Robert Dunbar: the Father (Christmas) of Irish children’s literature
Oliver Jeffers, Derek Landy, Eoin Colfer, Marita Conlon-McKenna, Kate Thompson, Patrick Ness and many more pay tribute to champion of Irish children’s literature
Robert Dunbar in his trademark red duffle coat which inspired comparisons to Santa Claus. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Robert Dunbar at the launch of his book, Enchanted Journeys, in the National Museum with Seamus Heaney and publisher Michael O’Brien. Photograph: Joey Cleary
Recipients of honorary degrees at Trinity College in 2009: seated from left are Patrick Scott, Prof Janet Browne, Chancellor Mary Robinson and Prof Sir Fraser Stoddart. Standing from left are Provost Dr John Hegarty, Prof Amartya Sen and Robert Dunbar. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
An illustration of Robert Dunbar by Laureate na nÓg PJ Lynch
Robert Dunbar, organiser of The Irish Times Summer School on Children’s Literature, in the Dublin Writers Museum with Pat Donlon, director of the National Library, and Audrey Smith, president of Children’s Books Ireland
Figures from the Irish literary community and beyond have paid tribute to the man widely regarded as the champion of Irish children’s literature – Robert Dunbar, the critic, editor and educator, who died early yesterday after a long illness. He was 76.
As well as reviewing children’s fiction for The Irish Times for more than 27 years, he lectured in English and children’s literature, edited two anthologies, Enchanted Journeys: Fifty Years of Irish Writing for Children and Skimming, both publishedby O’Brien Press, and presented a weekly radio programme on children’s books. He also edited Inis magazine, was a Bisto Book of the Year Awards judge and received a CBI Lifetime Achievement Award. He was a founder of the Children’s Literature Association of Ireland, which merged with the Irish Children’s Book Trust to become Children’s Books Ireland.
A native of Dunseverick, Co Antrim, he was educated at Bushmills Grammar School and studied English at Queen’s University Belfast, where he was a contemporary of Seamus Heaney. He lectured at the Church of Ireland College of Education in Rathmines, Trinity College Dublin and St Patrick’s College, Dublin, and was the first to offer a graduate diploma in children’s literature.
In October 2013, The Irish Times marked Robert’s 25th anniversary as its children’s books reviewer with an essay by him reflecting on the remarkable evolution of Irish children’s and YA literature – one he had charted and helped to inspire – and selecting his personal favourites.
“The reputation of several of our writers has moved from the merely local to the international,” he wrote. “Eoin Colfer, Derek Landy and Michael Scott, with, respectively, their Artemis Fowl, Skulduggery Pleasant and Nicholas Flamel novels, are globally successful, as are the picture-book texts of Martin Waddell and the horror series of Darren Shan. Additionally, some individual books have attracted universal notice. Among these are John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree and Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You.
“This acclaim extends to a number of our writers and illustrators creating picture books, an area that 25 years ago barely existed. PJ Lynch’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey and When Jessie Came Across the Sea have won the Greenaway Medal while Waddell has earned the Hans Christian Andersen award. Currently, the prolific Oliver Jeffers draws widespread attention for his idiosyncratic art and storylines.”
Many of those cited are among those paying tribute here.
I am deeply saddened to hear that my old friend Robert Dunbar has died. Robert was a passionate advocate for quality in children’s books over many years. In his academic writing and lectures he was always erudite and reasoned, but he could be direct and very funny as well when he was sharing his love of a good story told in witty or beautiful language.
Robert always valued the work of the illustrators of children’s books. He was game enough even to pose for me a few times. We had a lot of fun together when he modelled (perhaps a little over-energetically) as the Rabbi in “When Jessie Came Across The Sea” by Amy Hest.
He encouraged and supported me and many other Irish writers and illustrators over the years. His huge contribution to Irish children’s literature and its study is widely appreciated, but it is Robert’s mischievous sense of humour, his kindness and fun that I will miss most.
