A champion for children's literature


The new children’s literature laureate has two years and a blank canvas to promote books here and abroad. Siobhán Parkinson reveals what she has in store

IT’S DIFFICULT TO find Siobhán Parkinson in her own home. When I arrive, extensive building work is going on, the front door is flung wide, and there are planks of wood and plastic everywhere. I fumble my way upstairs, make a guess, tap on a door, and suddenly from behind one of the aging gold-patterned curtains covering it, she appears.

It’s a scene plucked straight from a children’s book – which is entirely appropriate given that I am now face to face with Ireland’s first ever Laureate na nÓg.

“I didn’t know what had hit me when Mags Walsh at Children’s Books Ireland rang me recently with the news,” says Parkinson, while ushering me into her small, book-lined study. But it is “a lovely honour” to be the inaugural laureate – an Arts Council initiative with the support of the Office of the Minister for Children, Children’s Books Ireland and Poetry Ireland.

The brief for the two-year laureateship is wide enough for Parkinson to put her own stamp on it. Parkinson is one of Ireland’s foremost children’s writers, and for years she has juggled other impressive roles – literary translator, editor of children’s literature journals, and accomplished academic work, including a PhD on Dylan Thomas.

She is also a linguist who adores the “beautiful cadence of Hiberno English”, and is fluent in German and Irish. Dialann Sár – Rúnda Amy Ni Chonchúirwas published by Cois Life and Maitrióisceis forthcoming. Recently, when writing her forthcoming second novel for adults, Painted Ladies, about Danish painters, she also taught herself Danish.

She is also the editor of a new imprint, Little Island, which is an offspring of New Island Books. Six books have already published, with more on the way including translations of children’s books from Swedish and Portuguese.

But most importantly of all, this energetic writer has always won the favour of children. In her books, she creates an “exceptionally level, equal relationship with children”, says Jane O’Hanlon from Poetry Ireland, and in the collaborative writing workshops she runs for children.

This commitment to writing is profound, given that a decade ago Parkinson developed a visually impairment. “There was no treatment 10 years ago, so one eye was damaged,” she explains. Her second eye’s degeneration was halted by a new treatment about six years ago. It is upsetting for her to visit a bookshop as she “simply can’t read the books”.

But she remains upbeat. “Audio books are wonderful,” she says, and she would be lost as a writer without a system she uses on her computer that makes words “enormous” for her. “The only problem is that all the people going by on the top deck of the number 83 bus can also read every word.”

She also has a voice on her computer – the “talking laptop” usually causes quite a stir in classrooms she visits.

As part of the laureateship she is keen to further her creative work with blind children and to find “alternatives to Braille such as extensive oral work and typing and recording of stories”. Parkinson is eager to raise the profile of children’s literature in Ireland and abroad and wants to expose Irish audiences to high quality international thinkers and writers.

Parkinson is critical of the Department of Education and Science’s decision to cut the €2 million grant for the School Library Service, which provided school books to every national school on a rotating basis. She feels that the grant must be restored, otherwise the “opening of a book for pleasure” will become a thing of the past for children. School libraries should not be “an extra” but “a requirement” in very school in Ireland if creative reading is to become something we collectively treasure.

Parkinson’s parents were great readers, her mother teaching all her children to read before they went to school. She is quietly proud of her own family. Her son studies medieval poetry at Oxford and her husband, Roger Bennett, “escaped teaching” to become a woodturner; she jokingly describes him as “the true artist in this house”.

Listening to her talk about family, it is easy to see why she describes her books as “domestic dramas” for children; for Parkinson, the family is the emotional core of her books, and her natural home as a writer is in the 10-12 age group. “For me, it was the most passionate time as a reader,” she says. The child she once was, “full of excitement and fear and rebellion”, still inspires her.

But it was the death of her second child just minutes after he was born that set Parkinson on the road to writing. At the time, her first son, Matthew, was five. She went in search of a book to help him cope with the death but she found only books “about hamsters or grandparents dying”. So she wrote her first book, All Shining in the Spring; The Story of a Baby Who Died– a title coined by Matthew when the family planted daffodil bulbs at the baby’s grave. Although O’Brien Press in 1991 didn’t immediately publish the book, it was “perspicacious” of the editor Íde Ní Laoghaire to meet with Parkinson and say she was a writer for older children. For that encouragement, Parkinson has always been grateful.

