Wee Donkey, Big Personality

This week, author Erika McGann and illustrator Gerry Daly tell us all about their latest picture book, Wee Donkey’s Treasure Hunt, particularly, how this mischievous and cheeky donkey came to life and how her adventure developed.

Erika McGann

When I began working on my first picture book, I was very tempted to write it in rhyme. I grew up loving Each Peach Pear Plum and everything Dr. Seuss, and there really isn’t anything as musical or joyful as a well-written story for children in verse. But as it was my first attempt at writing a book for that age group, the added pressure of doing it in rhyme was too intimidating. I had to consider language level, structure, and content for an audience that was new to me, not to mention jamming a full and fun story into such a tiny word count. I could see myself getting close to the deadline, sweating, frantically searching for something to rhyme with ‘orange’. Although my first drafts had occasional, accidental rhyming phrases (which gave me a silly amount of glee), I knew I should wait until I had a little more experience with the age level to do it properly.

A couple of years later I was finishing up a series for older kids and looking to submit a new project to O’Brien Press. I was dying to do something just for the fun of it, and it finally seemed time to give the rhyming children’s book a go. I’d recently worked on Where Are You, Puffling? with Ger, and I thought another adorable animal protagonist would be great craic to write. I searched images of cute animals for a bit of inspiration and came across a brilliant photo of a wide-smiling wee donkey with her nose pressed up against the camera lens. She made me laugh, and I figured I’d found the right character to work with – cheeky, loveable, and great for a giggle.

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Hedgehogs, Hoglets and Hibernation

Author and illustrator, Bex Sheridan, tells us all about the inspiration for her gorgeous new picture book, Go to Sleep, Hoglet!

I live with my husband, Jay, in a house filled with animals and in 2017 a spikey little hoglet joined the crew. We called him Mu. Mu is an African pygmy hedgehog (a domestic pet hedgehog). They’re smaller than wild Irish hedgehogs and look a little different. One big difference is that African pygmy hedgehogs who are kept as pets are not supposed to hibernate, but they still can. If they do they can fall ill, so making sure Mu stayed in good health meant understanding hedgehog hibernation. This was how the seed for Hoglet’s adventure was first sewn.

Mu doesn’t like me very much, he’s a very angry little hedgehog. I know he’s angry from how he acts, how he tries to spike me with his quills at every opportunity and he makes some very funny sounds. With his mood written all over his face (he makes no attempt to hide his anger), I couldn’t resist drawing him. There’s just so much expression in such an angry little guy! I had so much fun trying to draw each and every spike that I drew him several times and even made prints to share his anger. It turned out I actually enjoyed telling people all about him and sharing what I’d learnt about hedgehogs along the way.

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Ten-minute Chat with Úna Woods

Una Woods – Photography by Ruth Medjber @ruthlessimagery

On Culture Night 2018, Úna Woods asked for a ten-minute slot with the O’Brien Press team at our Pitch Perfect event. Two years later, I asked Una for ten minutes of her time for a quick chat about her debut picture book, Have You Seen the Dublin Vampire?

How does it feel to have your first book published?

I have always dreamed of writing and illustrating my own picture book. To finally see it printed is so exciting. I can’t wait to see it in bookshops!

What made you sign up for Culture Night in 2018?

My Friend Paula Moen persuaded me to go along to the Culture Night pitching event, as I was always talking about writing and illustrating my own book. It was great to finally have the goal of pitching my book to somebody and it was such a great opportunity to meet a publisher face to face.

Tell us about your Culture Night Pitch Perfect experience.

I was so nervous when I knocked on the door, as I didn’t really know what to expect. I pitched my idea to Emma Byrne,  the Design Manager in O Brien Press. At this point I didn’t really have a full story, but I knew that my story was going to be based around a friendly Dublin Vampire. I brought along some sketches and I had done up some colour samples, so she could see what style I intended for the book. She really liked what I had brought along. It was so great to be able to show someone my ideas and chat to them face to face. I felt really lucky to have met Emma, as she mentioned she liked vampires too. And so the adventure of making my picture book began!