PJ Lynch is an award-winning illustrator and author and the current Laureate na nÓg
Robert Dunbar loved stories. He embodied them, they were his life. I have yet to meet an individual, anywhere in the world, who cared as much about books as he did. In addition to his passion, it was his keen eye for good literature that won him such respect by all of us in the picture-book community. He was no soft target, that is for sure, and not easily won over. This only made the moments of his favour all the more precious.
Robert especially embraced Irish stories. Not only those from our rich archives, but also the remarkable work being created today. With his warmth and wisdom, he reminded new generations of Irish bookmakers of our important cultural heritage, and implored that we carry that with us into the future.
Robert will be dearly missed. He leaves behind him a hole in children’s literature in Ireland. We should not attempt to fill this hole, because there will never be another Robert Dunbar. Rather let’s remember what he gave us, and tell stories about the man who taught so many of us to love them.
Oliver Jeffers is an award-winning writer and ilustrator. His latest work is The Day the Crayons Quit
With his signature red duffle coat and white beard, Robert Dunbar was Santa Claus all year round; nor did he object to the sobriquet. (Now, there’s a word he’d have enjoyed!) Robert was an inspirational teacher and a pioneering champion of children’s literature studies in this country, as well as a most influential critic of books for children and teenagers and a loyal supporter of Irish children’s writers and publishers. He introduced generations of parents, teachers, students and children to books they would otherwise never have heard of, and which have immeasurably enriched their imaginative lives. I can’t imagine the book-trove house-behind-the-hedge in Churchtown without its presiding bookworm. All our hearts go out today to Robert’s bereft family.
Siobhán Parkinson, publisher, Little Island Books
I was so sad to hear of Robert's passing. He was a kind and generous-hearted man. He was also a true champion of children's literature, understood instinctively how important books are to the emotional and intellectual growing of children and to the sustaining and enriching of our culture. His was a strong voice in Ireland, a country that values storytelling and poetry greatly, but still needs its champions to spread the word. He will be much missed, but the good he did lives on in the lives of so many children who have become readers because of his work.
Michael Morpurgo is a bestselling children's author, best known for War Horse
One of my favourite sights in The Irish Times office was looking up to see Robert carefully sifting through the book cupboard in search of fresh treasures among the children’s and YA offerings. Diminutive, snowy bearded, the way he would quietly appear and disappear almost, dare I say it, like a character from a classic story.
It was, perhaps, easy to take him for granted because he worked with a minimum of fuss and maximum of professionalism. Editors found him among a rare and treasured breed who delivered wonderful, articulate copy like clockwork, always open with his expertise and knowledge. When I more recently moved into writing, Robert was equally generous with his wisdom and advice, a person who went out of his way to give encouragement.
As a whole, Robert’s Irish Times columns are so much more than mere reviews and highlights, but track the history of the genre here, its trends, its overlooked gems, its extraordinary growth. For many years to come whenever anyone researches the history of Irish childrens’s/YA literature, they will inevitably look to Robert’s writings first.
Shane Hegarty is author of the Darkmouth series. He is a former arts editor of The Irish Times
I just looked up all the emails I’ve ever received from Robert Dunbar. They started back in 2007, when the first Skulduggery Pleasant was published, and it was nothing but warmth, support and encouragement from then on. Every award the books won, he’d send me his congratulations. He had a philosophy on reviewing books – if he didn’t love it, he wouldn’t review it. There was far too much negativity in the world to spread any of his own, so when he reviewed your book you just knew it had passed the test.
Robert interviewed me on stage three or four times. I always looked forward to those events. I was guaranteed quality questions. Quality interpretations. He once read out practically a whole chapter just to emphasise a point he was making. It was the chapter where a hapless zombie interviews a couple of funeral directors about their methods of embalming. As Robert read the exchanges, he quite obviously relished every word. I can not think of a prouder moment I’ve had as a writer.
We met up for coffee in the Merrion in 2010 – just to chat. No agenda, no angle – he just wanted a chat. He was, quite simply, the friendliest man. But behind the smile and the beard there was a fierce champion for children’s books, and you couldn’t ask for someone better to fight that fight. He was an expert, he was a guiding light, he nurtured countless writers, he helped them from the very beginning of their careers... He will truly be missed. I already miss him terribly.
