Some thoughts on ‘Library Lion’

We’re getting to grips with our ‘Library Lion’ show now after a few outings. After opening at Stourbridge Library last September things have slowly gathered momentum, and Spring is looking quite busy for our feline friend. Now we’re rolling it feels like a good time to share some of our thinking surrounding the sharing of this lovely story.

Endangered Species

It’s no secret that libraries are under threat, and have been for some time. The digital age has seemingly shrunk our need for the printed word, government resources supposedly stretched too far to accommodate high running costs and low financial returns. Libraries, often housed in heritage buildings located in prime central locations, seem almost like a wounded animal ready for the final death blow before being repurposed by big business.

It’s in this context that i first came across Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes’ book. Many other parents will have taken their pre-school children along to some form of storytime at their local library, and my own rediscovery of libraries came through taking my kids to one of these weekly events. It’s free, it’s warm, we can walk/trundle/toddle there. There are other adults who have food and sick stuck to their jumpers, who could really do with sharing what a rubbish night’s sleep they’ve had. Not only that, it’s also a fantastic performance experience, with an audience that might invade the playing space, walk off with the props and is fairly likely scream the house down at some point. Librarians, often not necessarily very extroverted characters, are forced to develop quite sophisticated performance techniques in order to keep attention. The results can be quite a moving, hilarious, life affirming 40 minutes or so every tuesday morning. I can only thank my local librarians for all the unconventional, invisible theatre, coupled with the steady, somehow magical development of my own children that took place.  Now my kids are a few years removed from this i do actually miss it.

Of course, another good reason for going was to grab a bunch of books to bring home and enjoy – FOR FREE! With kids picture books i actually felt i’d found my level. A well put together children’s picture book can have the succinct emotional hit of poetry, combined with the joy of a painting that you connect with in an indefinable way. Library Lion was one of these books. It has a gentle and charming narrative, that doesn’t shy away from didacticism, and the illustrations are beautiful. We read it over and over.

I started to wonder if it would be possible to create a site specific performance of the book that drew on my experiences as a parent at storytime, captured and shared the magic of the book, and was somehow able to comment on the fact that libraries are nothing less than essential to a thriving, caring, enlightened community.

Bad libraries build collections, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities.

–R. David Lankes

Thankfully, after quite a lengthy process of grant bids and negotiations with libraries, schools, publishers and venues, I’m really pleased with the results, and we’ve been able to bring the show to some quite ‘low engagement’ areas.

This week, before performing to a small group of SEN students in Gornal Library, I had a quick chat with the wonderful librarian there. Note librarian in the singular. A few years back service cuts dictated many people took voluntary redundancy and those that were left were told they would be running this particular local resource single handedly.  Our host for the day, a young local woman, was determined and dedicated enough to be that person. Over the last few months she has encountered abuse from local gangs on several occasions, and is armed only with a panic button and her own wits. While not dealing with local thuggery she is also responsible for running a ‘safe place’ for anyone to come to if they have encountered abuse; The library is also a community information point for anyone who needs support with benefits, housing etc. Oh, and there are some good books too.

Against this backdrop it felt like our lion was really finding his home. The lion in our story represents those people who are at the fringes of society. He doesn’t speak, he could be living on the streets. Despite being friendly librarians, the characters Miss Merriweather and McBee still struggle to accommodate him until they realise he actually just wants them to tell his story. A story that, as if by magic, includes them. Right there on the page.

Maybe that’s something we all need to do. Maybe we should all try to imagine life narratives that make positive changes for ourselves and the people around us. Those changes won’t happen by magic alone, they’ll take the kind of hard work and commitment that our librarian friend at Gornal displays. But they’ll be magic all the same.

Perhaps we could start by digging out or applying for a library card, and taking a book home to read. That doesn’t sound like too much to ask does it?



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Written by Jake Oldershaw