It’s cold out there … but there’s still plenty to see

Juanita Browne, author of the wonderful The Great Big Book of Irish Wildlife, chats about her inspiration for the book and how we can help wildlife in our garden this Christmas.

I have loved nature, for as long as I can remember. My family always had at least one pet dog. There was Brandy when I was a toddler, then Fozzie, Sooty, Lady, and then Teddy, most of them mongrels, and each one a truly loved member of the family. I think it was probably these dogs that began my love of animals and nature.

I was always amazed that you could build this relationship with another species, that you found a way of overcoming barriers of speech, never mind language. That they understood your ways, your moods, and you learned their traits and their individual personalities. These four-legged hairy beasts opened up another world for me and led me out into it, following their wagging tails.

One of my earliest memories is lying in the long grass in the field behind our house with Fozzie, and hearing the buzzing of insects in the grass. That field was my playground and was full of wildflowers and grasses. I would lie hidden in the long grass, while Fozzie bounced up and down, trying to find me. I would pull my fingernail up along a grass stem, scattering its seeds to the wind. We made daisy chains, and made wishes as we blew hard on dandelion clocks and and watch the seeds float off into the sky. We held buttercups under our chins to see if we liked butter. Simple games, which even in the 1980s were still played.

There was a small, wet ditch at the bottom of the field that was home to frogspawn. Every spring I duly collected it and kept it in the bucket of my builder Dad’s old broken dump-truck, which was full of rainwater, to watch it grow. Little did I know back then that feeding the tadpoles plants only kept them happy for a while. When their legs develop, tadpoles became carnivorous — I don’t want to think too much about what happened when they were forced to start looking at each other in a new light in the bucket of that dump-truck! The Hunger Games comes to mind.

I was well-intentioned, though, and their safe captivity inside building machinery probably kept them safe from other predators so perhaps it all evened out in the end.

I was intrigued by everything in nature. Yes, you might say I’m a nerd. But aren’t all children nerds in a way — open to fascination and excitement and to soaking up knowledge about the world — especially if it’s shown to them in an interesting way.

OUR NATURAL HERITAGE

For many years I visited schools to talk about nature through the wonderful Heritage in Schools Scheme, and it always struck me how excited the children would get over a new fact or photograph, video or animal sound I played for them. I spoke to them about my time working on natural history documentaries — about how I worked with camera crews filming deer, bats puffins, or fin whales around Ireland. I told simple stories of my treasured interactions with wild animals.

They loved telling their own stories too — whether they were all true or not I can’t comment. ‘I swam with Humpback whales once at the beach in Dublin,’ said one little boy. ‘A hedgehog killed one of my chickens. It dragged the chicken to the back door in its mouth.’

Okay…

But one poignant aspect of these school visits was seeing how little the children knew about our Irish wildlife. Without fail there was always someone in the group who would shout out ‘Skunk!’ to a picture of a good old-fashioned Irish badger.

They had never heard of a pine marten, couldn’t identify common garden birds, or name a tree, and were nervous of touching any of the insects we looked at in the schoolyard.

Kids today often know lots about Antarctica, or African wildlife or dinosaurs.  But they don’t seem to know what’s on their doorstep, or how amazing Irish wildlife is, too. It was this experience that led to The Great Big Book of Irish Wildlife. I wanted to write a very accessible book, to introduce young children to our diversity of wonderful wildlife — in a fun way — and to explain some of the changes in nature across the Irish seasons.

Our children are bombarded by negative stories about the environment, with scary statistics about climate change, plastic pollution and endangered species. I wanted my book to be positive. I wanted to provide an insight into the life stories, and amazing abilities of some of Ireland’s beautiful birds, mammals and insects, and hopefully whet the readers’ appetite to want to get out and explore for themselves.

As well as explaining some of the most dramatic wildlife events of each season, such as the red deer rut in autumn, a starling murmuration in winter or giant basking sharks cruising Irish waters in summer, I also wanted to show children what common wildlife sights they could experience easily for themselves in their own back yard or in their local park.