Derek Landy is the author of the Skuduggery Pleasant and Demon Road series
It is with great sadness that Children’s Books Ireland acknowledges the passing of our friend, patron and children’s books champion, the irreplaceable Robert Dunbar.
Robert was knowledgeable about many things, very wise and very, very funny - and of course enormously well-read. He was a pioneer in the study of children’s books in Ireland and to most people, he simply was children’s literature in Ireland.
He was a founder member of the Children’s Literature Association of Ireland, which merged with the Irish Children’s Book Trust to become Children’s Books Ireland. He has held many roles within CBI: board member, Inis magazine editor, Bisto Book of the Year Awards judge, reviewer and patron. He was also the recipient of the CBI Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognises an individual’s outstanding contribution to children’s literature in Ireland.
Robert was, for many years, a lecturer in the Church of Ireland College of Education and a regular commentator on children’s literature in The Irish Times and on various radio programmes. Even those who had not met him in person felt they knew him well as a regular contributor to Rattlebag and other programmes. Robert also hosted his own children’s book show with Dublin Community Radio.
He was a fierce and generous supporter of those whose work he admired and a staunch supporter of those whose careers were just beginning. It was our honour to introduce those new entrants to the children’s book community to Robert as we knew we were passing them into very safe hands.
Despite all the roles he held within our organisation and the numerous awards bestowed upon him, we will foremost remember him as a friend: of the organisation, the board and most especially of ours. An email or phone call from Robert at the close of the CBI conference, or an acknowledgement of enjoying reading an article in Inis were always most happily received. For those of us who joined the organisation many years ago, he was a quiet reassurance just a phone call away.
We will miss his presence at our events, his emails and his humour more than we can ever say. The staff and board of Children’s Books Ireland offer sympathy to Carole, and to their children Gráinne and Dominic, and their grandchildren. We respect their wish for privacy as they remember the long and happy years with Robert. It’s very hard for us to imagine a world without him. It must be unimaginably difficult for them.
Jenny Murray is acting director of Children’s Books Ireland / Inis Magazine
When I first came to Trinity from Durham in 1994 and started teaching an option in children’s literature, Robert saw it advertised on the school noticeboard and came to find me to see if he could be of any help in making introductions in the children’s lit community in Dublin. He was kind, generous with his time, completely enthusiastic about this young nobody from nowhere arriving in and teaching children s lit and introduced me to absolutely everyone. That co-operation and collaboration and completely selfless commitment to the subject and to anyone interested in the subject was absolutely characteristic of all my contact with him over the next 20 years. He would make a point of calling in and seeing what was going on, of making sure we had a coffee and a chat every so often and was always completely encouraging and helpful.
Needless to say, his academic work, along with that of Valerie Coghlan, Mary Shine Thompson and Celia Keenan ( and he introduced me to all of them) was invaluable to a young Englishwoman arriving in Ireland. I was delighted when Trinity acknowledged his groundbreaking work and lifelong dedication with the award of an honorary doctorate five or so years ago and it was a privilege to share that day with him. More recently when my son and daughter-in-law presented me with my first grandchild, Robert and Carole appeared in my office with a bag of books bought specially for baby James to see him right from 0-5, a kindness that they shrugged off as “something we like to do for all our friends with new arrivals/ new readers!” I was incredibly touched. That real generosity, both professional and private, was a rare and special thing. It’s impossible to imagine the children’s lit scene without him and his will be a massive absent presence in the room at all children’s lit gatherings here in Ireland for years to come.
Amanda Piesse lectures in children’s literature at Trinity College Dublin
It’s hard to imagine the Irish children’s lit scene without Robert Dunbar in it, but of course his presence will always be there in the initiatives to which he lent his formidable knowledge and enthusiasm, and also, I think, in the work of the writers and illustrators whose work he encouraged and supported over many years. Because Robert was to the fore of a group of people back in the eighties and nineties who rightly insisted on seeing the newly emerging body of Irish children’s literature as part of World literature, and always discussed and critiqued it as such. He not so much set the bar for us as showed us where it was, and he encouraged us to reach for it. He was as witty as he was wise; many a time I watched him flick from the frowning concentration of serious discussion to a razor-sharp aside, literally in the twinkling of his eye. If there is an afterlife it had better have a library, and if that library doesn’t have an exceptional children’s department I know Robert will have something to say about it.
