Our website uses cookies. See our cookies page for information about them and how you can remove or block them. Click here to opt in to our cookies

Thinking about status and value: a visit to Children’s Books Ireland and a Scottish children’s literature opportunity

This month, we announced the call for organisations to apply to host the Gavin Wallace Fellowship. For the 2020 Fellowship we particularly welcome applications from organisations working specifically with children and young people and who wish to work with a children’s writer. Mairi Kidd, Head of Literature, writes about the challenges that face many children’s writers and an inspiring international event she was recently invited to attend.

Cartoonist Posy Simmons sends up public perception of children’s book in her book Literary Life with a cartoon claiming that all children’s publishing meetings are attended by two rabbits and a bear in a pinny. Posy’s on point - even within the literature sector, children’s books are considered lesser than books for adults, their creators endlessly quizzed on whether they ever plan on writing a ‘proper book’. Novelist Martin Amis once said he might turn his talents to writing for children - in the event he suffered ‘a brain injury’.

In this landscape, the annual Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) conference is an oasis of respect for those involved in growing our next generations of readers. Held in the slick surroundings of the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin’s Smithfield, the event has no real equivalent in Scotland, or indeed the wider UK. It draws an audience of publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, writers, illustrators, policy makers and young adults, and gives serious space and time to those who create books for children and young people to reflect on their process and practice, and the impacts of their work.

This is a cohort of poets, novelists and artists in word and image, charged with capturing the attention of those who do not yet easily grapple with the written word, whose knowledge of narrative is not yet fully formed, whose very self-awareness is a work in progress. CBI curates the conference each year with a connecting theme and without exception the creative and emotional responses of their speakers demonstrate the complexity, cleverness and compassion of this area of work. Here’s a taste of the 2019 conference, ‘Belonging’.

‘It is ultimately the stories that connect us’

Kwame Alexander, a New York Times bestselling poet and novelist, kicked off the first day with a Salman Rushdie quote on the ‘colossal importance’ of stories in families. Kwame reflected on his own development as a reader and a lover of language, growing up the child of NY grad school parents, with Dr Seuss on one hand and The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Things Fall Apart on the other. ‘My mother,’ Kwame said, ‘was my first librarian’.

The main theme of Kwame’s presentation was his commitment to ‘changing the world one word at a time’, encouraging young people to believe in their own power and the power of their words. He spoke of his frustration when gatekeepers pigeonhole books - ‘are the frogs in your books black or white?’ he was once asked - and limit readers’ horizons as a result. Books, he reminded us, are not designed as mirrors but rather as windows onto a wider world.

The questions to Kwame were thoughtful and even a little challenging and one response in particular was a little sad; why, he was asked, was his father the first person he called when he won the Newbery Medal, and not his mother, his ‘first librarian’? Perhaps, Kwame reflected, we look for the approval of those who have withheld it and forget those who have always had our backs.

Find out more about Kwame’s verse novel The Crossover at kwamealexander.com and watch a video about his verse picture-book The Undefeated at theundefeated.com.

‘It’s a first step towards empathy’

Daisy Hirst is a picture-book artist working in silk-screen on stories with a strong emotional core that celebrate creativity. Her primary motivation, she said, is to give the youngest readers ‘the solace of being validated’ as they work their way through the very big feelings a small person’s dawning consciousness invokes.

Daisy reflected on the books that made her a reader, and the limitations of those books, which best validated ‘a middle-class, able-bodied white English child’. She sets her own work - with its cast of colourful monsters - in diverse modern urban landscapes of flats and public transport to ensure the children she sees around her in her city home can see the world of books is theirs too.

Daisy discussed her process, which begins with tiny doodles and borrows from the associative techniques she used in her first writing life as a poet - one book, for example, evolved from a doodlelabelled ‘the girl with the parrot on her head does not need friends’. Her work can be ambivalent and uncomfortable and children respond on a deep level as they begin to come to terms with their own ‘messy feelings’. Daisy says the best compliment she ever received was from a three-year old boy who told her ‘I dream your books’.

Find out more about Daisy and her work at daisyhirst.com.

‘Maybe it’s catharsis’

I chaired a panel of ‘witchy women’, discussing the ways a young generation of writers are beginning to process Ireland’s history of oppression of ‘bad apples’ - to borrow from the title of Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s new novel - through a strong resurgence of magic realism and dark fantasy.

