“I can see this in the shop in Portmagee!” giggled uncle Seán. Was he serious or just pulling my leg? I remember laughing too at how quickly our chat about his idea for a children’s book, with me adding a few drawings of puffins, had suddenly developed into this vision of driving down to the Kerry coastline with a box of books.
But you have to admire those who dream big. If only Seán knew that his story did indeed make it to the booksellers of Portmagee. Now published in other countries, in the Irish language, and selected to take part in World Book Day 2020, Where Are You, Puffling? is being enjoyed by far more than we ever imagined.
Seán died before any of this happened. So how did the book come to be? Back in 2012, thanks to the recession, I found myself returning to college and moving from the creative field of graphic design into the very different domain of website development. But change is good, and I was open to other new challenges, even illustrating a children’s book!
That summer, we were admiring the tall ships in Dublin when Seán first told me of his idea. A surprise for his grandsons, he just needed some simple pictures for it. Although he was very sick, enduring chemotherapy, Seán enjoyed discussing the story and ideas for illustration. Soon, as the words and pictures started working together he’d yell, “I love it! Now we’re sucking diesel!”
The plan was to have 10 books printed up, we might stretch to 20 for the discount, and that would be it. But Seán was gone before we could finish the layouts. His grandsons had no idea about the surprise. However, I was determined that what we had set out to do, would be done.
Since my art college years at IADT, I had allowed something essential become pretty much dormant. That is my love for making big splashes of paint and having messy fingers all day long. I still visited galleries when I could. Getting close up with brushstrokes for a couple of hours has never felt a waste of time. But I needed something fresh to engage with, to help me make that leap back to simply drawing for fun.
Now working full time again, it was just weekends when I could slowly get around to piecing the book together. Sometimes, I mightn’t feel like drawing anything, but my partner would say, “Well… where are those puffins and bunnies?” and the next thing there would be 10. It wasn’t until 2017, five years later, that I finally sent it to print. I picked the most affordable format; Seán’s grandsons got a nice surprise – mission complete. That is, until the suggestions came that more children might like to read about puffins on the Skelligs. I kept hearing: “Why not send this on to a publisher?”
I knew that Seán would have been keen, so I researched. What books are published where? What do I need to submit? To give it the best chance, I set about improving on that initial artwork, and tidying up the text. I immersed myself in the beautiful new picture books being produced, especially those about wildlife. I wanted to try and understand the structure, how every single word counts.
I found that children’s books in Ireland are thriving. I attended the Children’s Books Ireland conference and met writers, illustrators, booksellers, teachers and librarians dedicated to bringing the joy of books to as many children as possible.
When the O’Brien Press said they were keen to develop it, I was just thrilled. They were so encouraging about the artwork. However, the story needed more work, and this is where award-winning writer Erika McGann stepped in. Taking the setting, and the theme of birds and animals helping each other, Erika built the tale of a little puffin chick helping other birds and animals as she explores Skellig Michael. Now with a fun, interactive structure, it was ready for fresh illustrations.
Working by day coding websites, and by night as an aspiring children’s book illustrator, I was enjoying this unexpected turn of events. I tried to convey the experience of being on the Skelligs by using the full two-page spread throughout. The sheer cliffs, jagged peaks and amazing sea views all have a kind of magical effect on the visitor. In tribute, I based the boatman in the book on Seán. With each new development I pictured his eyebrows arching higher and higher. Since it’s been published the response has been fantastic.
Then came the events in schools, festivals, libraries and bookshops. With no experience of talking to a large group of children, I made sure to prep. The first event with three classes in Dubray Books, Grafton Street was a total hoot. I aimed to get everyone enjoying themselves right from the start. Where Are You, Puffling? is repeated many times in the story. I hoped that the children would join with me in shouting it out every time. We made a right racket!
I drew pictures, and answered some very clever questions intended to make me look silly. Of course there were questions about puffins too, and many more about making a book. The children cheered for Puffling, laughed at me, and I wondered why am I only doing this now? It’s wonderful to play just a small part in encouraging the love of books.
World Book Day is a fantastic initiative dedicated to celebrating the brilliance of reading for pleasure for everyone, everywhere, and providing children the opportunity to have a book of their own with a free book token. I’m thrilled that children across the country will get a chance to discover Puffling and her adventures.
Working with Erika and the team at O’Brien Press has been amazing. We are making a new book, with new characters, coming later this year. I can still hear Seán giggling.