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Authors ‘fly the flag’ for Irish children’s literature

By Raena Doty

Arts & Features Editor

The English Department hosted three Irish children’s and young adult authors at FSU in the Heineman Ecumenical Center Sept. 25.

The authors, currently spending some time in the U.S., are all published with a small Irish publishing company called Little Island. Among the panel were Sam Thompson, Patricia Forde, and Siobhán Parkinson.

Matthew Parkinson-Bennett, the publisher at Little Island after Siobhán Parkinson - his mother - stepped down, introduced the authors and talked a bit about his company.

He explained it is a very small publisher that has only one part-time and two full-time employees, and they publish about 10 books a year for children of all ages - from infants to older teens. He then introduced the authors, starting with Thompson.

Thompson read from his middle grade book “The Fox’s Tower,” sequel to “Wolfstongue.” He said the original novel follows a boy named Silas who struggles to speak, and when he discovers a world of talking animals, he feels deep kinship with the wolves who do not speak very well and are treated poorly for it.

The sequel, however, takes place some years later and follows Silas’s daughter, the start of the family theme between all three readings. He first read from the beginning of the novel, a passage where she saw her father apparently get kidnapped by foxes.

When he read the second passage, he said he thinks it’s one of the best parts of the book, but children generally aren’t very receptive to it. It followed Willow’s transformation into a wolf at the hands of the villain, and had a very rich description of her running through a forest, unsure of what to do in her new form.

Next to speak was Forde, introduced as Laureate na nÓg, or in English, Irish Children’s Laureate. She joked her “sentence - sorry, term - lasts three years.”

She added as the Irish Children’s Laureate, her job “is to be an ambassador for reading for children and to promote Irish writers and illustrators.”

Forde read from her book “The Girl Who Fell to Earth,” which is a middle grade speculative fiction story about an alien girl and her father.

She said in this world, there’s a race of aliens from a planet called Terros who watch over Earth, while the people of Earth know nothing about them.

The young protagonist, Aria, was raised to believe humans are so far below her people and don’t matter, and she accepts a mission to go to Earth and wipe out all humans with a disease.

Importantly, Forde added since Aria was taught because humans live such a relatively short time compared to people of Terros, they can’t form relationships at all.

The excerpt Forde read followed Aria and her father shortly after they released the first amount of virus which would eventually be used to kill all humans, and contrary to what Aria was raised to believe, she sees - and mulls over - a whole lot of human compassion.

Forde also explained the people of Terros, in this novel, were ultimately the ones who created Earth. “They gave us everything. Our archeology, our history. Everything we think we know about ourselves,” she said.

She added, “Since this is a middle grade novel, it opens great discussions to be held with children about where you get your information from and who do you believe.”

The final author, Parkinson, used to be the publisher of Little Island before she stepped down and allowed her son to take the position.

She said she has mostly written middle grade books throughout her career because she “always thought that the most difficult form of writing for children is the picture book.”

She said because picture books tend to have so few words and the writer must anticipate what the illustrator is going to draw to go alongside the text, it can be very intimidating.

“I’m a very wordy writer,” she said. “I like sentences. I love paragraphs.”

Regardless, she shared her picture book called “Evie’s Christmas Wishes.”

She said Parkinson-Bennett asked her to write a picture book about a typical Irish Christmas, and she decided to try.

“The idea was to represent a typical Irish Christmas,” she said, and added Irish Christmas looks “roughly similar” to how other cultures celebrate Christmas, but “Christmas goes on for about three weeks in Ireland.

“It starts around about the 18th or 19th or something of December and it goes right through to Nollaig na mBan which is the Women’s Christmas, which is the 6th of January,” she said.

Parkinson said she struggled with how to fit the representation of everything she wanted to show into a picture book with a limited number of words, while keeping it realistic.

She settled on telling the story of a young girl named Evie who goes through the regular routine of the Christmas season.

Throughout the book, Evie makes wishes - some realistic, some less so - and the narrative grapples with how to respond to these wishes in reasonable ways - for example, when she wishes for a reindeer, she finds a reindeer decoration in return.

The book also references Irish culture and history throughout - for example, Parkinson said Evie’s uncle who came visiting from outside of Ireland was included to represent the large Irish emigrant population.

The authors ended the discussion by taking questions from the audience.

When asked for general writing advice, all three authors agreed on the importance of sticking through with a story even when it doesn’t seem worth it.

“There’s no such thing as a bad first draft. Nobody will ever see it but yourself,” Forde said.

Thompson added, “Don’t get it ‘write,’ get it written.”

One audience member asked for advice on how to get published.

Parkinson-Bennett said publishing can be a really long process, and it’s important not to get impatient. He added small publishers like Little Island can be slow, but that’s not a bad thing.

He also said sending to more publishers isn’t always better, and that he as a publisher is able to tell the difference between an email sent to many publishers at once and an email written with a knowledge of what Little Island does as a company and what types of stories they publish.

All members of the panel also discussed why it’s important to talk about children’s literature, even among adults - or, more accurately, why it shouldn’t be seen as any different to talk about children’s literature as adults.

“Is it different to discuss books in general?” Thompson asked.

“As adults, it’s good for us to be reminded of that time when you read with that kind of unfettered imagination and wonder,” Forde said. “And I still love reading children’s books, it still appeals to a part of me - I was at my best as a reader when I was 10.”

Parkinson-Bennett added, “I think Little Island’s ethos about children’s books really would be that children’s books are different from adult books because of the audience that they were written for and that’s really it.

“We want to fly the flag for Irish children’s literature as literature,” he said. “We want to show the world that Irish children’s literature is also a very rich tradition.”


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