The book reviewer's favourite books for children
For Robert Dunbar, 25 years of reviewing Irish books has allowed him to chart the genre while discovering his favourites: Eoin Colfer, Siobhán Parkinson, Roddy Doyle and Sam McBratney are among the writers of the stand-out titles
Twenty-five years ago, on October 29th, 1988, I began reviewing children’s books for The Irish Times. It has been an opportunity not just to read and comment on a huge number of books but also to trace the way the genre has evolved, both in Ireland and beyond. It seems an appropriate time to take a retrospective glance at some aspects of this evolution and to single out for special recommendation some of the books that have impressed me most. (Where Irish children’s books are under discussion I must point out that, as I have no Irish, my concern here is solely with writing in English.)
By the late 1980s and on into the 1990s Irish children’s writing and publishing had, after a long period of relative nonactivity, established themselves as significant players on the local literary scene, certainly where the quantity of material appearing was concerned. (Questions of quality came later.) In 1993, for example, some 60 children’s titles appeared from some 15 Irish publishers; 20 years on, thanks largely to our economic downturn, these figures would be radically different. There have always been Irish children’s writers who have published abroad, but in recent years their number has grown dramatically, provoking speculation about how this development has affected the thematic and stylistic aspects of their work.
The reputation of several of our writers has moved from the merely local to the international. Eoin Colfer, Derek Landy and Michael Scott, with, respectively, their Artemis Fowl, Skulduggery Pleasant and Nicholas Flamel novels, are globally successful, as are the picture-book texts of Martin Waddell and the horror series of Darren Shan. Additionally, some individual books have attracted universal notice. Among these are John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree and Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You.
This acclaim extends to a number of our writers and illustrators creating picture books, an area that 25 years ago barely existed. PJ Lynch’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey and When Jessie Came Across the Sea have won the Greenaway Medal while Waddell has earned the Hans Christian Andersen award. Currently, the prolific Oliver Jeffers draws widespread attention for his idiosyncratic art and storylines.
Young-adult fiction, after a very slow (and not particularly distinguished) start, has begun to address contemporary adolescence much more realistically, a development that sees literary and societal change proceeding simultaneously. As the boundaries between childhood, adolescence and adulthood dissolve, the possibilities for all sorts of crossover will multiply.
What, then, of the hundreds of Irish children’s books of the past 25 years? Here, in alphabetical order of title, are 12 that continue to make an impact well into a third or fourth reading.
Eoin Colfer (2008)
Young Conor Broekhart, living on the Great Saltee Island, off the Wexford coast, yearns to be the first person to penetrate the mysteries of flight. A rip-roaring adventure, full of derring-do, ensues.
Angels Without Wings
Mark O’Sullivan (1997)
Set in Nazi Berlin, this is a clever and poignant story of how four young people from a popular series of German children’s adventure stories leave their fictional worlds behind to confront a very real evil.
Kate Thompson (2003)
The ancient ballad that gives this novel its title is skilfully woven into the story of teenagers Michael and Annie, a love story progressing from a dramatic first encounter to a sequence of almost unbearable developments.
Arthur Quinn and
Alan Early (2013)
Concluding Early’s Father of Lies trilogy, this is the dramatic narrative of the events leading to the final encounter between his young titular hero and the malevolent god Loki. Mythical past and contemporary present convincingly combine.
Caught on a Train
Carlo Gébler (2001)
Archie, the novel’s young narrator, is an impoverished dining-car assistant who finds himself judging a storytelling competition organised among the passengers. Something wicked this way comes, as the book’s epigraph reminds us.
Geraldine Meade (2011)
A welcome addition to Irish young-adult fiction dealing with gay themes, this novel centres on 16-year-old Felicity and her transition from denial to acceptance of her sexuality. A sensitive and courageous treatment.
Four Kids, Three Cats, Two Cows, One Witch (Maybe)
Siobhán Parkinson (1997)
Four children embark on what they hope will be an adventure. It becomes for them a journey of increasing insight into the nature of story and its revelations about teller and listener alike.
Into the Grey
Celine Kiernan (2011)
When, after a house fire, the Finnerty family moves out from the city to a rented house in Skerries, they find themselves caught up in a world of bad dreams and (quite frightening) apparitions.
Solace of the Road
Siobhán Dowd (2009)
Solace is the name adopted by 14-year-old Holly Hogan as she departs on the potentially hazardous journey from her English foster home to Ireland in the hope of reunion with her mother.
The Chieftain’s Daughter
Sam McBratney (1993)
Friendship and enmity, passion and hatred, trust and betrayal: all are memorably present in this superb re-creation of an ancient Ireland in which young love can be both kindled and killed.
The Snow Vulture
Matthew Sweeney (1992)
Clive and Carl, 14-year-old twins, differ in their choice of subject for their snow sculptures. Conflicts arise, pitting the imaginative versus the rational, the natural versus the unnatural, the sane versus the mad.
Roddy Doyle (2007)
There are two wildernesses: one in the Arctic and one in contemporary Dublin. Both play significant roles in a novel that, humorously and feelingly, explores the tricky theme of family tensions and the complications they create.
Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books.