The 2015 CBI Design-a-Cover Competition Winners

Congratulations to the 2015 Children’s Books Ireland Design-a-Cover Competition Winners!

Back in October 2014 we teamed up with CBI for the annual Design-a-Cover Competition. The book chosen was The Lost Fairy by Marian Broderick – it’s a story about a very vain Christmas tree fairy who falls off her perch!

We asked school children across Ireland to send us their designs for a new cover and wow, the caliber of the entries was amazing! It was tough, but we chose a Winner, 2nd place and 4 Runners Up.

In first place is Shelagh Jessica Gilbourne from Cork, whose artwork will appear on the cover of the book!

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In second place is Jasmine Carroll from Ardee, Co. Louth whose work will appear on the back cover.

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Runners up, Kayla Brady, Saibh Scorr, Orla Fitzpatrick and Sarah O’Beirne will see their artwork used on the inner back cover page of the new edition of The Lost Fairy!

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Well done to everyone and thank you for entering!

The new edition of The Lost Fairy will be out in April.

Viva Judi Curtin!

This month we catch up with the bestselling children’s author on all her latest projects.

1)          You’re the author of the ‘Alice & Megan’ series and the ‘Eva’ series (among other books). After a break from writing about Alice & Megan (during which you wrote four books about Eva and her friends), you returned to the world of Alice & Megan this year with Viva Alice. How did it feel to return to these characters after a break, and what inspired you to do so?

Alice and Megan were my first child characters, so they will always be special to me. I know this sounds sad, but I returned to them because I missed them. I felt as if their lives were suspended, while they waited for me to return. Writing about them again was like spending time with old friends.

2)          Though each of your books stand alone and can be read independently of each other, the characters grow and develop from book to book, and there are threads that run through the whole series. One of them is Megan’s relationship with ‘mean girl’ Melissa. Tell us a bit about how that relationship develops in this book.

In Alice Next Door, I created Melissa to show how vulnerable Megan was when Alice moved away. As time went on though, I found myself wondering about Melissa and her motivation. Does she have any good points? Why is she so mean to Megan? In Viva Alice, I tried to answer both of these questions.

3)          Viva Alice is your eighth novel about Alice & Megan. Has the experience of writing them changed over the years? From meeting readers, do you think the interest and preoccupations of your readers have changed in this time?

The writing experience hasn’t changed in any big ways. I think young people still enjoy reading about school, family and friendship. The only changes are minor ones – especially anything related to technology, which has changed greatly over the years.

4)          The ‘Alice & Megan’ series has always had a very distinctive ‘look’. With the release of Viva Alice, the whole series has been repackaged with new covers by Nicola Colton. Do you have a favourite cover from the new-look series?

In the older versions, Alice in the Middle was my definite favourite. This time around, I love them all, with maybe a slight preference for Don’t Ask Alice. (The squirrel is very cute.)

5)          I know writers can’t choose favourites from their books – but do you have any favourite characters from your two series? Who are your favourite major and minor characters from each series and why?

This is a cruel question, and I’m not sure how to answer it. I definitely can’t choose a favourite major character, as that would be like choosing between my children. Some minor characters I particularly like are Maggie from the Eva series and Kellie from the Alice series.

6      Have you ever created a character who started out with a minor role, but ended up taking on a life of their own and playing a bigger part in the series than you’d planned?

Domino is probably the best example of this. She strayed into Megan’s life when she was very sad and upset, and she never left. In Alice to the Rescue, she is a huge part of the story.

8)      What are you working on at the moment? Any new books planned?

At the moment I am working on a new Eva book, which hasn’t got a title yet. As always, Eva works hard to help people who are in trouble. This time, with Ella’s help, she has to sort things out for Ella’s granny, and a Nigerian girl called Aretta.

Judi Curtin is the best-selling author of the ‘Alice and Megan’ series. She is also the author of the smash-hit Eva series: Eva’s Journey, Eva’s Holiday, Leave it to Eva and Eva and the Hidden Diary. With Roisin Meaney she has written See If I Care. Judi has also written three novels, Sorry, Walter, From Claire to Here and Almost Perfect.

Watch out for Erika McGann!

We catch up with the award-winning children’s author on all her latest projects.

This autumn sees the publication of the third book in your supernatural series, The Watching Wood. This time Grace and the girls get caught up in the Witch Trials. Tell us a bit about their adventure.