My heartfelt thanks always, Robert.
Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick is an award-winning Irish author and illustrator of There, Lizzy and Skunk, I’m a Tiger Too, You, Me and the Big Blue Sea, and The Long March
One of the first thoughts to hit me after being appointed to succeed Robert as lecturer in English at the Church of Ireland College of Education was the enormity of the role entrusted to me.
Philip Reeve in conversation with Robert Dunbar
Robert’s retirement marked the end of a distinguished teaching career, but it was also the beginning of a legacy that saw him rightly acknowledged as one of the pioneering figures of children’s literature as an academic discipline in Ireland. While he will be remembered for his public promotion of children’s literature and support for Irish authors and illustrators, his most lasting influence may well be as an educator. Thanks to Robert, generations of school children have been, and continue to be, introduced to the very best in children’s literature through the hundreds of teachers fortunate enough to have benefitted from his teaching. It is a legacy worthy of respect.
For me, it is, and always will be, a case of trying to step into his shoes – or at the very least donning a red duffle coat with the same distinction he did.
Keith O’Sullivan is Head of English, Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin
“When you give a child the present of a book, you give them a present they can open again and again and again.” Robert Dunbar
Robert spent his life talking about the importance of books in the lives of children and young people. As a lecturer on the MA in Children’s Literature in St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, he regularly regaled us with stories about reading to his first grandchild, emphasising how important it was and rhapsodising about how much he enjoyed it. Nothing strange in that you may say, except that this child had not yet been born. Robert was a firm believer in introducing books to children from an early age!
And that is the way he spent his life, enthusing about the importance of bringing books into the lives of children and young people. It was that belief in the power of books that made his vision political as well as literary and educational. He understood and believed in the power of reading, and in the reader. His interest and knowledge were boundless, and his reviews, lectures, commentaries and general conversation, were always infused with enthusiasm and humour (he will be particularly remembered for the many interviews he conducted over the years).
He was generous with his support, his time and his expertise, and there is a generation of writers, who began writing in the mid to late 1980s, who remember Robert with particular fondness, because of the constructive criticism and support they received from him, in writing young adult fiction. His columns in The Irish Times were not only informative, and generally astute in recognising up and coming talent, they were also equally important in keeping children’s literature within the public domain. For all of this, and for so much else that those who knew him will appreciate, he will be greatly missed.
Jane O’Hanlon is education officer, Poetry Ireland
The outpouring of affection, the genuine warmth, here in the Irish Times, across social media, and from the whole community of children’s publishing is just the first reminder of how many people Robert supported. We will be remembering him in so many roles and from so many events for years to come.
I have never struggled to share my love for Robert, though that never stopped him reminding me every month to share that affection, widely.
Every time he filed his Irish Times article, I would get an email, alerting me to pick up Saturday’s paper, with the refrain: “Nothing will come of nothing,” (King Lear, Act 1.1) Lear’s own call to hear words of affection.
This was, I always knew, my early warning to compose an alert for Twitter, “a new review was coming”.
Social media may not have been Robert’s forte but nothing could stand in the way of his passion, and he monitored his mentions, likes and retweets, with a little help (thanks to his son Dominic), and by Monday we would delight in having “Robert Dunbar” trending. The word trending was so alien to his tongue, and my attempts to explain the theory of “going viral” to him inevitably left us in fits of naughty laughter.
I can only think of Cordelia’s words that precede Robert’s monthly refrain: “My love’s more ponderous than my tongue.” (King Lear, Act 1.1)
I am lost for words at losing a friend, a colleague, a mentor and a champion. He made us all better, and I will miss him.
