A Nation of Storytellers/Tír na Scéalta: the Irish at Bologna Children’s Book Fair
13 writers and illustrators reflect on Ireland’s place in the world market and pick a favourite title
The slogan of the Irish stand in Bologna was A Nation of Storytellers/Tír na Scéalta. Photograph: Fintan Wall
Children's Books Ireland represented Ireland at the Bologna Children's Book Fair along with a showcase of Irish publishers, authors, illustrators and other organisations. They asked 13 artists to reflect on Ireland's place in the world market and to pick a favourite title.
In Bologna, I realised how well supported the Laureate na nÓg is in Ireland, especially when you see some of the challenges other children’s literature organisations are facing. It was surprising to me how few countries have laureates; it’s something they aspire to, but policymakers have to finance the projects, it’s not enough to say that childhood reading is important.
Ireland is a leader in this respect; I was very proud to come away with a sense that other countries look at our Laureate project and they want to learn from us. I like what the Laureate represents: it’s not about me; it’s about a creative community. I’m one of more than 20 Irish writers and illustrators here, and I love belonging to that delegation.
Recommended book: Blazing a Trail: Irish Women Who Changed The World by Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill.
Sarah Crossan is the Laureate na nÓg. She writes for teenagers and young adults. Her latest novel, Toffee, will be published in May. Laureate na nÓg is an initiative of the Arts Council. It is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Poetry Ireland and is managed by Children’s Books Ireland. The honour was established by the Arts Council to engage young people with high-quality literature and to underline the importance of children’s literature in our cultural and imaginative lives.
I’ve just met a woman from Abu Dhabi who I had no previous contact with. She wandered on to the Ireland stand, knew nothing about Irish children’s books and wanted to learn more. Serendipitous meetings like that are incredible – there’s an amazing sense of possibility.
I don’t think there’s a way to define what one country is looking for or what they like to publish: there’s a great openness in the meetings at the fair; people are willing to listen, and when they decide that a particular book isn’t right for them, it’s not because it’s not right for their market or for their country, it’s because it’s not right for their particular list.
Recommended book: The Deepest Breath by Meg Grehan. It’s a verse novel about an 11-year-old girl who is just realising that she’s attracted to girls, and is coming to terms with her feelings. It’s very beautifully written, tender and sweet.
Siobhán Parkinson is an award-winning author and was Ireland’s first Laureate na nÓg. She is a translator and publisher at Little Island Books
I’ve never been at the fair before, and I’m fascinated by all the work that people have stuck on the walls here. It’s easy to compare yourself with other people and wonder “Could I have done that?”
Because the Irish market is small, my style has had to be flexible in order to get a range of jobs. It’s positive that I can do that, but it makes it hard to be an immediately recognisable brand. For something like the Illustrators’ Exhibition here, you want to produce something distinctive, to stand out – one of the pieces I saw was embroidered!
It’s nice to see actual art in the exhibition here as opposed to printed work that’s been created or finished digitally. Some of that is down to commercial demands – changes are required by publishers after the work has been submitted, so I’ve started painting digitally now. Ten years from now, there may not be any finished illustration work.
Recommended book: Rhinos Don’t Eat Pancakes by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie. This book has the sensibilities of traditional drawing and print, but the illustrator works digitally. I really love the style.
Oisín McGann is a writer and illustrator who has produced dozens of books, including Headbomz: Wreckin’ Yer Head, the Mad Grandad series, The Forbidden Files, as well as many critically acclaimed novels.
It doesn’t matter where you live anymore; it feels like the world has shrunk. I’m meeting people from Los Angeles and the UK, and my books are published all over the world. To me, the Irish collective stand feels international. I don’t think we’re defined any more by one style or one type of storytelling. Within Illustrators Ireland, the styles are very individual and that diversity is part of our strength. The slogan of the collective stand is A Nation of Storytellers/Tír na Scéalta, and it feels like we’re united under the banner of story, from picturebooks right up to young adult fiction.
Recommended book: The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy by Beatrice Alemagna. I first saw this artist’s work at her exhibition in Bologna, and I love freedom of her drawing and the way she puts the child at the centre of her work.
