In Grandma’s footsteps: how reading links generations

Laureate na nÓg Sarah Crossan, PJ Lynch, Eoin Colfer, Niamh Sharkey and Siobhán Parkinson on family reading

In September each year, Children’s Books Ireland launches a nationwide reading campaign with the publication of the Inis Reading Guide. Through the guide, we recommend the best books in all genres and age groups (0-18), enabling children – often with the help of a parent, guardian, grandparent, teacher or librarian – to find the right book for them.

This year, the campaign celebrates the special bond between grandparents and grandchildren and the importance of relationships across generations. The guide includes a section of books on this theme, highlighting books for young people that feature intergenerational relationships. The bond between a child and their grandparent is unique and enriches the lives of young and old alike. Lived experiences and stories told by older generations help the young to understand the world around them and how it continues to change. Through these relationships children learn about their heritage and family background, helping them understand who they are and where they come from.

The theme is Share a Story/Scéalta – Ó Ghlúin go Glúin. Pick up a copy of the Inis Reading Guide on CBI’s website,, or at your local library. In partnership with the Local Government Management Agency, free events will take place in libraries around the country throughout October. Ask at your local library about events for children, or browse some of the special books featured in the Inis Reading Guide.

October 1st to October 7th is Positive Ageing Week 2018, celebrated by CBI’s partners, Age Action and Suas, in association with Bank of Ireland. Last year over 550 events took place across 25 counties. For more information, see To celebrate Positive Ageing Week, we asked Laureate na nÓg, Ireland’s children’s literature laureate, Sarah Crossan, and former laureates PJ Lynch, Eoin Colfer, Niamh Sharkey and Siobhán Parkinson to share a story with us about reading in their families.

I have a video of me reading to my daughter when she was three months old. Actually, I'm sort of singing the book, and with every turn of the page, she is encouraged to bite – gnawing with her gums at the board book, destroying the corners. I watch this video often and am reminded how important reading has always been in the development of my relationship with Aoife, even before she was born.

The poor thing: I was reading aloud my own manuscripts to her while she was still rolling around inside me trying to be a real human and not caring much for words. I read to her just days after her birth (through hormonal tears no doubt!) and I have not let a day go by where I haven’t read her a story, if I have been at home to do so. Aoife has always known books as a right, not a privilege – much like a bed and food – something I would never take from her as a punishment. Even prisons have libraries!

It does make me chuckle, however, when people are amazed by her reading skills, not just being able to bark at words, but the way she can use her voice to illuminate meaning, bringing tales to life – the joy she takes from being able to do this. Being a “good reader”, which for me means loving books, doesn’t happen by accident. She wasn’t born with a bigger brain than anyone else. Reading happens when the process is all about love – when nothing makes you happier at the end of the day than curling up with someone you adore and reading to them, even if it’s about Barry, a fish with fingers!

Now that she is six, she often wants to read alone, sitting with me on the sofa, her head in one book, mine in the other, together but in our own worlds. And even this is about connection for me – about finding a quiet space to snuggle up and turn my phone off. The book, and only the book, is the thing for a while.

But at night-time it is still my turn to read to her again, picture books she’s heard a thousand times or books for older readers which she isn’t yet confident enough to try for herself. In these moments of reading, whether aloud or quietly, I feel such intimacy – that through these stories my child and I connect, not only in her blue bedroom, but also in other worlds too – in forests and underground, where unicorns live and aliens float in space.

And the most amazing thing about all of this is that I had stupidly thought I was doing it for her. With my dutiful parent hat on, I thought reading at night would be about providing my child with a much needed foundation in literacy. What I didn’t realise is how much I would come to love the books of Oliver Jeffers and Yasmeen Ismail myself. What I didn’t realise is that the things I lost out on as a child weren’t lost to me at all because I could reclaim them now. And so I read aloud to my daughter at night, and will continue to do so until she puts a lock on her door, because I need to gobble up everything I have missed. And I will do it with love.

Both my grandfathers died before I was born, and, of my two grannies, my Dad's mum was really scary, to me at least. My siblings who are all older than me thought she was great. Happily my Mum's mother was a gentle, white-haired granny, just like in the books.

We called her Granny Candy, because of all the sweets we got from her. My Mum’s people were farmers and although I mostly remember us all flaking out exhausted after hard work in the fields, there were evenings when stories were told around the fireside and Granny Candy could be relied upon to tell about a nasty fairy that had been bothering a neighbour across the hill or to talk about the Banshee that always wailed when a member of such and such a family died.