David Maybury is media development director, Scholastic Children’s Books, London
Robert was a great source of inspiration and encouragement to me when I was writing for children. He was able to appreciate the levels that exist in children’s fiction, from their pure entertainment value to the powerful psychological effects they can have on their readers. I felt that he understood what I was trying to do in my books, and I always appreciated his observations and insights, as well as his recommendations for other authors to look out for. I’m sorry that he is gone.
Kate Thompson’s books include Switchers and Midnight’s Choice
I first met Robert in the early ’90s when I was working at Poolbeg and it started to publish children’s books. He was a tireless champion of all writing for children and particularly encouraging a new generation of Irish writers over the past decades. He always promoted the best writing and stories. Everybody loved Robert and trusted his judgement, whether it was in his Irish Times columns or on the radio. Booksellers and publishers will testify to his power to sell books – if Robert said it was worth reading, it was. Irish children’s publishing would not be in the healthy state it is but for Robert. He had impeccable taste and even in his advancing years he knew exactly what kids would like to read.
Michael McLoughlin is MD, Penguin Random House Ireland
Robert Dunbar was a stalwart supporter of children’s books and children’s literature in all its varied forms; someone whose deep intelligence and carefully considered opinions inspired utmost respect. He is an enormous loss to the children’s book world.
Francesca Dow, MD, Penguin Random House Children’s
Robert was synonymous with children’s books in Ireland; he worked tirelessly to promote writing for children and to make sure it was treated as seriously as writing for adults, which was not always the case. He was respected and loved by everyone in the trade here. He will be deeply missed.
Phil Twomey is children’s sales manager, Penguin Random House
I was so very sad to hear the news of Robert’s death. He was a true gentleman, and his wise and kind presence enriched every literary gathering. He was the daddy of us all, and he will be sorely missed.
Judi Curtin is the author of the Eva and Alica and Megan series
Robert Dunbar was always the book man, holding books, carrying books, talking about books, recommending books and enticing you with the delights of titles you had not heard of before.
Robert was at the heart of the children’s book world here in Ireland. I remember going over to his house in Churchtown as he wanted to write a piece about me and I remember sitting there surrounded by all his piles of books as he quizzed me and delved into the how and why and the way I write and got me to reveal far more about myself that I intended. He seemed to understand books and writers. He had the air of a professor with a huge, kind heart and was proud of writers and our achievements.
He always made a point of coming to book launches though he and his wife Carole must have been invited to so many of them. A small, bearded man with a lively mind, he could talk for hours about books and would get so enthused his voice rising higher and higher with excitement. I contributed a story to a collection he edited. I’m sure being on the publishing side was yet another interesting experience for him. He did his best to promote Irish children’s writing and writers and was a hugely respected literary critic. Writers who valued his opinion always waited nervously to see if their book got a mention by the great man himself on the book pages. A few years go he bought a red duffle coat and whenever I saw him wearing it I could not help but think of a smaller version of Santa Claus. People were drawn to him for he was constantly curious especially about the world of books.
He will be missed greatly by all of us but he has influenced generations of booklovers and encouraged them to read.
Marita Conlon-McKenna’s books include Under the Hawthorn Tree
Robert was the champion of children’s books. He would climb on top of whatever platform he could to trumpet the importance of books for young people. Speaking for myself Robert catapulted me onto the book charts when he said nice things about Benny & Omar on the Pat Kenny show and from there it was on to the Late Late Toy Show and I have never looked back. All thanks to Robert. Without his support there are many of us who would never have managed to sustain a career. He was literate, supportive, always fair but never ever mean. It is common to say at such times that so and so was irreplaceable. But Robert was that rare individual who actually can never be replaced. Nor would we want to.
Eoin Colfer’s books incude the bestselling Artemis Fowl series
Robert was my first introduction to Irish literary culture, and I found it erudite, precise, very formal and very charming. I found out soon enough it’s not all like that, of course, but it wasn’t until I met Robert in person that I realised how much of that came from the man himself. I visited him at home a few times – he lived not far from my own relatives in Churchtown – and it was always a great and rare pleasure to take tea with him and his wife Carole. His going will leave a great big hole in Irish children’s fiction, but I hope his delightful approach to criticism will live on.
