There’s a theory that all tales ever told boil down to seven basic plots.
That may be true, but a day out at Seven Stories shows the myriad of ways writers and illustrators have found to create wonderful new books from those timeless narratives.
As the National Centre for Children’s Books, it is dedicated to sharing our storytelling traditions with the younger generation and bringing their favourite ones to life.
And as we were to discover on our visit, the staff do this in an engaging, considered and thoughtful way.
Seven Stories is housed in a converted Victorian flour mill in Ouseburn, Newcastle, just a five minute taxi ride from the city’s train station. The centre is spread over seven floors – another reason for its moniker.
Families are able to enjoy a mix of permanent play spaces, temporary exhibitions, daily storytelling sessions and seasonal events, including regular visits from top authors and illustrators.
Entry is incredibly reasonable (£7.70 for adults, £6.60 for four to 16 year olds, £2.50 for toddlers) and there are good value annual passes which I would snap up if I lived a little nearer.
The big attraction at the moment is Time To Get Up, an interactive and play-driven exploration of a preschooler’s daily routine, from waking up and making food to going to the shops and taking a bedtime bath.
Each section is focused on classic and modern children’s books linked to the theme, such as Baby’s Catalogue by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and Goat Goes To Playgroup by Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharratt, with original artwork that children can get up close to and mood boards to stimulate all the senses.
Baby Bookworm was completely obsessed with the Bath Time area, which stars Maisy Mouse and a tub full of white balls. Not one for convention, he kept tried to play golf with them using a saucepan stolen from elsewhere.
In fact, he loved it SO much that when I tried to remove him and let another child have a go, there was a 15-minute screaming fit of ear-splitting proportions, resulting in time out and a nap to recover…
Once he was refreshed by sleep and I’d calmed my frazzled nerves with coffee (the only negative mark for me was the lack of a bar), we went back and had a quite delightful time in the Time To Eat section, playing with the kitchen and dressing up as different fruits.
It really was a preschoolers’ paradise, as was the Aliens Love Underpants sensory room, created to celebrate ten years of the bestselling Claire Freedman and Ben Cort books.
There we played with colour-changing blocks, bathed in the glow of the star curtain, hung up comedy pants and wore alien headgear. Or rather, as with the fruit outfits, me and my friend Elli wore them and spent ages trying in vain to get Baby Bookworm to join in long enough to take a photo.
For his age range, the Story Station was also ideal – a quiet retreat with boxes of engaging sensory toys, a reading snug and wooden train set.
For older children, the Attic room has a Harry Potter-theme, celebrating Jim Kay’s full colour edition of the first book, with a recreation of Diagon Alley and costumes to don.
This room is also where Story Time sessions are held three times a day, at 10.30am, 1pm and 3.30pm. We caught part of the last one, where the engaging storyteller charmed the kiddies and their parents through There’s A Monster In This Book by Tom Fletcher, complete with lots of actions and laughter.
Baby Bookworm was past the point of wanting to get involved but thankfully the space is large enough that his roaming around didn’t cause any issues and there is a lovely little dressing up station in the corner too.
Older readers will also enjoy the other temporary exhibition – Where Your Wings Were, a multimedia exploration of the work of Tyneside author David Almond, whose 1998 book Skellig won the Whitbread Prize.
We took a look at this while the boy was napping and it was stylishly and artistically put together, a very different experience to Time To Get Up.
What stood out from the day was how thoughtfully the whole centre is delivered, from the charming staff and the ear defenders for noise sensitive children to the abundance of baby changing facilities and the range of activities for every age visitor.
One mum we spoke to was there with her autistic daughter. She told me they have an annual pass and pop in regularly, as the team all know her little girl and completely understanding of her needs.
There are so many nice touches throughout, like the Chris Haughton birds from Shh! We Have A Plan lurking on the walls by the lift (be aware that there is only one due to the listed nature of the building) and the life-sized Judith Kerr tiger sitting in the cafe which children can feed fabrics doughnuts too.
We ate our lunch there and the food is simple, good value and healthy, like Supertato jacket potatoes (£2.50) or a ‘Hungry Caterpillar’ platter of breadsticks, crudites, cheese and tuna or houmous (£2.70).
Seven Stories also has a space in the basement where you can eat your packed lunch as you look at manuscripts from its extensive collection (it has Michael Morpurgo’s entire archive), and a coffee shop in its epic bookshop (where I obviously spent a small fortune…).
We didn’t have time to check out the Studio room where you can do arts and crafts, nor join the 2.30pm Little Gallery Explorers tour, where a Story Catcher guides children aged two to four around the exhibitions.
What we did do, was pick up one of the free Sensory Backpacks from reception. Each one is based on a book and contains items to play with as you explore.
We chose This Little Piggy and the thought that had gone into it was impressive, with scarves, a toy shopping basket, magnifying glass and an exquisite playmat themed on the nursery rhyme.
Baby Bookworm isn’t so good at sitting still to play when there is so much going on around him, but the backpack is something he would have loved before he was walking – and will probably enjoy again as he matures over the next year.
I could wax lyrical about this place but please go and check it out for yourselves. Not only is it quite magical for children but grown-ups will have a great deal of fun (possibly even more than their kids…)
We’ll definitely be back, not least because there is an Elmer exhibition opening next February and some of our favourite authors, like Rob Biddulph and Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet, are visiting soon.
And if Newcastle is a bit far to travel, all of Seven Stories shows go out on tour nationally – Michael Morpurgo: A Life In Stories is due in Kilmarnock soon, Bears is currently residing in Barnsley and Comics is on in Telford.
Seven Stories, 30 Lime Street, Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 2PQ. Tel: 0300 330 1095 ext 300
Open: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm (4pm on Sundays), along with Bank Holiday and school holiday Mondays.
Price: Adult £7.70, child £6.60, toddler (1-3 years) £2.50, free for babies. Family and annual tickets also available.
Find out more and check out forthcoming events at sevenstories.org.uk
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