This week, Manchester-based Big Issue North – the magazine sold by street vendors in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber – have released a Kids Take Over Issue, with the help of children from Manchester’s Unity Primary School – and both writer Dan Whitehead and artist and publisher Marc Jackson were both involved.
Also involved is writer Dan Whitehead (who recommended Marc to the publisher), the issue featuring four pages of his brilliant “Ella Upgraded” comic – and the strip’s artist, P.R. Dedelis, has provided a standout cover.
Just like the Big Issue, which recently had its own comics-flavoured issue thanks to Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl books, Andrew Donkin and artist Giovanni Rigano, Big Issue North employs staff to produce and distribute a weekly magazine sold by people who have limited other ways of earning an income in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.
As well as selling the magazine, the magazine’s vendors – around 250 a week – are given advice by staff on how to get help with anything from developing their skills or accessing English language courses, to getting housing, financial or health advice, which can help them achieve their goals and improve their lives for good.
The themed issue was the idea of Big Issue North deputy editor Antonia Charlesworth, who worked closely with children from a local primary school to find out what they wanted to see covered. Some of the children interviewed Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, and some others interviewed author Jacqueline Wilson. The magazine also contains “make and do” features, including a a festive baking recipe that’s easy for everyone, puzzles and more.
“As I’m constantly being reminded by my kids, grown-ups have as much to learn from children as they do from us and
that’s why this week we’ve let them take control of Big Issue North,” says Antonia.
“We do already run bits of kids content,” she tells us. “We often include family friendly listings, kids theatre and book coverage, since Big Issue North has such a diverse readership.
“A few months ago we published a piece on plastic waste aimed at children and one of the teachers at Unity Community Primary School in Salford read it and used it as a resource in class. The kids were inspired and campaigned to switch to glass milk bottles in school. Then they wrote in to Big Issue North to tell us all about it. We printed the letters and that was the seed of the idea.
“Once we got chatting to the school about contributing it became apparent they had enough ideas to fill a bumper issue, so that’s what we let them do.
“The bumper issue for Christmas gives vendors the best possible chance of making money at a challenging time of year, and the kids at Unity are determined they’re going to sell more than ever. On Monday, Maysoorah and Sasha are helping our vendor Stefan to sell it at Piccadilly train station in Manchester.”
Danny Mendieta took all the photographs for the issue, while Catherine Smyth assisted pupils Anaya and Wiktoria in interviewing Jacqueline Wilson, which is a brilliant read, and Saskia Murphy accompanied pupils Michelle, Oceana and Khizar to interview Andy Burnham (“These are good questions, they’re tough questions,” he commented).
“With so many of Unity’s kids coming from countries around the globe, their accounts of where and what they consider home are heartfelt and moving.
“They’re also very concerned about the planet they call home, and write about the work they’ve been doing in school to combat climate change. When they get on to the head teacher about something, she listens.”
“I’ve written for Big Issue North for almost 15 years now,” Dan Whitehead tells us. “I do their weekly entertainment coverage – TV, DVD, Blu-ray, Streaming and Games reviews – and lots of interview features. The team know about my comics work, and so when they decided to do a “kids take over” special, they asked me if I’d help out and also if they could reprint some of ‘Ella Upgraded’.
“They also very kindly asked if she could be the cover star… Obviously I said yes!
“My involvement was basically just giving the OK for them to use Ella, putting them in touch with PR Dedelis to do the cover art, and hooking them up with Marc Jackson, who I knew would be perfect for adding comic touches throughout the whole magazine.”
Dan has been selling the preview issue of Ella Upgraded at conventions throughout 2019 and the full 48-page first volume will be out from Fair Spark Books in early 2020. The four pages of ‘Ella Upgraded’ in this special Big Issue North are reprinted from the existing comic, a sort of abridged origin story – taking sections and panels from the start of the comic to set up the character.
“I don’t believe anyone at Big Issue North had worked on comics before, but they did a very seamless job of reworking the pages,” Dan notes, “so they told a bit of the story while still making sense without the rest of the book!”
Marc Jackson was asked to create and advise on a new look specially for the edition, including cartoon images throughout and provided a new strip, too.
“Dan asked if I might be interested in helping Big Issue North to create an upcoming children’s issue, something they had never done before, just three weeks ago,” Marc Jackson tells us. “My mission, if I chose to accept it, would be to help create, then advise on a whole new look for the magazine that was more in keeping with a comic and or children’s magazine.
“So, out with the existing layout and in with big bold colours, lively fonts and lots of cartoon illustrations scattered throughout. I paused at no seconds at all and said yes – of course!
“After having a conversation with Big Issue North‘s Producer Christian Lisseman, we agreed I’d create initial layouts in my style, cartoons to go along with some of the articles and a set of characters that could be used to liven up pages etc etc if needed.”
Marc started work straight away withe his usual verve, recently highlighted in the first issue of Spookids.
“I set about creating the layouts, which was really exciting,” he explains. “It’s not often you get chance to totally re-design something of such magnitude, the pressure was on! After a pep-talk from my wife, always advised, I really got stuck in and throughly enjoyed creating the concepts which were incredibly well received.
“Creating the cartoons was the relatively easy part, one of which involved an article on their amazing vendors,” he reveals. “The magazine wanted a drawing of a vendor passing the magazine to a child and I suggested that I draw one of my local vendors, Marius, in my hometown of Macclesfield, who once famously posed with Spider-Man on the day of my comics event MACC-POW! He’s such a warm and friendly guy and hasn’t had the easiest year at all, in fact, not the easiest life, but week in, week out, he’s in the town centre with a smile and, at Christmas, a song too! They agreed to me drawing him and I can’t wait to see his reaction to being a part of the magazine in this way.
“Once all that side of things was complete, I handed over my files for them to format the magazine, popping into their offices in Manchester just this week, to add some on the spot guidance on how they were approaching my designs and their content to create something that basically is bursting with my style and approach (that you might recognise) whilst addressing important issues that involve children throughout the year. I offered them a comic strip to appear somewhere in the magazine as well, which I thought would be fun to see.
“It’s a real comics focused affair,” Marc enthuses. “It’s going to be a great issue and one I am incredibly proud to be involved with”It’s been one of those real career highlights!”
If this edition is a success, will there be more of the same?
“I really hope so,” says Dan. “I’ll certainly be pushing for that behind the scenes.
“Mostly I just really hope this special sells well, earning the vendors some extra cash for Christmas, and that we get to do more issues like this!”
“I’d love it if the magazine helps inspire a new generation of Big Issue North readers and I hope it helps give young readers a better understanding of homelessness and other topics it addresses,” says Antonia. “There’s a lot grown ups can learn from the children who have put it together too.
“Overall I hope it’s a fun and entertaining read!”
• Big Issue North is available across the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside and costs £3 from badged vendors. The kids special – Issue 1316 – is on sale now, from Monday 9th December until Sunday 15th December. If you want to find a vendor, there’s a feature on the website to help them do just that here
• More about Big Issue North at www.bigissuenorth.com
• Unity Community Primary School is part of the Big Life group, which also publishes Big Issue North
Thanks to Antonia, Dan, and Marc for their help with this feature