After the recent release of Vanessa Harbour’s debut middle grade novel, Flight, I’m looking back at the many highs of the launch event at PG Wells in Winchester; an evening that was full of reasons to celebrate children’s literature. The perfect cake. The perfect crowd. The perfect kind of tears. And a journey that will inspire anyone to chase their own writing dreams.
I arrived early. The prosecco still on ice. The cake yet to be sliced. But there was already a distinct buzz of anticipation in the air; a feeling that the moment Vanessa, and indeed all her eager followers, had been waiting for was finally here.
Every shelf edge in Winchester’s favourite independent book shop was adorned with copies of Flight, the red-foil lettering shimmering in the light of a glorious summer evening. Those of us who were already on deck pounced on them, eager to get our copies “in case they sold out.”
And here’s something that definitely sold out. The cake. A chocolate butter-cream marvel that even the grumpiest Paul Hollywood would offer a handshake for. Its starry blue icing, white horse silhouettes, and tree-lined mountaintops complimented Flight’s cover beautifully and got everyone’s mouths slavering with anticipation.
To follow, the star of the show, should perhaps have arrived on horseback and leapt into a display of choreographed dressage befitting the Spanish Lipizzaner horses that feature in her tale, but from the reaction in the room she might well have done just that. The smile on her face was one of overwhelmed gratitude for those that travelled so far to celebrate with her. Drinks were circulated, nibbles nibbled at, and conversation bright, as Vanessa received more hugs in half an hour than she’s probably ever had in her life.
By the time Penny Thomas, editor and cofounder of Firefly Press stepped up to introduce Vanessa, the crowds were spread across the doorway and pavement outside. She emphasised Firefly’s aim to produce ‘quality fiction’ (certainly one backed-up by the numerous accolades and awards there client-list has run up over their five years as an independent publisher) and thanked Vanessa for creating such a wonderful novel for them to publish.
Vanessa took to the stage (or in this case the prestigious P&G Wells black box) to whoops and cheers. Her first words emphasised the often forgotten truth that writing a book is ‘never a solitary act’ and in response sent her heartfelt thanks to all those that had supported her and helped bring Flight to life. Amongst them were people such as Imogen Cooper (friend, mentor, and colleague at The Golden Egg Academy), fellow authors and lecturers at the University of Winchester (who helped her find her place in writing for children), and most importantly her family who, according to her, have ‘put up with so much. Vanessa’s struggles with disability have made much in her life a challenge, but she has and will never allow it to be something that defines her. As an author she hopes that children will be able to see that anyone can be a writer, and that everyone can achieve great things, no matter what life throws at them.
After an emotional speech, Vanessa’s best friend of many years treated us to a reading from Flight. In the extract, protagonist Jakob is forced to watch his mentor and guardian tumble down the side of a mountain on horseback. Amidst chaos, he realises that he must find the strength to carry on. That his friend Kizzy and the horses need him. That together they must complete the task that has been left to them and get the famous Lipizzaner horses to safety. Is his guardian really dead? I can’t say. But Flight is sure to be an emotional ride as well as a thrilling adventure.
In the signing queue, which I’m told was matched only in length by Jaqueline Wilson’s visit, I snatched a few moments with Jennifer Killick, Author of the spy-tastic Alex Sparrow books, to whom I expressed the gratitude I owe Vanessa myself for her encouragement, expertise, and firm editorial hand. For encouraging my self-esteem and helping me to become the writer that I am today. So many years on from where she started her own writing Journey at the University of Winchester, she’s inspiring a whole new generation of writers and creative minds. And from the look of the young faces in the crowd she’s going to be inspiring many more for years to come.
A gathering like this is enough to dispel any negative views of the modern publishing industry. It shows without a doubt that the world of children’s books is, at its heart, a thriving, energetic and wholly rewarding place to be. But what summed up the night for me most, was the white-icing message neatly inscribed on the lower tier of that fabulous cake: ‘Living the dream’. Vanessa’s huge smile, tearful speech, and (only slightly) overwhelmed expression, tells me that this is exactly what she is doing right now. Let’s all hope this is only the start of her adventure and there will be many more stories to come.
S.J. Munday is studying the Creative Writing for Children MA at the University of Winchester.