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Virtual Interview with Carol Ann Treacy

This week, I had a virtual interview with the wonderful Carol Ann Treacy, author and illustrator of Barney Goose – A Wild Atlantic Way Adventure. Carol tells us about her inspiration for Barney Goose, her writing and illustrating processes and more!

What inspired you to write and illustrate Barney GooseA Wild Atlantic Way Adventure?
A few years ago we took a trip along the Wild Atlantic Way coastline. It was such a fun holiday, and I was struck by the beauty of marine and bird life there. I really wanted to capture that in some way, so I started thinking about creating an illustrated journey book. I am fascinated by wildlife and in particular birds (mostly because they can fly). I’m kind of in awe of how geese fly in formations and on such incredibly long journeys across vast oceans every year. I thought it might be interesting to tell a tale of a barnacle goose who starts his life as a displaced egg, away from other geese, but through instinct, determination and a little help from other animals he meets along the Wild Atlantic Way, finds his way back on track. And then he makes that unbelievable journey, thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, for the first time.

What was your creative process with this book? What came first – the illustrations or the words?

I start my process with notebooks, which are usually a mess that no one could decipher apart from myself! Initially, I worked on both the storyline and illustrations for Barney Goose in tandem. Whenever I got stuck, I could switch over, and one kind of informed the other. I worked on my main character, Barney the barnacle goose, first – they are such striking geese, with long, black necks and white-feathered faces.

After doing my research on the life and character of these geese, I started teasing out the story of Barney’s journey from West Cork to Donegal, and drawing some of the other characters Barney meets along the way. When I had my storyline in place, I submitted the text to my editor, Eoin O’Brien, for refinement. At this stage, Eoin suggested creating some ‘scamps’ – very rough sketches. Using a roll of parchment paper, I sketched out every double page spread as one long, continuous storyboard. This was my favourite part of the process, where everything started to come together. I love using a scrollable storyboard – it’s a great way to see just how all the scenes interact, and at this stage you can correct or change anything, before any detail is added.

Once everyone was happy with the sketched layout, I photographed my storyboard and started to work over my drawing in digital format. I used Adobe Illustrator and a Wacom tablet for drawing and painting.

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I wrote Queen of Coin and Whispers for me: the teenager who loved fantasy and was searching for a mirror amid the magic, the dragons, and the werewolves.

by City Headshots Dublin

Helen Corcoran, author of Queen of Coin and Whispers, tells us about why she wrote her amazing debut novel. 

I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember. I can’t pinpoint when reading became a need on par with breathing, but I know when I realised I wanted to be a writer. I was eight, reading one of Enid Blyton’s Amelia Jane books, and it clicked in my brain that someone had put all these words and sentences into chapters, and had made a book that I couldn’t put down until I reached the end. More than anything, I wanted to be that kind of person.

Like most readers, I devoured books, tore through them like they’d all disappear if I didn’t read fast enough. My library loan limit went up and up, as my parents and the local librarian tried to keep up with me. I still wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. So, I read and read, as if hoping what to write would present itself in the words.

And it finally did.

A bookseller suspected I might like a book called Alanna: the First Adventure by Tamora Pierce. They were right.

My world was blown wide open. I’d dabbled around fantasy and magic, but now I flung myself into the genre and didn’t look back. Dragons, wizards, monarchs, vampires, werewolves, mages; Tamora Pierce, Michael Scott, Philip Pullman, Christopher Pike, Mervyn Peake. I worked through them all. I’d found my genre: I loved reading in a way I hadn’t before. I was living in a village in Cork, but books presented me with a window to different worlds.

But they weren’t giving me a mirror: characters in which to see myself reflected. I wasn’t searching just for characters to empathise with and look up to, but also for ones who were queer. Because—like many teenagers before me, and many more after me—I’d realised I wasn’t straight.

