Humdinger! Children’s Book Festival

Dog Ears' second festival of storytelling in Derry~Londonderry has a new focus on outreach

The inaugural Humdinger! Children’s Book Festival took place in Derry~Londonderry in March 2013, injecting a healthy dose of literature into the UK City of Culture programme.

Organised by Dog Ears, the children's media company based in the city, it was unclear at the time whether or not the festival would be a one-off. According to Dog Ears co-founder, Fionnuala Deane, 'We simply felt we wanted to be part of the City of Culture programme.

'We wanted an opportunity to show what we can do, and prove we could put on such a series of events. There are a lot of book festivals throughout the country. We just thought, "Why can’t we do it here?"'

It was an enormous success. Over three days, 27 events took place in ten venues across the city, with more than 5,000 people attending. It was a festival of storytelling, using both modern and traditional methods, as well as art and music.

The inaugural Humdinger! featured appearances by such writers, illustrators and performers as Roddy Doyle, Alex T Smith, Meg Rossoff and the Quercus Ensemble. In one of the highlights, Julia Donaldson, creator of The Gruffalo and Children’s Laureate, performed in front of 1,900 people at the Millennium Forum. (Watch 2013 festival highlights in the videos above and below.)

'It was packed,' recalls Deane. 'It was crazy. Home-made, interactive, full of singing and laughing.' And, as with so many events in Derry~Londonderry during the City of Culture year, 'It showed people here are dying for this sort of content.'

Running the festival also dovetailed perfectly with the company’s ethos and purpose. Founded in 2010 by three women – Fionnuala Deane, Laura Campbell and Jackie McColgan, all born and bred in the city, with a background in publishing and children’s animation – Dog Ears was born out of a love of literature and a desire to foster that love in children in Derry~Londonderry and beyond.

'We are a business and we’re set up to make a profit,' says Jackie McColgan, 'but social and community elements are a vital part of what we do. We’re about creating a love of literature and literacy and words and imagination.'

Dog Ears is partly funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and works closely with the Book Trust and Libraries NI, producing books, apps and animated stories for the pre-school market.

A series of products featuring Miss Rosie Red, created by Derry writer and illustrator Trisha Deery, is already available, and the animated cartoon Puffin Rock is due to be broadcast soon, narrated by Chris O’Dowd, no less, and produced in conjunction with partners Cartoon Saloon and Penguin.

As well as their exciting array of products, Dog Ears also works throughout Northern Ireland holding events and workshops. 'We want children to be excited about books and stories,' explains McColgan. 'The story is the key, but we know there is a need in Northern Ireland for quality events to encourage children to read and to help parents sit down and read with their children.'

Organising another Humdinger! Children's Book Festival, then, was a no-brainer. And so, on Monday, March 24, the second Humdinger! will begin, running until March 29. The aim this time around is to produce something bigger and better, something that will top last year. Instead of three days, this year’s festival will last twice as long, beginning with three days of outreach visits to schools across Derry.

There will be a series of events for pre-school children on Thursday, March 27, and on Friday 28. Schools can book to participate in events and workshops at the new purpose-built Dog Ears premises on Bishop Street.

Whereas during the 2013 festival some of the sessions coincided, this year’s festival will see events timed so as not to clash with each other, and, apart from the outreach schools visits, they will be much more focussed in the centre of the city, so there will be a greater sense of a happening to proceedings.

With one or two exceptions, the shows are aimed at children of 11 and under. Among the highlights of this year’s festival will be a demonstration by Tony Ross, illustrator of the Horrid Henry books, as well as an exhibition by renowned illustrator Judith Kerr.

And on the final day, Saturday, March 29, the festival will be taking over the whole of St Columb’s Hall for a series of events including a workshop by Oliver Jeffers. The award-winning writer, artist and illustrator of The Incredible Book-Eating Boy and others. Once of Belfast and now living in Brooklyn, Jeffers hold a performance for younger children, demonstrating live drawing skills, electronic animation and storytelling.

That will be followed by a second event for teenagers and adults, focussing on how to create. This will look at album covers, art, architecture, illustration and animation, providing an insight into the creative process. Throughout the day there will be workshops and interactive sessions in what Deane describes as the first event of its kind in Northern Ireland.

The festival, which is hoped will now become an annual event, shows the coming to fruition of a number of partnerships developed by Dog Ears, with bodies including the Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure, the Arts Council and Honeycomb Creative Works, a digital content support network working in the border regions.

As with the work of Dog Ears itself, it will cover games, apps, TV, film, books and digital animation. At the heart of everything, however, is the story and its power to transform and excite. 'It’s about passion, pleasure and enjoyment,' concludes Deane. 'We want to help children aspire.'

Visit the Humdinger! Children's Book Festival website to download the full festival programme.