Red Rover, Red Rover!

“England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Inside, Outside, Donkeys’ Tails!” Kunak McGann, author of Red Rover, Red Rover! Games From an Irish Childhood, shares her memories of playing games as a child with her family and neighbours!

The idea for a book of childhood games has been percolating in my mind for years. Every time I had one of those ‘Remember when…?’ conversations with friends or family, I thought to myself, I really must get a move on. So it was with much excitement and no small relief that Red Rover, Red Rover – Games from an Irish Childhood has become a reality.

I grew up in Drogheda, on an estate of about forty houses, and with families of four or five children not uncommon back in the heady days of the 1980s, playmates were never in short supply. I was lucky enough to have four of the best in the form of brothers and a sister. One thing you need to know about my family is that, like most 80s kids, we were particularly snappy dressers and had fabulous haircuts (with the photographic evidence to prove it). The other is that we were nearly always up for a game of something or other.

One of our favourites was Kerbs – there was a period of a few years where the irregular thump of the ball off a kerb was to be heard most days, up and down our road. I was never really gifted with the skill set required for that game, but that never stopped me. My brothers proved more skilful, although I did eventually make up for my lack of natural ability with sheer volume of practice. My abiding memories of Kerbs, though, will always be either waiting patiently as my opponent hit kerb after kerb after kerb (how long could they keep going??), or the sheer joy on my younger brother’s face when he tried the high-scoring backward, over-the-head throw yet again and actually managed to hit the kerb. I’m pretty sure that he would have consistently scored higher if he just threw normally each time, but I was always delighted with his high-stakes gambling approach to the game.

Another surefire favourite was Elastics. Like skipping, while definitely more favoured by the girls on the street than the boys, it was by no means a unisex game. All it took was a good length of elastic, some accurate jumping, and knowledge of an appropriate song – our go-to was ‘England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Inside, Outside, Donkeys’ Tails’. We started with the elastics at ankle height, then up to knees, then thighs, bums – and on to waists, under-arms and necks for when we were feeling particularly dare-devilish. It was often easier jumping in stocking feet (without buckles or laces to catch on the elastic), and my mother will happily remind me that I ruined many a pair of socks that way. And back then, socks and sandals was a perfectly acceptable look (I swear) – so holey socks really were a problem.

And then there was that day when everyone seemed to be out on the street at the same time, kicking around and looking for something to do, and someone suggested Red Rover or Bulldog, or Rounders or a mammoth game of Forty Forty (Tip the Can). And it didn’t matter that some kids were thirteen years old and others were only five or six – hordes of us would spend the afternoon tearing about the place breaking chains, or getting home runs, or tipping the can and saving all. And when we all started getting called in for dinner, despite the hunger we went back home reluctantly, knowing that there wouldn’t be another day quite like this. Not for a while at least.

For me, Red Rover, Red Rover is a salute to those rose-tinted days, a reminder of simpler times. And it’s a thank you to all of those playmates – whether they were fellow Relievo team members, or What Time Is It, Mr Wolf? competitors, or companion Hopscotchers. I hope that they can look back and say ‘Hey, my fashion sense may have been an assault on the eyes, but at least I know for sure that we had the best fun’. I know I can, and I know my brothers and sister can. On both counts.

Kunak McGann, October 2017

Red Rover, Red Rover! is available here and in all good bookshops!

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?’

Aha! I thought. He’s completely right. But the child I wanted to write for was the child I was when I was ten. So the main character in the book became Sam Hannigan. She’s an animal lover (just like the ten-year-old me), who lives in a ramshackle house with a crackers-crazy granny (also just like the ten-year-old me). Actually, my granny, Lizzie-Bun, wasn’t that bad; she was only lightly loopy. It was her mother, Nanny Gigg, who was the certifiable one, and I ended up working some of Gigg’s true-life fruitcake antics into the story. When I was ten, and wasn’t busy reading comics or Roald Dahl or Agaton Sax adventures or Tintin books, I’d spend hours imagining what it would be like to suddenly and without warning be turned into a dog – to arrive into class one morning ignoring the stares and cat-calls of my classmates; to answer the teacher with a woof instead of an anseo when she called the roll. To aid my imagination, I’d spend hours walking around the house and scrubby garden on all fours. I’d sneak dog biscuits out from under the sink, and then, at dinner times, demand that my granny put my spuds and fish fingers in a bowl on the lino-covered floor. So I suppose I’ve been preparing to tell the story of Sam Hannigan, the human dog, for my whole life.

The revised storyline, once I started listening to my inner, female, ginger ten-year-old self, flowed quite easily. Brianna Buckley became Sam Hannigan, named after my beloved Third Class school teacher Miss Hannigan, who read Anne Holm’s I Am David aloud in class and made all of the thirty-two hardy boys under her care cry. Sam’s BFF became Ajay Patel and her arch-enemy became ‘Jolly’ Roger Fitzmaurice, the dog biscuit king. Much simpler.

