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The 2024 Lecture

THE 2024 PHILIPPA PEARCE LECTURE will given by Joseph Coelho and will be entitled: Creativity Through Poetry.

The multi-talented Joesph Coelho is a poet, performer, and playwright. In 2022 Joseph became the 12th Children’s Laureate.Stepping into the role, he said that he wanted to celebrate the power of poetry, showcase new authors and illustrators to diversify bookshelves, and inspire.

How to Train Your Reader and Life Changing Libraries

The moment Cressida Cowell stepped up to the lectern, it was clear that the very same energy and fun that characterises all her books were right here in front of us. We settled back with the happy anticipation of a child who’s about to be read to.

Though her work has been transported to the big screen, for Cressida it is still the printed page where the real magic happens. “Books are our tool to make sense of the inexplicable,” she said, “to articulate to ourselves what we feel but cannot always say. They’re our comfort, our distraction, a way to travel when life seems dark and is closing in on us, a way to laugh when not much seems funny.

“I remember every book that was read aloud to me as a child,” she went on. And it is those early memories that have sustained a wonderfully generous impulse to welcome successive generations into the life-giving world of books. It is clear that she remembers not only every story she heard, but also every detail of the experience. Like many of the most successful children’s writers and illustrators, she has an acute awareness of what it is like to be a child reader, and an almost supernatural ability to home in precisely on what will capture their imagination.

With a clear sense of vocation to be a children’s author, Cressida made a decision at the outset that she would write books that “get kids reading; that will be funny, clever, visually packed adventure stories that get kids thinking; books that will be written for everyone, mass market”. As she welcomed us into the world of her own creations, she went on to demonstrate how every choice is made with the invitation to the child in mind. Rule-breaking text packed with wit and wisdom; pacy plots and captivating characters; words that feel good on the tongue when read aloud; “slightly scrawly” drawings such as a child might produce. (Though her books are aimed at 8–12 year olds, illustrations abound and are an integral part of the text.) Even the drawing materials are considered: the softest of pencils for images conveying heightened emotion, for example. It might seem calculating – and in a way, it is. But all the reckoning is done with so much loving care and attention – like planning a surprise party for someone you love and know well and so want to make everything just right for them.

If Cressida is training her reader, what you see in these books is itself the result of a thoroughgoing training. An Oxford English degree was followed by an illustration course at St Martin’s – a course that taught her more than how to be an artist. “It taught me to stick to my guns because when everybody else stood up and said ‘this is my project on Death’, or ‘this is my project on the rise of Nazi Germany’, I would then have to present my own work on ‘Mr Orange the Talking Carrot’. And, as in the best of quest stories, everything turns out to have its purpose. “Nothing is ever wasted,” she insisted, “not even the Anglo Saxon literature … And the talking carrot can also represent something equally worthwhile.” But what makes the difference is figuring out your own quest. That’s what helps you make decisions. And hers, she knows, is all to do with creating readers.

As Cressida moved on to talk about her work as Children’s Laureate, it became apparent that this was indeed part of the exact same quest. As Children’s Laureate, she embarked on an ambitious project to champion libraries, and in particular school libraries – which, as research shows, are instrumental in getting children to become people who read for pleasure. She thinks of a library just as she thinks of one of her own books – a creative, creating, child-enticing space. What she calls a “Life-changing library” delights the eye and calls to the ear; it provides safe, cosy corners in which to retreat; it’s a portal to other worlds; it’s an invitation to encounter others, and to meet yourself.

And yet, when schools are forced to make cuts, the library is very often the first thing to be shelved. One in seven primary schools now has no library at all, and statistics for some areas – especially those with a high proportion of disadvantaged families – are worse still.

The ‘Life-changing Libraries’ project succeeded in getting £100 million pounds a year ring-fenced for school libraries, and in getting them onto the political agenda. Then, because the library is something of a threatened habitat and few people seemed to know what a good one would look like, Cressida worked with BookTrust to set up six “gold-standard” Life-changing Libraries. Each received a transformative package that included a thousand books, an interactive audio-book facility, an ebooks subscription, furnishings and bespoke wall art, and staff training and support for embedding a whole-school reading culture. As Cressida’s video and the BookTrust report show, the results have been extremely encouraging – most especially, perhaps, in the way each school embraced and made the library its own.

It was, and is, an extraordinary achievement. And the source of this drive? What else but books? “Booky People,” said Cressida, “have tenacity and resourcefulness because we are passionate about what we do.”

