Anyone working at Seven Stories – when asked to describe their job role – is often stumped to know where to begin. There are so many varied elements to all of the roles. One minute you might be writing a spreadsheet or planning a school visit, the next you might be dressed as Snow White, discussing the importance of poetry or delving into a brand new archive full of undiscovered treasures…

One such member of the Seven Stories team knows this only too well! Debbie Beeks is the Learning and Participation Manager at Seven Stories. In this blog post, Debbie tells us about an incredible and impactful project that ran in partnership with Newcastle University and Forward Assist to research ex-service personnel’s responses to portrayals of the military in children’s picture books.

“My job title of Learning and Participation Manager tells people very little of some of the incredible and privileged opportunities I have to journey into children’s books through research and participation. At the end of 2015, I partnered with Dr Helen Limon from Newcastle University  and Colin Hutchinson from Forward Assist to pioneer a project called The Illustrated Soldier.  The idea was to give a voice to  a little heard community and give an opportunity to ask questions by using three picture books.  The project took us from the Ouseburn in Newcastle and discussion around three picturebooks – all the way to an unexpected invitation to parliament - and a discussion about the current role of the military. Who knows where else this might go? The Illustrated Soldier project brought together ex-service personnel, academic researchers and participatory arts to critically explore how the  military is represented in these children’s picture books:













The Conquerors, David McKee A Child's Garden of Hope, Michael Foreman The Enemy, Davide Cali, Serge Bloch




The project also gave a chance for us to challenge these representations of the military and discuss alternatives. We used the children’s books to create conversation  over a number of meetings which was a valuable way of being able to collect and share the views of the ex-service men.  A brilliant tool for challenging the representations of military was to create  ‘book hacks’. This meant that we  recreated one page from each book using animation, voice and music based on the pooled thoughts and discussions about what we thought that particular depiction of military meant. One of the questions of this inquiry was 'How can people, communities, and societies thrive in times of rapid transformational change?' Dr Helen Limon from Newcastle University says,  "In order to thrive there must be rich and multi-layered understanding between individuals and groups such that they are able to empathise with, accommodate, and support those who - to varying degrees - are different from themselves." In the art form of children's picture books there is an interplay and gap between the words and pictures, which opens up multiple opportunities for interpreting what the story is saying and this leaves a rich and challenging place to create meaning. Through the conversation and discussion from these three books we were able to examine society, culture, the military and global conflict. The book hacks enabled us to share and build on each book's journey; critique the book and literature in general to ask questions about what books are missing, what is not being said or portrayed? What children’s books could be created next? Who’s voices are not being heard? The way of working demonstrated by  The Illustrated Solider project has far reaching impacts as it involves voices in children’s book communities and Seven Stories that might not otherwise be heard. It prompts and inspires dialogue with exhibition makers, publishers, authors and illustrators. Our mission is to save, celebrate and share children’s books, through dialogue and engagement, through participation and inclusion.

The Seven Stories archive and programmes are here to advocate for children’s literature and the transformational role it plays in society, past, present and future.

It was also important to hear from Forward Assist how the project had benefited their veterans.  Tony Wright FRSA, Chief Executive Officer, Forward Assist reflected on the project: "Our recent collaboration with Newcastle University, Dr Helen Limon and Seven Stories led to a group of socially excluded military veterans physically and emotionally engaging in a project called The Illustrated Soldier and Book-Hack.  This resulted in several unexpected, but extremely valuable outcomes. The first being that the military veterans we work with were engaged in a structured, meaningful activity that reduced social isolation and promoted social inclusion and it also introduced them to literature and on a wider scale the 'Arts' in general. For many of the participants, it was probably the first time they had ever engaged in such an initiative project and equally it may have been the first time that any organisation or individual had asked their opinion or indeed involved them in an evaluative process. We recently attended a meeting relating to Veterans and their transition to civilian life at the Houses of Parliament and whilst there, took the opportunity to tell a Member of Parliament about the Veterans involvement in the 'Book-Hack' Project. It may be a coincidence, but several weeks later we were contacted by the same MP as he wished to elicit the opinions and viewpoints of the combat veterans we work with in regard to the proposed military intervention in Syria so that he could feed their viewpoints into the debate. As one Veteran said; "It was both a surprise and an honour to be asked my opinion on such a significant and potentially life impacting matter."    

About the partners

Dr Helen Limon explores the idea that books and stories written for children are used by them to understand themselves, their families, the wider world around, and adolescent anger which finds few outlets. Stories have a critical role in determining both the ethical basis of the emotions and their societal place. Debbie Beeks, Learning & Participation Manager at Seven Stories, leads project and practice that involve engage and co-produce knowledge and art with audiences at Seven Stories. Colin Hutchinson (OPERATIONS DIRECTOR) is a former Warrant Officer who served for 22 years in the Royal Engineers. Before becoming the Operations Manager for Forward Assist . For enquiries about this project please contact With thanks to: Forward Assist Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts