In Conversation With... Wendy Elliott Chief Executive, Seven Stories

Issue 85

Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children's Books, brings stories to life for thousands of children and adults a year and it's right here in the heart of Ouseburn Valley. A registered charity and Arts Council accredited museum, they make literature more accessible through their free entry museum and visitor centre, and through extensive events and programme for the public, schools and community outreach audiences. They have a growing Collection of children's literature featuring some of the most influential works and artists of the last 100 years of children's literature, including Enid Blyton, Philip Pullman, Nick Sharratt and Judith Kerr.

What attracted you to your current role?

Unquestionably the opportunity to make a difference. Reading for pleasure is such an amazing experience and free to enjoy, and by encouraging and enhancing it we can make a huge difference to the lives of children and families. We have an enormous opportunity to make Seven Stories an educational and social impact beacon that the whole region can be proud of.

What has been your career path so far?

I enjoyed a 22 year career working in HR with Hewlett Packard before moving to the North of England Refugee Service so I could do something which made a tangible social impact in our local communities. I then joined Seven Stories in 2018 in a further HR role before becoming Operations Director in 2019, Interim Chief Exec in August 2021 before being permanently appointed to the role in May of this year.

What is your long term vision for Seven Stories?

We know there are more than just economic barriers that prevent people accessing arts and culture, and removing the general admission entry fee in February was just our first step in a bigger plan to increase participation and widen access to everything that we do. The Collection is hosted in Newcastle but it could easily have ended up out of the region, in say the British Library. It’s really important that it remains in our region and, remains a beautiful asset – a valuable set of resources which can be used by children and families in education settings as well as for fun and inspiration.

What events do you have coming up?

We have a packed Christmas season which is very exciting! It’s the first year for a few years we feel that people will be able to spend time together in a more relaxed way, and so our Christmas programme really focuses on opportunities to celebrate with family and friends, and make memories. It will be a challenging time for many as the Cost of Living crisis becomes more acute and so we’re including as many opportunities as we can to open the building longer, as a warm space, and to offer events at lower costs, for example adults go free to our Christmas events.

How does the venue work with local business?

We are actively looking for companies to champion what we do as part of their CSR strategy. Literacy, creativity and oracy skills change children’s lives and build the innovative workforce of the future – an initiative which I think will resonate with all businesses. There are opportunities to hire our spaces, become a regular donor, sponsor our galleries and build long-term partnerships to support our work. For the first time, we are taking our Collection on the road, offering mini exhibitions in businesses and community spaces across the UK – so it’s your chance to get Horrid Henry in your reception areas or Chris Haughton in your staff room!

What are the challenges of being book based in a technological world?

Books are vehicles for stories – and we’re all about stories! Children are engaging with stories in films, comics, audiobooks, podcasts, and of course in sandbox video games like Minecraft where you can explore a story or build your own. We aim to champion and protect stories in children’s books through our Collection, but we embrace and encourage the many ways children tell their own stories these days – including on our website where children’s own work, inspired by our Collection, is exhibited in animations and interactive digital galleries.

Which fictional character do you relate to and why?

I’m going to cheat and say Jo and Amy March from Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women. It was, and still remains, my favourite book of all time. I like to think of myself of a combination of the two characters – outspoken and headstrong, passionate and determined.

Who are your favourite children’s authors past and present?

Eva Ibbotson and Roald Dahl are two of my all-time favourites, creating magical worlds children can explore and escape to. The illustrations are also really memorable.

How do you see yourself working with local authors in the future?

We work as closely as possible with emerging writers and aim to become a meeting hub for local talent in the region. We have regular ‘writers’ salon’ evenings and intend to extend this to ‘write nights’ and other initiatives in 2023. We’re very excited about the recently launched MA in Publishing at Northumbria University and we’re talking regularly to forward-thinking publishers who have recognised the talent in the North and want to work with us to nurture it.

What does the future hold?

We are proud that Newcastle is the home of our nationally significant Collection of children’s literature and we’ll continue to build it with influential, modern and representative voices from across the country. We need to make sure that it accurately reflects modern British children’s literature and the challenges and opportunities of modern society – and it’s imperative that it is shared as widely as possible. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

I want our Visitor Centre, programme, family events, exhibitions and resources to reach more children and young people than ever and the only way we can achieve this is through collaboration, feedback and technology. Every penny spent at Seven Stories helps us to empower children and young people through the sharing and creation of stories, and we’re putting the call out for businesses to support us in their own ways too – your local community needs you!

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