This, of course, was a lecture addressed to an entire auditorium of Booky People, so not the ones who need persuading. But as Cressida said, “It is when times are hardest that we need the transformative magic of books and reading the most.” So in what are unquestionably hard times, it was good to be reminded of that, and of the need to ensure that what we have been privileged to enjoy is passed on to future generations. Cressida’s final rallying call left us in no doubt: “As Waterstones Children’s Laureate, I pledged to fight for children’s reading with passion, conviction and action. My quest will continue. I hope you will join me.”

100 Years of Gratitude – The Philippa Pearce Centenary Lecture

Geraldine McCaughrean meets readers following the centenary lecture

The Philippa Pearce Lecture 2022 began with a welcome instruction to “imagine that it is still 2020. For the next couple of hours, you are licensed to indulge the welcome fantasy that the past two years simply haven’t happened,” said Homerton Vice-Principal Dr Louise Joy in her opening remarks.

The event was originally scheduled to take place in April 2020, marking Philippa Pearce’s centenary year. Its speaker, Geraldine McCaughrean, the double Carnegie Medal winning author of over 170 books including Peter Pan in Scarlet and Where the World Ends, was described by Dr Joy as:

“One of the most prolific and expansive authors for children writing today. The sheer eclecticism of Geraldine’s works is breath-taking. It is hard to think of a genre she hasn’t written in. Her work encompasses both the comic and the serious; the historical and the contemporary and the futuristic; forms that are deliberately imitative and forms that push the envelope. Through them all runs a warmth; a restless intellectual curiosity; a love of language; a faith in humanity; masterful storytelling.”

That theme of storytelling ran through an evening which celebrated and demonstrated the instinctive and enduring power of story. Geraldine McCaughrean opened her lecture with a list of the extraordinary range of authors who had been published in the year of Philippa Pearce’s birth, from L.M. Montgomery to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and said “having spent a lifetime doing what I Iove, and being allowed to call it work, I feel like celebrating.”

She described the craving for storytelling as inherent to the human condition.

“The human spirit shrinks from fear, boredom and sorrow, but the mind and soul go out in search of story. Who knows why?”

However she also expressed concern that sensitivities around cultural appropriation could diminish imaginative output, with publishers nervous of writers stepping too far away from their own lived experience.

“I remember being told as a child ‘write about what you know’, and thinking ‘why would I want to?’ And suddenly it’s back, as an injunction…I firmly believe that an interior world is the greatest resource there is in difficult times.”

She rejected what she saw as a growing trend towards writers being expected to introduce children to concepts such as climate change, presenting them with a duty to solve existential crises which adults had failed to respond to.

“Something inside me recoils at the idea of painting Armageddon on the inside of children’s skulls. When you’re an adult you can scrub it off…my beloved former editor used to say ‘the only difference between adult and children’s fiction is that you owe it to children to leave them in a safe universe at the end of it.’ Entertainment is a noble profession, and we don’t have to lay claim to anything more august.”

Interspersed, without introduction, throughout her talk was a story, Anansi the Spiderman. As each section began, there was a palpable change of focus, as the audience of literary adults settled down, with the same trust and expectation as a class of pre-schoolers, preparing to be carried along by narrative force.

She concluded with a simple explanation of this phenomenon.

“I give you this story, in recompense for the time you have given me today, and to prove a point. It’s hard to listen for an hour to mere talk, but the mind will always latch on to story.”

The power of story was also beautifully demonstrated by an addition to the programme in celebration of the centenary year. A twenty-minute play Inside Her Head by the award-winning playwright and personal friend of Philippa Pearce, Nick Warburton, combined a Pearce short story by the same title with references to her other stories and experiences.

A two-hander by actors Jeremy Whitton Spriggs and Sandra Birnie, the play explored the boundaries between memory, imagination and invention, and involved the audience in a sense of collaboration as a story was constructed in front of them. Following an intellectual probing of why story continues to be so important, it was both fitting and hugely pleasurable to sit back and allow a story to be told, in Philippa Pearce’s own words.

Sandra Birnie and Jeremy Whitton Spriggs in Nick Warburton’s play Inside Her Head

Centenary Celebrations

In 2020 it would have been 100 years since the birth of Philippa Pearce, and, sadly, our celebrations had to be canceled. But we are delighted to announce that the special Anniversary Event will now take place on 14th April, 2022, Homerton College Cambridge.