To maintain style continuity with my other books, Fintan’s Fifteen and Conor’s Caveman, I added several pages of comic strip. These illustrated pages help to break up the text, as well as adding background and an extra narrative voice, which I find enhances the storytelling. Plus, I’m a huge comic nerd. For story continuity, I set the story of Woof Week in Clobberstown, the same fictional suburb of Dublin 24 that features in Conor’s Caveman. On the prompting of one of my lovely editors at The O’Brien Press, Nicola Reddy, Conor’s Caveman himself, Ogg, makes a cameo appearance. (Aoife Walsh, my other editor, also made some sterling observations!)

 

As I not only write, but also illustrate and design the books myself, a new book can be a mammoth task. But working on this book really was a labour of love: I love the town of Clobberstown, and I love the Nolan family stories that have now become Hannigan family stories too. But most of all, I love the chirpy, feisty, fearless figment of my imagination, Sam Hannigan. I hope you enjoy her story, and I can’t wait to take her on more adventures.

Alan Nolan, September 2017

Sam Hannigan’s Woof Week is available here and in all good bookshops!

 

 

Our visitors from the East!

Russian visitors

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!

A War Story

Best-selling author Nicola Pierce, talks about her time researching and writing City of Fate.

I am addicted to reading and have spent a lot of money on my book-buying habit, one book always leading on to another. For years, I limited myself to fiction until somewhere along the way, I began to buy and read books about writers: biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, essays, diaries and letters. At one point, I bought a second-hand book about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Anna of all the Russias by Elaine Feinstein. As much as I’d like to admit to a deep appreciation for poetry, it just wouldn’t be true. However, I love to read about poets and their writing, even if I don’t ‘get’ their work.

Halfway through the biography, it struck me that I was revelling in reading about Russia. I was unaware of what the Russians had endured, before, during and after World War II. I’d no idea Stalin behaved as he did, killing more of his own people than anyone else.

Next I discovered A Writer’s War, a biography about Russian journalist and writer Vasily Grossman. This book not only introduced me to Grossman but also to the British historian, Anthony Beevoir, who wrote it. Grossman joined the Red Army to behold the fight against the invading Germans. This is where I first read about the Battle of Stalingrad. After finishing this biography, I read Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate about the battle and civilian life under Stalin. Inevitably, I bought Beevoir’s best-selling Stalingrad and by this stage was hooked on history and war. My library was expanding, as any decent library should.

There were two stories in Beevoir’s book that jumped out at me. Firstly, how a Russian teacher was ordered by the NKVD to enrol his class of thirty sixteen-year-old boys in the army to fight at Stalingrad. By the time he reached the registry office, half the class had vanished. Beevoir could not confirm the teacher’s fate but thought it highly probable that the man paid for this ‘infraction’ with his life. The second story concerned a massacre of a small Jewish village in rural Russia. The parents were shot first and then, following some debate, so were the children, aged seven right down to toddlers … even babies. This second story also appeared in William Craig’s book, Enemy at the Gates (much, much better than the film) and in a documentary I watched on The History Channel. It’s not the sort of thing one can easily forget. I’d absolutely no idea how I would incorporate it into a children’s novel but I was determined to include it somehow, though even now I can’t explain why. Perhaps I will be criticised for this because, well, I won’t make it too easy! In any case, it’s just a small mention but I stand by it.

From the very beginning, I had two boys in mind. I didn’t know who they were but they kept turning up in my mind’s eye, walking through the ruined streets of Stalingrad, mostly oblivious to the two warring armies around them.

I wanted the story of the teacher and the fifteen pupils who stood by him. What is it like to be a schoolboy one minute and then an inexperienced soldier in the midst of a deadly battle? I tried to imagine the fear and confusion, especially when it came to actually having to kill another human being who was trying to kill you.

The story grew thanks to the characters. I don’t plan my books and generally have little or no idea what I will write, from day to day. This can be quite scary but I can’t seem to break the habit.

All I knew was that I wanted to include as much fact as I could, as I did in Spirit of the Titanic. Also, I wanted to show that there could still be beauty in wartime, whether it’s a solo rendition of Beethoven or a charcoal drawing of Mary and baby Jesus. Art might not change your life in such situations but it can help, even momentarily, to lift your spirits.

I wanted to explore what motivates a person to fight and keep fighting when all seems lost. I think I managed to work it out: I think it’s about the importance of “home”.

Just before City of Fate went to the printers, I unexpectedly received the new sixth edition of Spirit of the Titanic. I am writing this essay a month before City of Fate reaches the book shelves and – there’s no denying it – I am nervous. Recent sleepless nights have been spent trying to distract myself from visions of readers finishing the new book and finding it inferior to my Titanic story.

However, I have to remind myself that no matter what the reception is or what anyone else says about City of Fate, I did it. I wrote a second novel. And it’s a book that I would like to read.

I simply have to accept that I have no control over what happens next!

Nicola Pierce

City of Fate is now available at www.obrien.ie and most good bookshops.

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!