You often hear of our ‘disconnect with nature’ nowadays. I regularly meet people who want to develop a stronger connection with nature, but don’t know where to start. So in the book, I make lots of suggestions. We have some amazing wildlife NGOs in this country, such as BirdWatch Ireland, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group or Bat Conservation Ireland, who offer free events from bat walks to whalewatching. By following the lead of an expert guide, you have a mentor on hand to show you how and where to look and there is no better way to learn.

THINGS TO TRY THIS WINTER:

Feeding the birds is a great way of welcoming wildlife to your garden and a great way to learn to identify our common garden birds.  Winter can be a tough time of year for small birds, as food is scarce and they must use a lot of energy just to stay warm. You often hear people talk about the ‘fat robin’, but in winter robins are far from fat. They are actually puffing out their feathers to try to stay warm!

Different birds like different foods, so vary what you offer and where you place it in the garden. Robins and blackbirds like to feed from a bird table or the ground, while the tits and finches will gladly hang like acrobats on wire feeders. Remember to hang feeders out of reach of cats. Leave out a shallow dish of water too, especially during frost or snow. BirdWatch Ireland runs a Garden Bird Survey and if you take part, you will learn to identify most common garden birds and some more unusual visitors. See www.birdwatchireland.ie

Winter can also be a good time to spot old nests in trees and hedgerows, without the leaves to hide them. You can spot the large stick nests of rooks and you might even be able to spot a squirrel drey – a sphere of twigs up high in a woodland tree. If you can visit a rookery (the colonial winter roost of rooks and jackdaws), the sound and experience may surprise you, as hundreds of birds roost together at night to help stay warm and safe. If you hear of a local winter site for a starling murmuration, make the trip and watch the skies from an hour or two before dark. It will be well worth it. The swirling, pulsating cloud of birds that is a murmuration is one of the most amazing winter sights! Keep an eye on BirdWatch Ireland’s Facebook page for updates.

Wader Watching at an estuary or on mudflats, such as at North Bull Island in Dublin, is also a great activity to try out over winter. Here, you will see large numbers of waders carefully probing for worms and shellfish in the mud at low tide. Different waders have different bill designs and lengths to allow them to reach a variety of prey under the mud. The curlew is our largest wader with the longest bill to reach lugworms and ragworms that tunnel deep into the mud, while turnstones turn over stones, clumps of seaweed and pebbles to catch invertebrates hiding underneath. Some of these birds have come to Ireland to spend the winter, from continental Europe and as far away as Greenland and the High Arctic.

Some tips for watching waders and wildfowl:

  • Wear waterproof, warm clothes.
  • Bring binoculars if you can and a good bird book.
  • Check the tide times online. Find a good spot an hour before high tide and you’ll see the birds as they come closer with the tide, and then spread out over the mudflats as the tide goes out.
  • Leave dogs at home when you go wildlife watching!

 

WILDLIFE IS GOOD FOR YOU

In the UK, doctors are now writing ‘green prescriptions’, encouraging time spent in nature to help your mental health as well as physical fitness. In Japan, it’s called ‘forest-bathing’ and is recognised to restore health. This link between nature and wellbeing is becoming more recognised globally, and in fact the more biodiverse an area, the more benefits are seen. I know myself when I get out into a ‘wild place’ or even a green space in an urban setting, I immediately feel better.

I saw a lovely slogan on a poster recently:

‘And into the forest I go,

to lose my mind,

and to find my soul.’

An introduction to the outdoors and wildlife is one of the greatest gifts we could give to our children. I really hope the Great Big Book of Irish Wildlife opens that door for some young readers. They may not start growing tadpoles in cannibalistic settings, but they may just start to see the wonder of nature and the joy to be had in the outdoors.