In the new book the girls get sucked into a magical world full of witches, faeries and creepy ghost children. Grace and her friends are forced to take part in the Witch Trials, a kind of supernatural Community Games, and unwittingly make enemies of a rival team. They soon discover that there are more dangerous things in this new world then a spiteful team of witch apprentices – the woods nearby are filled with faeries, magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, banished by witches and hell-bent on revenge. With the little magic they’ve learned so far, the girls must survive the Witch Trials, navigate through the faery-filled woods and pay the mysterious Ferryman’s price to make it back home.

Your next book after The Watching Wood will be a mini-adventure with Grace and her friends, The Fairytale Trap, a 2015 World Book Day Book (you can pick it up for FREE with a WBD voucher). What were the challenges you had in writing this adventure, compared to writing The Demon Notebook, or your other full-length novels?

This was a fun one to write – a little magical mishap to drop into the girls’ school year – but keeping it short was a bit of a struggle. You’re always tempted to elaborate, build up the atmosphere slowly and add a few subplots, but this was a novella, not a novel, so it had to be quick and to the point. I enjoyed that though, there was no lull in the pace. The girls leap from one scene to the next without stopping. It kept me on my toes!

So what’s next for Grace and the girls? Are there more magical adventures to come?

Yes, there’s a fourth novel in the series due out in autumn next year. I haven’t really started on the text yet (I need to get a move on!), but it’ll centre on an old-style carnival that arrives unexpectedly in Dunbridge. I love the idea of a carnival – it’s fun and exciting, with just a little bit of creepy.

Have you any other plans for books outside the magical series you’ve created?

I’d love to have a go at a few other things if I could find the time! At the moment, the Dunbridge books are keeping me busy, but maybe in a year or two …

You do lots of events up and down the country – what’s your favourite part of these readings and visits?

The Q&A that comes at the end of each session (or in the middle of the session if I’ve got a chatty group!). I like talking about books and writing and how I got started, but it’s really the conversation with the kids that’s the fun part. I’m happy to talk at a group, but talking with them is much more enjoyable.

This summer you travelled to the UK to pick up the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award 2014. How did it feel to win the award? And what did you get up to while there?

It was a wonderful couple of days in a beautiful part of England. The organisers were lovely and made sure I saw plenty of the country while I was there. I got to watch the vote for the Waverton Award for adults, which was really interesting (plenty of rivalry between the advocates of each shortlisted title!), and I did a short talk with them. I met some of the kids, of course, and they were a fantastic bunch; full of chat and enthusiasm and a real love of reading. It was a great trip and I was so delighted to win the award.

You are pretty active on Twitter and Facebook – it seems like social media is a part of a modern-day writer’s life. Is it a part of ‘the job’ you enjoy?

It’s a part of ‘the job’ I still have to master. I try to keep up-to-date as much as possible on both, but I should be posting more often. It is definitely compulsory for the modern-day writer – social media is the quickest and easiest way to reach people, and being good at it can make all the difference to your writing career. I vow to become more proficient this year!

The Demon Notebook was recently published in the USA and it is to be translated into Spanish for the Mexican market. What was it like to see the USA version of the book? Would you be worried how the book will change when it is translated?

I adore the USA edition, it’s absolutely gorgeous. And I had great fun during the edit, learning what Irish phrases mean absolutely nothing outside of Ireland and why I had to change them. I actually wrote a piece for gobblefunked.com recently about that and what happens when your work is translated (this was before the Mexican deal was signed). I considered that a translator is like a co-author you never get to meet – someone who rewrites and arranges your text for a brand new audience. I’ll never get to appreciate how the book reads in Spanish, but I still can’t wait to see it.

What advice would you give to emerging authors who’d love to write a book for children?

Write what you love and what got you excited about reading as a kid. I think when you write for children you regress a bit and experience it as you would have back then. And that’s when it works best – when you read your own text and know you would have gobbled it up when you were young.

Erika McGann was the winner of the Waverton Good Read Children’s Prize 2014 for The Demon Notebook, the first in her magical series about Grace and her four friends.

Finding a Voice in Fiction

FindingAVoiceDebut author Kim Hood talks about her journey to writing Finding a Voice

Finding a Voice wasn’t the book I set out to write. When I arrived in Doolin, County Clare one January morning, with my backpack, my bicycle and my laptop, in search of a cottage to hole up in for the winter, I had an entirely different novel in mind. It was time to change direction—step away from my work with kids with complex disabilities. I was going to write a ‘literary novel’ – all character and profound things and well … no story at all.