These grim stories weren’t told as invented tales, she told them as the absolute truth that we would doubt at our peril. In an old farm house where bats and mice were never far away, we children were terrified by these stories but we loved them too!

In spite of having lovely Granny Candy I always felt that I had missed out a bit in the grandparent department especially when I observed friends who were close with their grandads.

Our own children are fortunate enough to have an almost full set of grandparents, and it has been a great pleasure to watch the relationships between them all developing over the years.

Books and stories were a very big thing when our guys were small and the grandparents all took storytelling duties extremely seriously. Well ‘extremely seriously’ is the wrong phrase for when my wife Barbara’s parents were reading the kids bedtime stories. With David and Penelope involved the bedtime ritual often turned into a riot, especially if the chosen book was Ten in the Bed by Penny Dale. On more than one occasion both grandparents and all the kids ended up on the floor instead of fast asleep in bed.

I always loved to see my kids asking their grandad and goggies (our family’s word for grannies) about how things were when they were young. Children find it difficult to grasp that their own parents were youngsters once, but, with the grandparents, the fact that they are talking about really ancient history means they can somehow absorb it.

I am so pleased that I got a few hours of recordings of my Mum remembering her childhood and talking about her own grandparents and our family history. She even talks about the first time she met my Dad. It was over the family grave in Dunloy. There’s romantic for you! Every year those recordings are becoming more precious to us as Mammy’s memories are slipping away in the mists of dementia.

My own Dad was a lovely, kind and patient person. The perfect grandad in fact. An old friend of mine, author and illustrator Siobhan Dodds, even modelled her loveable but bumbling character Grandad Pot on him.

Sadly Daddy died when my eldest son was just a baby so my children never got to know him well, but they know him from photos and the stories we tell about him, and from everyone’s favourite book from when they were little, Grandad Pot.

I grew up in a dark time, dear reader. A time when there were only two TV channels and an inordinate amount of the programmes on these channels seemed to feature cows being sold or elderly men pounding their knees with spoons. We had heard rumours of the existence of a video game, but that was in America and needed a supercomputer the size of a slurry tank to play it. And if you wanted to enjoy modern music you were forced to drop a metal needle with pinpoint accuracy onto a revolving and fragile plastic disk. Honestly it was easier for Indiana Jones to steal the golden idol than it was for me to listen to Pink Floyd.

This dark time was called the 1970s. And possibly the worst place for a child to be in those days was in the back of a car. There were no seatbelts to stop you piling onto your siblings going around corners. There was no suspension to speak of so every bump in the road was amplified by the car’s rigid frame, so a trip to the shops felt like a rollercoaster ride down the face of a cliff. Consequently there was zero chance of reading more than three paragraphs of your book before throwing up. In our family we followed the Beyoncé mantra of ‘to the left to the left’ when throwing up, as that was the side your little brother was on. If you were posh enough to have a radio in your car the reception was so poor that it sounded like Gay Byrne was wearing Bane’s mask as he broadcasted. So, as my father was a historian, my four brothers and I faced extended periods of backseat boredom punctuated by fistfights and targeted vomiting.

Thank goodness that both my parents were storytellers. Whenever things got a little heated on the Renault 4’s velour banquette my father would pull a story out of the air and enchant us with tales of Vikings, magic, dragons, birthmarks and royal destinies. These tales had the effect of instantly transfixing my father’s sons and so long as the magic kept flowing we would be docile for the entire journey, transported in more ways than one. I truly believe that these epic quests are the reason that all the Colfer boys survived to adulthood.

My mother was an actress, writer and director so her devotion to learning her lines provided me with my Heaney peeling potatoes moments. I learned to read young and I became proficient so that I was the one picked to sit on the green sofa and run lines. She was her own part and I was everyone else. Children do not often see their mothers inhabit another character that is really another part of themselves. We don’t see our parents have pride in their own accomplishment, but through the words of Oscar Wilde, John B Keane, JM and Tom Murphy I saw my mother in all her personalities and she saw me in mine. And that is something to be jealous of.

So, if anyone ever tries to tell you that storytellers are not important it is most likely because they never experienced the magic or have forgotten it. My entire life has been enriched by stories both from the pages of a book and from the mouths of my parents as my face shone back at them. So, while it may be true that I grew up in a dark time in many ways, it is also true that I was raised in an enlightened house. Four walls of stories.

