Geeky Oxford—Oliver and the Seawigs at Oxford Literary Festival

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Geeky Oxford: Oliver and the Seawigs. Illustration by Sarah McIntyre, photograph and photoshopping by Helen Barker.

I admit it–I’m a book geek. So when the events for the Oxford Literary Festival were announced I pored through them, picking out the ones that caught my eye. There were lots of great events, but one which really stood out was the chance to see Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre, who are the authors of the my daughter’s current favorite book, Oliver and the Seawigs.

The book is about Oliver and his adventure rescuing his explorer parents from a giant walking island, a terrible teen, and hoards of sea monkeys. He is aided in his quest by shortsighted mermaid Iris, cantankerous albatross Mr. Culpepper, and a traveling island of his own called Cliff. I’d bought the book for my daughter for Christmas, and she had loved it so much that I’d had to read it to her at bedtime three times in a row!

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Oops, I just talked myself into making a whole mermaid costume. Twitter screenshot by Helen Barker.

As the festival approached, I tweeted my excitement about the event to Sarah and was thrilled when she replied, although I somehow ended up agreeing to make a mermaid costume for my daughter.

I love encouraging my daughter to get even more out of a book by using costume and role play, and with World Book Day approaching, an Iris the mermaid costume would be a perfect choice. After much thinking and planning, I came up with a design for a costume that would be easy to put on and off, comfortable, but also cheap to make.

For the fabric, I bought three large blue shirts from a local thrift store, and bought some lovely seashell beading and silver sequin fabric from a craft shop. The anchor of the piece would be a cheap skin-tone colored t-shirt. All in all I spent less than £9/$15 on materials, including some new thread and the all-important googly eyes for Colin the Crab. There were a couple of late evenings and a phone call to my expert seamstress mum to query my sewing technique, but I was really pleased to finish the costume in time for the event.

Mermaid costume plan
My plan for making the Iris the mermaid costume. Drawings and screenshot by Helen Barker.

The day of the event was sunny and fine so we headed into Oxford early to enjoy the city and visit the Blackwell’s marquee, which this year was appropriately right next to the Bodleian library. There was a veritable feast of books available in the marquee, including the new Jonny Duddle book Gigantosaurus, which looked fantastic. We also enjoyed looking at the Litograph prints, where the entire text of a book has been taken and arranged into an appropriate design.

The Oliver and the Seawigs talk itself took place at Corpus Christi College, just off the Oxford High Street. This was the first time that my daughter had been into a college, and she was suitably awed by the buildings. We entered the auditorium, my daughter changed into her costume and we waited for the talk to start…

My daughter's sea monkey drawing
A sea monkey, drawn independently on the iPad by my daughter. Screenshot by Helen Barker.

We thought that the event was brilliant.

Sarah and Philip are both very enthusiastic and entertaining, and the audience very much enjoyed the whole session. It was a great mix of drawing, storytelling, singing a sea monkey song, and even time for a question and answer session. We loved the seawig that they drew based on suggestions from the audience, which included a squid playing the piano, a skyscraper, and a castle.

There was audience participation in the form of learning how to draw a sea monkey, which certainly captured my daughter’s imagination, as she drew one herself when we returned home.

Yes, it’s a sea monkey doing a wee. It makes sense once you’ve heard the sea monkey song, honestly. If you need a sea monkey song in your life (and I can assure you that you do), you can watch Sarah and Philip performing it at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature here. My daughter particularly enjoyed the part where Sarah and Philip discussed the real star of the book, Colin the Crab. This superstar crustacean can be found by eagle-eyed readers in every illustration, and my daughter was sporting him on her head. When Sarah pointed this out to the audience my daughter blushed scarlet, but she was so pleased that they had noticed.

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Our drawing of a sea monkey, who ought to be getting to a doctor to have a look at that eye. Drawing by Helen Barker (and daughter!).

After the talk, we waited to meet Philip and Sarah and have my daughter’s book signed. They were both gracious and approachable, talking to all of the children and discussing their sea monkey pictures. Sarah loved my daughter’s costume so much that we were asked to wait until after the signing to take some pictures, along with local author Jo Cotterill‘s daughter, and we happily agreed. Sarah has shared the photos on her blog, and there are more, including photos of the event, in Jo Cotterill’s write up on her blog too.

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Authors Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre with my daughter in her Iris costume. Photo by Helen Barker.

Although we’ve taken my daughter to the festival before, this was both the first time that we’ve seen something that she is already invested in, and also the first time that we’ve done cosplay outside of school World Book Day or just dressing up at home. The dressing up was really important, and it showed just how much stepping further into the book can spark children’s imaginations and make the story come alive. It’s certainly something that we’ll be doing more of in the future.

The Oxford Literary Festival continues until the 30th of March.