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Eoin Madden Returns… in Gaelic Spirit

The wonderful Gerard Siggins tells us about his return to the brilliant and popular Rugby Spirit series with his latest book, Gaelic Spirit.

Eoin Madden had a verrrrrry long rugby season. The previous summer was spent helping Ireland win the mini-World Cup in London, and without much break he had a busy winter solving the mystery of the stolen World Cup and saving Lansdowne Road from disaster. To cap it all, he was flown off to New Zealand to play for the Lion Cubs…

So you might think he would need a rest?

That’s just not Eoin’s way!

No, our hero gets home to his parents in Co Tipperary and throws himself into action with his local GAA club, Ormondstown Gaels.

Gaelic and hurling were Eoin’s original passions but he had to lay them aside when he went to boarding school in Dublin. His rugby successes have been chronicled in the Rugby Spirit series but his return to his first love kicks off a new run of Eoin Madden adventures.

In Gaelic Spirit, Eoin gets up to his usual range of mischief, attracting trouble and solving mysteries. He also has some encounters with ghosts of long-dead sporting heroes and rediscovers his talent as a footballer and hurler. I love the idea of what sports coaches call ‘transferrable skills’ and how Eoin brings things he has learnt in rugby into Gaelic football. His skill as a hurler might make him a decent cricketer some day!

In a heart-stopping climax to Gaelic Spirit he visits Croke Park for the All-Ireland final and is shocked to watch the terrible events that happened there exactly one hundred years ago as if he had been there.

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Favourite Irish Farm Animals

This week, I asked the wonderful Glyn Evans and Bex Sheridan to choose their favourite animals from their new book, Irish Farm Animals. It’s a difficult question to ask animal lovers like Glyn and Bex!

Glyn Evans

I was asked to do a short blog post on my favourite animal from our book, Irish Farm Animals. I honestly find it a very hard task. I have a passion for animals and love each to an equal extent really. They all have different characteristics from each other, making each group unique and loveable in their own way. For instance, I can see when one of my alpacas is sad and needs a hug and they then rest their head on my shoulder. I can see when my pigs are interested in having a conversation, so I sit and chat to them for a while. Or when my wild boar is feeling playful so we play football. I love the displays that the rhea give towards the females and then the zoomies they get when they are playing or excited.

It’s very hard to put one ahead of another. Having said that, I feel the animal that should get the most praise from me in my book are the alpacas.

These wonderful animals were where I started my farming and teaching journey. I expanded my farm into other wonderful animals purely because I saw how children (and adults) reacted to them. I used to conduct special needs tours on my farm solely with the alpacas. The reactions people had to the animals were incredible. The reactions were so strong that I knew that there was something special about alpacas. I wanted to expand our farm into other animals that families could get a connection with in the hope to reduce animal cruelty and enhance people’s lives by encountering the energy that the animals give off. We expanded quickly from 5 alpacas to 290 animals at our peak (in fairness the majority of these animals were chickens and quail). It was a lot of work but truly wonderful to be around.

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A Virtual Interview with Ann Murtagh

This week, I had a virtual chat with Ann Murtagh about her amazing debut children’s book, The Sound of Freedom. Ann tells us all about her inspiration, writing process, and more! 

What inspired you to write The Sound of Freedom?

In 2016, I had been commissioned by Barnstorm Theatre Company in Kilkenny to design classroom resources for their 1916-themed play, The Messenger. Reading the play, I was very impressed by how it conveyed all the important historical aspects of the 1916 Rising, but when I actually sat in the audience with the children and witnessed its impact on them, it made me want to have a go at writing a story myself.

What drew you to writing about Ireland’s War of Independence?

As a teacher/historian, I was drawn to the next phase of the revolutionary period. For the 1916 class resources, I had accessed primary sources in the Bureau of Military History and was aware of the rich pickings the Bureau held relating to the War of Independence. In the 1940s and 1950s, men and women active during the revolutionary period were asked to provide written statements about their involvement. Among the Westmeath witness statements, two men referred to an account of an aeraíocht (open-air entertainment) that was planned to happen in 1919 in the town of Castlepollard, but was banned by the RIC. However, the event went ahead in a secret location up in the hills, and none other than Hanna Sheehy Skeffington spoke at it. In the meantime, a woman pretending to be Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was walking around Castlepollard, with the police observing her every move. This made me think of a story. What about a boy who was in the crowd that day? Although the aeraíocht is quite far on in the story, it was the event that got me started.

