Inspiration for Story Seekers – Zoe Toft from ‘Playing by the book’

As I think more and more about making Story Seekers a reality, I’m finding it very useful to look at those who are already doing similar things and from whom I can learn so much.  Thus, I’m so pleased to have the second interview in my ‘inspiration’ series here on the blog today.

I first came across Zoe’s blog – ‘Playing by the book‘ – a year or so ago, when I was doing some research about whether or not I wanted to set up my own.  I was absolutely blown away by how much she clearly loves books and reading and how committed she is to sharing her passion with as many people as possible.  When I first described my Story Seekers idea to M, one of the easiest ways to explain what I meant was that I wanted to do something that was, “a real life ‘Playing by the book’!”

Zoe does book + activity sessions at her daughters’ schools and has recently set up a library there as well.  Check out these pictures from the post where she shares her thoughts about how she might go about this task – you can’t say fairer than a Brilliant Book Superhero!

Zoe's superhero headband!

Zoe’s superhero headband!

And the matching cape - awesome!

And the matching cape – awesome!


Initially, I found it really intimidating to come across other people who were doing similar things to Story Seekers (like the brilliant Bookhappy, who will hopefully be visiting the blog in the near future) as not only did I feel as though it meant that my ideas weren’t original (ignoring all those quotes about how there are *no* original ideas anyway!) but I also started comparing myself to them and constantly thinking that I could never be as good.

Luckily, I gave myself a good talking to and tried my best to boost my shaky confidence in myself and I now find it very reassuring to chat to these people because:

a) it means that Story Seekers might actually be viable if others are running similar sessions elsewhere;

b) it means there are a gang of like-minded people out there with whom to chat and bounce ideas around;

c) it has shown me that there is more than one way to reach my Story Seekers’ goals.  I know I’ll really struggle with not having a clearly defined path but they say the best things are often achieved when you step (or in this case, take a gargantuan leap) outside your comfort zone…

Anyway, Zoe is very generous with her time and I am astonished by how much she manages to fit into each day, what with her work in schools and with other organisations such as the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, as well as running her blog.  It’s pretty cool that she has answered my questions in so much detail and without further ado, here’s the interview!

1)  When and why did you start blogging about children’s books?

I began blogging about children’s books in July 2009. I have a memory like a sieve and I wanted a way to document, primarily for myself, the fun my eldest and I were having together. We’d read together since the day she was born (mostly because I didn’t know what else to do with a newborn), but once she started nursery there was a running joke about her name: Every day she introduced herself as someone different (never by her real name). Whoever she was that day was based on the books we were reading at that time. The nursery staff thought this was so funny (and lovely), and I wanted to capture those early days of not only playing by the book, but truly living the book.

2)  When you run creative sessions in schools, how do you approach the planning process? For example, have you found that teachers like to give you certain themes (potentially linked to their current areas of study) or have you had pretty much free reign to choose books and activities?

I have been running story + activity sessions at a local infant school for 2 years now, in a voluntary capacity. At the end of the week they dedicate the afternoon to enrichment, play based activities and I plan and prep one session for 30 kids. I’m not required to link to curriculum topics. Indeed, I purposefully try to make my session as unlike classes or regular school time as possible. It perhaps comes as no surprise I have a name in school for making quite a lot of mess, and rather a lot of noise.

There’s a reason for this: these sessions are called Golden Time, and that’s exactly what I want them to be. Sessions which are really fun, and involve doing things that kids might not otherwise do because they are “too messy”, “too noisy”, or “too challenging”.

3)  What have you found to be the hardest part of running one of these sessions in schools?

Budgeting is quite hard! For a class of 30 kids, I allow myself £10 for resources per session (the school refunds this), but I could easily spend much more than that. Kids respond with such enthusiasm and delight when they are given high quality materials to use, whether that is simply beautiful paper or a dressing up box full of sparkly saris and fake fur coats.

4)  Would you consider running sessions with older children; for example, in your daughters’ secondary schools when the time comes?

