Preparations for this year’s SPINE Festival are well underway and we can’t wait for it to start in June. The festival is for children, young people and families and takes place across libraries situated at the heart of London’s communities, both digitally and in-person. This year the festival’s theme is ‘EMPATHY’ and launches on 1 June, World Children’s Day.

We look forward to SPINE each year as we believe it empowers children and their families to enjoy spoken word in a community friendly environment. Due to the current lockdown guidelines, some of the events have been moved online this year. However, that doesn’t mean it’ll be any less brilliant and we’re just as excited to bring you the programme. Whilst we wait for June to arrive, we thought we’d look back on SPINE and what it’s meant in previous years to the participants. We interviewed Sarah Smith from Brent Libraries to share with you some memories from SPINE and how the pandemic has affected programming, choices and working patterns.

How did you first become involved in SPINE festival?

My journey with the SPINE Festival began way back in 2014, recommended by a former colleague. SPINE Fest is like my solo holidays – something different, exciting and bit unknown every year. So each year you wonder what the experience will be, who will the artists be, what will the theatre event be like, how will our visiting school classes respond….? But bring it on!!

What impact has SPINE had in your community (Brent)?

Brent Libraries was fortunate to have an Artist in Residence (AiR) in the inaugural year of the SPINE Festival, 2015. We had an American AiR, Jared Louche who described himself as a poet, performer, storyteller, singer, rock star, writer, educator, DJ, painter, photographer and sculptor from Boston and now resident in the UK. Harlesden Library got the cultural treatment with Jared. 

I remember Jared’s interview. He just had such a quirky, fun personality that I thought he would be able to do the business at Harlesden and it would be a real treat for the local community. Harlesden library is in one of the more deprived areas of Brent. It is home to culturally ethnic communities hailing from the Caribbean, Africa including Somalia and Brazil origins.

Wearing nail polish, different coloured shoes, and some interesting wardrobe arrangements, Jared was most certainly a ‘person of interest’ in Harlesden. And the kids embraced him 110%! 

School classes were always on tap for Jared’s creative writing workshops and engaging Q&A sessions. They really got to quiz him…frankly! We also had after school sessions for families and children enjoyed the hidden mini-stories left in library books. Suddenly, Harlesden library was the cool place to be. So what a joy for local communities. We dove into our own budget to extend Jared’s stay so the impact for creativity and discovering the pleasure of reading and arts engagement could be extended… into summer 2017.

Most of the festival activities have moved online due to the pandemic. What impact do you imagine this will have with SPINE audiences?

Brent Libraries has embraced online programming in the summer of 2020 and we have not looked back. It was a learning curve and not without some stress and anxiety. We now deliver on the Zoom platform. At the same time of moving programming online, the Council also moved to Microsoft Teams so it was more about getting to grips with both platforms. Zoom has been wonderful for continuing our class visits programme. We have actually been able to reach schools that have been too far from libraries to make regular visits. 

We are now in our third term of online programming for invited school classes. The events range includes author/illustrator visits, theatre performances, poetry, history events, drawing classes and STEM workshops. We are always oversubscribed. It was much appreciated by teachers and the programming enabled us to support remote learning at home. Our Council was also very supportive for the schools’ programme with additional funding made available. The school holiday programming has had a terrific response which is similar in events to above. Booking numbers have regularly been in the range of 50s –  100. So we anticipate good online engagement for this year’s SPINE Fest but look forward to a return to live events 2022. Nothing beats live!

The theme this year is ‘empathy’. What does this mean to you?

I’m a judge for the Empathy Lab Charity which annually reviews and selects books for primary and secondary school-age children and young people. I suggested the theme when we did partnership mindmapping for new themes for the Festival. So I’m delighted that the focus this year is on Empathy. It could not come at a more needed time given the challenging, frightening, worrying and anxious year we have had with the pandemic. Empathy Day is on 10 June. Empathy Lab is calling for all children and young people to walk in someone else’s shoes. 

I read some heart breaking and poignant young adult novels for the secondary school collection 2021 last year.  About 30 if memory serves me correct! That was my summer reading. The books really make you evaluate your own behaviour and bring out a stronger awareness of people around you. I am very conscious of online bullying, misogyny, depression, children and young people living in families where they are neglected, refugees and survival, struggling with acceptance as an LGBTQ+ individual.

Kindness, compassion, an ability to really listen and be supportive is what is needed right now for a better tomorrow.

This Christmas, the money I saved from not being able to attend my beloved theatre, eat out in restaurants with friends or do my solo holiday travels resulted in me selecting new charities to give to apart from my regular Crisis. For me, that focus was very much on supporting refugee families.

What is your favourite SPINE memory?

My favourite Spine memories are probably two. The pleasure and real benefits Harlesden children got from having that first AiR, Jared Louche, who brought so much fun, joy and creative arts programming in a library where cultural engagement on your doorstep is so important. Money is not in abundance and neither are holidays abroad or leaving the community area for cultural outings. But your local library can be a source of arts and literature wonder. And with Jared, he provided an Aladdin’s cave.

Partnership working with other library partners has also been rewarding. I’ve gotten to know my opposite numbers from other Library Services much better. I can recall all of us sitting in a lovely wine bar on a sunny afternoon post-meeting outside The Albany, a product of regeneration. Simple pleasures and little pockets of happiness.

If you could sum up the festival in six words, what would that be?

Fun, colourful, innovative, different, engaging, lol moments.

About Sarah Smith

A woman in a green sleeveless top and yellow beaded necklace with her hair in a bun smiles at the cameraSarah started work as a multicultural information librarian in Northamptonshire, and subsequently worked in Camden looking at library outreach projects. She then went on to develop expertise in children and young people’s library services which included running the Schools Library Service for Enfield Libraries. Sarah is an inspiring library leader, who has spearheaded a number of significant developments that have had national impact.  

In 2014, her role as a national champion for diversity in children’s literature was recognised by her appointment to a panel of experts selecting a list of 50 books for children for the National Centre for Children’s Books. The list, Diverse Voices, has been influential and inspired a number of projects and partnership work in conjunction with The Reader Organisation, Discover London, New Writing North and Gem Arts.  Sarah is also a judge for the charity Empathy Lab where she helps select books with an expert panel for the annual Read for Empathy Guides for primary and secondary schools.

Sarah has successfully written a number of funding applications in partnership with arts organisations for the delivery of cultural programming in Brent. Recent highlights include: lead partner with Apples and Snakes arts organization for the delivery of the SPINE annual arts and literature festival for children and young people; partnering with Open Book Theatre to bring classical children’s literature to life in library theatre performances which included the first digital theatre production of The Three Musketeers celebrating diversity for London Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians network of libraries.

Sarah is also a passionate advocate for the role of libraries in developing science, technology engineering and maths (STEM) and has promoted this at national level as well as running well-regarded projects in Brent. She went on to extend the reach of this work by running a workshop at a national seminar held by Libraries Connected on the STEM agenda and the role of libraries, which led to further take-up and development of programmes across the country. Within Brent she has set up code clubs for children and young people, alongside developing a volunteer network to help with promoting and supporting an interest in STEM skills and projects. In doing this she has also built strong networks with local schools, to host class workshops within libraries. Her work in Brent is regarded as national best practice.

In 2020 Sarah was awarded a British Empire Medal for her services to public libraries in recognition of her achievements.

SPINE Festival has been produced by Apples and Snakes in partnership with Brent Library with support from John Lyon’s Charity and Arts Council England. We also would like to thank library authorities across London.