Little ones in your life? Take them to Seven Stories
With brand new exhibitions Once There Was Magic and Shifter of Shapes, the National Centre for Children’s Books is sending out a clear message of intent – and it centres around inspiration, education and exhilaration.
There’s a universal truth that we all know to be true, whether parents ourselves or not – entertaining kids is hard work.
Sure, it can be real rewarding and all, but spend a full day with anyone under the age of 10 and you can often find yourself experiencing a deep, deep tiredness of the soul that you just didn’t know existed before.
Luckily, Newcastle’s own Seven Stories – otherwise known as The National Centre for Children’s Books – has got our backs. Having always been a popular destination for a child-centred day out thanks to their impressive programme of workshops and live readings, it’s clear Seven Stories have used their ‘time out’ during lockdown to ramp things up a notch. Or seven.
Because there are exhibitions and then there are exhibitions. And post-lockdown, Seven Stories are providing us with the latter. Think dynamic, completely immersive experiences designed not only to educate but also to truly inspire. All delivered with such alacrity that you hardly have time to figure out where you’re going or why before you arrive, (which, where young ‘uns are concerned, is definitely a good thing). All this driven by the ingenuity, spirit, craft and utter magic of books.
We dropped by Seven Stories for ourselves with the intention of popping our heads into their two new exhibitions: Shifter of Shapes and Once There Was Magic. Five hours later, we were happily waltzing out of the centre with a stash of new books under our arms (as well as a fluffy toy or two in the mix), and the imaginations of young and old well and truly invigorated.
Because, whether we admit it or not, children’s books are never just for kids. They inspire the adults we grow into. How many of us can remember some of the books we read as a kid? How we were terrified by that one antagonist, encouraged by the triumphs of that particular hero, or enthralled by a specific adventure.
It’s no coincidence that Disney are investing in a wealth of live-action remakes to appeal to an older audience – the main market of children’s stories are adults. And that’s because, at their core, children’s books carry within them the hopes, fears, ambitions and memories we carry with us throughout our lives.
So it’s pretty important that we respect and nurture a love of reading in our little ones, too. And Seven Stories just make it easy…
COULD THERE REALLY BE SEVEN STORIES IN ALL THE WORLD?
The first exhibition we experienced was Could There Really Be Seven Stories In All The World? – which, by and large, did what it said on the tin.
Exploring the concept that every story fits into one of seven basic plots, the exhibition was accessible to all ages and – having left the house in a whirlwind, hastily stuffing snacks into Iron Man backpacks and driving to the Ouseburn Valley listening to a soundtrack of constant ‘why?’s – was a welcome breather to get us into the museum mindset.
Super interactive. We climbed in a castle, coloured in The Queen’s Knickers and put on a live performance (with guest appearances from Gruffalo shadow puppets).
For younger visitors, the mass interactivity can distract from the books and overarching plot concepts. Don’t expect anyone under seven to be leaving able to recite any Enid Blyton.
SHIFTER OF SHAPES
Next up was Shifter of Shapes – a quiet, gently enchanting exploration of The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.
The Lost Spells has been described as a ‘moving, joyful treasure of a book’ and we’d say the same of Seven Stories’ immersive exhibition. At its heart is Red Fox – ‘Shifter of shapes and garbage-raider… Messenger, trickster, curfew-breaker’ – who, thanks to Jackie’s dynamic illustrations, led us on a journey through wild landscapes to the hidden dens where cubs nestle against the winter and jackdaws hide their treasure.
Showing us how nature can amaze, console and bring joy to the most unexpected of places, Red Fox and his friends played out their roles to a soundtrack narrated, sung and played by Rachel Newton, (one of the visionary musicians of Spell Songs).
In keeping with the quiet magic at the exhibition’s core, our bubble had exclusive use of the gallery for 15 minutes, before being invited to take a table in the Lost Spells Den to make woodland-themed crafts while enjoying complimentary juice, tea and coffee too.
Surprisingly captivating for young and old. Just shows you don’t need a story full of mod-cons, bells and whistles – the natural world has all the magic we need. The crafts broke up the ‘exhibition experience’ perfectly and our littles ones loved the ‘living book’.
We’re struggling to think of any for this exhibition. If we’re being very picky, there could be more stories from the poetry collection on display. But we don’t think the little ones really minded and, to be completely honest, neither did we.
ONCE THERE WAS MAGIC
As with most things in life, at Seven Stories the best was left ‘til last: Once There Was Magic.
Not knowing anything about the exhibition beforehand, once we’d finished up crafting in the Lost Spells Den we went down to the third floor at our allocated time, as per the strict instructions of the Seven Stories staff member who had welcomed us earlier. But before we could ever push the door handle into the gallery, a big, booming knock came from within…
As we nervously approached, a wise wizard whisked us inside, explaining hastily that their key to our world had broken as we had entered through the ‘portal’ into their world. Now, they needed our help to discover the magic spell that would repair it – and, of course, we willingly obliged.
So began our hour-long, completely immersive journey through the ‘realms’ of magical literature. With our wizard as our guide, we travelled through Dust, Wildwoods and fiery portals on a magic carpet to Narnia, learning how to read an Alethiometer and stopping off at Hogwarts along the way and collecting magical words with each adventure.
(In reality, this was done by entering a series of interactive ‘pods’, where our ‘wizard guide’ used projections and video simulations to introduce us to the worlds in each of the books discussed).
Having sounded like a lifetime before we entered the exhibition, an hour flew by. You won’t find an exhibition like this for kids anywhere else in the North East. Utterly enthralling.
The exhibition is aimed at ages seven and above, and there’s good reason for that. We had some younger ones in our party who were a little frightened by this experience, (although a kind pixie did help them come out of their shells by the end).
The maintenance of Seven Stories is impressive. Cleanliness is clearly high priority, toilets and changing facilities are never far away, lifts and ramps make sure everything is accessible and there are even places to store prams while you let the little ones run off steam.
We can vouch for the refreshments served in their newly-renovated café, too. While their Riverside Café now serves a lazy brunch on selected dates, we can think of few better spots for a cheeky brew with a view than the Level 3 café here, which looks out over the always-buzzing Ouseburn Valley. Top tip? Try their traybakes.
And, of course, no visit with little ones is truly complete without at least a ‘look around’ the giftshop. And at Seven Stories, all ages will find plenty to browse through. Obviously, we knew there’d be books, but we weren’t expecting quite so many books – so many beautiful, beautiful editions of all the best kinds of books. But it turns out Seven Stories are one of the largest independent children’s bookshops in the country and have the hand-picked range of books for all ages – from board books for babies and toddlers, through to young adult fiction (and a few books thrown in for grown-ups) – to prove it, too.
Our overall verdict? It’s a yes from us, Simon.