Absolutely. That’s why Breaking New Ground is so important. It’s a tool, and it’s there for literature programmers so they cannot anymore say ‘I don’t know where to find BAME authors. It’s there to give to a teacher who has no idea that these authors even exist, because she can’t find them on the table in Waterstones. It’s there for librarians who don’t necessarily get to connect with the wider literary world. It must be in the hands of every teacher and every librarian in the UK.

"Breaking New Ground must be a game-changer. It is a tool, and those who have the power – the gatekeepers of literature for children, those of us who commission, programme and buy books – must wield it, so that all our children have every opportunity to find themselves and others in stories” 
So how is it being shared? How can people find it?

The catalogue was launched at London Book Fair in March 2019 and Pop Up ran a series of publicly accessible events in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff to promote it. Booktrust are putting it into every school in England, and they’re also running the Booktrust Represents programme around this. And anyone who wants to read the catalogue can read it online via the Speaking Volumes website here or download a PDF from the Booktrust website via the Booktrust Represents project hereor

It really is well worth taking a look, there’s a load of useful information in it, and plenty of interesting and inspiring ideas, too. 
Dylan, thanks so much for talking to us, it’s been a pleasure. And all the very best with everything you’re doing at Pop Up. Let us know how you get on!

Thanks for inviting me to chat, I’ll keep in touch!

If you’d like to find out more about anything mentioned in this blog, please contact us or try these links:

Pathways into Children’s Publishing is a two-year illustration programme for talented and ambitious artists from diverse backgrounds. Find out more here or contact Pop Up via 

The Breaking New Ground catalogue can be downloaded as a PDF at BookTrust Represents here

You can find out more about Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions here

BookTrust Represents is a three-year project by BookTrust promoting children’s authors and illustrators of colour by supporting and subsidising them to reach more readers through events in bookshops, festivals and schools. Special features of the project include the provision of training and mentoring. Find out more here

For more information about Pop Up Projects CIC, visit their website here

To find out more about Pop Up’s community-based festivals, visit the Pop Up website's collection of archived projects here  or click on this 2012 article by Alison Flood for The Guardian here

To view the 2019 Pop Up Festival brochure, click here

We firmly believe that access for all children and families to the broadest range of published, live and digital literature is a universal right Copyright: Cast of Thousands 2024 All rights reserved.
This article/information may be printed freely for use in schools and other learning settings but may not be reproduced in any other format without the permission of Cast of Thousands

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