Happy 5th birthday, Little Island
Siobhán Parkinson traces the history, successes, challenges and ambitions of the children’s publisher she helped found in 2010 as it launches its 50th book
Siobhán Parkinson, author Kevin Stevens and Gráinne Clear of Little Island. Photograph: Mark Granier
Siobhan Parkinson with then president Mary McAleese at her inauguration as the first Laureate na nOg or Children’s Laureate in 2010, the year she founded Little Island, with, from left; Roisin Whelan, Ellen O Brien, Martha O Leary, Katie O Brien, Maeve O Biren, Dylan Carroll and Ellie Smith Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Little Island is an independent children’s publisher based in Dublin and we’re just about to celebrate our fifth birthday and publish our 50th book, The Wordsmith, by Patricia Forde. We have been busy all this time, working hard at producing beautiful, intelligent and funny books for Irish children for the past few years.
I suppose it is forgivable if people think Little Island Books is part of New Island Books – but it’s not. It was indeed Edwin Higel of New Island Books who first invited me to head up a children’s list, and both the name Little Island and our cute logo, showing a youngster reading under a palm tree, were his ideas. But, like all children, Little Island grew up and left home. And now, although we have friendly relations with our erstwhile colleagues, we are a completely separate and independent company – it’s just that, like other children who leave home, we have retained the family surname.
Our first list was launched in spring 2010, and we have had many adventures on our way to our 50th book. All the books we published in 2010 are still in print, and three of the authors whose first children’s books we published back then – Kevin Stevens, Deirdre Sullivan and Sheena Wilkinson – have new books just out or soon to come from Little Island.
From the start, we at Little Island have seen our role as providing an outlet for new Irish children’s writers, in the aftermath of the late-20th-century boom in Irish children’s publishing that ran to ground around the turn of the century, with the collapse or withdrawal from children’s publishing of most English-language Irish publishers. The O’Brien Press was for some years the only publisher in the country consistently publishing a children’s list in English.
We’ve been doing pretty well. Little Island’s Sheena Wilkinson won the CBI Book of the Year award for her second novel, Grounded; her first, Taking Flight, won the CBI Honour for Fiction – and both these titles won the CBI Children’s Choice award in their respective years. Both Prim Improper and Primperfect, by Deirdre Sullivan, were CBI-shortlisted. Primperfect was also shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature alongside Donal Ryan and Mary Costello. Our books for younger children have also been singled out. The Unesco City of Literature office chose our Nightmare Club series as its Citywide Read (similar to One City, One Book for adults) in 2013 and Kevin Stevens’s The Powers for the same project in 2014.
Children’s publishing is fun, it is important, and the books are very, very good – but it is not remotely lucrative, at least not for a small publishing house on the edge of Europe, working in the shadow of a world centre of children’s publishing. Our proximity to London, with its enormous publishing conglomerates and its output of several thousand children’s titles a year, is of course problematic. London sets the tone, London sets the prices, London dominates the market – and London is not particularly interested in what is happening in a tiny market like ours. And that makes it very difficult for small publishers to make any inroads into the British bookshops.
We publish first and foremost for an Irish audience, but the Irish audience is too small to sustain a children’s publishing company, so we need to find ways to reach the enormous British market. Little Island Books has had the great good fortune to forge a sales and distribution partnership with the UK’s largest independent children’s publishing house, Walker Books, who are extremely supportive and helpful, but it’s still pretty tough going out there on the high seas of the British book trade.
Little Island is not just about offering publishing opportunities to new Irish writers for children. It’s also about serving the interests of Irish (and other) readers. We want to bring our readers not only the best in new Irish writing for children and young people, but also to offer them something different. And so the publishing of books in translation has always been part of our mission.
Uniquely in Irish children’s publishing, we publish at least one or two titles a year in translation, and so far we have published about a dozen international books, from languages as diverse as German, Swedish, Finnish, Brazilian Portuguese and Irish. We believe passionately in the importance of making books available to children that bring them the message that not everyone interacts with the world through the medium of English.
We have always had an ambition to publish picturebooks, and just last year we put a tentative toe into this market and brought out a fabulously beautiful picturebook in translation (a co-publication with Nord-Süd, Switzerland), The Wizardling by the astonishingly gifted Binette Schroeder of Germany. We have plans for more co-published picturebooks very soon.
In fact we have lots of plans for lots of things. Watch this space!
Coming soon: our first adult book A Lonely Note by Kevin Stevens.
Siobhán Parkinson, publisher, commissioning editor and translator with Little Island Books, is an established children’s author in her own right. She was Ireland’s first Children’s Laureate (2010-12) and has had about 30 books of her own published. Several of her books from The O’Brien Press are still in print; she publishes currently with Hodder Children’s Books and Frances Lincoln.