Tributes paid to Robert Dunbar, champion of children’s literature

PJ Lynch, Eoin Colfer, Patrick Ness and others honour critic and lecturer, who reviewed children’s literature for The Irish Times for more than 27 years

 

Robert Dunbar, the critic and editor who for decades championed Irish children’s literature, died early yesterday after a long illness. He was 76.

As well as reviewing children’s fiction for The Irish Times for more than 27 years, he was a founder member of the Children’s Literature Association of Ireland, which merged with the Irish Children’s Book Trust to become Children’s Books Ireland. He was a lecturer in English and children’s literature, presented a weekly radio programme on children’s books and edited two anthologies, Enchanted Journeys: Fifty Years of Irish Writing for Children and Skimming, both publishedby O’Brien Press. He also edited Inis magazine, was a Bisto Book of the Year Awards judge and received a CBI Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jenny Murray, acting director of Children’s Books Ireland, said: “It is with great sadness that Children’s Books Ireland acknowledges the passing of our friend, patron and children’s books champion, the irreplaceable Robert Dunbar. Robert was knowledgeable about many things, very wise and very, very funny - and of course enormously well-read. He was a pioneer in the study of children’s books in Ireland and to most people, he simply was children’s literature in Ireland.”

PJ Lynch, the award-winning illustrator and author and current Laureate na nÓg, said: “Robert was a passionate advocate for quality in children’s books over many years. In his academic writing and lectures he was always erudite and reasoned, but he could be direct and very funny as well when he was sharing his love of a good story told in witty or beautiful language.”

Eoin Colfer, his predecessor, said: “Robert was the champion of children’s books. Without his support there are many of us who would never have managed to sustain a career. He was literate, supportive, always fair but never ever mean. It is common to say at such times that so and so was irreplaceable. But Robert was that rare individual who actually can never be replaced. Nor would we want to.”

Patrick Ness, bestselling author of A Monster Calls, said: “I’m sure this will only echo everyone else’s words about the glorious Robert Dunbar. The warmth of him, the curiosity, the sheer interest! He was right there at the very, very start of my career, reviewing the books with such brilliant emotional intelligence and sympathy. At the launch of A Monster Calls in Ireland, he gave it a completely unexpected speech that took my breath away, not only just about the book, but about what he believed (a belief I share) that books for young readers could accomplish: making the world larger, safer, better. I’ll miss him terribly.”

A native of Dunseverick, Co Antrim, he attended Bushmills Grammar School, where he attained the highest mark in English A level in Northern Ireland, before studying the subject at Queen’s University Belfast, where he was a contemporary of Seamus Heaney. After teaching at Coleraine Tech and Rainey Endowed School in Magherafelt, Co Derry, he was awarded an MA in English in Education at Ulster University. He lectured in children’s literature at the Church of Ireland College of Education in Rathmines, Trinity College Dulbin and St Patrick’s College, Dublin. He was the first to offer a graduate diploma in children’s literature.

He is survived by his wife Carole, children Dominic and Grainne, and by his grandchildren Jack, Matthew, Edie and Astrid. A celebration of his life will take place in the dining hall of Trinity College, Dublin, from 6-9pm on Wednesday, July 27th. Mourners who wish to may donate a book token to a local school library.

A collection of tributes will be published tomorrow on irishtimes.com

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