Describe The Sound of Freedom in five words.

Exciting War of Independence Adventure.

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Dare to Dream of Favourites

This week we chatted with the wonderful author Sarah Webb and the amazing illustrator Graham Corcoran about their book Dare to Dream. We asked them to choose their favourite three people who dared to dream …

Sarah Webb’s favourite dreamers…

In Dare to Dream, I wanted to shine a light on Irish dreamers from all walks of life: sports people, activists, scientists, adventurers, creators, writers and even rock stars! Irish people who have achieved great things, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.

I thoroughly enjoyed the months spent researching remarkable Irish people, and it’s hard to select just three as ‘favourites’. However, I really admire Maude Delap, who spent a lifetime studying jellyfish and working out their life cycles.

Maude was born in 1866, and as a child moved to Valentia Island, County Kerry, with her family. She spent most of her time outside, searching the island and the sea around it for unusual creatures. As I was mad about whales and dolphins as a child (and still am), this really spoke to me.

In the 1890s, a group of scientists visited the island, and Maude and her sister Connie helped them catch sea creatures in nets and also took the temperature of the sea. It was the start of Maude’s passion for jellyfish.

She designed and made her own jellyfish aquarium, which she called ‘the department’, and became the first person in the world to successfully raise them in captivity. She published her work in 1901, and scientists still use her research to this day.

I was really taken by Maude’s passion and tenacity – it took great care and hard work to raise jellyfish, but she never gave up. She dedicated her life to her work and will be remembered as a brilliant citizen scientist.

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10 Minutes Chat with Megan Wynne

At Culture Night 2017, Megan Wynne asked for a 10 minute slot with the O’Brien Press team at our Pitch Perfect event. Two years later, I asked Megan for 10 minutes of her time for a quick chat about her forthcoming debut novel. The House on Hawthorn road is a wonderful story about two children, from different centuries who time travel through the walls of a magical house in Dublin. Here’s what Megan had to say about her Culture Night experience and her new book – in 10 minutes. 

What made you sign up for Culture Night 2017?

I signed up for Culture Night because I thought it would be fun. Also, I had recently done a workshop on ‘Pitching the Novel’ with Richard Skinner (from Faber & Faber Academy) at Listowel Writers’ Week. I had my fifty word pitch ready to send in, so I felt like it was worth a shot.

How did it feel to pitch your book directly to the O’Brien Press team?

I loved pitching my book directly to the O’Brien Press team. Kunak and Aoife listened attentively and asked really insightful questions. It was a pleasure to speak about my characters with people who understand children’s fiction and know the market so well.

Describe your Culture Night experience in five words.

Unexpectedly exciting, fun and successful!

What is the number one piece of advice you tell your Creative Writing students?

Write what excites you, and to forget about whether anyone else might like it (including parents or teachers).

What inspired you to write The House on Hawthorn Road?

I was inspired to write The House on Hawthorn Road by an extraordinary coincidence that happened when I asked my very first creative writing student for her address. I wanted to send her a Christmas card. When she told me I nearly dropped the phone. She was living in the very house that my father grew up in. I had visited my grandparents in that house when I was a child. Her mother heard this and kindly invited me over for afternoon tea. When they moved in they had built an extension onto the back of the house and while I was sitting in their new kitchen, the idea came to me: what if the extension had caused cracks in the walls that allowed Beth (my student) to travel back in time to when my Dad lived there with his brother Robin. I became very excited by this idea, as my Uncle Robin was an outrageous character and I knew he’d be brilliant in a novel. I loved the idea of the two families getting squashed together in the same time zone.

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