Kate Heaslip runs Book Incubator, an organisation that runs literacy workshops for primary schoold children in Australia. The focus is on improving literacy, telling a story, and boosting creativity. Francesca Baker, Lapidus’ Outreach Manager, asked her a few questions…
Why did you set up Book Incubator?
Originally, the Book Incubator was created to provide literacy extension workshops for primary school children. The original idea has not changed much – within 15 hours of contact time participants wrote and illustrated a 24-page picture book. The workshops were run after school or sometimes during school hours as a whole class activity. The in-school program ensured that each child’s book was added to the school library.
As an artist and as an educator, I wanted children to understand the process of creating a book and so, the Book Incubator’s signature program, From Storyboard to Print™ was born. It was my belief that if children learned the process of creating a book, they would gain a better connection to reading. This proved to be an accurate belief. The children learned that every story starts with an idea/concept that needs developing. They learned that it was okay to make mistakes and also okay to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. They engaged in a lot of exploratory chatter, discussing what they thought might happen for other authors and illustrators as they engage in the process. This form of project-based learning gently plants seeds for development and growth. Participants work together when one member of the group gets stuck. They learn to work collaboratively as well as independently and to embrace success.
Importantly, the story belongs to the author. They tell the story their way. They use their words, their ideas, their concepts. Editing often really means “rewriting” or “changing” indicating that what the writer has written is not good enough. At the Book Incubator editing means correcting grammar and spelling. Sometimes this means that books contain segments that are less than polished. Perfect. That means they are authentic, and the true voice of the author is shining through. The From Story Board to Print™ program is not geared at creating brilliant writers – it is geared at creating opportunities to engage with writing to publish a small number of books. If there is a desire to print books beyond this scope then sometimes, further tweaking is required.
Many reluctant readers have been through the program and, while they do not suddenly become voracious readers, they do read and, importantly, they write, create and talk about stories. Participants learn that words are both wonderful and powerful. They learn that sometimes the most powerful words are written in short sentences. They learn that there is no absolute right way to tell their story. However, in saying that, they also learn that grammar and spelling are important and have a tangible and practical application before them, explaining why this is so.
I soon realised that the scope was far bigger than this and engaged secondary and tertiary students as well and then I started working with groups of adults. The first adult groups were parents of children that I was teaching who wanted to tell their own stories.. The goal was to create a 24or 32 page book in 15 hours of contact time. Over time the courses for adults have developed to a stage that they are almost identical to the children’s classes. I stopped trying to teach people to write and instead provided a safe place to land and experiment with ideas. The goal is always to have fun, to be extended and to succeed. Since the first grownups came along to tell their stories, many many people have written and published through the Book Incubator and today, the Book Incubator group workshops are mostly run for adults. I run one or two children’s workshops per year..
What need were you responding to?
The Book Incubator programs are about empowering the storyteller. By empowering and validating, the storyteller they become less inhibited and more willing to explore and expand. Originally, I was responding to what I saw as a need for children to write, illustrate and see their own stories printed as books as a way of developing literacy. This concept still holds true but sometimes it is more difficult to get parents to understand the importance of the investment in this over technology.
I discovered that when I was working with small groups, the Book Incubator workshops not only impacted the writing/illustrating of the text but they became a significant place where people felt a sense of belonging, team work and identity. The workshops are a place for people to develop community. This has been especially true when working with people who are grouped by circumstance. For example, when working with groups of people recovering from cancer the bonds developed are palpable. There is a shared knowing and a shared understanding even though the illness itself is rarely even discussed in a workshop.
Books created by women who are victims of domestic violence have proven to be a healing exercise. Again, the focus is not on the trauma. There is no reason to retell the story. They can if they want to, but the healing will happen whether they recount their story of trauma or write the story of making chicken soup. The strength in the Book Incubator programs is the process. The books are fabulous, but they are a product of the process.
As time went on, I became more and more aware of the therapeutic benefit of the programs that I run and decided to return to study to become an art therapist. My hope is to develop and hone my skills as a counsellor in a way that will complement the way I run the programs. From an ethical point of view it feels important to have a professional network and be exposed to other methodology.
What does a typical Book Incubator workshop look like?
The workshops are run in very small groups and with one facilitator.
In the signature program, From Storyboard to Print™, the workshops are small by design and provide 15 hours of contact time. It is amazing what can happen when people feel safe. At the end of the workshops, 32 page picture books go into the design studio and then are sent to print. Depending on the group, there is either a private or a public launching of the books. The celebration and validation of the authors is all part of the process.
There is always lots of laughter, some serious moments and mostly a sense of purpose and calm.
Participants find themselves engaging in many tasks that are presented more as fun activities than structured learning. For the most part, people do not realise that they are learning until they are well and truly in the middle of the project.
Participants receive workbooks that help them to develop their characters and plan their books.
They learn to develop characters, the storyline and to create storyboards. They learn to tell their story in pictures and are offered a wide scope of mediums including photograph, paint and collage, while they gently learn the importance of creating illustrations that tell the sub story and support the main narrative.
Most adults worry about the illustrations more than the writing. We work to ensure that the illustrative process is fun, positive and doable.
After the workshops come to a close the books are taken into the design studio where they are scanned and go through the pre-press part of the process. They are edited for spelling and grammar and signed off on by the participant before being sent to print. Six weeks or so later we are ready for the book launch. The planning of the launch is part of the overall process.
Why are stories important?
Stories connect us to each other and to ourselves. They remind us of who we were, who we are and who we might become. They hold generational information and dreams for the future. Sometimes telling stories provides the client with an opportunity to purge. Sometimes telling stories provides the clients an opportunity to reshape their truth. Sometimes is provides them an opportunity to re write their past and re-create their future and sometimes it is simply an opportunity to share in an environment that is safe and protected.
What is the value for both the storyteller and the receiver?
The storyteller has a chance to speak their story, to tell it from their own perspective, to be heard by others and, very importantly, to hear themselves tell their story out loud. In the From Storyboard to Print™ workshops, because the printed books are short (usually 24 or 32 pages). In a group book launch the stories are often read aloud. The impact that this has on the author is palpable.
For the receiver, there is a connection to the writer that is developed in the process of creating a Book Incubator book. The stories are short. They are snippets of people’s lives and experience that are raw and real. There is a real sense of sharing and connection between the reader and the writer.
A book launch for a group of intellectually disabled young adults comes to mind. We held the launch at a vineyard. They each had about 20 books that they sold to raise money for the art program that they were engaged in. One woman had a brilliant carer who assisted her to write a fabulous book called Sarah Loves. Sarah had Cerebral Palsy and could not write. Together they made a collage of all the things that she loved. There was barely a dry eye in the room when the book was presented. The book launches are almost always a bit like that – they hold a special bit of magic. Ordinary people telling their stories in print. Magic.
We often think of writing as quite a solitary activity - what it's like doing it as a group?
It depends on the group but often what happens in the workshops is a lot of creative play to get the creative juices going. The writing process happens almost organically. The group is there as a sounding board and support. There is always a lot of sharing. Often, the story that the participant is writing is first shared orally. The small groups make this possible. Small groups along with a healthy dose of respect, good food, copious cups of teaand coffee and a lot of laughter.