Author and illustrator Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick tells us the inspiration for The Sleeping Giant and the little girl, Ann.
In 1988, my sister Bernardine and myself were spending a week in the Kingdom of Kerry. Our neighbours, the Kennedys, happened to be there at the same time so we dropped around to their holiday rental to say hi. Their cottage faced the sea. Mary pointed out over the wall and said to her little girl, ‘Look, Eva, we can see the Sleeping Giant from here.’
‘The Sleeping Giant?’ I asked. A dozen family holidays in Dingle and I’d only ever heard Inis Tuaisceart referred to as ‘An Fear Marbh’.
‘I don’t want to scare Eva by calling it “The Dead Man”,’ Mary whispered. ‘Not when she can see it from her bedroom window.’
Hmm, I thought. So if the island is a giant, why is he asleep? And what happens when he wakes up?
An unfamiliar name for a familiar landmark caused a shift of perception inside my brain, which, in turn, sparked an idea. I spent the rest of the week imagining the giant waking up and watching him roam around the Dingle Peninsula in my mind’s eye. My sister and I toured and walked and sunned ourselves by day, and I snapped photos with my trusty Olympus OM10 as we went, already thinking of these shots as research. We met the Kennedys at Coumeenole a few times, and I painted them into the beach scene in the book to mark the fact that it was Mary (yes, that Mary Kennedy) who sparked the idea for the story.
Evenings were spent in local pubs. The sessions were mighty, and I captured one of them in the book. In my memory, the pub was Páidi Ó Sé’s in Ventry, but my sister remembers that session being in An Cúinne, Feohanagh. Who knows which of us is remembering the venue correctly, but we do concur on the singers and the craic!
In the middle of the picture you can see a French family who spent their summers in Dingle playing Irish music. The three burly men in colourful shirts are brothers from Cork who sang calypso. Some members of a Welsh choir who were camping in a nearby field wandered in and sang songs from the valleys. My sister Bernardine is a singer – that’s her in the blue top and orange skirt. And that’s me beside her, standing with my back to the readers, with the green t-shirt and ponytail. I’m taking in the scene, memorising it. I’ve put my other sister, Siobhán, into the scene too, over by the window. My niece, Ann, is the little girl looking out the window, the only person aware of the gentle giant listening outside.
I returned home from Kerry with the idea ready to go in my head, but it took about a year to find the time to get it together as a dummy – a rough pencil version of the images and a first attempt at the text. Another year passed looking for a publisher who wanted it enough to sign a contract – Brandon Press, based in Dingle, stepped up to the challenge – and then another year to paint all the finished images. In that time, my niece Ann got used to being told by the entire family that she was going to be in a book, quite an abstract concept when you are only five-then-six-then-seven years of age. My sister was puzzled that Ann seemed to be taking the whole thing a little casually.
‘Aren’t you excited about being in a book?’ she asked her, as publication day grew near.
‘Well, yes,’ Ann replied slowly. ‘But I don’t think I would actually like to meet a giant in real life.’
In the book, Fictional Ann takes on the task of speaking to the giant and convincing him to go back into the sea. Real Ann’s natural honesty meant she was feeling overwhelmed and misrepresented by her fictional self’s bravery, and a little worried that she might be expected to meet an actual giant at some point! The door between reality and the imaginary is wide open when you are a child.
The Sleeping Giant was published in October 1991 and quickly became a bestseller. Since then it’s been in and out of print as publishers have come and gone. This O’Brien Press edition is the giant’s third reappearance, and it’s brilliant to have him awake again!
As for my niece Ann, with adulthood she came to appreciate being ‘in a book’, and she jokes about being in that exclusive club with Christopher Robin Milne and Peter ‘Pan’ Davies. She may never have had the crazy fame those two boys had, but the strangeness of having an alternative self – a forever-seven you who lives on in a story – has occasionally made itself felt in unexpected ways. When she graduated from college fifteen years after the book was published, I was there in my capacity as Proud Aunt.
‘Your aunt’s a children’s writer?’ asked her classmate Aoife as they lined up for the official photos. ‘Name a book she’s written.’
‘The Sleeping Giant,’ said Ann.
Her friend of four years looked stunned. ‘But – but – but – that was my favourite book when I was a kid,’ she said.
‘I’m Ann,’ said Ann.
‘No! No. Oh. My. God!’ her friend said, genuinely weirded out. ‘This is so freaky. I knew you before I knew you!’
Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, April 2019
The Sleeping Giant is available to buy here and in all good bookshops!