“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
We all heard this question as children and, as every generation inevitably does, find ourselves asking it of the young people in our lives now.
As a kid growing up in the ’80s in Meath, I dreamed of becoming a published author. When I was eight, my Auntie Helen, who lived in America, came home for a visit. I had just finished writing and illustrating my latest “book” and I remember how my parents proudly showed it to her.
A few weeks after Helen returned to the States a package arrived for me in the post.
I remember savouring every moment opening it – it wasn’t often I got something in the post – until I finally pulled out a beautiful book… My beautiful book.
It had been photocopied and bound, with a clear plastic covering which perfectly showcased my fully illustrated front cover. It was the closest that a child of the ’80s could get to becoming a real published author.
Thirty years later I finally became a real published author and now I help children who, like me, dream of seeing their names in print.
To date, we have published thousands of children through the Emu Ink Schools’ Publishing Programme. An online course, the first of its kind, it is projected in the classroom and covers everything from idea generation, character development, plots, tenses, and dialogue – right through to the editing and proofreading process.
At the end, each child has written a short story or poem that we publish in a paperback book.
It’s a huge source of pride for the children to see their work in print and it’s a beautiful way to demonstrate the power of words – to understand that once our words are in print they are permanently recorded and so we should endeavour to make them good, kind, clever or funny but most importantly we should make them honest.
Because publishing brings with it validation. Validation that our thoughts and feelings are important. They are worth listening to and worth recording.
That’s why during lockdown, we asked children to share their stories and we published them in an anthology of work – 132 school children throughout Ireland submitted to the book.
As adults, we’re all feeling some combination of anxiety, uncertainty and concern about the pandemic. We hear it incessantly on every news and social media channel and if we are struggling to make sense of it, how must our children be feeling?
Through Home Stories, I’ve found that their experiences have been varied yet many follow the same thread.
Many children describe that initial “school’s out” excitement which quickly turned to boredom, sadness, concern and even loneliness. In their own stories, it wasn’t long before they were wishing they could go back to “normal” and back to school.
But the road back to school was a long one and “normal” seems further off still.
So we launched The Covid Book Project, an ambitious writing initiative for schools, which will capture children’s experience of the Coronavirus pandemic in their own words and create an important historical record of a time that has changed the world.
Whether those words take the form of a story, a poem or a stream of thoughts, they’ll be published as part of a school anthology that captures the full experience of their communities. We’re inviting schools to sign up to publishing their own book with us and in doing so record their own piece of history for generations to come.
For our newly published authors they will have a written record of their own experiences and a product of their hard work.
For their parents, guardians, carers and teachers, the book will provide an important insight into the thoughts and feelings of our young people, to help them understand how they’ve been affected and to learn how to support them through it.
For future generations, The Covid Book Project will provide a window into this most unusual time and change how students learn about social and living history. Our children’s children will learn about this pandemic through the eyes of children their own age – the past pupils of their school.
We can all learn so much from these accounts.
The thing I’ve learned from reading and publishing children’s stories so far, is that their experience of the Coronavirus is not so different from my own, as an adult. The Coronavirus doesn’t care about how old you are – it’s certainly not waiting for children to grow up and make sense of it all.
It's because of this that I want young people to have the opportunity to take some sort of control and in telling their own stories for the good of their school community, they do just that – and that's about as grown up as you can get.
Emer Cleary is founder of Emu Ink, an independent publishing company that has developed an online programme for schools that turns children into published authors.
Emu Ink is contacting every primary and secondary schools in Ireland to sign up for The Covid Book Project. If you'd like to know more please visit emucourses.ie.