When I was asked to write about this I struggled a little because I couldn't think of any anecdotes about my own grandparents reading to me. They simply didn't read to us. They had kids that were not that much older than me, and so they were caught up in child-rearing themselves.

Now grandparents are much more actively involved in their grandchildren’s lives. My own kids have been surrounded by books since they were babies. One of my eldest daughter Megan’s first experiences was of being read to from Mary Murphy’s wonderful I Kissed the Baby. (It’s so amazing to see how a newborn responds to the graphic black and white illustrations)

As parents, both Owen and myself read hundreds of stories to our three children. But I’ve seen how special it is when their grandparents take time to share a story with them. There is an intimacy in sharing a story, a special connection between the reader and the child being read to. When a toddler takes you by the hand and invites you to share a favourite story with them, they’ve really given you their seal of approval – it’s quiet time for just the two of you.

As young parents with three children under the age of four, bedtimes were a little nuts sometimes! We were lucky to have two sets of grandparents ready and willing to share the bedtime storytelling. Toddlers often want the same stories, over and over again. We had to establish a three-book rule for the grandparents or they would be up there all night. Owen’s dad Terry was a complete sucker for the chorus of ‘Just one more story, Grandad!’

Megan for months only wanted Bark, George by Jules Feiffer, and the Tom and Pippo books by Helen Oxenbury. She also wanted to listen to them in the dark with the door ajar, so her grandparents became adept; learning her favourites off by heart, reciting them while sitting uncomfortably on the floor of her darkened bedroom!

I was lucky enough to be a reviewer of picturebooks for The Irish Times and so we were blessed with an endless supply. We did try to steer our parents toward quiet books that would induce sleep, but more often than not our requests fell on deaf ears. Mo Willems’ fantastic Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! would set off squeals of laughter from both grandparents and children alike. Often the grandparents would rev the kids up so much that we would have to stage an intervention.

Miraculously, sometimes the quiet books worked. One of my fondest memories was of Megan falling asleep with John Burningham’s wonderful picturebook Courtney covering her face. I was lucky enough to meet John at an event in London and this was one of the first things I got to tell him.

I believe in the power of picturebooks. I’ve seen first-hand how sharing a story can deepen the bond between grandparents and their grandchildren. Our house has developed from a house of readers, into a house of storytellers: writers and illustrators, and our children’s grandparents have come along on this journey with us.

As the grandmother of a reading eight-month-old (yep, board books count, and you get to turn the pages yourself once you can sit up), I have to make an effort to remember that books are not the only thing. It's hard.

My own grandmother was a passionate reader – of romance, historical fiction, mystery and –er – hagiography. Oh, yes, nothing like a good life of a saint, especially if it had lots of temptation and conversion in it and maybe a spot of levitation. She would forget which books she had read, and she came up with a great wheeze to make sure she didn’t bring home a book from the library that she had read before. Her house number was 10, and before she took a library book back she would turn to page 10 and, using a pencil, carefully fill in the zero on the folio number. That way, she could determine which books had come her way before.

That story reveals so much about her, apart from showing what a reader she was. First, she was a library user, and there were very few books in the house that had an owner, even though it was a house where books were so valued. Second, she was eminently practical: I was horrified at the idea of taking a pencil to a book; she had no such sentimentality about it. But then again, she marked the book respectfully – lightly and carefully, and indeed reversibly, should any shocked librarian really feel the urge to erase her in-filling. What I think this story most reveals about her, though, is how casually she related to books. Books were important in her life, but she didn’t feel the need to own them. They had their place, they had their function, you read them, enjoyed them and got on with the next one.

It was my mother who sat beside me night after night at the kitchen table and showed me how each of the letters of the alphabet had a sound that it made, and how you could join the sounds up to hear the words in your head – and that was reading, and it was the most important skill in the world and acquiring it was going to make a major difference in your life. My grandmother never heard of phonics, thought that teaching a child the 10 commandments was the most important life skill you could impart and once she closed a book, never thought about it until she opened it up again the next day. Books were like the wallpaper or the kettle – essential for a civilised life, but really nothing to waste your breath on.

I think I’m going to be more like my mother than my grandmother – I can see myself reading aloud with my finger following the text, exclaiming about the singular beauty of each letter, each word, and delighting in how they all work together to make the story. But I also hope I’ll be passing along my grandmother’s essential casual acceptance that books just ARE. Like the air – you breathe them in, you breathe them out, you live them.

The rather cranky grandmother in Siobhán Parkinson’s Miraculous Miranda is not based on any real grandmother, living or dead. No, really.

Read More