I have known about Bookstart and their fantastic work in gifting free books to all pre-school children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for some time now. I have been known to blog and shout about them. Imagine my surprise when I received an invitation to their 20th birthday celebrations at Kensington Roof Gardens in the presence of their patron HRH The Duchess of Cornwall.
First off I went and bought myself a new frock.Then I borrowed a suitable handbag (why is it I never buy new clothes to match what I have at home?) and got myself ready for the big day.
At the security desk on arrival I handed over my invitation and ID and glanced over the name tags waiting for their owners on the table. 'Robert Powell' caught my eye. My knees wobbled a little.
I took the name tag I was proferred and, after a deep breath, travelled in the lift to the top floor and joined the massed crowd.
I was determined to be calm, relaxed, natural and in control. The first face I saw was that of Julia Donaldson. I should have smiled politely as I asked to be let past (it really was a squash and a squeeze up there), but no, I decided I couldn't pass up this opportunity to actually talk to the great lady herself. Did I congratulate her on being the Children's Laureate? Did I say how much I admired her work? Did I ask if she had any advice for those of us just starting out? That would have been far too easy.
Just as I opened my mouth to speak I noticed the person she was talking with was Axel Scheffler. My mind went blank, I jabbered something about how I was her biggest fan and if only I could write like her, to which she smiled politely and asked if I illustrated my books as well. By now my mouth had got up a head of steam. I laughed maniacally and came out with that old chestnut, 'If I did my own drawings I would always have to be writing about an elephant's bottom.' Mr Scheffler laughed politely, Ms Donaldson looked somewhat nonplussed.
In all seriousness, they were both lovely and happy to talk, I just can't remember much about what was said after that. I was rescued by a friendly lady from MacMillans Children's Books called Katherine, who I think said she represents Julia Donaldson, and she whisked me off to meet some more people.
I found myself in a conversation with Nick Sharratt and Emily Gravett. All I could think about was the Julia Donaldson books they had both illustrated. I know they have written and drawn plenty of their own, but could I bring them to mind?
The whole event went by in a whirl. Wherever you looked there were faces and names I have only ever seen on the TV or on the front of book covers. Shirley Hughes (Dogger and the Alfie series amongst others), Malorie Blackman (Noughts and Crosses), Catherine Rayner (Solomon Crocodile & Ernest), Frank Cottrell Boyce (I think!), John O'Farrell, Floella Benjamin (who must have a portrait in the attic!), Susan Hampshire and Christine Hamilton to name just a few.
I listened and tried to give sensible answers to questions and add some of my own. I picked up some interesting thoughts on book sales versus e-books and ideas for giving workshops and events. When I asked one illustrator what sort of event they preferred (meaning school visit, festival etc) I got the wonderful answer, 'The ones where you're invited to present abroad, all expenses paid.' I really was mixing at a totally different level!
When The Duchess of Cornwall arrived she went to see the children invited to their own special party - and promptly read them 'Hairy McClary from Donaldson's Dairy'! This meant proceedings went on a little longer than scheduled, as she then spoke with select groups before the speeches and cutting of the birthday cake.
The children came and sat at the front, the adults gathered round, as a short speech was given about the work of Bookstart and how it all started 20 years ago. Julia Donaldson read a specially composed poem for the occasion, including as many of her favourite books as she could.....
.....before The Duchess cut the cake.
It was at this moment that Christine Hamilton's mobile went off and the organisers realised they hadn't lit the candles. (Totally unconnected, but seemingly simultaneous events).
It was thought a good idea to ask one of the children to blow them out. Shy and retiring as they were, not one stepped up. The Duchess leant and beckoned them forward - and all 30 rushed at once. The Booktrust employee standing next to me wailed something about health and safety having a field day. I wasn't sure if she was most worried about the children catching fire or The Duchess being flattened.
It was a superb afternoon and wonderful to see so many supporting such a worthwhile charity.
Before it was set up all those years ago, 70% of children under 5 were not read to by their parents at home. Staggering. After Bookstart came onto the scene, gifting free books to all pre-school children, a new survey found that of those 70%, over 50% had started reading to their young children at home and reported huge benefits to the family as a whole.
Government funding for this scheme is under threat. Bookstart have no guarantee it will continue past March next year. They would love to reach 10,000 signed pledges of support before then.
If you haven't already, please go to :
and sign the pledge.
The German Government have just announced 7 years of funding for their country's Bookstart scheme. Would it be so difficult to achieve something like that here?
The more of us who voice our support, the more Bookstart will be able to show what a loss they would be.
PS. I never did get to see Robert Powell.