Niamh Sharkey is a picturebook-maker and animator, and was Laureate na nÓg from 2012-2014. She is the creator of the book I’m a Happy Hugglewug which was made into the show Henry Hugglemonster for Disney Junior.
Storytelling is such a huge part of Irish culture, and the range of styles we’re producing is really exciting. There’s an evolution from traditional ways of working to some very modern, abstract styles.
One of the first things you see when you come into the fair is the illustrators’ walls, with thousands of examples of different people’s work hanging – it’s chaotic, but it gives you a sense of what’s happening at the fair.
I don’t think being based in Belgium has had an impact on my style; most of my work so far has been in the UK and Irish market, and coming from a graphic design background, you have to be flexible with your style depending on the project.
Recommended book: The Island by Mark Janssen, a Dutch author-illustrator. It’s a silent book, so it has no words in it. It’s about an island that’s really a turtle, and a father and daughter are on top of it, going through adventures. Visually, the style is amazing.
Paddy Donnelly is an Irish illustrator who lives in Belgium. With over 14 years’ experience as an illustrator and designer, Paddy now gets to make a living drawing dinosaurs and his 5-year-old self is very happy about this.
It’s great to see so many books from so many different countries and absorbing all these different influences. It is very inspiring. My style has had a range of different influences, including John Burningham, Laura Carlin, and a mish-mash of all sorts of other things. My grandad was a painter too, so I picked up things from him, too.
Recommended book: A Guerra by José Jorge Letria and André Letria. It’s a dark, allegorical tale about how corruptive war is. The illustrations are so moody and interesting.
Flora Delargy is an illustrator who studies Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art. Her work was included in the Bologna Children’s Book Fair Illustrator’s Exhibition.
I don’t think we should be thinking of defining an Irish style any more. We all work internationally; we’re not trying to write a book because we’re Irish; we’re trying to write a book because we’re artists and we’re expressing ourselves to the world. There will always be a layer of Irishness in our work that you can’t take away, but it won’t necessarily be easily identifiable.
For me, coming to the fair is about reconnecting with the art and the business of books, and remembering that I’m a tiny little part of it, and that the bar is so high. It can be very easy when you’re working in your own little cave for that bar to slip down without you noticing. You have to keep an eye on it, or else you’re producing the same book all the time.
Recommended book: The Border Trilogy by Suzy Lee. The artist wrote this book about making her three iconic wordless picturebooks, Wave, Shadow and Mirror.
Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick is a multi-awardwinning picture-book author and illustrator. Her most recent picturebook is Owl Bat Bat Owl, and her first YA novel will be published with Faber in 2020.
Margaret Anne Suggs
Ireland being represented at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair has raised the bar for children’s illustration. Being part of the delegation at Bologna has always been important: Ireland is just too small to support all the brilliant artists we have, so we have to be outward-looking in order to survive.
Before Illustrators Ireland had a regular presence here, I always tried to make my work fit with the aesthetic of Britain’s children’s literature. Now, we see beyond the UK; we know there’s more room, more acceptable styles and designs, more alternative work being created. My Dutch publishing deal came directly from the fair.
Recommended book: What Color is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts. This Belgian artist’s books are traditionally produced, with heavy patterns, textured paper and paint and lots of negative space. Even the type used for her name is quirky.
Margaret Anne Suggs was born and raised in the American deep South, but moved to Dublin, Ireland to complete her Master’s Degree at the National College of Art and Design. She is a director of Illustrators Ireland and a lecturer in the illustration department at Ballyfermot College of Further Education.
Ireland has a unique voice artistically as well as in literature, but we are almost always considered in the same space as that of the UK, and there is a particular style that tends to get published within that market.
I think Ireland fits more with a European style, so there are more opportunities for us to bring our work to that space. Artists and publishers who come to Bologna see the variety of styles that are on display and as a result, they’re willing to go beyond gentle, traditional styles.
As an American, I come from an English-language background but living in Ireland, I see my work as crossing over and trying to bridge traditional narratives and more fine art-based work. I’d like to see the UK and the US take more chances, and I think with Oliver Jeffers, they did. He writes lovely, accessible stories, and he uses beautiful artwork to tell them. He’s the quintessential, unique Irish voice.