It didn’t go well.

I blamed my lack of progress on life getting in the way. Doolin, until the Celtic Tiger took a swipe at it, had a way of making time disappear in days spent wandering along sea and rock, and nights in a whirlwind of music and madness. And then there was the REAL truth of why I’d returned to Clare ten years after first stepping foot in the county: missing the west of Ireland with a physical ache, and perhaps a little bit of missing a certain previous love I’d never gotten over (don’t tell him that though).

It all lead to a job, and a house, and a dog, and a baby (not necessarily in that order). But no book. No finished book.

It was eating me though. I’d upturned my life to finally write, and I wasn’t doing that. Oh sure, a few pages here, a bunch of rewrites there—but not a finished book. And while I kept trying to find a way through The Literary Novel I’d started, what was creeping into my head instead was a line: ‘One, two, three, four. I started counting the steps as soon as my feet left the drive’, and a girl named Jo who was keeping such control, but needed to let go. I wanted to tell her story.

I dabbled. Over about a year I wrote a few chapters.

Another character started talking to me—a boy who happened to have a disability. Having spent a large part of my life working with people with various challenges, that was hardly surprising, yet I had always shied away from writing characters with any disability. There are far too many people who don’t know someone with a disability thinking ‘Ah, the poor craters’, without me unwittingly contributing to that. But from the moment he came to me, I knew that if I could just get him right, nobody would mistake Chris for a ‘poor crater’. He was strong, and I knew he was going to be the one to show Jo what she needed to be happy.

A story was beginning to form.

It sounds silly now, but it wasn’t until I let go and allowed myself write a story—no big message, no profound observations, just story—that I rediscovered what I had always loved about writing. I loved getting lost in characters and writing from my heart—not my head.

Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to write.

So I decided I’d put The Literary Novel aside and commit one month to finishing this story. I mapped it out. 15,000 words a week. I’d work on it from 7pm to 1am every work night and six hours on Sundays. We’d eat instant noodles for the month, bedtime stories would be the shortest I could find, all housecleaning and laundry would be on hold for the month.

One month turned into three. Some weeks flew in a whirl of words; some weeks I paced the floor trying to figure out a plot problem I couldn’t seem to get past, and wrote nothing.   It was hard. But I didn’t want to stop. Not even when I was falling down exhausted, not even when I had a huge row with my significant other (‘But you said it would be one month!’ he said from the midst of a pile of dirty laundry, holding the four year old who no longer recognised her mother), not even when I thought it would never be finished. I was obsessed.

There was no turning back.

I was learning to write a novel. I was doing what I had wanted to do all of my life and never really believed I could. And I loved, loved, loved the story. Not all of the time, mind you, but lots of the time.

Those months before I wrote ‘The End’ for the first time seem so long ago now. I didn’t know then that The End was only The Beginning. I have been so incredibly fortunate to have found a wonderful agent and a warm, supportive publishing house. There are so many people who have helped make this book.

And guess what? It turns out there were some themes lurking ; nothing earthshattering, but thoughts that I hope may help even a few kids navigate their way through the murkiness of being a teen. Those themes just needed a story to grow from!

KimHoodKIM HOOD grew up in British Columbia, Canada. After earning degrees in psychology, history and education, she wandered through a few countries before making the west coast of Ireland home. Her eclectic work experience in education, therapy and community services has presented endless opportunity to observe a world of interesting characters. She has always had a passion for trying to understand life from the perspective of those on the fringes of society.

Our visitors from the East!

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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!

CityofFateAnd 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!

Children’s Books Ireland Conference 2014

The O’Brien Press is delighted that Sheila Agnew, author of Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan, will be part of the Debut Writers’ Panel at the Children’s Books Ireland Conference 2014. She’ll be joining Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Back to Blackbrick) and Leslye Walton (The Strange & Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender) to talk about the exciting, and sometimes painful, learning experience of publishing a first novel! This session is at 1.30pm on 24 May and is chaired by Bob Johnson of The Gutter Bookshop. If you’d like to attend, check out the official conference page and booking form here.