We ranged over themes of female power and religious oppression, the influence of Ireland’s (and Scotland’s) pre-Christian mythologies and folk beliefs on literary traditions, and the ways fiction can help us process the past, and perhaps reclaim the future.

‘If there was a spider and he was putting out an album...’

Picture-book artist Jarvis (full name a trade secret) discussed his own childhood belief that he had no ‘belonging points’ and the realisation that drawing - he did a mean Sonic the Hedgehog - helped him earn peer approval. He has a background as a graphic designer working on album covers and inserts and explained how this has influenced his approach, leading the audience through a basic cover design process using the eight-legged prompt above.

His characters, he explained, are deliberately made up of graphic shapes so that kids can draw them and earn their own ‘belonging points’. His presentation was a joy, reminding us of the fact that children are a tough audience and most children’s writers have a sideline in something akin to theatre or stand-up comedy to get audiences inspired and keep them engaged at events. Find Jarvis here.

‘I say I’m a teacher’

On day two, Irish-language writer Máire Zepf led poet Dean Atta and poet/novelist Brian Conaghan in a discussion of what she noted has been called the ‘awkward child of two successful parents’ - the verse novel. Even if he’s writing prose, Brian always starts with verse; he has a background in theatre and an interest in the way we all play with the patterns of language, from Shakespeare’s blank verse to everyday jokes and songs.

His theatre background also means he thrives on collaboration, working with Irish Children’s Laureate Sarah Crossan on a novel in verse in 2017. Brian’s take on ‘belonging’ was that he doesn’t; born in Scotland, he’s been gone 20 years and despite a decade in Dublin, he doesn’t feel quite Irish either. He doesn’t even always feel comfortable identifying as a ‘writer’.

Dean - newly moved to Scotland and fresh from performing with Neu Reekie the night before - spoke about his stunning new verse novel Black Flamingo. He spoke about wanting to give kids like him, who might not feel that they ‘fit’, the chance to find a kindred spirit on the page and the message that ‘everything will be allright’. He touched on the physicality of his book, discussing the importance of space on the page and of illustration, and crediting the whole team behind the object with their part in delivering the magic.

The Lit presented next - the EU’s only festival of literature for young people programmed by young people. They gave a snapshot of the festival programme and a spoken word performance. These are seriously impressive young writers and thinkers. Find them here .

Next up was a launch-pad of rapid-fire presentations by new authors and illustrators, a great way of encouraging new voices and getting the word out about their books. Among many stand-outs, one Irish-language writer’s tale of a skunk whose comfort blanket has lost its smell was especially gorgeous.

A session on translation with Clémentine Beauvais illuminated the many decisions required of the ‘second writer’ of a book, using picture book Le Ballon de Zébulonas a chance for the audience to explore this work for themselves. Clémentine translates the eponymous hero as ‘Billy’ to introduce alliteration; I thought it should surely be ‘Sassoon’?!

Mary Murphy closed with another great session on the art of picture books, and the CBI team presented their work, much of which maps across to the work of our own Scottish Book Trust. CBI are hugely book-driven with an understanding that the quality of the creative experience is a key criterion for literacy development and other instrumental work. They discussed, a huge range of projects, including some hard thinking around the pros and cons of wordless books for Traveller and ESOL language communities, new moves to work directly with commercial suppliers on in-store reading initiatives and work with homeless young people in their cities.

Meanwhile, at home in Scotland

With the Gavin Wallace Fellowship and other support - we recently funded two places on the Pathways  programmefor Scottish illustrators - the literature team at Creative Scotland hopes to support our own writers and other producers of children’s literature to access the same development opportunities as their adult-facing peers. Edinburgh International Book Festival welcomes a new programmer this autumn - fresh from the innovative intergenerational programming of the South Bank Centre - and we look forward to the publication of the first programme from new national children’s literature centre Moat Brae.

We support writersin all creative forms via our Open Project Fund , which also supports publishers to bring work to market where a public benefit rationale exists. Please get in touch with the Literature Team at any time for advice. There are no rabbits on the team, and we have no bears in pinnies; nonetheless we do understand that children’s writing and reading are vital areas of our literary life.

This article was published on 16 Oct 2019