Preston-based Jake Hope has found all sorts of ways to bring the best reading to children, especially those living in the north of England. Here he discusses how children’s books and libraries make life better. Interview by Nicola Baird.
2022 saw a new chapter for Preston-based freelance book consultant and specialist in visual literature, Jake Hope, who many SLS readers will know is on judging panels for myriad book prizes including Blue Peter, Carnegie, Greenaway, Branford Boase and Diverse Voices Book Awards. And now he’s also championing his first book for very young readers, Cheesed Off, which was published on World Book Day in March.
“Cheesed Off started its life when I was working for Lancashire SLS. There were lots of books on healthy eating and books on milk and honey but nothing on cheese!” says Jake over Zoom. “I wrote a non-fiction book on cheese, but that was so dull it stayed in my sock drawer! During lockdown I came back to it after reading Ed Vere’s Banana, which only has the word banana. What if a book only had the word cheese? So, I thought about all the ways mice might get excited if they heard the word cheese, like ‘say cheese’ when a photo is taken. The book is about a party and the mice keep getting very excited, but never finding cheese, not even a ‘slice or a sliver’,” he explains.
There’s a happy ending too, as “towards the end everyone gets cheesecake,” says Jake with a big smile. Although the variety of cheese isn’t specifically mentioned, Jake says he had Lancashire cheese in mind because, well he likes it and, “this cheese plays an important part in Lancashire and they made it in the nearest town to where I grew up, Garstang.” All good reasons…
As important as Lancashire and cheese is to Jake, libraries and book publishing that inspires more readers and reading have become his life’s mission.
“Part of the idea was to write Cheesed Off in a way that children got engaged in the party with lots of participatory elements. I’d worked with the Book Trust to set up the Storytime Prize, all about finding a picture or board book that can be shared and enjoyed by adults and children together, so a lot of thinking and design came from that learning. And illustrator Genevieve Aspinall has done a lovely job with detail to explore. The nice thing about UCLan publishing is that it is based in the university in Preston and able to work with students on the publication process and to try and get new student illustrators, like Genevieve. It’s a really positive way to get into the publishing industry as one of the challenges for people in the North is how Londoncentric everything is. So having a regional publisher, like UCLan, equipping career starters with active skills that they can demonstrate really does help,” explains Jake who reckons he reads 400 books a year.
Many of the titles Jake reads with a judge’s eye are then passed on to schools and libraries, but the ones he keeps join a rainbow shelf at his home. “Children’s books are so bright, so if they are in alphabetical order, it’s a bit of a headache. Colour order makes them easier on the eye,” says Jake showing off a crowded bookshelf of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, purples and pinks. These are followed by books with black, white and silver spines. “Blue seems to be really popular!” says Jake looking carefully at his rainbow shelves.
After an MA in International Children’s Literature at the University of Reading on race ideology, popular forms of literature and visual literacy Jake began organising library shelves thanks to a stint working for Children and Youth Library Services at Northumbria University and as Young People’s Library Service Officer based in Preston from 2003-09. But his links to Lancashire libraries go right back to childhood.
“I grew up in a little town called Fleetwood for the first six years of my life. Fleetwood was a fishing town and hit badly by the Cod Wars. In the ‘80s it was very disadvantaged and so going to the library was like entering another world. It widened your horizons, so I learnt different ways of living and seeing the world. My mum took me to story time every week which I loved. I’d rifle through the picture boxes for books to take home and I’ve never lost that library habit,” says Jake.
“We sometimes take what an asset our libraries being free is. I lived in a family of four children, and I was the youngest, so there wasn’t much money, yet I was able to borrow all these fantastic, brand new books. All through school I’d go to libraries to study, support my studies and for pleasure reading. They’ve contributed massively to who I’ve become and I still do a lot of work with libraries by organising events, training and supporting Carnegie medals for children’s books. I feel there’s a massive need for children specialists in libraries to generate future audiences.”
Jake is adamant that libraries are not just about the books or even as a place for isolated new mums or kids who struggle to do homework in space-squeezed homes.
“Libraries are more than just the library space,” continues Jake listing some of the innovative ways he’s seen librarians connect people with libraries including story walks in the neighbourhood and as warm, safe spaces in the day. “I think it will be especially important that the library community space continues to be available as a lot of people are going to find it really tough this winter with rising heat and living costs.”
We’ve moved from mice being a little cheesed off to coping with tough times but throughout this interview it’s clear that Jake is a passionate champion for all that books and libraries can offer, whoever you are and wherever you live.
What are you reading?
Aftershocks by Anne Fine, it’s a good book for transition from primary to lower secondary. Which Way to Anywhere is the new Cressida Cowell – she’s a superb author and illustrator. She wants to make books as appealing to look at as sweets, and I think she does a really good job of that. Take off Which Way to Anywhere’s cover and it is shiny underneath.