Melvin Burgess’s novels include Junk and The Hit
Robert Dunbar was a one-off force for good who made a unique contribution to Ireland’s children’s literary environment. I worked with him closely when we merged two organisations to help create Children’s Books Ireland, the State-funded national body for promoting children’s books and reading. He was a pioneer in the movement to have children’s literature recognised as an area for study and literary criticism. Gay Byrne spotted his talent and created a regular spot on his famous RTÉ radio hour for Robert’s distinctive, powerful, Northern voice, discussing his recommended books for children and schools. Robert will be very much missed, but he leaves behind him a legacy for the small army of kiddylit enthusiasts to maintain and develop, for our unique culture and for the wellbeing of our wonderful young people.
Michael O’Brien is publisher, The O’Brien Press
Robert was always a champion for children’s books. Passionate, funny with an encyclopedic knowlege of the childrens literary world, he was always welcoming to all newcomers, be they authors or booksellers. He was quite simply a gentleman and a legend of the children’s literary world who will sorely be missed.
David O’Callaghan ischildren’s books buyer, Easons
Robert Dunbar was the sage of the Irish children’s books community. The most respected chronicler of the influence of children’s storytelling on Irish culture, he was a man with a vast knowledge of a subject that was his life’s passion, which he shared with a warm and gentle manner, crackling with understated humour. For many of us, Robert was affectionately regarded as an almost mythical figure, the archetypal wise old man, someone who had always been there to offer valuable words, and always would be. Through years of study, teaching and intellectual investigation, he raised the profile of children’s books in our country and, in doing so, became a character as immersed in that culture as many of the fictional figures who have shaped the Irish literary landscape.
As we wish him farewell, and try to offer comfort to the loved ones he leaves behind, we can be thankful that so much of his insight, passion, wisdom and wit have been preserved in printed words and recordings, to be shared with people who never had the pleasure of knowing him. Goodbye Robert, and wherever you are, I hope you will find more stories.
Oisín McGann is a writer and illustrator who makes books for children and young adults
I’m sure this will only echo everyone else’s words about the glorious Robert Dunbar. The warmth of him, the curiosity, the sheer interest! He was right there at the very, very start of my career, reviewing the books with such brilliant emotional intelligence and sympathy.
And this isn’t unique to me. Writer after writer will way these same things about him.
At the launch of A Monster Calls in Ireland, he gave it a completely unexpected speech that took my breath away, not only just about the book, but about what he believed (a belief I share) that books for young readers could accomplish: Making the world larger, safer, better. The heart of the man, just having a cup of coffee with him for question after question on my trips to Dublin. I’ll miss him terribly.
Patrick Ness is the bestselling author of A Monster Calls
I stepped into the Irish kidlit world as a shy fourteen-year-old, too young to bond with other writers over drinks and dinner, too still-in-school to really be able to fit in. But from the very beginning, there was Robert Dunbar, Irish kidlit’s answer to Santa Claus - always, always with kind words of support for new writers, and later, as you settled in a bit more, always keeping an eye on everyone like a fond grandfather, checking up on you, always delighted to see you at conferences or events, always ready for the chats. He was clever and witty and funny and brilliant but most of all he was simply a lovely man, and one who will be missed greatly by everyone who crossed his path.
First published in 2000, Claire Hennessy is the author of several books for teenagers
In 2011 when people were neither buying nor reading my first YA novel, The Boy Who Made it Rain, Robert contacted me with an invitation to his home in Churchtown (where I also live) to “discuss the novel”. Although we did spend time discussing said novel, and more, we spent almost three hours chatting about things unrelated to books: history, politics, language, boat-building to name but a few.
While Robert was always a kind and enthusiastic voice (and what a wonderfully sonorous voice that was) for my novels my abiding memory of him will not be about his vast knowledge of children’s literature, but of an infectious man who I’d often bump into at our local Supervalu checkout queue or share an occasional coffee with in a Churchtown cafe. I didn’t only see Robert as this behemoth of children’s literature in Ireland, which undoubtedly he was. No, I saw him as an engaging, passionate and erudite man, who could also crack a joke or two.
