Saturday was a busy, book-filled day for Jason, starting off taking his kids to see one of the family’s favourite children’s authors, Rob Biddulph, at the Best of Muswell Hill Festival.
In a searing heatwave, with seats lined up across the closed high street, blocked by a stage, bristling with technical equipment, Jason joined other children’s book enthusiasts to see if he could pick up some tips for his own reading event, later that evening.
Rob Biddulph was promoting two new books, published this month, a new picture book Gigantic and the third in his trilogy of middle grade novels about Peanut Jones.
As a sign of how he engages with his readers, a number of young girls turned up to the event dressed as Peanut. Technical problems meant he didn’t have use of his projector, so he had to resort to his flip-chart, but for Rob Biddulph, that’s enough.
Turning the event into a live version of his lockdown YouTube sensation, Draw With Rob, he had children and adults alike drawing three of his characters.
As the event drew to a close, Rob and his readers darted up the road to the Children’s Bookshop, where he was signing copies of his new books. A queue extended up the road; it was a long queue, but worth the wait, as he gives you time when you get to the front, signing books, posing for photos and chatting.
He remembered Jason from the last time they met, when they bumped into each other at an outdoor theatre in Hampstead Garden Suburb, and Jason presented him with a copy of his latest book, A Zoo In My Shoe. “I really enjoyed it. It was very clever. Very fun,” insisted Rob.
His confidence boosted by such a positive review from someone he respects so much, Jason headed off to the Night Market at Our Yard at Clitterhouse Farm, for his own reading. He wasn’t even sure, on arrival, which book he’d be reading, because he wanted to base his event on the audience who gathered.
Most of the children were of infant school age, which meant he could do any of them and he ended doing a bit of a mix, starting off with the simple rhymes of What Can You See? With younger toddlers, he invites them to point out what they can see in Hannah Rounding’s illustrations, but with older children, he was able to get them to join in, allowing them to shout out the final word on each page.
Next he moved on to his latest collaboration with illustrator Max Low, A Zoo In My Shoe, and had the children laughing at the increasing surreal situations – a tiger sleeping on top of a fridge, a chimpanzee stepping on someone’s nose and penguins sliding on mice – to name but three. At the end of the book, Jason was ready to stop, but the children were so engaged, they wanted more, so he dipped into his BookTrust recommended earlier book, I Like To Put Food In My Welly, for more anarchic fun.
Rather than closing off a high road with a stage and rows of seats, Jason’s reading involved children sitting on the floor in the woods, with him perched on a stool. He didn’t have any technical back-up – but then again, neither did Rob Biddulph. But one of the keys to the popularity of Rob’s live events is his engagement with the audience – he gets children drawing and Jason got them rhyming. And there was more audience participation too, at both events. When Jason asked if anyone had a cat, as a preface to the notion of wiping your feet on your cat, one girl piped up that she didn’t have a cat – but she used to have a dog – but it vomited and died. It kind of killed the moment, but that’s working with children. As Jason learned from Rob Biddulph’s response to his broken projector, you have to be prepared for all eventualities.
On this occasion, none of those who bought Jason’s books asked for a photo with him – perhaps that’s something to aspire to. He joked to the team at the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill that perhaps when his next book comes out, they’ll close the street for him – and perhaps children will turn up to that event dressed as his lead character.