Fantastic for Families Award 2020 nomination

The Big Malarkey Festival:
stepping into a world of imagination

The Big Malarkey Festival, delivered by Hull Libraries, has made the shortlist for the UK’s Best Family Event. Here they talk to us through curating a programme suitable for a wide range of learning styles.

The Big Malarkey Festival began in 2017 as part of the UK City of Culture 2017 celebrations. Since then, more than 20,000 people have stepped into a world of imagination as the festival aims to bring some of the most magical books and stories to life.

In a city with low literacy levels, it was a long-held ambition of Hull Libraries to create an outdoor children’s literature festival. Our aim was to present the libraries in a more playful and interactive way; bringing together authors, illustrators, creators and makers to showcase the wonderful world of knowledge and imagination that our city’s libraries can offer, encouraging reading for pleasure and celebrating literature.

Using a variety of art forms, including dance, games, theatre and music, we wanted to curate a programme suitable for a wide range of learning styles. Engaging ages 0-16 years, the programme encouraged reading for pleasure from many angles: from coming face-to-face with authors and illustrators to exploring different genres of storytelling, our focus remains on nurturing children’s creativity.

Taking place in Hull’s historic East Park in June, the six-day festival unfolds in a colourful, tented village where nationally acclaimed authors and emerging local talent, illustrators, poets and storytellers appear alongside live music, puppetry, theatre and dance performances. Bringing children face-to-face with their favourite as well as newly discovered authors and presenters in an intimate setting – for example, Nick Sharratt and MG Leonard, alongside Polish graphic novelist Tomasz Samojlik, astronomer Stuart Atkinson and local children’s theatre company The Herd.

An accessible festival for all, situated in a demographically hard to reach area, The Big Malarkey was Hull’s first cultural festival to be hosted outside the city centre. The project was made possible thanks to funding from Arts Council England and the James Reckitt Library Trust.

Children watch a street performer at The Big Malarkey Festival

Building on Hull 2017’s legacy

The theme ‘Join the Library – see the world’ encouraged audiences to see Hull Libraries as a source of discovery and adventure.

The Big Malarkey continues to work with local cultural organisations, including Absolutely Cultured, Hull Truck Theatre and Freedom Festival.

Innovative school programme

In 2019 we continued to build on the success of our innovative school programme (EYFS-KS3), offered free to schools enrolled in the Hull Schools Library Service. Over four days, school children enter the world of The Big Malarkey to experience interactive theatre performances, workshops in a variety of media and book readings alongside a live vote to decide the winner of the James Reckitt Children’s Book Award.

Last year, the school programme was rated ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’ by 100% of teachers who attended the festival.

99 activities

n 2019, activities took place across 10 main tents, including a 450-seater big top and smaller more intimate tents seating up to 100. The Doodle Room and Dressing Up tents welcomed children to pop in or stay a while, and the chill-out yurt and picnic area were popular for families to rest and relax.

The 2019 programme included 23 collaborators and partners with over 99 activities designed to appeal to different ages, tastes and learning styles. The 2020 programme aimed to build on this even further with new activities and tents, from cooking to sustainable fashion.

Costumed and children and adults perform outdoors at The Big Malarkey Festival. Notably, one person is dressed up as an anglerfish.

Accessible for all, with space to run free

The vast expanse of East Park enables us to create a fully accessible family-friendly festival experience. We pride ourselves on being an inclusive event for people of all ages and abilities. The site is wheelchair-friendly, has disabled toilets and new for 2019 was the addition of a fully-equipped Changing Places facility.

All performances in the Big Top are BSL interpreted and a roaming BSL interpreter was available on request for all other events. We worked with local disability organisations Choices & Rights and Elephant In the Room to improve infrastructure provision in 2019, including extra seating and quiet areas, a bigger chill-out area for families to rest and relax, free water and a nursing mums’ tent.

We also designed the site to that there was plenty of empty space for children to let off steam: festivals can be hectic and overwhelming for some children, so having enough space is really important to provide a quality experience for families, with room to run around or to interact with artists. It gives children freedom to choose their ‘route’ and a sense that they are valued, and it gives artists more opportunity have meaningful encounters with children.

The festival offers great value for money and is affordably priced to appeal to all incomes. Bought in advance, adult tickets were priced at £5, children’s tickets £2.50 and free for under-ones. Tickets purchased on the door were £6 for adults and £3 for children. Disabled tickets were priced at £4 and included a free carer’s ticket.

We also encouraged guests to bring a picnic to enjoy in ‘Malarkey Park’ to help keep costs of the day to a minimum.

You’re never too old to learn

“It is fantastic that Hull has its very own children’s literature festival, it is a great opportunity to fuel a child’s thinking and creativity and see how a library card can be a key to a world of imagination.” – Festival goer

97% of audiences agreed the quality of the festival was ‘excellent’ or ‘good.’

While the 2019 edition of the festival was our third festival, an event still in its infancy, we’ve been working to consolidate successes, build audiences and most importantly ensure everyone had a good time.

What we’ve learnt? The more playful and interactive the better! We’ve also introduced more events for teens and were beginning a co-curation project for 2020.

Staff and volunteer interaction is key to creating a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. The event is managed by the team at Hull Libraries, inviting librarians to step out of the library, inspiring staff to develop new workshops in digital tech, craft, poetry, writing and early years programming.

Our formula works and regular festival-goers come back year after year. However, with no advertising budget, getting the word out beyond our area is a challenge.

What we’ve got up our sleeve

The Big Malarkey Festival has expanded its remit to become Hull Libraries’ Family Festival, with the aim to create a buzz about reading and learning new skills to inspire Hull’s future generation to appreciate that anything is possible.

A multi-faceted showcase of the libraries’ offer, the programme has expanded to become a festival of ideas and imagination, inviting Hull’s next generation of creatives, makers and thought leaders to discuss their ideas and how to bring them to life.

Sadly we had to cancel our 2020 festival. Our plans had continued with a similar formula to 2019 in content, however we had started working with a group of young people to curate a tent for 12-15-year-olds. The theme for this tent, chosen by the young people, was the environment, featuring workshops exploring fast fashion and its environmental impact.

Lockdown has given us the opportunity to develop online content. Hibernation Inspiration set a new creative challenge weekly over nine weeks, while we’re also working with our friends at Freedom Festival to produce The Reset Lab, a magazine-style format of live and recorded content looking at what young people want to keep from lockdown, with a particular focus on the environment.

Our 2021 festival will combine this new experience as we look to create a mix of online and physical entertainment. We aim to keep a variety and range of art forms, while increasing co-creation and commissioning.

The Big Malarkey brand has also extended to other events beyond the summer festival, including a Christmas Malarkey and Spring Malarkey.

Case Study contributed by Ellen Bianchini, Festival Director, The Big Malarkey Festival, Hull Libraries

13 August 2020


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13 August 2020