Interview with New Children’s Author Erika McGann

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Erika McGann is an exciting new talent in Irish children’s books and we were delighted to publish her spooky debut The Demon Notebook last year. Readers will be thrilled to know that the fantastic sequel The Broken Spell is out now!

Here is Erika’s interview with a great new children’s books website Gobblefunked.com whose co-founder is an ex-OBPer!

 

We are very excited to introduce our very first interviewee, debut author Erika McGann. Her debut novel, The Demon Notebook, is a funny, entertaining and spooky adventure that 12+ girls will love. She sat down with Gobblefunked to tell us all about life as a writer.

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1)    Why did you want to become a children’s author?

I loved writing when I was a kid, but never really kept it up after school. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I thought of giving it another go. I wanted to write something I’d really enjoy and, even though I’m a sophisticated grown-up now, supernatural stuff in school still sounded like the most fun.

2)    Tell us about your writing process/habits?

I’m not terribly disciplined, but I do try to have the whole story and major scenes planned out before I start writing anything. I’ve got the memory span of a fruit fly so, if I don’t scribble out a timeline first, I’m likely to wander off on a tangent and change the story entirely. I keep my messy, barely readable timeline by my laptop as a constant reminder. I still wander off sometimes, but I’m working on it.

3)    What was your favourite book as a child?

When I was very young I adored Roald Dahl, and I think The BFG was my favourite. A few years later, though, I got stuck into the Point Horror series. They were kind of scary, predictable, and published by the dozen; the literary equivalent of buttered popcorn. I couldn’t get enough of them.

4)    What’s your favourite part of being a published author?

Having friends and family recognize characters or events, and asking ‘Is that supposed to be me?’ I lie a lot, and say ‘no’.

5)    What authors do you admire today?

I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games trilogy, so Suzanne Collins would definitely be one. I love the dystopian / sci-fi thing, but I’m also a sucker for the romantic classics. I’ll never tire of re-reading Jane Austen. I think I know Persuasion by heart at this stage.

6)    What’s next for you? Have you any books lined up?

I do. I’m very excited about the sequel to The Demon Notebook, which is coming out in August. It’s called The Broken Spell, and I’m working on the edits at the moment. I can’t wait to have both books sitting together on my shelf at home!

7)    Will you be doing anything to celebrate World Book Day?

I’ve got a number of events lined up with school classes in bookshops all around Dublin. I was terrified of doing them when I started back in October, but the kids aren’t nearly as scary as I thought they’d be! They get so enthusiastic about reading and writing, and I have a great time doing the events now.

Erika McGann grew up in Drogheda and now lives in Dublin, Ireland. She has a respectable job, very normal friends and rarely dabbles in witchcraft. She loves writing stories that are autobiographical. Sort of.

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Check out Gobblefunked.com for lots of reviews and news on children’s books and for more information about Erika’s books visit www.obrien.ie


 

One Book One Community

One Book One Community is a community reading project based on the successful One City One Book project that take place ever year in Dublin and in cities across the world. As part of One Book One Community projects, children and their families are encouraged to read and discuss a particular book, along with supporting activities held in schools, libraries and in the community. Here at O’Brien Press we’re proud to support lots of One Book One Community projects across Ireland, with libraries and schools all working together to promote a love of reading. O’Brien Press books chosen for projects include Spirit of the Titanic, Taking Sides, Faraway Home and Across the Divide.

I had the chance to chat to Mary Collins a Home School Liaison Officer and ask her a few questions about her experiences of the many One Book One Community projects that she has organised. The answers she gave are on behalf of the Dublin North Inner City Cluster of Home School Community Liaison Teachers. The Home School Community Scheme is part of the DEIS programme which is targeted at school which are designated disadvantage. One of the aims of the scheme includes fostering positive relations between the home and school, and between the community and the school. Other aims include promoting parental involvement in their child’s education and promoting literacy in the home.

1. Hi Mary, when and how did you first get involved in a One Book One Community project? And where did you hear about it?

Two years ago, some of our newly appointed HSCL teachers attended induction/training days. On these days, HSCL teachers who have been in the position a number of years usually speak to the new HSCL teacher on best practise and schemes they have run successfully. One of the sessions was given by a HSCL teacher who had run the project successfully. The newly appointed HSCL teachers came back from induction and informed our cluster about the project. They spoke enthusiastically about the project and all the possibilities. We decided that the following September (2010) that we would undertake the project.

