I've just been to the Somerset Celebration of Children's Literature (and slept for ten hours last night!). For those who haven't heard of Somerset, it's a large private school on the Gold Coast (about 1-1/2 hours south of Brisbane) that holds a huge festival every year. This year around 30 authors gathered for 3 days of talks and workshops with students from about 70 different schools. Although Somerset is the hosting venue, and lots of their students attend the various sessions, schools from all over the place send groups of students in buses too.
Some authors had 400 kids in their sessions. I had one session with 206 and another with around 250. I can tell you that 250 first and second graders make a lot of noise when you get them to practise their pirate talk! Arrrrrrr. The great thing about Somerset is that you have plenty of opportunities to listen to other authors (while madly making notes about what worked for them and getting new ideas for your own presentations - not stealing, just thinking 'I could do that but I'd do it like this'). I listened to Pat Flynn, Lee Fox, Michelle Taylor, James Roy and P.D. Martin, among others, and everyone had a completely different approach.
The bookshop has signing tables, so after your session, you went along to the bookshop and sat a table and signed books and talked to the kids. This was such a contrast to the Sydney Writers' Festival a few years ago, where I sat at a table next to Sam Wagan Watson and we signed one book each! At Somerset, lots of kids bought books and brought them over for signing, but also lots were collecting autographs. You could almost pretend you were famous (I said almost!).
The festival is incredibly well-organised, with a great bunch of parent volunteers who did everything from driving our shuttle bus to working on the food stalls and in the bookshop, plus managing the sessions and seating, and getting us all to the right venue at the right time. We also had student volunteers who helped us set up and fetched water and introduced us. Somerset has been running for 16 years, and it shows. A really huge thank you to all who helped to make it an amazing experience.
On another tack, the news came in while we were there that the 2010 Children's Book Council conference has been cancelled, citing financial problems - another victim of the current global crisis. This is very sad news, as the conference is a vital national meeting place for writers, teachers and librarians, as well as lovers of children's literature. There were many people who commented that maybe moving the conference (and its organisation) to a new city every two years is a mistake, and that a central group needs to build on experience, year after year (like Somerset and other long-running festivals), rather than start anew each time.
No doubt over the next few weeks there will be many opinions and ideas flying around, but mostly I think everyone is just upset that such an important conference has bitten the dust. Time will tell whether anyone else steps forward to create an alternative, or whether we'll have to wait until 2012 for the next one...