Heroine with many stories to tell

27th October 2000 at 01:00
A Victorian mill is the fulfillment of Elizabeth Hammill's ambition - to found a national children's book centre. Caroline Horn reports.

A DREAM is about to become reality for Elizabeth Hammill with the laying of the foundations for Britain's first national Centre for the Children's Book.

Ms Hammill is a softly-spoken American with a ready smile and a determined glint in her eye. She'd be the first to describe

herself as single-minded, but also as a bit of a dreamer. It is these qualities that have seen her through a five-year struggle to create this centre in Newcastle.

It looks as though her efforts are about to pay off and in the next couple of years, thousands of children - and adults - as well as British authors and illustrators, should reap the benefits.

While many other countries have long respected, and saved for posterity, the work of their authors and illustrators, Britain has never had a home for the original manuscripts and drawings of children's books.

Ms Hammill says: "The aim of the centre, in the first instance, is to ensure that the work of our talented writers and artists remains in the UK - at the moment, there is nowhere to store original work from authors or artists."

The centre will also provide a venue for exhibitions, seminars and events.

The charity's trust, which Ms Hammill helped set up, is in the process of buying a former mill in the city which will serve both purposes. The mill sits alongside the Ouseburn in an area full of Victorian brick warehouses and factories that is being transformed into an arts and craft haven with studios, artists'

centres and the odd pub.

The centre is, in fact, already up and running "in a virtual sense", says Ms Hammill. For the past year, she and Mary Briggs, the founding directors, have been organising events at borrowed venues. Recent exhibitions based on folk tales, "Tales for the telling", and Colin McNaughton's work "Daft as a bucket", have provided a glimpse of what is to come.

But, behind the scenes, the pair have been pursuing their ambition for the centre's home.

Ms Briggs, formerly principal planning and development officer in Newcastle City Council's education department, is the one with the local knowledge and the political nous to negotiate funding and support.

Ms Hammill, meanwhile, has been responsible for establishing the scope and character of the centre through discussions with artists, illustrators and publishers. The centre now has funding, a home, and three members of staff. Its patrons include children's laureate Quentin Blake.

Ms Hammill feels that everything is starting to fall into place - but admits it has taken several years of hard work to get this far.

"When I first arrived in the UK in 1971 I had a three-month-old baby and wasn't familiar with British children's books. I thought there'd be a library

system that would nurture my children as I had been, but I was wrong. I also found that book shops weren't giving time nor space to children's books."

It was very different, she says, from her own childhood in Rye, a suburb of New York, where she had benefited from a

well-stocked library and a keen librarian who would thrust good reads into her hands. She went on to study English history and literature at Mount Holyoke

College in Massachussetts.

"I grew up in a household where, in my father's words, making one's mind 'an interesting place to live' was a guiding principle." Her father, a lawyer, was civic-minded and one of his roles was president of the local library. Right up until his death last year, he was supportive of his daughter's vision for a

British children's book centre.

After her first few years in the UK, Ms Hammill started to work as children's manager at The Bookhouse shop, in Newcastle.

It was while developing the children's programme for the Northern Book Festival that she met Mary Briggs, then educational librarian for Newcastle.

In 1986, Ms Hammill became children's manager for

Waterstones in Newcastle. "I had a wonderful manager who gave me a free hand," she explains. "We were encouraged to experiment with our stock and I started to bring schools into the store and organise reading programmes.

"Very often the children who came had never stepped into a book store in their life but afterwards they'd come back and bring their parents. I started to realise how important it was that children were introduced to books in a positive, exciting

environment."

During these events, Ms

Hammill began to hear from frustrated authors and illustrators about the lack of a national

centre for their work.

"They told me that they had boxes of manuscripts under their beds or at the back of cupboards in the hope that, one day, someone would establish a centre to collect and celebrate their work."

By the 1990s, she had the general idea of creating a home for the work and, after exploring the idea, decided to develop it as a full-blown national centre with seminars and touring exhibitions. "I also envisage the centre becoming a model of good practice for introducing children to books - we can create models that could be developed elsewhere."

In the final instance, she says, "We want the centre to be a home in every sense - not just an archive - but also a home for people to discover the pleasure of reading and to explore books in a exciting, and sometimes subversive, context."

The National Centre for the Children's Book is on tel: 0191 274 3941


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