Brian Conaghan’s latest book is The Bombs That Brought Us Together
I remember where I was standing when Siobhán [Parkinson] told me Robert Dunbar liked my first novel. (Back of the Rathgar Bookshop, at the launch of Painted Ladies). I was new to being published, and wasn’t comfortable calling myself a writer yet. It meant the world that he had taken the time to read and value my book. And when I met him, he took the time to tell me that he liked it in person. That was a kind thing to do. He was a kind man.
I’m not alone in this memory of Robert. My experience is the norm. He often took the time to be generous to developing writers. He took them seriously. He was passionate about children’s and young adult fiction, and used his considerable intellect and skill as a writer to share them, particularly those by Irish writers, with a wider audience in articles, reviews. In person, he was witty, warm, approachable and honest. He was a vast reader, and a knowledgeable one. And he was witty. When Robert Dunbar praised your work, you knew he meant it. And you felt special.
When people speak of the children’s book community in Ireland, they often mention the closeness and warmth of it. And it’s true. We’re very lucky in the writers and book-lovers we’ve assembled on this small island. Robert Dunbar helped to forge that. It was no small task, but he was no ordinary man.
We’ve lost one of our own today. He will be sorely missed.
Deirdre Sullivan is a writer and teacher from Galway. She has published four novels for teenagers, most recently Needlework
It was 1993. I was tidying the picture books in Waterstones, Dawson Street (now sadly no more) when a bearded gentleman in a red duffle coat approached me, clutching a magazine in his hand. “Are you the children’s buyer?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. “I am,” I said. He proceeded to tell me all about his children’s book magazine with such enthusiasm that I was quite swept along by his sales patter and immediately ordered 10 copies for the shelves. This man of course was Robert Dunbar.
During my years as a children’s bookseller he was a regular visitor to the shop and I always looked forward to our book chats. He invited me to review for his magazine, now called Inis, and also invited me to attend a children’s book conference he was involved with. Thanks to Robert’s early encouragement I have now been reviewing children’s books for over 20 years. I also ended up being president of Children’s Books Ireland, the organisation he helped found, and have made lifelong friends in the children’s book world: writers Marita Conlon McKenna and Judi Curtin, teacher and reviewer Liz Morris and many more. I have so much to thank Robert for.
Robert encouraged me to write for children and in 1996 he launched my first book, Kids Can Cook, where we first met, in the children’s department of Waterstones. He championed and supported children’s writers all his life, and writers from the UK and further afield have been reacting to the news of his death with great sadness, from Philip Ardagh to Philip Reeve, Patrick Ness and Tanya Landman.
Robert had such passion for children’s books, he was one of the best-read people I have ever met. He changed the landscape for children’s books in this country with his exemplary academic writing and honest, thoughtful book reviews; he was the first children’s book commentator to be taken seriously by the media and continued to review for The Irish Times throughout his illness, a professional to the core. He was the leader of our tribe, our beloved colleague and friend. The children’s book community in Ireland and world wide owe him so much and we will all miss him dreadfully. Our thoughts are with his wife Carole and his family at this time.
I picture him now in his red duffle coat, his eyes twinkling, his spirit soaring. I hope he is surrounded by his most beloved books.
Sarah Webb is a writer and book festival programmer and is currently writer in residence at Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown
I am heartbroken and devastated by the news of Robert’s death. In addition to my professional contact with him, Robert was a personal friend for over 20 years. I simply can’t imagine the world of children’s books in Ireland without him.
Robert was passionate about literature for children and young people, a champion of Irish writing and a true advocate for Irish writers. An absolute gentleman, he always supported those new to the industry and his book reviews were highly regarded and keenly sought. He reviewed my first children’s book, and my most recent children’s book, and those reviews are among those I treasure most.
Robert was wonderful company – fun, witty and insightful. His appreciation of English made him a joy to listen to, whether as part of a formal conference presentation or in a social environment. I have cherished memories of refreshing and forthright banter with him, while his humorous opinions and astute observations enriched any gathering. I will miss his presence hugely at future events involving the close Irish community of children’s literature. Today, a shadow has fallen on that community.
