A Day Spent in Seventh Heaven

In anticipation of its July reopening, roving illustrator reporter Paul Morton recalls a visit to Newcastle's marvellous Seven Stories Children's Book Centre.

Seven Stories is the flagship children’s book centre in the UK.
Seven whole floors of picture book delight.  Located in the trendy Byker Bridge area of Newcastle, it boasts a (fairly) picturesque river side location.

I was doubly lucky in April to enjoy my third visit there. Firstly, because I had the luxury of spending a whole day, and secondly, because after ten glorious years, it closed just the week after I visited! But don’t worry, it’s just a temporary refurbishment closure.

When entering 7S it really does feel like the Willy Wonka Factory for children’s books, and the ‘Golden Ticket’ costs just £7. So for those not yet lucky enough to have visited, and for those interested in their last set of exhibitions, here’s my report. 

Let’s take it floor by floor.

Ground floor is Level 3 and you enter through two excellent bookshops. I saved the pleasure of these areas until later and made my way straight to Levels 4 and 5. This wasn’t easy, as I had birthday money burning a hole in my pocket. The special exhibition, spread through two galleries, was entitled Moving Stories, and featured 16 classic books that had made the transition to TV and the big screen.

Gallery 4
Fairy Tales
Snow White
Mixed up Fairy Tales 
Journeys of Adventure 
Hugo Cabret
Lost and Found
Peter Pan

Gallery 5
Worlds of fantasy 
Alice in Wonderland 
The Lost Thing 
Howl’s Moving Castle
Overcoming the Monster
Fantastic Mr Fox 
The Gruffalo
Home Sweet Home
The Borrowers 
Mr Stink
Charlie and Lola

I’m ashamed to say that there was one of these titles that I’d not yet heard of, but soon realised that it was going to become one of my favourites. Brian Selznick’s epic graphic-novel-cum-picture-book The Invention of Hugo Cabret has somehow passed me by. But I’m so glad that I discovered it at 7S. The book opens in Paris 1931 and features a boy, a girl and a key. 284 pictures illustrate the book's 526 pages. The book depends as much on its pictures as it does on the words. Selznick is recorded as having described the book as “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.” The illustrations are bold, cross hatched graphite and feel very much like comic strip, or stills from a film. Easy to see why the story was loved so much by Martin Scorsese when he bought the screen rights and made the film in 2011. So I also have that pleasure to discover too.

Anyway, that was just the first room and I was feeling rewarded already.
Then I discovered a Nick Sharratt book I’d not seen before - his excellently inventive Foggy Foggy Forest. I was starting to wonder if I’d ever studied PB illustration at all! Nick’s book was lying around and scattered with others in the Mixed up Fairy Tale section of this display with books such as Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Shrek and, newcomer to the genre, Lost and Found.

As well as being able to sit and pore over the original books and some of the original artwork - sketches as well as finished illustrations - there were fascinating facts and other tidbits to keep me entertained. For instance, Cinderella is over a thousand years old and is thought to have originated in 9th century China. To date there have been over 1000 versions worldwide and all follow the basic plotline of a young girl done wrong by elder siblings. The popular version that we are all familiar with is the French 1697 Charles Perrault retelling.

I must say I was shocked by the brutal crudeness of William Steig’s original Shrek. Of course since 2001 we’ve all been spoilt by the glossy, candyflossy pizazz that Dreamworks brought to the character and story. But the original book, published in 1990, is well worth taking a look at.

Another ‘monster’ that has become a household name is of course The Gruffalo. Axel Sheffler’s sketches were on display and depicted the scarier version of the lovable beast before the publisher asked for a more toned down and appealing look to the character.

I was also fascinated to read Roald Dahl’s critical comments (as passed on via his publisher Kaye Webb) to his illustrator Jill Bennet. You cannot think of Roald Dahl’s stories without visualising Quentin Blake’s scatty flowing freehand illustrations. But there have been other illustrators to work with Dahl and Jill Bennet executed some excellent pictures for Fantastic Mr Fox in 1974.

In June 1972 Kaye Webb typed to Jill ...
‘I saw Roald Dahl last night and we went through the drawings - on the whole he liked them, and if you could make some adjustments along the lines he noted, he would be glad to have you as an artist for it.’