Postponement of the 2020 Philippa Pearce Lecture

With regret, we have decided to postpone the Pearce lecture and centenary celebrations that were scheduled to take place on 26th March to support the effort to prevent the further spread of Covid-19. As soon as we can we will provide further information about the rescheduled event. We will post all new details on the lecture website and will inform ticket holders and subscribers to our newsletter.

All booked tickets will continue to remain valid for the new date. 

We apologise for any inconvenience.

Be Careful What You Wish For! Magic Words from the 2019 Philippa Pearce Lecture

It was the kind of bright, spring afternoon when anything seems possible, as excited children’s-literature enthusiasts filled the Homerton auditorium. Those lucky enough to attend the twelfth annual Philippa Pearce Lecture were treated to an engaging and illuminating talk by former Children’s Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, entitled “Be Careful What You Wish For!”. Like her award-winning books, Jaqueline’s words were sharply perceptive, sweetly endearing and indicative of a writer who has not lost her ability to see the world through a child’s eyes.

She began by recalling an author’s conference she’d attended very early in her career. Slightly nervous and not knowing anyone else, she was grateful to be befriended at lunch by a woman who mentioned, in a very modest way, that she’d written “a book about a garden”. Only afterwards did Jacqueline realise that her new acquaintance was none other than Philippa Pearce. She was bowled over by the warmth, humility and genuine interest this celebrated author had shown to “a young beginner”.

Jacqueline went on to reflect on some of her own childhood reading experiences. She recalled staying with her grandparents and finding nothing to read except an old Maria Edgeworth book which included The Purple Jar. In this short story, Rosamond’s desire to own one of the enchanting purple vessels she sees in a chemist’s shop leads her mother to teach her a rather painful lesson about making prudent choices. Jacqueline explained that, whilst she didn’t mind “traditional ‘be careful what you wish for’ tales as such”, she has always “hated this lofty adult viewpoint in which adults always know best.” For her, writing for children is driven by the desire to capture a child’s point of view: their worries, woes and wishes

Jacqueline then considered various literary attempts to capture that world in general and the wished-for in particular. These included E Nesbit’s The Five Children and It – the inspiration for her own, updated version, The Four Children and It. Eventually she lighted on Philippa Pearce’s A Dog So Small as a shining example of a ‘Be Careful What You Wish For!’ narrative. This story of a boy who wishes for, imagines and ultimately receives a dog of his own artfully compels readers to consider “the joys—and the dangers—of living totally in the imagination” without ever becoming patronising or dismissive of the intense emotions children feel and the lessons they learn. (Lessons that many adults are still learning, whether or not they choose to admit it.) Philippa Pearce, Jacqueline suggested, was as wise as the granny in the book who says, “People get their heart’s desire, and then they must learn how to live with it”.

Wishing has evidently been a powerful force in Jacqueline’s own life. She told us how, as a little girl daydreaming about her heart’s desire of being a writer, she imagined not only writing – but also giving talks to packed auditoriums

Sitting at the head of an excited queue and signing books must be a very regular feature of this successful writer’s life. This evening’s queue was almost certainly unusual, being an exclusively adult one. But clutching well-loved favourites as well as shiny new purchases from the Heffers bookstall, and enthusiastically discussing favourite characters and scenes, this line of eager fans was perhaps not so very different.

“The worlds of my imagination and my reality have sort of interlocked together, and I think that’s the happiest part” says Jacqueline. ‘Jacky’ is one little girl who got what she wished for, and everyone who attended the Philippa Pearce lecture, as well as countless children and adults across the world, remain incredibly thankful for that.

Lilly Posnett ( MPhil Student, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, University of Cambridge)


Booking is now open for the 2019 Philippa Pearce Lecture

Booking is now open for the 2019 lecture, to be given by Jacqueline Wilson and entitled, Be Careful What You Wish For!

The lecture will take place at 5.00pm on the 11th of April in the Mary Allan Building, Homerton College, Cambridge, CB2 8PH. After the lecture there will be a short wine reception. 

Both lecture and reception are free.

To book your ticket, please use the form on the booking page of the lecture website.

“As scary as it needs to be”

The Tenth Anniversary Lecture
Frances Hardinge: Peopling the Dark

Image: Stephen Bond

“Is your book too scary?”

The only time she’s been asked this by a child, says Frances, was in an email from an eleven-year-old. Having been warned off one of her novels by a well-meaning relative, the young correspondent had decided to appeal to the author for adjudication. Adults, on the other hand, frequently express concern.

