Children’s Book Show: The competition to find young storytellers is back – The Independent

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time there was a children’s author and illustrator called Jessica Souhami. As well as writing books – something that she’s done for the past two decades – Souhami goes on a journey every year. Her quest takes her to schools across the country where she weaves a spell with her words and entrances the children who listen to her. She is part of a travelling group of bards who make up the Children’s Book Show, an annual series of events that sees writers and illustrators putting on creative workshops in a bid to foster a lifelong love of literature in children. Occasionally, though, these storytellers need a bit of prompting from a good – and persuasive – fairy, in the form of Sian Williams. Williams is director of the Children’s Book Show, an event that is supported by The Independent.

“I have this telephone call from Sian every year and she knows it is terrifying for me,” says Souhami. “But by the time Sian gets off the phone I’ve usually agreed to do twice as much as I did before. I still get very nervous about it so I’m not sure how good it is for my blood pressure.”

Despite the rigours of putting on shows for 400 children aged between five and 10, the benefits of encouraging pupils to develop their own stories (while persuading teachers not to disturb their creativity by lending them a helping hand) seem well worth it.

“There was one child – the teacher told me he’d never written anything before but he was so proud at the end of the day because he’d actually written a story,” she says. “The most important thing for me is that the children tell their own stories. What I do is give them the skeleton of a story, but then it’s up to them how they develop it.”

On stage with the children, her main aim is to get the children to make their own books. She gains their interest by emphasising that – with an illustrated children’s book – “you only see one spread at a time, one double page at a time, so you don’t know what happens”.

First established in 2003, the Children’s Book Show is more than just a tour. It also includes a competition for young writers. Last year, Jessica had to judge 100 entries to find the winner – and, contrary to the received wisdom about the gender gap on education, more boys entered the competition than girls. The 2014 winner came from Grange Farm, a state primary school in Coventry. Seven-year-old Jonathan Smith triumphed by bringing the Cinderella story up to date – rather than leave a slipper behind at the ball after attracting the prince’s interest, this modern-day Cinderella leaves her iPhone behind. The prince travels the land trying to track her down and, while the ugly sisters cannot oblige by providing the password, Cinderella can.

“I was really jealous of that story,” says Souhami. “I thought it was wonderful.”


In fact, Souhami’s latest book also takes a fairy tale and makes it appealing to modern readers. Honk, Honk! Hold Tight!, published last month, is about a princess who never laughs. In the traditional version of the story, set in the 17th century, a prince makes her laugh, he asks her to marry him and they live happily ever after.

“I wasn’t going to have that,” explains Souhami, so in her reworking the princess herself proposes to the prince because she wants to spend the rest of her life with someone who laughs.

This year, the poet and writer Rachel Rooney – whose books include The Language of Cat and My Life As A Goldfish – has set the challenge: write a poem on the theme of Light.

There are two categories for the competition: under nine-year-olds and nine to 11-year-olds – and entries have to be in by 30 November.

“The poem can be about anything to do with light,” according to the rules. “It can be about the sun or the stars, about a fire or a candle, a firefly, a light bulb or maybe even a lamp post. Poems can be short or long, funny or serious. They can come in the form of a shape poem, a riddle, a list poem, a personification poem or something else – it’s up to you.”

With signed copies of works from each of the Children’s Book Show’s nine authors, and £150 for the winners’ schools to spend on books, it looks as though the successful pair will read happily ever after.

Email entries to or post to: The Children’s Bookshow, PO Box 72019, London NW6 9SL