2. How did you find the experience of arranging and being involved in these projects?

A lot of hard work went into the arranging. In our cluster there are 12 HSCL teachers. We decided to form a sub-committee of 4 people. Each HSCL teacher had to link with their school principal and staff, inform them about the project and look for their support. We had to decide which agencies in the community we were going to involve. We had to design posters and contact numerous printers to get the best price. We contacted Easons and asked how much of a discount they could give us and they recommended that we contacted O’Brien Press to get the best deal. We had also decided that in order to make the project more appealing to class teachers that we would design some activities that could be done with the class therefore reducing the burden of work for the teacher. As our cluster of schools is made up of primary and second level schools, we realised that we couldn’t choose a book that would suit everyone from ages 4 – 18 years. Therefore we decided to aim the project at the 6th classes in the primary schools and 1st year groups in our second level schools.

3. How do you decide what books to feature in the projects?

Deciding on the book was a long and thought-out process. Firstly, we consulted with teachers in our schools and asked them for suggestions. We brought these suggestions back to the cluster group. We went through the list of 20 books and through a process of elimination ended up with 3 books. We had eliminated books that were classics e.g. I Am David (by Anne Holm) as we thought that classes would have most likely read by them already. We eliminated books that would only be suitable for either primary or post-primary. We eliminated books that we thought would be only suitable for either boys or girls. We were also conscious of trying in so far as possible to pick a book by an Irish publisher. That Halloween midterm each of the HSCL teachers took the 3 books and agreed to read them all over the break. When we returned we judged each of the books using the following criteria:
a) The reading level must be suitable for 6th class pupils, 1st year students and parents who may have reading difficulties
b) The book must appeal equally to boys and girls
c) The book must have friendship as a central theme
d) The topic matter of the book must be of relevance to the lives of the pupils reading the book
e) The topic matter must be suitable for the age group of pupils.
Whichever book fulfilled most of the criteria would be the chosen book.

4. What would you say to schools/communities thinking of setting up their own One Book, One Community projects?

I would say to other groups who are thinking of setting up their own One Book One Community project to definitely do it. It entails a lot of hard work, time and effort, but for the children involved their families and communities it had a great unifying effect. Initially when we undertook the project last year, we envisaged to do it every 2 years. However, by the end of the project last year, teachers and pupils were asking us what book had been chosen for the following year. Because the response to the project was so positive from everyone, we decided to run it again this year. We decided to focus on the same class groups this year. This resulted in the 6th class pupils doing it again in secondary and many of them were excited about doing it.

5. What do you think are the benefits to the schools and communities that participate in the projects?

Firstly, it got people reading. Every child who got a copy of the book was allowed to keep it when the project was finished. Children were encouraged to take the book home and see if anyone at home wanted to read it. Secondly, it gave pupils from different schools something in common. We have found that the pupils who would have been in different primary schools last year and now are first years in the same second level school now have something that unifies them.
The project also creates a buzz around the school. They say it takes 5 years to create a tradition – we the home school liaison teachers would hope that One Book one Community would become a tradition in the schools, that it would get to a stage where teachers and pupils would be approaching the HSCL teacher and ask “what book are we doing this year?” or “when will we be starting the One Book project?”
We included local youth clubs and local adult literacy groups in the project. With the local youth club it was great that the pupils were talking about the book outside of school as well as within school.

6. How have you found the experience of working with O’Brien Press on the projects you have organised?

O’Brien Press have been 110% on board from the first time we contacted them. They were instantly available. They gave us a compeitive price on the books and made this price available to other groups that wished to be part of the project e.g. the youth clubs and adult literacy groups. O’Brien’s provided posters and also permission to use the image on the cover of the book for our own posters and bookmarks etc. More importantly, O’Brien’s put us in contact with the author which for the pupils brought the book to life. The author made himself unselfishly available to us and the schools. We could not have made the project as successful as we did without the help and support of O’Brien Press.

If you are considering runnning a One Book One Community project click here for more information about our books. You can also check out our One Book, One Community Pinterest board here.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the opening ceremony of the One Book One Community project organised by Mary and her colleagues which was held in the school hall of O’Connells CBS on North Richmond Street. Across the Divide by Brian Gallagher was the book of their choice for the project and during the ceremony Brian spoke about his writing and how he came up with idea for the story. There was also lots of activites going on, students were playing music, acting out scenes from the book and everyone received goodie bags!