 

 

 

Juanita Browne, December 2018

The Great Big Book of Irish Wildlife is available to buy here and in all good bookshops

Our Favourite Inspiring Women from Blazing a Trail

Lauren O’Neill and Sarah Webb accepting their Irish Book Award
Shona Shirley Macdonald (author and illustrator of The Pooka Party), Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill at the Irish Book Awards 2018

This week Blazing a Trail won the Children’s Book of the Year (senior) Award at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. This is a wonderful award and we, at the O’Brien Press, are very proud of this book and the remarkable women who created it. Blazing a Trail – Irish Women Who Changed the World was written by Sarah Webb and illustrated by Lauren O’Neill. Sarah and Lauren have chosen their favourite woman from Blazing a Trail with a disclaimer that this is very difficult to choose because they are all amazing in their own right!

 

 

Sarah Webb

I’ve spent the last two years in the company of some of Ireland’s most remarkable women and it’s hard to select one as my ‘favourite’. As I read about the women in turn, I discovered the truth about each individual journey – the obstacles they had to overcome, their tenacity, their determination, their hope that Ireland might be a different place for women in the future – and my admiration for all of them grew and grew.

However I discovered that one woman in particular had direct links to my family and also changed the course of my own education and that is Sarah Purser.

Sarah was an artist, patron and businesswoman who was born in Dún Laoghaire in 1848, the town where I live. She studied art in Paris as women were not allowed to study at the Royal Irish Academy (RHA) in Dublin at the time. Later, Sarah became the first woman to be given full membership of the organisation at the age of seventy-five.

She became well known for her portraits and painted some of the most famous Irish people of the time from Maud Gonne to Douglas Hyde.

In 1903, she set up An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass) and, thanks to her excellent business skills, it became a world-wide success, exporting glass to churches around the globe. It makes me smile to think that the stained glass windows in churches in Canada and New York and many other places were shipped over (and in many cases created) by Irish women at a time when women’s art was not widely appreciated or celebrated. Stained-glass artists Evie Hone and Wilhelmina Geddes and Harry Clarke all made glass for Sarah’s company.

Every Tuesday, Sarah held salons in her house for artists, writers and academics. My grandfather, WB Stanford, was a classics professor at TCD and wrote widely on the Greek language. He attended these salons with my grandmother.

Sarah also helped establish History of Art courses in both Trinity College Dublin and UCD. I studied History of Art in TCD; a course I loved. It is responsible for my abiding love of art, illustration and picturebooks.

And finally we share a first name.

Sarah Purser, I salute you!

Lauren O’Neill

It’s obviously very tough to choose a favourite among the Blazing a Trail women – they’re all very unique individuals. In terms of the artwork, Eileen Grey was probably my favourite to draw, or the aviators, Lilian Bland and Lady Heath. I love how those images turned out! I think the woman who made the biggest impression on me though was Margaret Bulkley, who lived her whole adult life as a man, Dr. James Barry. Her, or I should say his, academic achievements alone were amazing. But he was also the one who made the biggest leap in terms of how he wanted to present himself to the world. You have to admire that level of self conviction! Also he was a big animal lover, which deserves a big thumbs up. He was a very interesting character both to research and to draw.

The artwork for Blazing a Trail was actually a bit of a departure from my usual style in kids’ books. Generally I’m more focused on linework but for Blazing a Trail I combined line drawings with figures that felt a bit more painterly, which seemed to work well with some of the more historical subject matter. I mostly work digitally but I always use scanned textures in my work on some level. For Blazing a Trail I sketched out lots of small composition thumbnails in pencil for each image, and chose the one that I felt would work best full size. I would then take a photo of it on my phone, send it to my computer and paint over it in photoshop. At the end, I added in scanned paint textures to give everything a more organic and traditional feel.

Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill, November 2018

Blazing a Trail is available to buy here and in all good bookshops

 

Irish Book Awards Shortlisted Titles

The O’Brien Press are absolutely delighted to have two of our books shortlisted for three Irish Book Awards.

Blazing a Trail By Sarah Webb and illustrated by Lauren O’Neill has been shortlisted for two awards:

The Journal.ie Best Irish-Published Book Of the Year

The National Book Tokens Children’s Book of the Year – Senior

The Pooka Party by Shona Shirley Macdonald has been shortlisted for the following award:

The National Book Tokens Children’s Book of the Year – Junior

If you haven’t already heard about these amazing books then here is a little bit about them and a sneak peak!