I wasn’t an avid reader when I was a teenager, and one of the biggest delights for me in the last 6 months or so has been discovering (not even RE-discovering) YA /Teenage literature. I’d love to be able to enthuse others about the great books I’ve discovered and continue to discover, so perhaps one day, in some format, yes.

5)  Have you ever come across a book that you’ve absolutely loved, but then found it really hard to link a good activity with it?

Any book can lead to cake, and as there is barely a better family activity than baking and eating a cake, the short answer is no.

That said, some wonderful books take time to find a great activity to pair them with. For example, we’ve recently read a picture book about penguins, but penguins feature is so many lovely books, and we’ve done so many penguin based projects at home, coming up with something new but also do-able and affordable took a few days of brain percolation.

I also have a mental store of activities I’ve read about or had come to me in a daydream but which I haven’t yet been able to pair up with books. Ideas for activities can come from activity books and websites, but also from visiting museums or going to the theatre. I’m currently waiting for a book that will “permit” me and the kids to make deliciously lickable wallpaper…

6)  What do you think makes a book really magical to read with a group of children? Have you ever found a great book that you enjoyed at home, but that didn’t translate easily to sharing with a group?

Book with strong rhythm (and rhyme) work well for me in group settings. Books about poos and farts always go down very well. Anything which allows me to do silly voices is pretty much bound to be a hit.

For me, pop-up books / books with flaps are difficult in group/school setting because you need lots of hands – a pair to hold the book, and another pair to operate the moving parts.

We have a lot of wordless books at home, but I’ve never yet dared do one in a group setting at school. I think they could work really well with a small group of say 3 or 4 kids, where discussion and lingering can take place, but in a group of 30 it could be hard to maintain everyone’s interest. Perhaps this is partly because books with detailed illustrations (which is the case with many wordless books) can be hard in a group setting; kids at the back of a huddle of 30 cannot see, whilst kids at the front end up in your lap. I’ve yet to share a series of books which are in my all time top 10 picture books, the Findus and Pettson books (by Sven Nordqvist), because such a lot of their delight is in their detailed and very funny illustrations.

7)  What would your dream job be (if you’re not already doing it!)?

I’d love to be an archaeologist working in Orkney; the Orcadian landscape is full of stories still to be uncovered. And there’d be the chance of excavating real treasure at the same time as eating the world’s best fudge.

Alternatively I’d like Bruce Parry’s job – travelling the world meeting people who (on the surface) lead such different lives. What’s not to like? Amazing locations, generous people, the chance to extend oneself, connecting with people through listening to and sharing stories.

OR, perhaps slightly less unrealistically, I’d love to be a folk musician. Not that I can sing or play any instrument well enough to do this. But I love how music brings people together and transports them. And folk music is full of so many exciting, heartbreaking, breathtaking stories (again!) that it would be a delight to be able to share them at the same time as getting people’s toes tapping, or hearts skipping a beat.

But really? Actually, I am very happy doing what I’m doing. Stories abound, and I have time enough, at least on some days, to “stand and stare”.

8)  Who and what inspires you (your answer doesn’t have to be related to the world of books)?

I’m inspired by anyone I see being generous with their time and being brave enough to attempt some creativity, and to learn something new. Particularly inspiring are those people who enable others to feel compassion and empathy, and in doing so bring a little more hope into the world.

Thanks again, Zoe!



  1. Lovely interview! As a newbie blogger and fan of all things story and creative I live following both your blogs.

    For lickable wall paper you need Charlie and the Chocolate factory. Willy Wonka makes a lickable wallpaper for nursaries!

  2. Oh thanks Stephanie! I haven’t re-read Charlie and the CHocolate factory as an adult, but see the need coming on now!

  3. Great interview. Spot on about the picture books that don’t work so well in a group setting.

    1. Hi Tim, thanks for your comment. I thought you might like to know that I’ll soon be sharing one of your books at a storytelling session. Very excited about reading ‘”Wow!” said the Owl’ with some eager children 🙂

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