Guest Author Post: Conor Kostick at the Prix Farniente


The Prix Farniente is an annual Belgian based international award for literature for young readers. Unlike most award ceremonies, however, the prizes are given at a full day of high energy events, with a huge input from the young readers. Librarians and teachers build up to the day in a number of ways: there are artworks of the books, reviews; and perhaps the most fun of all, a lot of dressing up. The nominated authors were given their presents (a fabulous chocolate sneaker, packed with with chocolates!) by young readers dressed as characters from their books. Later in the day, teams of four, also dressed up, gave one minute presentations summing up the books before settling down to answer a quiz. The question from Epic was really hard, I wasn’t sure of the answer! (Name two characteristics of the avatar Cindella). There was lots of opportunities to meet young readers and hear their feedback and questions (mainly, ‘when will the sequel be available in French’?). All in all it was a very professional, well-organised event, yet one that was not stuffy or overly formal, but was colourful and passionate about books. I had a wonderful time and I’m delighted that I got the chance to be involved.

If you’d like to find out more about Epic and the rest of Conor’s books click here!

Remembering the Holocaust – Guest Post by Marilyn Taylor

Author Marilyn Taylor recently spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Evening in Northern Ireland. Marilyn has researched the Holocaust extensively as part of her work as a writer. One of her most popular books, Faraway Home, is about two Jewish children sent from Nazi-occupied Austria to a refugee farm in Northern Ireland. This is based on the true story of the refugee farm in Millisle, County Down.

Here is an excerpt from Marilyn’s moving speech on the night:

Tonight, on the 27th January we are joining other countries round the world that are also marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the day in 1945 when the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was finally liberated by Soviet troops.
As well as remembering the Holocaust in Europe, we are also commemorating other violent genocides of recent times in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Appropriately, tonight’s theme: Communities Together, Building a Bridge, reminds us all of the need to reach out to others, and to embrace difference, both far away and close to home.
This theme is also exemplified by the story of the Kindertransports and by the poignantly linked story of Millisle Refugee Farm, both of which have particular historical significance here in Newtownards, which is so close to Millisle.

As we know, the first persecution of the Holocaust, primarily of Jews but also other groups of convenient ‘scapegoats’ began immediately when Hitler and his Fascist Nazi Party were elected to power in Germany in 1933.
It finally ended with the Allied defeat of the Nazis in 1945, after the destruction of six million Jews.
A further five million people, whom the Nazis considered to be “untermenschen”- “undesirable”, were also murdered, including Gypsies – now known as Roma & Sinti – socialists and communists, trade union members, gay and lesbian people, people with disabilities –both mental and physical – Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, Freemasons, and many Slavic people, and of course, all who opposed the Nazis by word or deed.

And these are just the deaths.

After the final Nazi defeat, millions more were left dying or horrifically wounded and tormented in body and spirit.
The mass murder of the Holocaust was carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators on an industrial scale all over Europe. This was ‘killing by assembly line’, with prison camps, forced labour camps and death camps efficiently linked by the Nazi-controlled rail network of Europe.
After his liberation, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote,
“From the depths of the mirror a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.”

All this was of course unknown to me, a ‘war baby’ born in England, to a family evacuated from London.
Yet, I retain vivid memories of the war: the terrifying shriek of air raid sirens, my mother running with me in a buggy to the bomb shelter, and the thousands of V1 and V2 rockets that wreaked random death and destruction, striking fear in all our hearts.
Later, growing up in grey post-war London and learning what was then the recent history of the Second World War and of the Holocaust, I began to realise how lucky I had been, sheltered from the terror in Europe by an accident of geography.
My sister and I could have been among the huge numbers of Jewish children who died at the hands of Nazis and Fascists – of hunger and disease, in the ghettoes, in the boxcars, in the concentration camps, and in the gas chambers.
This realisation has stayed with me, and I think eventually led me much later to try to write about the Holocaust in a way that I hoped would capture the imagination of both young and adult readers, and help keep the memory alive.