Blazing a Trail  is a book for everyone who dreams of changing the world.

‘Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.’
– COUNTESS MARKIEVICZ, rebel leader and politician

From daring aviator LADY HEATH to savvy gold prospector NELLIE CASHMAN, fearless sea captain GRANUAILE to world-class dancer DAME NINETTE DE VALOIS,
scene-stealing actor MAUREEN O’HARA to record-breaking runner SONIA O’SULLIVAN, activist MAUD GONNE to President MARY ROBINSON, meet the remarkable Irish women who shaped the world we live in.

Discover their achievements, the ways in which they devoted their whole lives to making a difference, and with each original stunning illustration, feel the essence of these important trailblazers.

‘We are all made of star stuff.’
– DAME JOCELYN BELL BURNELL, astrophysicist

Packed with fun, fascinating facts and stunning, full-page illustrations, this book celebrates the trail blazers who have shaped the world we live in.

Ready to walk in their footsteps? A world of bravery and discovery awaits you.

Made by two remarkable women, author Sarah Webb and illustrator Lauren O’Neill.

Sneak Peak Below!!

The Pooka is a magical shapeshifter who lives in the mountains all alone; fixing things, painting, dancing and singing. Suddenly, none of this seems fun any more, the Pooka realises that its lonely and hasn’t seen its friends in ages!

After having some time to think, the Pooka decides to throw a big party and invite all of its friends. Join the Pooka as it attempts to throw the Pooka party of the century in this fun and beautifully illustrated picture book.

A madcap tale of what to do if you feel sad and lonely, starring one shapeshifting hero with some musical monsters, flying cakes and a guest appearance by the Moon.

Sneak Peak Below!!

Don’t forget to Vote – click here!

Elena Browne, October 2018

A Chat with Editor Helen Carr

Our wonderful Editor, Helen Carr, took some time to talk to me about the her job, the books she’s currently working on, what she loves about her work and advice for aspiring editors!

What is your role in The O’Brien Press?

I’m a senior editor at The O’Brien Press. We’re a small company, 15-20 staff, so all the editors turn their hands to everything – I do managerial tasks, substantive editing, copyediting and proofreading, as well as working on blurbs, handling reprints and doing a certain amount of admin. I edit or manage about twenty books a year – a mix of general and children’s – on subjects ranging from fiction to current affairs, cookery to sport. There’s a great range within the children’s books I edit too; it can be anything from YA fiction, to picture books, to middle-grade non-fiction.

What do you like best about your role?

I love the variety. Some days I might spend mainly copyediting, while other days could be full of administration and planning. In terms of editing, I think my favourite thing is the substantive edit. I love meeting authors, talking about their books and their characters, getting a feel for the book and how we could work on it to shape it. I’ve just had a meeting with one of my authors, Ger Siggins. Ger is the author of the six-book ‘Rugby Spirit’ series about young rugby star, Eoin Madden and the ghosts he encounters. Now we’re discussing the first book in his exciting new ‘Sports Academy’ series, which will be out in early autumn. It’s called Atlantis United and it’s about five sports-mad kids who are selected for a very special and mysterious sports academy where they are trained to become the best in the world – and have many adventures along the way. It was great to talk through the plot and hear what he has planned for the characters in future books.

Helen with one our our children’s authors, Anna Carey at a tea party to celebrate the launch of Mollie on the March.

I also really love the development process on kids’ picture books. I work very closely with our designer, Emma Byrne and we’re currently finalising a beautiful and informative picture book called Island of Adventures; Fun things to do all around Ireland by Jennifer Farley. It’s going to be gorgeous, and I think families will love looking at the fun-filled, full-colour spreads of Irish adventures – everything from surfing to St Patrick’s Day parades features! I love to see the story take shape and see the images develop from roughs to final art. Continue reading “A Chat with Editor Helen Carr”

Conor Kostick on Ready Player One, Epic and LitRPG

Conor Kostick, author of the brilliant sci-fi series The Avatar Chronicles, chats about imagination, online gaming and the growing popularity of LitRPG.

