How a kids’ Christmas cover competition brings festive joy to The Big Issue

For the third year in a row, The Big Issue has thrown open its Christmas cover design to children around the UK. If you’re under 13 and would like to see your work on the cover of the massive-selling edition of the famous street paper, check out the rules on The Big Issue’s website. The magazine’s deputy editor (and chief Christmas elf) Vicky Carroll has written us a guest column about how the competition spreads the Christmas spirit for their staff, customers and, most importantly, their homeless vendors.

By Vicky Carroll, deputy editor, The Big Issue UK

Three years ago Big Issue editor Paul McNamee came up with a novel idea: Christmas is all about kids, he said. Why not get them to design the cover for one of our biggest selling issues of the year?

As usual with his crazy, inspired ideas, I was worriedly asking questions, thinking of all the problems that might occur. How will we get the word out about it? What if nobody enters – or what if there’s nothing that we’d want to use on the cover? What if it all goes disastrously wrong – it’s our busiest period of the year, vendors rely on the sales increase in those December weeks to get them through the lean, cold January and February. What if the magazine doesn’t sell?

The Big Issue's Christmas covers from 2013 and 2014

But (as usual) my fears were completely unfounded. Our first Kids Christmas Cover Competition was embraced with massive enthusiasm, and three years on it has become a Big Issue tradition, one of the highlights of our year.

We launched it during the October school holidays with support from First News, a weekly newspaper for kids in the UK which sells around 1 million copies per week. That got it off to a flying start – immediately mainstream media were also interested in what we were doing. The feeling of goodwill generated by this unusual idea was priceless in terms of reaching people who might not really think too much about homelessness, about helping people get back on their feet, and about what the magazine does.

Also the decision to run a child’s drawing rather than a commercially-bankable big name on the cover was so unusual it showed that the magazine isn’t slavishly tied to publicists’ demands – we have many, many PR people who want us put their artist or client on the cover in our huge-selling Christmas issues. To be able to say, “no thanks – this one’s for the kids,” feels great.

So in December 2013 Dylan Allman, a seven-year-old from Wales, became the first child to design The Big Issue’s cover, on our second-biggest selling issue of the year. He was on national TV and radio, in newspapers – and the word about what The Big Issue does, and who it is for, was spread a little wider.

We received several hundred entries that first year, from tiny toddlers to young teens, and their enthusiasm was such that the editor decided to print every single entry in that issue of the magazine – it took up five pages of premium editorial space, and it felt so good to fill those pages with all that joy, energy and creativity from all corners of Britain.

Our winner Dylan explained that he drew around his hands to make his reindeer’s antlers, as well showing his reindeer reading his copy of The Big Issue, so that it would put across the idea of him giving “a hand up” (our motto is “a hand up, not a hand out”). Dylan immediately got the concept of our street paper as an entity that helps other people if you buy it, take it and read it. The following year’s winner was Maya, an eight-year-old from Bristol, who showed Santa with his Big Issue – encouraging other people to buy it so that they would help vendors too.

Big Issue vendors selling at Christmas

Just this morning, I was looking at one of this year’s entries – it’s yet another that shows the Santa Claus holding up a Big Issue, as though he’s giving a vendor “a hand up” – or maybe Santa’s down on his luck, and needs a hand up himself (though he looks very cheerful about it). It’s incredible when you see such young children instinctively understanding what a street paper is about. This is the next generation who will buy from our vendors, and it fills me with hope and optimism that they ‘get it’ already.

Also – from a purely selfish point of view – I absolutely love sorting through the entries. Our office is filled with bright, amazing drawings with reindeer and penguins, Santa and snowmen (lots and lots of Olafs from Frozen last year), chimneys with stockings hung up waiting for Santa, Nativity scenes and angels. My desk ends up covered in glitter; I pretend to be grumpy and all “humbug” about it, but secretly it brings a smile every time I find another sneaky sparkle lurking in a corner.

But one of the most important things we have learned from running our Kids Christmas Cover Competition was completely unforeseen. Our vendors LOVE the kids’ covers, and are so happy to be selling something that warms so many customers’ hearts.

As I’m sure is the case for street papers around the globe, many of our vendors have children, and some may have lost contact with their families at some point in their life. Frequently in our vendor interviews, they say that they are working hard either to support their kids or because they long to be reunited with them again, once they are back on their feet.

It’s that which really makes you think about the ‘spirit of Christmas’ or the ‘festive spirit’ – the simple, bright joy of a kid’s drawing which lights up Christmas for our vendors and their customers.

To enter the competition, see The Big Issue’s website. The deadline is 20 November.