In 1990 a very unusual manuscript from a new author arrived in The O’Brien Press. It was a story about the Great Irish Famine and involved the desperate journey of three starving children across the country to find their relatives: it involved death, danger and a faint hope of safety — and it was aimed at children. Nobody had read or heard of anything like this before, and we realised that this was an opportunity to show Irish children their own history in a unique way.
We had been publishing children’s books for a few years at that point, convinced that there was a need for Irish material for Irish children, rather than continuing to rely on books from Britain: lashings of ginger ale drunk on the White Cliffs of Dover simply did not reflect the experience of Irish people! This book, Under the Hawthorn Tree, was exactly what we were looking for.
We commissioned fine artist Donald Teskey to paint the cover and do chapter-head illustrations, and we published the book, which was a sensation: within three years an incredible 45,000 copies were in print. Author Marita Conlon-McKenna was a celebrated writer and wrote two more books, Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home, which completed what became known as the Children of the Famine trilogy.
Ten years later the book was selling as strongly as ever and, in 2000, we felt that a new look was in order. We commissioned Anne Yvonne Gilbert to produce new cover artwork for the trilogy. By this stage the international success of the book was well-established: in 1991 it won the Reading Association of Ireland Award and International Reading Association Award in 1991 in America, and was available in many translations: there have been 14 at the last count!
An amazing 20 years after first publication, the book continues to build: last year we decided it was long past time for us to work with Ireland’s premier children’s illustrator, PJ Lynch, and he created fabulous new covers for the trilogy. A new US edition was published last April by Jabberwocky, an imprint of Sourcebooks, one of the most imaginative independent presses anywhere. And now we have just received stock in for the 30th printing of this book: 30 printings in 20 years, and life sales of over quarter of a million copies sold of our editions alone: which all goes to show that a great story, in the hands of a gifted storyteller, can transcend the fascination with the new that the book world is often accused of.
So congratulations to Marita on this great achievement and for keeping history alive for children the world over.