How many times have I read such comments. ‘We love your work, but ...’
However, Kaye Webb being ever the professional and much loved editor that she’s noted for, added her own handwritten notes above this sentence saying ..

‘I’m sorry that sounds a bit glum He DID like them.’

She then goes on to explain about the expressions of various characters that need developing. Including in one example -

‘Mrs Fox’s face is rather like a pussy cat's, and not a very nice one - she should be charming and happy.’’

She finished by sympathising with Jill’s task by exclaiming ‘Heaven knows how you will cope with this!’

A wonderful little detail from what has now become a much loved classic book and film.

As well as 7S being a treasure trove for grown-up picture book enthusiasts, the kids were having a whale of a time too. With each book title on display there were fun activities and story-starter cards to keep them enthralled and entertained.

These included a ‘full size’ Cinderella princess carriage where kids could sit and try costumes on, a fun hall of mirrors in the Alice exhibition and a ‘Lost thing’ animated mechanical wall with various buttons, sliders and bells and lights.

The Borrowers display was particularly well arranged with giant bobbins, packets and labels along with the rare original hand written manuscript and illustration ideas, penned by Mary Norton, pre publication in 1952. I discovered that MN had invented the story much earlier, and then had been inspired by the displacement of families in the Second World War, which crystallised her vision.

So much wonder and too many incredible things to mention here in full. From Galleries 4 and 5 I made my way to the the top of the building to catch a live performance of Mix up Fairy Tales. At the door I had a quick chat with Cathy Brumby, fellow SCBWI member and duty officer at 7S and then settled to watch Cathy introduce actors playing the parts of Fairy Tale characters, led by suggestions from the floor creating a live story line. In this particular session the fairy princess moved from Spider Man’s house to accompany Batman to Amsterdam so I sat and sketched and watched and listened as they took part in a clog dancing competition!!

Level 7 is an activity and storytelling area where I met one of my heroes seen here in this pic.

From there I descended to the café on Level 2 and had a nice lunch watching life go by on the river that flows to the Tyne.

Basement Level 1 is the craft centre where I’d recently missed A Rumble with the Romans cartoon workshop with Gary Northfield and the next day I was sad to be missing a Bunny Book Burglar Workshop with Emily Mackenzie.

After lunch I decided to take in the special exhibition featuring the books about
Angelina Ballerina, the lovable and immensely popular mouse character created by Katherine Holabird, and developed and collaborated on with artist Helen Craig. I’ve produced some illustration work for a spin off game for Angelina, and so I was very interested to take a look at all the wonderful original artwork. I was so amused that I actually laughed out loud when I read Helen’s polite but firm typewritten response to the TV production company developing and adapting the books. They obviously hadn’t quite understood what the world of AB was all about.

On NY’s eve 1999 Helen was moved to point out that an English country village had a particular culture and ambience ...

“on page 9 there is no ‘park’ in the village but there would be a village green. There would NOT be a Theatre Des Artes in an English Village - possibly in a neighbouring town but it would not have a French name. Any performances in the village would be in the village hall."

Hilarious!! Well I thought so.

Book den and lounge on Level 4

After a restorative coffee, cake and WiFi fix, I ventured into the book shops and delved there for over an hour. I was very pleased to see fellow SCBWI member and fellow illustrator Sam Zuppardi’s book - Nobody’s Perfect (text by David Elliot).

I came away with just 6 books, but with a whole list of others I’d like to have.
Plus a warm glow, a feeling of satisfaction at a day well spent, brimming with inspiration and ideas. One idea has already begun development in my notebook.

Hopefully I’ve whetted your appetite for a visit to Seven Stories!
It re-opens on MONDAY 20th July and all I could prise out of the staff when quizzed about what might be in store, was - ‘possibly a BIG exhibition of Paddington, plus more of the same great stuff.’

Well worth a visit.

Paul Morton lives in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, from where he runs Hot Frog Graphics illustration and design studio.  


  1. definitely on my list of places I must visit!

  2. Fantastic, Paul! Can't wait to go visit 7S next time I get to Newcastle!

  3. This is a really fab overview of what's on offer in 7S, thanks Paul! It's on my summer wish list to visit - if I wasn't so far away, I'd go every week! :)


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