In 2003, I had an idea for a novel, which was inspired by a newspaper article claiming that the value of trades of virtual goods was sufficiently large (several billion dollars) that if it were a country it would rank greater than Bulgaria. What, I wondered, if this trend were to grow until your activity in virtual environments really mattered? What if the celebrities of the world were not sports stars and music stars, but gamers…?

I wrote Epic extremely quickly. In all the years and books since, I’ve never experienced anything like the same immersion in the world of my imagination. It was the summer between finishing my degree and starting a PhD and I knew this free time was precious. So every evening I would write until the early hours of the morning and during the day I would edit. So intense was my involvement with the book that my dreams were filled with it and I learned the value of keeping a notebook and pen beside me.

I’d wake up with an insight, jot it down, and fall back to sleep. Continue reading “Conor Kostick on Ready Player One, Epic and LitRPG”

A Rugby Roar at the End of a Series

Gerard Siggins, author of the Rugby Spirit series and this year’s World Book Day book Rugby Roar, chats about the coming to the end of a series that began as a one book adventure and turned it to something bigger and better!

BOOK SIX of my ‘Rugby Spirit’ series is just out, and it may just be the last of the set. I never planned it as a series – I suppose most first-time novelists don’t have the sort of confidence that your publishers will want to keep publishing them and your readers will keep reading them.

No, Rugby Spirit was a once-off, a combination of a bedtime story my son kept pestering to write down, and a historical itch that needed scratching. I was chuffed that O’Brien Press said they would like to issue it, and even more delighted that they told me immediately to go off and write a sequel.

The first book concerned a boy coming to a new sport and finding advice and fellowship in the ghost of a long-dead rugby player. That character, Brian Hanrahan, was the only person ever to die playing sport in Lansdowne Road. He helps Eoin to get better at rugby, but also helped him to solve a mystery and understand more about the past.

As I sat down to plan Book 2, I tossed around ideas such as keeping it just to Eoin and Brian again, or taking out the supernatural element. But I realised that I could take it on a bit by keeping Eoin and Brian and adding a new ghost to the story. Rugby Warrior brought in Dave Gallaher, an Irish-born player who was the first captain of New Zealand’s All Blacks and who died in World War One. Continue reading “A Rugby Roar at the End of a Series”

We’re Going to…. Chat to Sarah Bowie

Happy 2018 to everyone! To start of the New Year we at OBP chatted to author and illustrator Sarah Bowie about her upcoming picture book We’re Going to the Zoo!

What inspired you to write We’re Going to the Zoo?

I have very clear memories of going to the zoo myself when I was a little girl and I wanted to remember what it was like when you’re seeing these wild and exotic creatures for the first time in real life

What was your process for creating this book?

I started very simply, with a sketchpad and pencil. I tried to bypass my ‘front brain’ by just doodling and writing as quickly as possible. After a while I started to hear a grumpy little voice saying ‘The zoo is BORING!’, which is not what I’d been aiming for at all. However, I just went with it, kept doodling and writing and listening to what she and the other characters were saying. The important thing at the early stage is not to judge, you can always go back and fix things later. So that was how I got the original proposal written. After that I focused on page layout and pacing. It’s usually at this stage that I finalise the writing too. Once that’s nailed down, I focus on the artwork. Continue reading “We’re Going to…. Chat to Sarah Bowie”

Me and OBP

Our wonderful Publicity and Marketing intern, Aoife Harrison, wrote a blog post about her experience at The O’Brien Press.

Four months seems a relatively short space of time but, even including several Christmas seasons in retail, I think these were among the busiest four months of my life! In preparation for this blog post, I compiled a list of all my personal highlights during my internship and the events, books and general escapades I’d been involved in since I started…it was a long list.

