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What is an Irish Children's Book?



I have to preface this piece by saying that I am author of books for children who has lived in Ireland for twenty years and writes books set in Dublin and Wicklow.


Yesterday, I went into a local bookshop and saw four shelves of a twentieth-century English author’s books in the children’s book section. That is why I am supporting the campaign set up by Sarah Webb for discovering Irish children’s books. I agree that children growing up in Ireland need to see Irish culture and Irish places and local dialects reflected in some of the books they read.


The books in question, while undoubtedly still popular and fun for children are not modern or local and when shelf after shelf is stacked with them, other books have no room.


I have to admit though, the concept of “Irish children’s books” did make me uneasy at first, because it makes me ask — what is an Irish children’s book? Which then raises the more disturbing questions — what is an Irish child? What is an Irish author? Which are deeply unsettling because of the need to pin people down to fixed national identities and by default set some people as “other” than. I do not want to alienate or to be alienating (!) children who have recently arrived here from a war zone or children with one or more parents or grandparents who have migrated here from other countries: like my own, like two of my nieces, like my good friend’s, like six other local families I can think of off the top of my head. And I don’t want to alienate local children who are the descendants of a band of people who migrated here from Scandinavia a few centuries ago. The point is — migration is a long-established part of human history. And obviously this is quite personal too, given I write children’s books here in Ireland as a migrant myself. So what does count as Irish? And is it helpful to label books in this way?


Indeed, books are often there to in fact set the mind free from narrow categories and set us at a new vantage point to assess our world. In order for young people to develop perspective and empathy, reading widely and travelling with the mind is something to encourage. Nonetheless, it is also true that “our world” means the places we see every day. Children growing up in Ireland need to see the world they inhabit depicted in their books: its history, local places and local ways of speaking and behaving, characters they can feel easily invested in and identify with. The latter might be particularly important for children who might otherwise be reluctant readers and think of books as not for them. But even for voracious readers, an understanding of the culture and history of the place where you are growing up is important and grounding.


A child reading can then compare those Irish experiences (please read: experiences lived in Ireland) with the experiences playing out in other books, set in other places, and get a glimpse of what connects all of us, whichever place or places we chance to grow up in. The best books, wherever they are written, can express universal and timeless qualities. But the opportunity to capture the universal through the particularities of Irish experience can only happen if a children’s literature raised in Ireland is given a voice and a few shelves of room to begin with.


That is why I would like to support the #DiscoverIrishKidsBooks campaign this autumn. Find out more about the campaign at www.discoveririshkidsbooks.ie and on Instagram @Irishkidsbooks




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