Our visitors from Khabarovsk with author Nicola Pierce (centre) and Peter Heaney (second from left)
On Monday we had a truly original set of visitors to the office: a school group from the Russian city of Khabarovsk. These students, growing up a stone’s throw from China and about as far east as you can go before hitting the Pacific Ocean, have struck up a remarkable interest in Ireland and all things Irish. One of them is even learning Irish dancing. So how did this happen?
Peter Heaney, a wonderful (former) teacher and great friend to The O’Brien Press, has been working on clever multinational education projects for years: he also set up a collaboration between schools in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and South Africa to explore Aubrey Flegg‘s book The Cinnamon Tree. This work has all been supported by The Pushkin Trust, which has been promoting all-Ireland collaboration through the arts for children for twenty-five years. The Russian connection was a remote one until the growth of the internet: there are now nine schools from Northern Ireland, eight from Russia and two from the Republic of Ireland involved in regular online collaboration. Modern technology can facilitate so much that would have been a dream previously!
Peter has been working with the Polytechnical Lyceum Khabarovsk for three years now, from his home in Derry. A year ago he called me and told me that the class were particularly interested in Nicola Pierce‘s remarkable novel Spirit of the Titanic – they had even translated chapters into Russian and entered these translations into Russian national competitions! Of course, at that point Peter did not know that our next book with Nicola, City of Fate, was set during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II (or The Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia). The coincidence of their favourite author writing a novel that was set in their own country was simply too much; they had to visit!
And so today a tour of the office, interspersed with many questions, was followed by a presentation by Nicola about City of Fate; she undertook a huge amount of research when writing the book and now spends a lot of time in schools and libraries showing children the world of Stalingrad that inspired it. We also showed our visitors the wide range of our books that have been translated into other languages. They were impressed, but much more interested in reading books in the original English, a result of their inspirational teacher Olga’s belief that no translation (and particularly not dumbed-down educational adaptations) can capture the spirit of a real book!
Clearly all book lovers to their fingertips, these remarkable young people are an example of how children’s books truly can unite people across the world.
Thanks to Peter Heaney, author Nicola Pierce, teacher Olga Ilina and all the students for an amazing day!
Nicola Pierce being interviewed, while the school children look on
I had the great privilege of being a ‘fly on the wall’ at one of the most interesting school events I have ever seen in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum last week. It was a real showcase for what imagination, flexibility and working together can achieve, and the educational value has to be absolutely huge.
For about six weeks classes in four schools from across Northern Ireland had been doing project work on the subject of the Titanic which was, of course, built in Belfast in the famous Harland and Wolff shipyards. As the centenary of the sinking is in 2012, it is a very timely subject. As part of their work (and this is where O’Brien Press come in) they have been reading Spirit of the Titanic by Nicola Pierce, a novel which captures a huge amount of information, history and atmosphere from this most famous of ocean liners.
As the culmination of this work, a two-hour-long live internet broadcast was run from the museum (incidentally, if you have never been to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, I would heartily recommend you go – it captures the spirit and atmosphere of a bygone time exceptionally well, and is run by very enthusiastic and knowledgeable people). There was a TV-style outside broadcast truck with all the mixing desks you could want, as well as a satellite uplink! The real magic was that it was a live, two-way event, with the schools also broadcasting a view of the children, who were fascinated throughout.
It started in the print works, where we learned about printing tickets for the ship and where Nicola was interviewed about her book; moved to the post office and finally to an interview with an actor talking about riveting the ship together for a living! The students asked some great questions and a recording of the event will be available to all schools in Northern Ireland through their IT system.
All of which proves that cooperation and thinking outside the box can create some of the most memorable occasions: everybody involved was totally passionate about education, and it showed in the quality of the whole event, which really made history live.
One Liberties One Book Literary Festival is a brilliant spin-off of the Department of Education’s Home School Liaison programme. The festival was celebrated in style in historic St. Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street where Robert Emmett was executed. Children from 10 schools from the Liberties Medieval Dublin districts packed in to hear the North Strand Klezmer Band playing Jewish soul music, an exciting blend of jazz and oriental dance music, and then to listen to Marilyn Taylor talk about her novel 17 Martin Street, the chosen book for the school project. The book features a Jewish immigrant family and how they related to their Christian neighbours during World War II. Each school developed creative projects based on the book, including the poster (left) illustrated by Yana Kulizhskaya, a local school pupil.
Denis McCarthy, head of the Home School Liaison programme, told how 400 teachers across Ireland have devised programmes locally, often based on books, to promote reading in the home and in school. Marilyn Taylor’s Faraway Home has also been used for a major One Ballymun One Book project with Our Lady of Victories BNS.
I first met Steve MacDonogh in 1974, when I started The O’Brien Press. During the 1960s, Steve was a key player in the founding of the Irish Writers Co-op, who first published the fiction of Neil Jordan, Robert Hogan, Leland Bandwell and other emerging talents. As new Irish publishing sprang up in the 1970s, Steve was like a mature tree in the forest of saplings. His brilliant publishing philosophy was put into action with Brandon Books, based in his beloved Dingle in Kerry; diverse, ethical and innovative, Brandon published Alice Taylor’s childhood memoirs, Gerry Adams’ fiction and radical literature, and Ken Bruen’s brilliant noir fiction – all to international acclaim.
