‘I’ve lost over a year’s income through Covid’
The #BooksMakeThingsBetter campaign and free reading guide aims to help readers and creatives
The Books Make Things Better reading guide highlights children’s books published in 2020 by Irish authors, illustrators, translators and publishers. It is free to download and available in libraries too
The creative community behind Irish children’s literature is a resilient, innovative, shape-shifting crew. They have shown generosity during the past six months, sharing stories, drawings, activities and creative prompts with families everywhere, trying to find new ways to connect with audiences in the face of great professional uncertainty – coupled with the Covid-related anxiety felt by the rest of the nation.
The career trajectory of writers has been discussed extensively in this paper in the Writing Lives series with Words Ireland – not an ascending line from point to point but a series of peaks and troughs dictated by what supports, awards and work opportunities can be secured. Those who create for children sometimes work in full-time jobs in teaching or unrelated fields, and those who do classify themselves as full-time artists often earn their primary income not from their writing but from the live literature events they deliver in schools and libraries, at festivals and in arts centres.
Author Dave Rudden (Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy) had more than 50 cancellations between March 1st and July 1st: “Half my year’s income is gone and, with social distancing in place, I cannot see my bookings for the second half of the year taking place, and 2021 is also very uncertain.”
In mid-July, Children’s Books Ireland ran a survey to gauge how the restrictions imposed as a consequence of the pandemic had impacted on artists’ incomes, careers and wellbeing. Of the 75 writers, illustrators and storytellers for children who responded, one third had all engagements cancelled completely when restrictions were imposed. Many adapted their events to be delivered digitally, upskilling quickly to the various formats and mediums available. The financial losses are difficult to quantify: some wrote “I am running at a loss of thousands” or “incalculable loss of sales at exhibitions” rather than giving a concrete figure; understandable, as uncertainty prevails.
As ever, in our community, words speak louder than numbers: illustrator Mary Murphy has been making books for over two decades, and had two books published in March and April when bookshops’ doors were closed. “Conservative estimate? I’ve lost over a year’s income through Covid. Two books are being rescheduled, for who knows when? A publisher who was discussing a new book for 2023 has gone silent – times are too uncertain to commit. My royalties are halved, due to Brexit – the Covid effect won’t have shown yet. I was refused Covid payments, perhaps because I’m a nominal employee (income £100 pa). Apart from, thankfully, receiving the Covid Crisis Response Award [from the Arts Council], I have no contracts, and have had effectively no earnings since February.”
This stark picture is the quiet reality for so many, conflicting with the perception that writers and illustrators’ work can happen at home and was therefore unaffected by the pandemic. Author and illustrator Alan Nolan put it best: “You’d think a mostly empty diary and the ‘extra headspace’ that comes with it is something every author dreams of, but I work best when I am busy – and also when I have the reassurance of a semi-reliable income.” Fifty per cent of the artists surveyed reported experiencing a negative impact on their wellbeing; 69 per cent have found it difficult to make work during the pandemic.
At Children’s Books Ireland, we are in the unique position of serving both readers and artists: our aim is to ensure that every child on the island of Ireland gets the opportunity to discover the joy of reading; we inform the adults who influence children’s reading and we support Irish writers, illustrators and storytellers throughout their careers.
The ImagineNation playbook which appeared in this paper over the Easter weekend was a wonderful opportunity to commission some of our best Irish artists to create playful pages that would get children drawing, writing, being creative without the need for a printer or special art supplies. In partnership with An Post, and later supported by the Community Foundation for Ireland, the playbook has reached over 215,000 families all over Ireland, including those in direct provision and family hubs, and has supported 34 artists to make work that will reach a wide and willing audience.
Our next endeavour is to keep up that encouragement for artists, for publishers and for booksellers – the entire ecosystem of children’s literature needs a big hug of an autumn from the public within whose gift it is to support them. And with fewer opportunities for many readers to browse in bookshops as they might have before, readers need a steer.
The Books Make Things Better reading guide highlights children’s books published in 2020 by Irish authors, illustrators, translators and publishers. The guide features short reviews of 108 children’s books, in both the English and Irish language, for 0-18-year-olds. Inside the booklet you’ll find 123 Irish authors, illustrators and translators and thirteen Irish publishers, and on the cover, original artwork by multi-award-winning Belfast illustrator Oliver Jeffers.
The guide will be free in participating libraries and bookshops nationwide and available to download here.
The #BooksMakeThingsBetter campaign will also see a gift of over 1,000 Irish-published illustrated books going to children in DEIS schools, family hubs and direct provision centres across the country. For Culture Night, we’re asking families to open a book and share a story together. You can connect to a community of readers and book-makers using #BooksMakeThingsBetter on your social channels, or take the time to spend twenty quiet, disconnected minutes sinking into a brilliant story. An animated video and bilingual reading of To the Island/An t-Oileán Thiar by Patricia Forde and Nicola Bernardelli will be live on childrensbooksireland.ie/ at 5pm on Friday, September 18th.
The most heartening statistic that emerged from our research? 91 per cent of respondents are confident that they will continue to make work for children and young people. Let’s get behind them and support Irish artists where we can – in our local bookshops and libraries, writing positive reviews when a book has connected with us, sending encouragement on social media, pre-ordering a book to help build up a buzz. As readers, we gain so much from the worlds writers and illustrators give to us; now is the time to show them that books really can make things better for all of us.
The #BooksMakeThingsBetter reading guide and book gifting project is a partnership initiative of Children’s Books Ireland and The Arts Council for Culture Night 2020.