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In Conversation with Kids’ Own Publishing’s Anna Dollard

Kids’ Own Publishing hands the creative reins over to kids, to tell their stories in their own words. We chat with Anna Dollard to discuss their upcoming program 'I Spy', the power of creating and sharing stories by children, and how she believes ‘books build bridges’ to facilitate social connection and empower communities.

Kids’ Own Publishing hands the creative reins over to kids, to tell their stories in their own words. This December, you can join Kid’s Own Publishing at I Spy – a free workshop series where children create their own books inspired by their explorations of the Abbotsford Convent gardens and grounds.

We sat down with Anna Dollard, Co-Director of Kids’ Own Publishing, to discuss their upcoming program, the power of creating and sharing stories by children, and how she believes ‘books build bridges’ to facilitate social connection and empower communities.

Tell us a little about Kids’ Own Publishing and how your story began.

Kids’ Own Publishing celebrates children as authors and artists, and gives them a voice through publishing. We partner with communities to share diverse stories widely through an artist-led publishing process.

The organisation was founded by Victoria Ryle, a teacher, and Simon Spain, a printmaker, over 20 years ago in the UK. Together they discovered the confidence-building power of letting children make their own books. They found that kids became significantly more interested in reading when they could read books that were about themselves and things that meant something to them and their lives.

They established Kids’ Own Publishing in Ireland, and then set it up in Australia over 10 years ago. Kids’ Own moved to the Convent in 2011.

How does the work you do benefit children?

We give children a voice through a range of different publishing techniques and programs. We run workshops where children and families can come and make books alongside artists. They might make simple eight-page photocopied books, or take part in a longer collaborative project which results in a beautiful printed picture book – either way children get to make all the decisions around what their book will be. It is really about empowering children and families to be authors and illustrators, and to give them that sense of pride and confidence that comes from making something that will be shared.

What are some of the key projects for Kids’ Own Publishing?

One of our longer-term projects recently was making books with the Afghan and Karen refugee communities in Bendigo, in partnership with City of Greater Bendigo. We were working with many families who left their country because of circumstances beyond their control, and are suffering a loss of identity, culture and language. A lot of these languages are not necessarily written down, so these communities may not have a lot of written resources they can access to teach their children about their culture. So we’ve created books that have been written by these families and children. One of these books was a bilingual Karen counting book that highlights the things that families celebrate – like dancing, rice paddies, special desserts, weaving and so on.

These books will be used in story time at the Bendigo library, so people from the Bendigo community will have a way to understand a little bit more about the families that have come to live with them. We often use the phrase ‘books build bridges’, so we hope that’s the sort of impact that the book project can have.

Your program ‘I Spy’ encourages young children to seek inspiration from the gardens and grounds of Abbotsford Convent. Why do you believe it is important for children to seek inspiration from their surroundings?

I think nature has always been an inspiration for artists and writers – it’s probably one of the greatest inspirations. Nature is filled with wonder: you barely have to walk two feet before you’ve got a question like ‘how did that leaf turn from green to yellow?’ and ‘look at the size of that insect fully developed with its legs and its funny shell’. That matches very well with our artist-led process, as we really want to open up children’s minds to all sorts of possibilities. The more questions we’re asking about the world, the more we will learn about it and the more comfortable we will feel in it too. And these gardens are beautiful, this whole precinct is full of so much history, and inspires so many stories.

I Spy is about letting the children lead the parent. Children, like artists, have a fantastic way of seeing the world and we need to step back and let them do that, and validate it.

Kids’ Own Publishing workshops are all led by artists. What do you think is the value of artist-led programs?

All of our projects are led by artists because we think that artists have a very special and a very different way of looking at the world, and we think that it’s very important that younger people have plenty of contact with artists in their early years. It helps them to see all the possibilities of the imagination and where it can take you.

The workshops that we hold here at the Convent are led by special guests, visual artists, writers, dancers and photographers, sharing their passion with the groups. We don’t think of them as workshops where you learn how to do something that an artist does, but you are inspired by the artist and use that as your stepping stone to make your own story about whatever you want. It’s not school – it’s very different.

What’s in the future for Kids’ Own Publishing?

I think it’s a really exciting time for children’s voices: there is real recognition of the value of publishing their voices. In 2019 we will be bringing groups of children from completely different parts of Melbourne together to make art and books about things of mutual interest. We’d like to get more people together through art and book making who might not necessarily meet each other otherwise. We’re also reconnecting with the original authors of our very special book Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes (first published in 2013) who are now young adults. They have lots to say so watch this space! We’re also honoured to be working with the State Library of Queensland and artists in their unique family play space The Corner (initiated by Abbotsford Convent’s CEO, Collette Brennan). At the end of the day, Kids’ Own is proud to celebrate the creation of books by kids for kids which strengthen and connect communities, and we hope the future holds much more of it.

Join Kids’ Own Publishing at free workshop series I Spy from Wednesday 5 – Saturday 8 December 2018, or catch them at Your Story Garden in January 2019. I Spy and Your Story Garden are presented as part of Convent Kids.