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‘A privilege and a joy to be part of this magical process’

Illustrator Nicola Davison explains why she finds volunteering at Live Tales a magical experience, and how it helped her gain a place on the prestigious MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art.

In 2017, Live Tales flew into my life - just like Mary Poppins flew into the lives of the unsuspecting Banks family in the shape of an email - just as exciting but without the bossiness or umbrella! The email invited anyone interested in volunteering as an illustrator or writing mentor for their schools creative writing workshops, to attend an introductory workshop in the Live Tales building, hidden in a secret garden behind it’s governing parent, Live Theatre.

The timing was perfect! I had just applied to do an MA Children’s Book Illustration (part-time) at Cambridge School of Art. In the past, I had concentrated on individual wildlife paintings.

It was clear from attending the Summer School earlier that year, that I needed lots of practice at the rapid drawing and sequential imagery necessary to create a Children’s Picture Book. Here was the perfect opportunity to do exactly that, whilst supporting children in creating stories of their own. I clicked on the ‘Live Tales’ link and a whole new world opened up to me; a world beyond that of any adult author or film-maker: the world of a child’s imagination.

Attending the introductory volunteers’ workshop gave me the opportunity to step into the shoes of each child who visits Live Tales: from the fun warm-up, to sparking ideas off each other in a group as a story begins to emerge, to continuing that story individually with support from volunteer writing mentors. I signed up immediately!

Within a matter of weeks, I was transported back to Live Tales as a fully-fledged volunteer illustrator! Before me stood a treasure trove of colouring pens, pencils and paper. And beyond that, sitting on a colourful array of cushions, perched a Key Stage 2 class of 8-9 year old children, arms shooting star-wards, eyes sparkling in eager anticipation of sharing their ideas for a story. The 2 hour session, led by an experienced drama worker from Live Theatre’s Children and young people’s Team, had started! The rules are simple but challenging: create a story without copying anyone else’s ideas or characters, and with no blood or guts. You try! And the children did. Inhibitions seemed to disappear and even the most hesitant child was swept up in the tide of ideas flowing thick and strong and being typed up by a volunteer editor onto a screen for all to see.

What did the main character look like…do…enjoy…dislike?

Did they have any super-powers?

What did their world look like?

Was there any danger, and if so, what did it look like?…….and so on.

Several months later I felt all of 8 years old when I attended my portfolio interview with Professor Martin Salisbury (Course Leader, and Director, the Centre for Children’s Book Studies) at Cambridge School of Art. A bit like a child on their first visit to Live Tales - nervous, feeling vulnerable, not knowing what to expect. (The Professor’s long twitchy eyebrows particularly scared me!) However, as with Live Tales, my nerves were forgotten when I received a warm welcome and an immediate interest in my creative ideas.

Professor Salisbury explained to me that the course is all about the tutors getting the best out of each individual illustrator, with a view to getting published. I described to him Live Tales’ similar work in providing a safe and supportive space in which to nurture each child’s creativity. I showed him one of the printed booklets with the children’s story alongside my illustrations.

I explained how my creativity as a volunteer illustrator is challenged at every Live Tales session. Within a time-frame of about 45 minutes, the illustrator produces not one but two finished illustrations! As the story grows, so does the illustration.

How do you draw a farm made of meat from which gushes a river of chocolate?

Or a girl surfing through the clouds?  

Or a crystal blue palace smelling of monkey poo?  

Even a gangster gingerbreadman makes an appearance!.

And what do you do when, having just finished colouring a small, yellow dog with pink spots, some bright spark insists the dog is a mile long!?

The answer is, you learn! Fast! Sometimes it comes out ok, but more often it simply reminds me that I need to practice because I do not want to let these amazing young writers down - or myself, for that matter. The writer Samuel Beckett wrote: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (‘Worstword Ho!’ 1983).

I think that a major part of my being offered a place on the Children’s Book Illustration MA, is my volunteer work for Live Tales. Live Tales connects any adult who has an interest in creative writing with the magic that is the child’s creative imagination. It is a scary moment for me when the children first get to see my illustrations. Will they live up to the children’s expectations? What if they don’t? Just like Mary Poppins opens the Banks family’s eyes to a whole new world of creativity and fulfillment, Live Tales helps children realise their potential for creating worlds of their own through writing and illustration. You can actually see the magic written in their eyes as each child receives a printed booklet of their story thus far, complete with a front cover and first illustration. It is a privilege and a joy to be part of this magical process. “Spit Spot” indeed, Mary Poppins!

Live Tales is a Live Theatre initiative which offers creative story writing workshops for KS2 classes at Live Theatre, Newcastle, and at The Fire Station, Sunderland. Sessions for KS3 will be launched in September 2018. The sessions are supported by Volunteers who provide encouragement to help the children to improve their writing and storytelling. Volunteer Illustrators create drawings to accompany the children’s stories.

Find out more about Volunteering at Live Tales  or bringing a Class.

  • Arts Council England
  • Community Foundation
  • European Regional Development Fund
  • National Lottery Fund
  • National Lottery Fund
  • National Lottery Fund
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