There followed a slew of books which have captured the hearts of children in Ireland and abroad – books such as Sisters . . . No Way!; Four Kids, Three Cats, Two Cows, One Witch (Maybe); The Moon King; Breaking the Wishboneand The Love Bean. In total, she has about 20 books in print, which have received numerous awards and been translated into multiple languages.

If she wasn’t a children’s writer, Parkinson admits she would like to have been a poet: “But I can’t write poetry.” And yet her final comment is poetic. “Literature is like a kite. We have to have the spool of string, or the kite will escape, but the spool isn’t the interesting thing. It’s the kite that’s beautiful and buoyant and alive and that tugs for freedom.”

  • Siobhán Parkinson will give the keynote address at Children’s Books Ireland’s annual conference in the National Gallery, Dublin on Saturday

GREAT BOOKS: Parkinson’s picks

I’m always wary of the word “favourite”, but the ones that occur to me today are as follows, in roughly age order, younger to older.

From childhood, A Little Princessby Frances Hodgson Burnett. Pure escapism, and with such charm. Sara Crewe for president! The Bookshop on the Quayby Patricia Lynch. A book set in Dublin – how glamorous is that? And with the ghost of Jonathan Swift – cooler and cooler.

The Fairy Talesof Hans Christian Andersen. Who needs vampires when you can have Andersen? Remember the girl who had to knit shirts out of nettles in order to transform her brothers back from swans into human beings, only she didn’t get the last shirt finished? I thought I would die with fright.

The Crock of Goldby James Stephens. Is this a children’s book? Who cares, it’s great, no matter what age you are. The first truly mad book I read. James Stephens is such an undervalued Irish writer. Great Expectationsby Charles Dickens. What larks, Pip!

More recently I’ve read The Frog Princeby Binette Schroeder. You know the story, but have you seen this ravishing version?

The Houseby J Patrick Lewis and Roberto Innocenti. The whole of 20th-century European history through the story of a single house. Magic illustrations. The Tale of Despereauxby Kate DiCamillo. This is kind of the Bible, the Iliad and maybe Beowulfall rolled up together, only with mice.

Tamarby Mal Peet. A really engaging war story, and a terrific introduction to adult literature for readers in transition from younger children’s literature. Annan Waterby Kate Thompson. Perfect.

‘Stepping stones to your best self’

SIOBHÁN PARKINSON was officially announced as Ireland’s first laureate for children’s literature by President Mary McAleese at a ceremony at the Arts Council in Dublin’s Merrion Square yesterday.

Describing the creation of the role of Laureate na nÓg as a “brilliant idea”, President McAleese emphasised the importance of writers to Irish society. “They have woven magic in people’s minds and hearts with words and they have received great distinction and brought great names and credit to our country,” she said.

“Books are stepping stones to your best self. They take you right into your own head. They give you a great realm of friends and they also open you up to the whole world around you.”

President McAleese described Parkinson as a “great champion” and a “great advocate” of children’s literature and wished her success in the newly-established role.

Siobhán Parkinson said she was “absolutely thrilled and delighted” at the appointment, which she described as a “very big responsibility. Children’s books are absolutely vital. Children’s books lay down the foundation for the imaginative life of the whole nation – that’s how important they are.”

Asked if her new role will leave her enough time to write, Parkinson, who is working on a teenage novel at the moment, said her editor must be wondering why she was not responding to her emails.

However, she added she “always” finds time for her own writing and added she was “not too worried about that”.

Selected from a shortlist of nominees, Parkinson was chosen by a panel that included individuals with expertise in the fields of writing, illustration, library services and publishing.

Parkinson will participate in events and activities around Ireland during her two-year tenure. Her role is to engage children with high-quality literature and to raise the profile of children’s literature in general. Éanna Ó Caollaí