Topping the charts, so to speak, was Culture Night 2017, which was one of my favourite experiences at The O’Brien Press. For Culture Night, The O’Brien Press offered people the unique opportunity to pitch directly to Ireland’s leading children’s publisher. Meet with a staff member at the office for a ten-minute, one-to-one pitch. It was guaranteed to be an exciting and busy night. It helped that I had spent the better part of that morning involved in the launch of Judi Curtin’s 25th book, Stand By Me, a children’s book set partly in the 1960s. The staff of Eason, O’Connell Street, were amazing and incredibly helpful. They didn’t even bat an eyelid when Ruth and I arrived at the store an hour early, laden down with yet more bags (despite the several boxes we’d sent them the day before) and proceeded to decorate their newly renovated shop with strings of paper records, blow-up flower-power guitars and multi-coloured fabric flowers strewn over every available flat surface. The school group, when they arrived, were suitably impressed with our recreation of the book cover on the stage next to Judi and I only got the mildest of funny looks before they decided I must be in costume (I was!)

After tidying the shop (and ourselves) up, we raced back to the office to help with the preparations for O’Brien Press’ Pitch Perfect Culture Night event. The excitement in the air was palpable as staff raced up and down flights of stairs. Soon, before we’d even begun to steady our nerves, though thankfully after we’d taken down the photos of cats in wedding attire (your secret is safe with me Geraldine!), the doorbell rang. It was like Opening Night of a new production, but instead of being the actors huddled in the wings, we were the audience. We just happened to be providing the stage!  Our first guests arrived and the next few hours were a whirl of handshakes, book chats, quick changes, muffled knocks and sheer exhilaration. The night was a huge success and we had so many exciting manuscripts to look forward to reading in the following weeks. Continue reading “Me and OBP”

It’s All About the Socks for Mr Wolf

Tatyana Feeney, author and illustrator of the wonderful picture book Socks for Mr Wolf, shares her story about where this quirky character came from and shows us the awesomeness of socks!

Poor Mr. Wolf, he is so often mistaken for a fox! And although ‘socks’ and ‘fox’ rhyme, Mr Wolf was always going to be a wolf even before he had his lovely socks …

My stories usually start with a character. I like to draw the character and think about a story that might develop around them. I had been drawing a wolf character for a while; he actually started life when I was a student at art college, and I was always hoping that he would have a story, but there was never one that seemed exactly right.

I liked the idea of the wolf being a friendly character, rather than the typical ‘big, bad wolf’, but I wasn’t able to think of something that seemed like a great, original story for him.

So, I put him aside and started thinking about other stories. Continue reading “It’s All About the Socks for Mr Wolf”

Alan Nolan on Sam Hannigan’s Woof Week

Author and illustrator Alan Nolan chats about writing, illustrating and the inspiration for Sam Hannigan’s Woof Week!

Sam Hannigan began life in one of my battered sketchbooks as a sketch of a young girl with freckles, playing an oversized guitar and wearing a cowboy hat. As with most of my characters, she came into my head in the middle of the night, cowboy hat and all, and I scrambled at the side of my bed for a sketchpad and a pencil to get her down on paper before she pulled up the bedroom window blind and escaped. As usual, to avoid waking my wife, this was drawn almost completely in the dark – when I woke up in the morning I had to make sense of the manic, spidery scribble, which I’d jammed into my shoe so I’d remember I’d done it in the first place.

Beside the sketch I had written ‘Brianna Buckley, plays guitar, eats dog biscuits, best friend is a boy, bully brother, parents country music fans = Dolly and Kenny, big dog, brain swap’.

I pitched the idea to The O’Brien Press. They loved the character of Brianna Buckley, but didn’t much like the name Brianna. They also thought the storyline – with Brianna as an X-Factor-like contestant brain-swapping with a dog and competing in the TV programme against her parents, Derek and Dodo, whilst trying to save (a) her house from being repossessed and (b) an international Russian supermodel and an emperor penguin from the clutches of a gangster called Terry the Thump ­– was a little convoluted and not overly child-friendly. ‘Think about who you are writing for,’ said Ivan. ‘Are you writing for children or for yourself?’ Continue reading “Alan Nolan on Sam Hannigan’s Woof Week”