Seventh heaven opens for business

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan discovers a treasure trove at Newcastle's new centre for the children's book.

In David Almond's novel Heaven Eyes, three runaway children sail their homemade raft down the Tyne. Marooned on the "Black Middens" (mudflats) near the mouth of the Ouseburn, they are rescued by a mysterious girl who lives with her grandfather in a derelict printing works, one of the creepiest settings in recent children's fiction. You can read about the Black Middens in David Almond's manuscript for Heaven Eyes, the final piece in the opening exhibition at the Seven Stories centre for children's books in Newcastle upon Tyne, which will be opened by the children's laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, today.

And if you look out of the window, you can see the Ouseburn Valley where it all happened. Although local author Almond didn't know it when he wrote his book, this treasure house of the printed word and image for children used to be a printing works.

The centre's name refers to both the seven plots said to be at the root of all stories, and the seven storeys of the building itself, from the Engine Room (this is the heart of the education programme: a waterside activities room flooded with light) to the Artist's Attic at the top for performances, storytelling, launches and workshops.

Now there's a lift and a spiral staircase to whisk visitors up the seven floors, passing the Storylab which will eventually hold the centre's collection of original manuscripts and artwork. The beams in the attic are still so low that you need a hard hat if you're over 5ft 8in, but some of the hard hats are decorated with Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar, so nobody should object.

The design has absorbed the restored printing works plus a new structure on the site of a former crisp factory next door. The facade on the Ouseburn bank looks like a giant book with glass pages, inviting visitors to leaf through its first exhibition, Incredible Journeys, which runs until March next year and contains manuscripts and artwork from 70 years of children's publishing, about half from the centre's collection and half on loan.

Co-founder Elizabeth Hammill, now collection development director, has had the most incredible journey of all. Formerly children's manager of Waterstone's in Newcastle, she has been lobbying since the early 1990s for a home for UK authors' and illustrators' archives (manuscripts, roughs, original artwork and correspondence), and a home from home for book-lovers of all ages in the north of England and beyond. Ten years ago she took a sabbatical from Waterstone's and never went back. The first pledges of work from Shirley Hughes, Philip Pullman and Michael Foreman came in, and she was joined by Newcastle education department's principal planning officer, Mary Briggs, now Seven Stories chief executive.

In 1996 they secured pound;27,000 of lottery money, part of which paid for the private collection of the late Puffin editor Kaye Webb: 2,000 Puffin titles from the Sixties and Seventies. The search for funding and premises hit as many rapids and shallows as the children's raft in Heaven Eyes, but a turning point came in 2000 with pound;250,000 from the Northern Rock building society and the discovery of the printing works. From 1998, with its first exhibition on Colin McNaughton, the centre had relied on borrowed venues to bring books to life for children, schools and parents, finding new audiences and developing exciting contexts for exploring the work of illustrators.

Since then the archive has acquired all Jan Mark's manuscripts, works by the late Joan Aiken, and all Michael Rosen's writing for children.

Now comes the inaugural exhibition at the new centre, where Philip Pullman's own drawing of Lyra accompanies three pages of Northern Lights handwritten on his favourite hole-punched, lined paper. The oldest works on show are Ruth Jervis's original 1936 illustrations for Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes.

Four top children's illustrators have created settings for these treasures.

Satoshi Kitamura's black and white World of Words room is a celebration of poetry and the spoken word, where you sit on seats that spell "Listen" to choose your recording. Then step through floor-to-ceiling red curtains into a theatrical dressing room, which celebrates characters from Tracy Beaker and Amazing Grace to the Iron Man and Worzel Gummidge, before sections related to "This World" are reached through a shopping street and a school playground. Jane Ray's assembly of timepieces, cupboards, cobwebs and starlight evokes the world of Tom's Midnight Garden and Green Knowe in the "Time and Place" room.

Ted Dewan's upside-down house is at the centre of the section that celebrates the eccentric and the bizarre, including work by Mini Grey and Colin McNaughton, before Anthony Browne's forest evokes the many facets of fairy tale. In the final "Quests and Challenges" room, painted flames lap at visitors' feet as they enjoy modern interpretations of the heroic stories of King Arthur and Odysseus, leading to David Almond's local working-class heroes.

"We don't want lots of text on the walls explaining what we're trying to achieve," says Elizabeth Hammill. "The intention is to let people experience it as they would when reading a story." She has been struck by an idea from Gillian Cross, whose novel Wolf (a contemporary Red Riding Hood tale) is on display in Anthony Browne's forest. Cross has talked about the way in which writers have to "climb the beanstalk" to stick their head above the clouds and get a glimpse of their imaginary world. Ms Hammill says: "We're trying to give people the beanstalk moment, or you could call it the secret garden moment, when you find the key to what you're writing about or imagining."

Incredible Journeys is just the start; she already has ideas for the next major exhibition, an Allan Ahlberg retrospective.

Arts and education manager Carey Fluker Hunt has noted familiar names in the schools bookings for next term. The last exhibition in 2003 (Over the Hills and Far Away, on the work of picture book author and hill farmer Kim Lewis) included an early years roadshow that drew in families from across the North-east. The one before that, Through Eastern Eyes, about Japanese illustration, included residences in six schools. "Those schools are coming back for more," says Ms Fluker Hunt. "Also we've noticed how the playful experiences we offer can be extended beyond young children."

So the dressing-up clothes go up to age 14. That's no good to me, but perhaps if I wear some big heels and climb up to the seventh floor, they'll let me wear one of those hard hats.

Seven Stories is at 30 Lime Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 2PQ. A launch festival runs until September 4. The autumn programme includes the launch of The Big Draw in October and a Hans Christian Andersen festival in November

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