In the late 1930s a few British Christians, Jews, and especially Quakers, came together, having witnessed the increasingly vicious treatment of Jews, both young and old, in Nazi Germany– through public humiliation, beatings and round-ups by Nazi thugs & SS men.
Together this group pressed the British government to allow in Jewish children, the most at risk.
After the terrible warning of “Kristallnacht” (the Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938 when Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses were smashed, looted and burned, frantic Jewish parents – themselves refused entry by most countries – made the difficult decision to send their children to Britain on these Kindertransports.
In this way about ten thousand German, Austrian and Czech unaccompanied Jewish children under the age of sixteen, were rescued from the clutches of the Nazis just before the War.
The children, each clutching a small suitcase with a few precious belongings (though nothing of value was permitted) said farewell to their parents, few realising that they might not see each other again.
Former refugees later described those never forgotten heart-breaking scenes at the railway station to me in graphic detail.

They travelled in groups of two or three hundred, each wearing labels with name and destination.
On their arrival in Britain, fearful and bewildered, and of course speaking little or no English, they were sent all over the country, to boarding schools, castles, farms, family homes – wherever people would take them in.
A random group ended up in Northern Ireland, and the small Belfast Jewish community immediately responded.
Some were fostered by local families, both Christian and Jewish. An old farm at Millisle, Co Down – known as Magill’s- was leased, initially housing thirty to forty children, plus older German-Jewish refugees training in agriculture in Northern Ireland.
(Later some of these trainees were involved in setting up early communal farms, “kibbutzim”, in the fledgling country of Israel.)
Adult refugees helped administer the farm.

About three to four hundred, mostly young people, passed through Millisle between 1938 and its closure in 1948.
Funds were raised by the Belfast and Dublin communities, from the Central British Fund in London, and the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture.
Belfast Jewish community leaders set up a Refugee Aid committee; a Committee for German Refugees was also launched in Belfast with funding from the Joint Christian Churches, including Presbyterians, Methodists, Church of Ireland, Quakers and Catholics.
During my research, I tracked down many former refugees, meeting some in person, and sending detailed questionnaires to others. In response, I received phone calls, long descriptive letters, hand drawn maps, photographs and a 14-year-old girl’s moving diary; they all had a story they wanted told.
At Millisle, the young refugees, struggling with homesickness and anxiety about their families far away, had to learn to make a new life.
Neighbours helped to train them in farm work. At the local two-teacher school, (the original Millisle Primary school) each refugee child sat with a local child to help them learn English and perhaps make a friend – which many of them did.
Decades later, some of the former refugees returned to visit Millisle with their own families.
Despite food shortages and air raids on nearby Belfast – and indeed, a raid close by in Newtownards – it was a healthy life, remembered positively by many: going to the beach, fishing, games of Monopoly, football, the small synagogue on the farm, the Belfast rabbi visiting; sometimes concerts in the evenings, often concluding with the traditional Jewish dance, the Hora.
On Saturday evenings, they walked the three miles along the shore to the local cinema in Donaghadee where the owner allowed them in free.

Later, older refugees joined the Air Training Corps, the Red Cross, and the Pioneer Corps of the British Army, to help fight the Nazis.
After the war began, all letters stopped, and the refugees’ only communications with their families were brief Red Cross messages, which ceased after 1943. There were occasional distant rumours about death camps.

However, not until after the war ended in 1945 seven years later, did they learn the horrifying truth. Many had lost every member of their family in the Holocaust. Their parents, by sending them away, had saved their lives. Now most were orphans but in terms of the Holocaust, they were among the lucky ones.

Yet despite everything, many of the former refugees went on to live good and productive lives, never forgetting their families, or Millisle.
And neither they, nor we, will ever forget those people, and those no longer with us, who played such a significant role in this special chapter in the history of Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, there are many lessons that we can learn from the story of Millisle and the devastation of the Holocaust.
Firstly, because there was virtually nowhere Jews facing annihilation could go, a country, Israel, came into being.
The Kindertransport scheme was indeed a shining example of humanity. But put in context, they could only save ten thousand of the one and a half million Jewish children killed because there was no country that would take them in – not Britain, not Ireland, not the United States. When history calls, we all have a responsibility to answer.

Secondly, the Holocaust throws up some of the greatest challenges for us as individuals.
What do you do when a Jew comes knocking on the door at night seeking shelter, when the penalty for taking in a Jew is death, as it was in wartime Europe?
What would any of us do?
And how should we respond when other challenges to our humanity confront us and threaten us?

Thirdly, the Holocaust is not an abstract issue of history – it is about each and every one of us.

As Pastor Niemoller wrote …
“First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak for me”

To find out more about Marilyn’s books click here.