To those concerned adults, what Frances would like to say is, “it is as scary as it needs to be.”

A click and a flick through the blurbs on Frances’ website will leave readers in no doubt about what they’re in for. “Faith’s father has been found dead under mysterious circumstances” … “ New openings appear in the shadows, a black carriage rumbles through the streets” … “Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts” … You get the gist.

Bright and funny, the behatted figure at the lectern seems an unlikely conscript for the dark side. Yet stories from the shadows have always struck a deep chord with this children’s author. She describes vividly her childhood interest in terrifying tales, even as they “scared the stuffing out of me”. (An early work by the six-year-old Frances included an attempted poisoning, a faked death and a villain being thrown off a cliff.) And it becomes clear that over the years she’s built a voluminous inner library that has enriched her own writing – and this most compelling lecture.

Reflecting on the darkness found in various works of children’s literature, she observed that the menace often comes through suggestion and allusion. It may be half-heard, like the whistles in Philippa Pearce’s own short story, The Shadow Cage; or half-seen, like the stone watchers in Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams (Frances’ own childhood favourite); or shrouded in tricksy language, like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

Why is it, Frances wondered, that grimness and monstrosity are delivered to children through glimpse and glance? Certainly, it allows these things to slither under the radar of adult gatekeepers. (Though, ironically, their shadowiness may render them even more worrisome.) But more to the point, she went on to argue, shadow is in their very nature.

“As adults,” she said, “we forget what the darkness once was to us. We forget what the child knows: that light is only a respite, and the return of the dark brings the return of the monster.”

As adults we tend to reach for the switch and bathe everything in the cold, hard light of rationality. And yet, asked Frances, why should the faculty of the imagination be any less enlightening? Carroll’s Humpty offers a rational interpretation of “Jabberwocky” – and we know he is wrong. “He is right about individual words but he is wrong about the poem; Alice is closer to capturing its essence.”

Another dreaming child, Marianne understands that the dreamworld and the ordinary world are both real. “An adult reading Marianne Dreams might understand the menacing stones  as a facet of a child’s illness, a metaphor for a mundane threat. But this does not help the child.”

Children’s authors are, of course, adults, but they are, Frances believes, adults who remember and acknowledge the darkness that besets the minds of children, and who try to tell them that somebody understands. Sometimes, she says, we can just reach for the light switch –  “Look! No monster under the bed.” But sometimes children need to be told, “You are not silly or weak, you are not alone in the darkness with the shadows – I can see them too.” Philippa Pearce herself understood this well, as Frances pointed out. In The Shadow Cage, the child is rescued at the last by an adult who is able to step outside of the adult mindset, and to hear and recognise the reality of the menace.

But most importantly, said Frances, children need to learn that “to fight the shadow, you need the right sort of light.” And so, she took us all with her into the shadows, shining her own brand of light into the dark.

The 2018 lecture with Frances Hardinge

We are excited to announce the title of Frances Hardinge’s forthcoming lecture:

Peopling the Dark

Frances’ highly acclaimed children’s novels include Fly By Night, Twilight Robbery, the Carnegie-shortlisted Cuckoo Song and Costa Book of the Year winner, The Lie Tree. For her Philippa Pearce lecture, she will explore unseen and half-seen figures of menace and malice in Philippa Pearce’s The Shadow Cage, and other children’s literature.

photo © David Levenson

This lecture sees the Philippa Pearce Lecture celebrating its tenth anniversary. It takes place on Thursday, 19 April at 5.00 pm, in the Mary Allen Building, Homerton College, Cambridge. A wine reception follows. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance. Sign up to our mailing list to secure your place in the queue!

Video of Chris Riddell’s 2017 lecture is live

Happy New Year!

The video for Chris Riddell’s 2017 lecture is now live at our website. If you missed this excellent lecture then do visit the site and listen to it (and it is very much worth watching too, as it was certainly the most visually entertaining lecture that we have ever hosted).

There was no video made for Allan Ahlberg’s 2016 lecture, but this is a reminder that there is a particularly interesting PDF version of Allan’s lecture available to download at the website. It’s a facsimile of his notes complete with hand written annotations and images of many of the documents and object that Allan used to illuminate the talk.

Finally, a reminder about the date of this year’s lecture. From now onwards, the lecture will be held earlier, in the Spring of each year. The 2018 lecture will be given by Francis Hardinge and will take place on Thursday the 19th of April in the Mary Allan Building, Homerton College, Cambridge.