Nursery rhymes bring us all closer together as you will find in a new book. Seven Stories co-founder Elizabeth Hammill tells David Whetstone the story behind it
Elizabeth Hammill has spent a large part of her life selling and promoting books by children’s authors and illustrators and now comes one with her own name on the cover.
It’s a real beauty. Over the Hills and Far Away is a treasury of nursery rhymes from around the world. It is also a glorious showcase for the talents of 77 – yes, that’s 77 – illustrators.
I meet Elizabeth in the book shop at Seven Stories.
Where could be nicer (especially now they also sell a good cup of coffee) or more appropiate?
The national centre for children’s books wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Elizabeth who had the idea for it and, with a little help from her friends, made it happen.
Born in America but resident for many years in Jesmond, Elizabeth was awarded an honorary doctorate by Newcastle University in 2006 and an honorary OBE the following year.
Seven Stories, an institution of which you’ll never hear a bad word said, will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year and recently earned the continued backing of Newcastle City Council with a funding package for the next three years.
Arriving ahead of Elizabeth, I had a chance to read some of the nursery rhymes in her book and get mildly perturbed by one that begins: “Little Miss Tuckett/ Sat on a bucket,/ Eating some peaches and cream...”
Inwardly, I was getting on my high horse, thinking this wasn’t how I remembered it.
Then I noticed that it sat above one that begins: “Little Miss Muffet/ Arose from her tuffet/ To box with the old kangaroo...” and diagonally opposite another that kicks off: “Lickle Miss Julie/ Kotch pon ar stoolie,/ An nyam wan ripe bombay...”
All, it turns out, are international (American, Australian and Jamaican respectively) variations on the rhyme about Little Miss Muffet sitting on her tuffet and eating her curds and whey – which might not make a whole lot more sense but at least sounds familiar to an English adult ear.
Every one of these verses, incidentally, has been illustrated by someone different. Take a bow, Clara Vulliamy, Jenny Bent, Amy Schwartz and Bruce Whatley.
“It has been a lifelong interest,” says Elizabeth of her nursery rhymes.
“I think my particular interest in other cultures and other ways of seeing and doing things really developed when I was child.
“I was a great reader and reading allowed me to explore other worlds.”
When she grew up a bit, Elizabeth realised that many different worlds were on her doorstep and many of them weren’t especially appealing.
She recalls a summer as a social work intern in Harlem when she was a student in the 1960s. “There was huge social unrest and the civil rights movement was getting going and we were taking groups of black children out to the zoo and other places.
“Because I was with these kids people would jostle us and I was shocked that that could happen in New York.”
The following summer she spent 10 weeks touring the States with friends from around the world, including a girl from Tanzania, and encountered racism in its most sinister form.
An invitation to visit a black university in the Deep South was inexplicably withdrawn and Elizabeth suspects the hand of the Ku Klux Klan.
Visits to a Native American reservation, where people who barely even registered in the history books scratched a living, also helped to shape the outlook of a bookish young woman.
Whereas cultural differences seemed to provoke fear and suspicion, Elizabeth found that in nursery rhymes there was common ground.
But there were differences here, too.
Elizabeth first came to Britain with her parents. “I started work as a child care officer and was going to change the world, which was a bit naive. I didn’t last very long.
“Then I met my husband and we moved to New York where I was teaching dyslexic children. Then we came back here and I was on the parents’ committee at West Jesmond Primary School. I started up a school bookshop.”
This was her first step on the road that would lead, eventually, to Seven Stories.
Elizabeth looked after the children’s section of The Bookhouse, a bookshop on Newcastle’s Ridley Place, and then moved to a similar position at Waterstone’s when its first store opened in Newcastle.
She helped to organise the first Northern Children’s Book Festival and set up a literary magazine for teenagers by teenagers.
The idea for a national centre for children’s books was sparked by the fact that nobody seemed to value this aspect of our literary heritage. Manuscripts and original art was flying out of the country.
First with Jay Maudslay, Newcastle City Council’s chief education advisor who, tragically, was killed in Thailand when a hotel collapsed, and then with Mary Briggs, Elizabeth set in train the sequence of events that would lead to the triumphant opening in 2005 of Seven Stories.
The nursery rhymes book idea, says Elizabeth, dates back to the early days of the project when she put ir forward as a fund-raising idea.
“I thought it would be nice to do a book of this nature in support of the capital project.
Her lifelong love of books and different cultures had led to a deep interst in nursery rhymes.
She explains how she was fascinated to find in them common ground between different cultures – but also subtle differences in rhymes so old that they have no known author (Little Miss Tuffet being a prime example).
She says she had received encouragement in her book project from a celebrated African-American storyteller called Ashley Bryan.
She went to visit him at his home on Little Cranberry Island, in Maine, in the summer of 2000.
Bryan, whose work features in Elizabeth’s book, was the first African-American to publish a children’s book as author and illustrator. That was back when Elizabeth was getting jostled in New York.
“I rang him up and said, ‘Can I come and talk to you about this project?’ He gave me the warmest welcome and said it was a great idea. He had a fabulous library of material, African-American and Native American... all kinds of folk material. That was the first place I did my research.”
Elizabeth’s research for her fund-raising book of nursery rhymes took her all over the place but then, as the Seven Stories project started to happen anyway, reality dawned.
“By 2003 we had a growing collection, we’d bought this place and the capital project was picking up steam. The board got cold feet over the book. They thought there was too much to do and there was no way I was going to find the illustrators in time, so the book was abandoned.
“Then four years ago various people were saying, ‘Aren’t you going to do anything with that? There still isn’t a book like the one you were planning.’”
Frances Lincoln, a publisher which specialises in writing celebrating different cultures, came on board and Elizabeth’s project was suddenly back on course.
Much of her time in the past few years has been spent on finding the right illustrator for each of the 150 rhymes in the book.
Many of them she has worked with before, such as the revered Shirley Hughes, now well into her eighties, and some, such as the young Native American artist Allison Francisco and the Canadian Inuit illustrator Andrew Qappick, are new to her.
Some were easy to find, others all but impossible. Some knew exactly what was required of them, others needed guidance.
Anthony Browne, famous for his Gorilla books and the subject of a Seven Stories exhibition, politely turned Elizabeth down, explaining he wouldn’t feel happy doing a one-off illustration but worked better in sequences.
Eric Carle, whose The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a children’s classic, is also in his eighties but he and his publisher were keen for him to be represented in Elizabeth’s book so they allowed her to choose images from his archive that might fit one of her rhymes.
The Carle illustrations grace three rhymes, including Ladybird, ladybird,/ Fly away home.
Some of the illustrators are based in the North East, including Brita Granström and Mick Manning, Olivia Lomenech Gill and Sara Ogilvie, and three – Pippa Curnick, Holly Sterling and Sian Jenkins – won a special competition for young illustrators set up especially for the book and to encourage new talent.
The book, a tribute to Elizabeth Hammill’s persistence and lifelong love of literature and illustration, is to be launched in London on October 13 at an event featuring Elizabeth and author Michael Rosen, and then at Seven Stories in Newcastle on October 15.
Intriguingly, the book has been published with alternative covers. Seven Stories is selling an exclusive edition with a cover illustration by Jane Ray. Buy it elsewhere and you will get the cover sporting Mark Hearld’s robin. Either way, it is published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, costs £14.99 and all proceeds go to Seven Stories.