Robert Dunbar: A champion of children’s literature

Obituary: His contribution to the academic study of the genre will be his greatest legacy

The contribution of Robert Dunbar to the world of children's literature was immeasurable and his knowledge of the subject profound. He was its champion, driven by a political belief in the power of books to make the world a better place.

Robert spent his life educating others about the importance of books in the lives of children and young people.

His boundless enthusiasm was a hallmark of the man, and his great gift to all of us. It was to be found in the reviews, lectures, commentaries and many interviews he conducted over the years, always drawing an answering spark from his guests.

However, it is his contribution to the academic study of children’s literature which will be his greatest legacy. Dunbar was a pioneer on this front from the early 1980s onwards, particularly in the promotion of young adult fiction and the intrepid generation of writers who began to work in this genre at that time.

Robert spent some 27 years as the children's books reviewer with The Irish Times, starting on October 29th, 1988.

His columns were as informative as they were astute in recognising up-and-coming talent, and were vital in keeping children’s literature within the public domain. His byline stated that he was “a commentator on children’s books” but he was so much more, as the written tributes and the celebration of his life in Trinity College, Dublin on July 27th attested.

This thoughtful celebration of Dunbar’s life, organised by his wife Carole, highlighted the many facets of a life lived to its fullest extent. Contributions were peppered with terms such as “championing, enthusiastic, interested, curious, supporting, pioneering, good humoured” and “best loved”.

Inspirational

There were references to the inspirational Derry-based English teacher who later went on to inspire generations of student teachers in the Church of Ireland College of Education (CICE) in Rathmines; the poetry lover who also had an in-depth knowledge of Anglo Irish literature and of the music-lover with deep roots in the Northern folk tradition.

There was mention, too, of the work he did in introducing children’s literature to teacher training courses in the mid-1980s and his work with the Reading Association of Ireland (now the Literacy Association of Ireland).

Dunbar was a founder member of the Children’s Literature Association of Ireland, which later merged with the Children’s Book Trust (of which he had also been a trustee), to become Children’s Books Ireland (CBI).

He was the first editor of Children's Books in Ireland (now Inis magazine) and was a chair of the Bisto Book of the Year Awards (now CBI Book of the Year Award) the annual children's book awards.

Dunbar was a native of Dunseverick, Co Antrim, and attended Bushmills Grammar School and Queen’s University Belfast, where he studied English and was a contemporary of Seamus Heaney.

He became a second-level teacher, later undertaking a master’s degree in English in education. He married Carole in 1964 and they had two children, Gráinne and Dominic. They moved to Dublin in 1980, where Robert was to lecture in English at CICE for the next 25 years.

MA precursor

From 1992 Dunbar was the first to offer a graduate diploma in children’s literature. Run in CICE and awarded through Trinity College, it was the precursor to the MA programmes which were to follow, beginning with the MA in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra in 1997.

Apart from his many critical and scholarly contributions to publications over the years, he edited two collections of short stories, Enchanted Journeys: Fifty Years of Irish Writing for Children (1997) which included writers such as Walter Macken, Eilís Dillon, Marita Conlon-McKenna; and Skimming (2001), which showcased a new generation of writers such as Stephanie Dagg, Eoin Colfer, Siobhán Parkinson, Pat Boran, Gerard Whelan, Maeve Friel, Gregory Maguire, Carló Gebler, June Considine, Mark O'Sullivan and Frank Murphy. Both were published by O'Brien Press.

Dunbar also co-edited, with Gabriel Fitzmaurice, an anthology of poetry, Rusty Nails & Astronauts (1999), published by Wolfhound Press. He was guest editor of the first academic publication devoted to Irish children's literature, a groundbreaking volume of the respected American journal, The Lion and the Unicorn, in 1997.

He lectured at Trinity College Dublin and St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra on the M Phil and MA courses in children’s literature and was a regular presenter at conferences. He was the recipient of a CBI Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, in recognition of his contribution to children’s literature in Ireland, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin in 2009.

Robert Dunbar is survived by his wife, Carole (née Redfern), their children, Gráinne and Dominic, grandchildren, Jack, Matthew, Edie and Astrid, son-in-law Derek and daughter-in-law Carol.