It's the most wonderful time of the year again! To wish you all happy holidays, we wanted to share with you a file with one of our favourite festive items from the Seven Stories Collection: 'Presents' by Leila Berg.

Leila Berg (1917-2012) was a children’s author, journalist and children’s rights activist. Berg struck out against the mainstream of children’s literature in the 1960s, writing her ground-breaking series, 'Nippers'. 'Nippers' were early-readers which depicted working class lifestyles and families of ethnic minorities, rather than the typical representation of white middle-class families that had been the norm in popular children’s books. The series was initially met with shock and outrage before being enthusiastically embraced.

LB/02/04/02 Cover of 'Presents' by Leila Berg with photographs by John Walmsley
© Estate of Leila Berg. Photographs 
© John Walmsley

On to our file in focus (LB/02/04/02 in archive-speak), which contains the dummy book for Leila Berg's 'Presents'. 'Presents' was one book in Berg’s later 'Snaps' series, published by Macmillan in 1977, and created in partnership with photographer John Walmsley. The narrative follows two sisters, who together with their grandmother are looking for Christmas presents for their family at Brixton market (Berg and her granddaughters are the subjects of the photos, which adds an extra layer of intimacy to this dummy book). 

It's written from the point of view of the younger sister, who tells us what the two children have bought (or deliberated over), who their presents are for and how much they cost. 

LB/02/04/02 p1 of 'Presents' featuring Leila Berg and her granddaughters

© Estate of Leila Berg. Photographs © John Walmsley

The series was created to demonstrate Berg's idea that anyone could make books with their own family. Berg and Walmsley began with Leila's concept and let the adults and children photographed act naturally. Walmsley has said about creating the series, "It was always, by its very nature, a bit of a lottery.  We’d get some of what we expected, not other stuff but then the unexpected (good and bad) would happen... when shooting in public, would ‘the public’ be helpful enough to pretend we were not doing what we plainly were doing (mostly, yes, very amenable).”

Dummy books are always very special objects, particularly when gaining insight into the process of making children's books. They allow us to peer into decisions about composition, seeing where and how text and images have or could have been moved and repositioned (and then giving us all the fun of speculating about the why of changes). In the below image for example, vacant spots of adhesive are discernable which perhaps once held the text in a different position. Similarly, it's interesting to compare the cover of the dummy book with the final published version.

Dummy books also hold that authentic presence of an author or creator; it's incredible to see a published book as a kind of time-capsuled work-in-progress. The DIY-aesthetic of 'Presents' dummy book makes it feel very fresh and current.

As a children's Christmas book, 'Presents' is undoubtedly unconventional. The plot is quite uneventful and very socially realist, following the actions of real children under a loosely imposed scenario rather than any kind of overarching or staged narrative. However, it is very heartwarming. The children put a lot of thought and thrift into their present buying and the consideration that the children take for their family is really touching. The girls are very sweet (particularly when one sees a 'ghost' which turns out to be some long johns - hence the frightened face on the dummy book cover!), and the photographs are beautiful. Berg's text is also fantastic - it's sharp, concise and familiar.

LB/02/04/02 p24 of 'Presents'
© Estate of Leila Berg. Photographs © John Walmsley

Happy New Year from the Seven Stories Collection Team!

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