Mitch Johnson’s stage presence is undeniable. His command of crowds is aided, no doubt, by his size. I have no exact figures, but I’d be shocked if he was anywhere close to being under 6’6. ‘Mitch Johnson’ is a strong combination of names, too. The syllables are punchy and emphatic. He could make a career as a bodyguard, for sure, based on a name like that alone.
But this Mitch Johnson is not, in fact, a bodyguard. This Mitch Johnson is a children’s author. His debut novel, Kick!, was four years in the making, but already has a large following – judging from the attentive audience. When I was called upon to deliver a microphone to all those with questions in the crowd, it was clear that I’d be unable to satisfy them all.
Volunteering at the Cheltenham Literature Festival is a fascinating experience, if only for the range of things you hear people ask at events. Children are no exception; they’ve no fear in asking the hard-hitting, ‘out there’ questions. Rather than querying Johnson on the wider historical/political/social context of his novel, like an adult might explore, the kids kept is simple. Somebody asked what the author had eaten for breakfast, to which he admitted having taken advantage of the food on offer at a hotel, pinching the finest almonds, oats and berries available.
His lunch represented the far grimmer reality of trying to make it as an author: a pasty from Birmingham New Street. How glamorous.
Delivering the microphone led to difficult decisions, since I knew that not every child would have their questions heard. I had never witnessed such a sea of raised arms. Johnson had achieved the impossible: he’d switched on every single child, and they hung on every word of his.
The author began the process for achieving this feat as soon as his guests were seated. His long legs carried him onto the stage, and immediately Johnson drew attention to the whistle wrapped around his neck. While he wanted his talk to encourage lively chatter, Johnson demonstrated that a blow on the whistle indicated silence. The children never once defied his instructions. Even I had been put under his spell.
It was so clever of Johnson to use a whistle to control the crowd, since it fits in so well with the context of his book. Kick! revolves around the story of Budi, an Indonesian boy with dreams of playing Football. Budi is very much like Johnson, who played the sport daily in his youth and clearly injected much of his life and personality into the discussion. Unlike the author, however, Budi also works in a sweatshop to support his family, which Johnson was keen to educate his audience on. He had the children uncover where their clothes were produced by checking their tags. Continuing the Football theme, Johnson threw a soft ball into the crowd to choose people to offer their answers. I couldn’t help but crack a smile: the kids rose like a Mexican Wave to grab the ball. They were so keen to respond. Unsurprisingly, most of their clothes had been produced in Third-World countries, with only a few believing their jumpers and polos had originated within the UK.
Johnson explained that it’s cheap for manufacturers to utilise sweatshops, since they’re not required to pay workers a decent wage. It was then that the author opened up about the fantastic efforts of Amnesty International, an organisation campaigning for equal human rights worldwide. What I thought would be a discussion about a Key Stage 2 book I’d never heard of had morphed into so much more. Johnson educated as much as he entertained. While it is a pleasure to know that kids are learning about this at such an early age, it is upsetting that I had to wait until I was well into my years at Secondary School to hear about the importance of organisations like Amnesty. It’s good to know that there are people out there taking education into their own hands.
“Johnson educated as much as he entertained.”
The talk started to wrap-up. I had finally taken my seat following a round of questions in which I had darted all over the confines of the gazebo and, thinking the end was imminent, prepared the tent for the schools’ departures. I was stopped in my tracks when Johnson began quizzing his audience on sweatshops, to discover how much they’d learned. Such oustanding variety in Johnson’s talk told me that his discussion was perhaps better organised than Kieran Larwood’s, which had taken place earlier than day. With the aid of a large screen and projector, Johnson had children raise their hands according to which answers they agreed with. Questions included the likes of:
‘How many litres of water does it take to produce a T-Shirt’?
Shocked gasps resounded round the hall at the answer: 2,000 litres. Even I was in disbelief, despite guessing correctly. Johnson somehow succeeded in educating and entertaining a group of students, teachers and volunteers of all ages. If he’s touring round your school, count yourself lucky. Johnson’s performance is a spectacle worth watching.