My deepest sympathies are with his wife Carole, his children and grandchildren.
Jane Mitchell’s most recent novel, Chalkline, was published by Walker Books and won the first Children’s Choice Award in the Children’s Book of the Year Awards 2010
I was first introduced to Robert Dunbar by the late and much-missed Caroline Walsh, when she and I were speaking at a literary panel. When Caroline introduced him, I already knew and greatly admired his work, but I was immediately charmed by his warmth and enthusiasm. Long before publishers ever whispered the words “crossover market”, Robert was an enthusiastic champion of children’s books, both of their importance to young readers and of their right to be taken seriously by adults. When my own books for young adults were published, Robert wrote about them with generosity and insight. It was a genuine honour to be reviewed by him. I last bumped into him in 2015, just after we had both watched my friend Sinéad Gleeson interview the great young adult writer Judy Blume. He was as enthusiastic and full of good-humour as ever, and if I’d known it would be the last time I’d ever see him I’d have told him how grateful I was not just for his kindness to me and my work, but for his unfailing belief in Irish writing for young people. The world of Irish children’s books won’t be the same without his wise, warm critical voice.
Anna Carey is author of the Rebecca series
All visits to children’s books events in Ireland were enhanced by the opportunity to enjoy Robert’s company and to revel in his encyclopaedic knowledge of children’s literature. Robert’s gentle demeanour and generous support for authors and their endeavours made him the perfect advocate for children’s literature. But it also never prevented him from offering the most measured and pertinent criticism of all that he read. The combination of the two ensured that spending time in Robert’s company was always memorable.
Julia Eccleshare is children's books editor of The Guardian
Robert Dunbar was probably the single most important person in the revolution of attitudes to children’s books in Ireland. The care and love he lavished on the books and the deep respect he always showed both for those who wrote them and those who read them gave writing for children the place it deserves in discussions of literature. He had an extraordinary ability to understand how a book would affect a child, from toddlers up to young adults, and to communicate his enthusiasms without condescension. Only a lovely person could have done that and Robert was, in that respect, wonderfully qualified.
Fintan O’Toole is Literary Editor of The Irish Times
Robert was a consummate professional with an insatiable and infectious enthusiasm for his subject – his conversation was full of emphases – matched only by his knowledge. His intellect was a happy marriage of a student’s curiosity and a teacher’s passion for imparting wisdom. Even though he was on every publisher’s mailing list, he paid regular visits to The Irish Times office to go through piles of review copies, briskly sorting wheat from chaff, to make sure nothing significant was overlooked.
He cut a distinctive figure, with his clouds of white hair, fairytale-long fingernails and Paddington Bear-like duffle coat, and had a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humour, wryly remembering student days at Queen’s with such contemporaries as Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. He took pride in showing me one of his early writings in a Queen’s magazine alongside work by Heaney, but was much too modest to mention that he had outshone Seamus in A level English, coming first in all of Northern Ireland in the subject they year they both matriculated, a fact I only learned from his wife Carole yesterday. But above all, he had a remarkably gentle manner and a concern for others. When I suffered my own loss, he was a model of compassion and empathy.
Re-reading his final column, published only last month, itself testimony to his dedication, several things strike me: the modesty of his sign-off – “Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books” – when he was so much more; the unflagging tightness and polish of his prose; and the poignancy of his review of Kim Hood’s Plain Jane, whose subject is the effect of the black hole of cancer on two young lives.
But also by his refusal to end on anything but an upbeat note. “Readers who might find these three novels too heavy for their summer suitcases,” he wrote, “should make their way to something altogether more light-hearted, though none the less entertaining [MG Leonard’s Beetle Boy].”
His final words could be his epitaph: “Great fun – and warmly recommended.”
Martin Doyle is assistant literary editor of The Irish Times
Robert is survived by his wife Carole, children Dominic and Grainne, and by his grandchildren Jack, Matthew, Edie and Astrid. A celebration of his life will take place in the dining hall of Trinity College, Dublin, from 6pm-9pm on Wednesday, July 27th. Mourners who wish to may donate a book token to a local school library