I met Steve twice in the last month of his life, and each event exemplified his brilliance. At our Publishing Ireland International Committee meeting he explained his ideas on developing new markets in Asia (Korea, China and India) and shared his extensive knowledge of European and American publishing, where he had many friends. The other event was the launch of Joel Hynes’ novel in Dublin’s Gutter Bookshop, where Joel, like a young Brendan Behan, read his brilliantly brutal fiction. Steve had brought the award-winning Newfoundland writer to Ireland for a promotional tour. When I asked Steve why he published writing talent from the edges of the world, and in translation too, he simply said ‘It’s really important. Someone has to do it.’
In Frankfurt last month, Steve invited some publishing colleagues for a drink on the hotel ship on the Main. He was so happy to show us photos of his beautiful little daughter Lilya and his wife Meryem and her extended family in Morocco.
Steve’s sudden death on 17 November, at the age of just sixty-two, is a terrible, sad loss. It’s impossible to describe how much we will all miss you, Steve. Your wonderful publishing legacy lives on in your books like a great Arbutus tree, the native strawberry tree of Kerry – forever green.
O’Brien Press threw a celebratory party last night, marking 20 years since the publication of the book that really kick-started our entry into the world of children’s books, Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna. While we had done a range of books before that, there had been no coherent vision of what we were trying to achieve — once we took the decision to publish a book for children about the great Irish famine, which included death, hardship and pain we realised that our country lacked a real literature about itself for children. And we decided that it would be O’Brien Press’ mission to provide it.
We also decided (and by ‘we’ I really mean our publisher Michael O’Brien and then editorial director Ide ní Laoghaire) that we would always aim to produce books to the best international standards, and would back this up by selling them into international markets: the fact that Under the Hawthorn Tree won the prestigious International Reading Association award showed that these targets were achievable.
We would like to thank everybody who joined us for this special celebration, and most particularly all the authors and staff who make it possible, and look forward to the next 20 years and beyond in the wonderful world of children’s books.
It’s foreign edition time again: we had two new arrivals from Croatia today: our first books to hit the market there. It’s interesting to see how a new territory opens up over time, and they all do it differently. The normal pattern is for the initial sales to be of fiction that has done well in translation in other markets — mass-market fiction (The Mammy by Brendan O’Carroll: now in an impressive 14 foreign editions) and children’s fiction (Sisters … No Way! by Children’s Laureate Siobhán Parkinson: 11 languages to choose from) would usually break the market, and then the non-fiction comes into play.
Eastern Europe can have a differnt pattern, however, and Croatia is following this trend. Our first books in translation are two non-fiction titles — The General by Paul Williams, made into an excellent film by John Boorman, and Joe Cahill by Brendan Anderson, the biography of a life-long IRA activist.
The trial of Eamonn Lillis for the murder of Celine Cawley was one of the most-followed in recent memory: author Abigail Rieley talks about the trial and the media circus it generated, as well as about writing her book.
I’m delighted to learn that I shall be taking up the Farmleigh writers residency this summer. It’s a beautiful house set in acres of garden and the atmosphere there is perfect for writing. When I was shown around the building the librarian, Julia Cummins, introduced me to the book collection that Benjamin Guinness (1937-1992) gathered. It is incredible. First editions abound, including Ulysses and collections of poems by Yeats, with annotations in his own hand. But what excited me most of all was a thirteenth century manuscript by Gerald of Wales. By happy co-incidence this is one of the major sources for the impact of the Normans on Ireland, something which is very relevant to my writing plans. As well as working on a series of stories based on a group of hedonistic self-aware avatars in a virtual world, I’m going to write a book for the O’Brien Press on the coming of the Normans. It’s a great story, full of drama, and deserves to be looked at again in the light of modern scholarship.
While at Farmleigh I shall organise a few events related to children’s literature. I’m going to invite a prominent children’s writer to give a public talk. I’m also going to show local schools around the house and give them a reading from my own books. Included in these trips is St Joseph’s School for the Visually Impaired. My baby daughter Maya attends their pre-school and they’ve been brilliant with her, so I’m really pleased to be able to offer them something in return. I’m hoping – though she might not know it yet! – that the new children’s laureate, Siobhán Parkinson will be involved in that event.
In August I will be giving two creative writing workshops for writers of children’s literature. Places will be limited but anyone interested can send 1,000 words of their work in progress to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to them.
As you can see in the picture, Crackle is still busily reading his O’Brien Press books! The fantastic Storytime promotion which we have been running with Rice Krispies is alive and kicking … When Hughes & Hughes closed their shops earlier this year it made things complicated, but we are delighted that the Hughes & Hughes shops in Santry, Ennis, Dundrum and Swords have re-opened, and they they will redeem your vouchers for books — or you can send the form, tokens and €1.50 per book to Kellogg’s Storytime Promotion, PO Box 9922, Dublin 15.
So cut the sides off those cereal boxes and get your hands on some great books for the summer.
We are delighted that, as of today, O’Brien Press books are now represented in Britain by the wonderful people at Frances Lincoln. Like us, they started in the 1970s producing books for adults and then started a children’s list too — though they made this change a little earlier than we did (1983, rather than 1990). This makes them a perfect match for The O’Brien Press and it’s great to have all of our books represented by the same people in Britain — for the first time in a very long while.
Having met the team there quite a few times, I am very confident that they will be able to find new avenues for our books in the extremely competitive British market and am looking forward to the adventure!