Recommended book: Anything by Kvta Pacovská. This Czech artist is 90 years old and her work is so unique, with strong fine art influences.
Tatyana Feeney is an author and illustrator whose work includes Socks for Mr Wolf and Eva and the Perfect Rain, published by The O’Brien Press. She grew up in North Carolina and now lives in Trim with her family. Her artwork has been exhibited in Dublin, Belfast, Vienna, Bologna, London and The Hague.
Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin
Based in the Conamara Gaeltacht, our publishing consists of books originated in Irish and content sourced abroad for inward translation. Some of the books we translate are very well-known already here, like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Others, such as the picturebooks of Belgian publisher Mijade, are new to an Irish readership.
Bologna has helped us develop a global network of literary agents and publisher contracts who now regularly license the work of our Irish-language writers and illustrators for publication all over the world. This is hugely encouraging and validating for creators whose home Irish-language market is small.
The possibility of a no-deal Brexit is worrying in terms of its effect on the Irish economy and the implications such a financial shock would have for the book trade here. Brexit flies in the face of the spirit of Bologna which to me is about openness, co-operation and mutual support and friendship across borders.
Recommended book: Ná Gabh ar Scoil! by Máire Zepf and Tarsila Krüse. This picturebook won a Literacy Association of Ireland Award and was included on the 2018 iBbY International Honor List.
Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin is a writer and publisher with Futa Fata, An Spidéal
I have been looking at authors and illustrators from the Netherlands and from Japan with a view to bringing them to Ireland for the International Literature Festival Dublin in 2020. ILFD has always identified key countries to showcase – this year will feature Norway and America.
I think it’s important for every country to have a presence at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and for Ireland to be up there with our international colleagues. It’s wonderful to see publishers from all over the world promoting Irish artists in many languages, including Cat Doyle, Chris Haughton, Shane Hegarty and Deirdre Sullivan. Judi Curtin received a hero’s welcome from the Serbian delegation here.
Recommended book: The Big Little Thing by Beatrice Alemagne – an unconventional book about the meaning of happiness, which will be published later in the year. I also love What is a Child? by the same artist.
Sarah Webb is a children’s book reviewer, an award-winning author and is the family and children’s programmer with the International Literature Festival Dublin.
As an Irish artist living in England, I feel more connected with the UK market than the Irish market; it’s such a wonderful thing to have two markets to work in. With the possibility of Brexit looming, I do feel some dread about what could happen.
Very little of my work has sold internationally, but it’s interesting to notice what publishers in different parts of the world are looking for – issues like the shapes of characters’ eyes can make all the difference in making my work look more UK-centric or more international. Publishing is like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks – it might only be one or two but at least a lot of people are getting the chance to get their work out there.
Recommended Book: The Way Home for Wolf by Rachel Bright and Jim Field. The illustrator Jim Field’s work has evolved so much, and the book features beautiful textures and highlights.
Sheena Dempsey is the illustrator of The Magic Moment (Niall Breslin) and Hungry Babies (Fearne Cotton) as well as the multi-awardwinning Dave Pigeon series by Swapna Haddow.
I’ve been following Brexit very closely and reading all the commentary, as I live in the UK. Whatever I read always leaves me unsatisfied. The situation is so ridiculous that words just never seem to do it justice.
What I love about picturebooks is that they can somehow go beyond words. They can sum up situations that can’t be conveyed otherwise, and I was thinking about this as I wandered the aisles of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.
I saw a book in the Korean section that I think sums it up perfectly. The only words in the book are “Is the world of fools different from ours?” and then there follows a sequence of images with headless characters running around, rolling heads down a hill, piling them on top of another and chasing a chicken. Perfect!
Recommended Book: Idiot by Young Lee
Chris Haughton is a picturebook-maker whose work includes A Bit Lost, Oh No, George!, Shh! We Have a Plan! and Goodnight Everyone. He is twice winner of the CBI Book of the Year Award, among many others.
The Ireland showcase was made possible with the support of Culture Ireland and the Embassy of Ireland, Italy