Storyfest Writers’ Festival is a favourite of many: the students that find literary inspiration there, the authors who get to test their material in front of an enthusiastic audience – and Larrikin House, who have been an active supporter of Storyfest for the past couple of years.

Larrikin House publishes children’s books and has been around since 2019, when its CEO and publisher James Layton first decided that he wanted to see more fun books in the market. Since then, Larrikin House has been on a mission to create quirky, edgy, original, funny kid-focused books that push boundaries.

In an effort to acquire and promote more of these titles, Dani Vee joined the publishing house in 2021 after having interviewed James on her wildly popular podcast, Words and Nerds. Since then, she has moved through the ranks, from publicity to acquisition, and has rightly found her place in an environment that promotes books that kids love.

The beginning of Joel McKerrow’s publishing journey

In 2022 she reached out to Storyfest, putting the two on a path towards a strong partnership.

Since then, Storyfest and Larrikin House have been a match made in heaven – at Storyfest, we are strong believers in the power of books, and Larrikin House publishes some of our students’ favourites.

While a sponsorship allowed Larrikin House to have an esteemed presence at the festival – not to mention the Little Larrikins programme, which allows enthusiastic readers to try themselves out in the events space by volunteering to help out during the day – it soon became apparent to Dani that the literary event had a lot more to offer.

That first year she spotted Joel McKerrow, international award-winning performance poet, performing in front of kids, and his magic immediately made a strong impression on her.

As Dani puts it, Joel had a real wow factor about him.

“He engaged with the kids with his thoughtful, creative poetry that he brought to life in a really contemporary way. Then he came and performed in the greenroom and he made authors like Sue Whiting cry. Then he came to the Long Table Dinner, and his performance moved the parents there. I said to James, ‘we need him to write a book for us!’.”

Joel, James, and Dani

During that festival in 2022, Dani and James sat down with Joel and pitched the idea, asking if he had a book for them.

“He said a very enthusiastic yes – which of course, as it turned out, was not true. [laughs] But he went away afterwards and came back with a first draft, the first iteration of what is now Urban Legend Hunters, a spooky graphic novel.”

As Dani puts it, graphic novels are flying off the shelves of bookstores and libraries, and they saw a gap that Joel’s evocative writing could fill.

“Our world is becoming more visual, with gaming and Netflix and all the visual stimuli that children encounter every day, so in order to keep books relevant, I think it’s important to keep those visual elements at the forefront when we can.

“I was a high school teacher for 17 years, and I know that many of our kids who were between the ages of 13-15 had reading ages of 8-9, sometimes even lower. But that doesn’t mean that they want to read books that look younger, with content for a younger audience. The beauty of the graphic novel is that it really reaches that wider audience. Graphic novels are usually thick, they’re cool – they’re almost not a book! They provide space for reluctant readers, that’s for sure.”

Reluctant readers are the exact demographic Larrikin House hopes to reach.

“Our CEO James grew up a reluctant reader, and he’s now a publisher, so he likes to use his own journey as inspiration for the books we publish. There is a book out there for everyone – all you have to do is find it.”

Joel McKerrow’s book promises to be both funny and a little bit spooky, engaging kids the right way. Most excitingly, it’s going to be launched at the 2024 Storyfest Writers' Festival

“Storyfest was the beginning of our relationship with Joel, so it’s really special that Urban Legend Hunters is going to be launched at the 2024 festival in March.

“Just to see it come to life from this spark of an idea at Storyfest has been amazing. It’s been a two-year journey, and I can’t wait to hold the books in the coming months. It’s been really special – and what better place to launch it than at Storyfest! There will be thousands of kids, Joel will be performing, and we’re sponsoring it. We cannot wait!”

The beginning of a fruitful partnership

The relationship doesn’t end there, though. Dani and James have met lots of other people who they continue to have both professional and personal relationships with. One of whom is Louise Park, Australia's leading children's author, whom the pair met the same year they met Joel.

Since then, they’ve signed a two-book deal with Louise, and acquired the rights to her out-of-print Boy vs Beast series.

Another is Jacqueline Harvey who, while being published by Penguin Books, continues to be a great sounding board for Larrikin House, and has become a mentor to Dani in her own writing journey.

“We love creating creative networks, and Storyfest is such a great opportunity to talk to others about reading, books, and new ideas. It’s not very often that authors get to hang out with other authors, which is why writers’ festivals are such a treat – as publishers, we love the chance to be a part of it all.

“I actually can’t believe there isn’t a Storyfest in every state! I wish there was. I remember being there for the first time, just seeing busloads of kids pour in. The authors were so excited, the teachers were so excited. It was such a great vibe – it felt like I was at a rock concert! I can’t express how important Storyfest is, and that’s why we’re such big supporters of all you do.

“There’s nothing I love more than celebrating kids' literature in a room full of authors and creatives, connecting people and seeing the reactions of the kids. We are so happy to be part of Somerset Storyfest.”

Dani and James

The importance of fun kids’ books

So what’s next for Larrikin House?

The publishing house has historically put out picture books, but they are moving into middle grade, junior fiction, and even contemporary adult fiction. That’s a new direction that they’re excited to take.

Urban Legend Hunters
won’t be their only graphic novel title either. For one, a sequel is already in the making. It’ll have the same three friends – Jeremy Jubaya, who loves telling tales that make your blood curdle, fearless Samantha Small, who takes no nonsense and Bad Boris, who is anything but bad – chase down a different terrifying urban legend.

“Graphic novels generally have a larger boy readership, so we’re hoping to open that world up to girls as well. We are publishing another title next year, Ultra Violet by Cristy Burne, illustrated by Rebel Challenger.

“At Larrikin House, we really like to go against stereotypes. Our bestselling books have been My Shadow is Pink and My Shadow is Purple by Scott Stuart – two books that touch on the subjects of gender identity, self acceptance, equality and diversity – so we like to push the boundaries on what is a boy thing to do, and what is a girl thing to do.”

But books with important messages aren’t the only ones on Larrikin House’s list. Dani really came to appreciate the importance of fun books over the pandemic.

“As parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians picking out books for young readers, we’ll always look for ones with great messages. But fun books are just as important! This became quite clear to me during COVID lockdowns, when we couldn’t go anywhere and I really didn’t feel like reading books to my children about climate change or other things going wrong in the world, because we were all living through one. And so the fun books were life-savers. Particularly with the growing diagnosis of mental illness in kids quite young, what better way to get them out of their heads and to be present, than by having fun and escaping through the world of a book.

“Books with messages are so important, but fun books are just as important. I don’t think we’re there yet with convincing everyone, but festivals like Storyfest can definitely help us get there.”

Like Dani, at Storyfest we also believe that books can change lives, and the importance of reading cannot go understated. Likewise, kids’ books always have educational purposes, even when there is no apparent message present in them. People who read have more empathy than those who don’t – reading can even change your brain. Therefore, the simple act of picking up a book and reading, of finding a love of storytelling within the pages, can transform the world, one child at a time.

When asked why she believes Storyfest is so important, Dani was quick to point out the obvious correlation.

“If we want kids to be readers, if we want kids to find their books, if we want kids to be able to balance their time between screen and reading, then we need to create things that are going to engage them, and Storyfest does that beautifully.”

Need a new book for a young reader in your life? Check out the incredible titles published by Larrikin House here!