Divergent – the movie

Sarah Webb – Published 18 May 2014 in the Sunday Independent

THERE has been a lot of doom and gloom about the state of the Irish book trade in the press recently. Happily, however, children’s books are holding their own and now account for up to 25 per cent of overall book sales, a figure which is increasing year on year.

Irish writers are in great demand internationally, and rising star of the Irish children’s publishing world David Maybury has just been appointed to the important post of Commissioning Editor of Scholastic Children’s Books, UK.

Watching Back to the Future with my children last week, I was amused to see the flying cars and insane clothes predicted to be all the rage in 2015. Books were also a thing of the past, with all children reading electronically. Many thought this would indeed be the case, that children would be the first to switch over to e-readers. However, we underestimated children’s love of physical books.

The supremely talented Eoin Colfer, who was inaugurated as Children’s Laureate na nOg last week, put it perfectly when he said: “Every 50 years something comes along and people say ‘That’s the end of books’. We’ll have to adapt, but physical books will definitely endure… Books will never die.”

“Books are tactile,” he told me. “You can hug a book. You can sit down with your dad or mum and read a book together. Books are a badge of honour. A way to be identified. What is on your shelf says a lot about you. I had The Lord of the Rings and all my Batman comics (on my shelves). If anyone came into my room they knew who I was.”

Colfer is right – books define who children and teenagers are. My own daughter is an avid fantasy reader and her shelves are crammed with Skulduggery Pleasant and Manga books. She has never expressed an interest for an electronic reader. Many of her friends own them and use them only when travelling. The statistics are there to prove that children love physical books: less than eight per cent of children’s books are read electronically.

“Only four per cent of our children’s book sales are electronic sales,” says Ivan O’Brien, MD of O’Brien Press. “There’s still a huge appetite for good, strong children’s titles and potential for books to break out.” O’Brien has had great success with its translation sales and has sold books by Irish authors like Judi Curtin and Marita Conlon-McKenna into many different territories.

Books for our younger readers now account for 22-25 per cent of the overall book market, according to David O’Callaghan, Children’s Book Buyer at Eason. “They’ve really entered the mainstream,” he says.

“The big trends for us at the moment are Minecraft and Divergent. I think reality based YA (young adult) novels like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars are definitely going to be the next big thing. And the new Irish writers coming through the ranks, like Shane Hegarty are worth watching.”

The spotlight was on Hegarty recently when the news of his “substantial six figure deal” hit the headlines. Darkmouth, his first book for children with HarperCollins, will be published next year.

Last month, 26-year-old Cavan man Dave Rudden signed a deal with Puffin for his YA fantasy adventure trilogy, The Borrowed Dark, due in 2016; and journalist Darragh McManus’s debut YA novel, Shiver the Whole Night Through, will be published by Hot Key Books in November.

And it won’t just be little people reading their work. Adults are reading YA and crossover books like never before, and many authors are reaching rock star status.

US writer John Green filled the RDS last year with more than 800 screaming fans. Who says teenagers don’t read? Titles like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the Harry Potter books, Twilight, The Hunger Games and most recently, the Divergent series are openly read by adults on the DART, and discussed at book clubs.

Colfer is an inspired choice for the third Children’s Laureate. A brilliantly funny speaker, his love of words is infectious. He says, “I want to tell a story to every child in Ireland.” He has exciting plans to put together a show based around stories and books and to tour it internationally.

“Ireland’s history is story,” he says. “We’ve always been a nation of storytellers. It’s in our blood.”

Previous Laureates Siobhan Parkinson and Niamh Sharkey are tough acts to follow. Parkinson set up a Laureate Library which still travels the country, introducing books from all over the world to Irish children.

Niamh curated the Pictiur exhibition, work from 21 Irish illustrators which has travelled to Bologna and Brussels and was recently seen by more than 45,000 people at IMMA. You can catch it in Lismore Castle Arts, Waterford, in September, the Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar, in October and finally in the new Library and Cultural Centre in Dun Laoghaire at the end of the year.

Children’s Books Ireland is also behind the prestigious Children’s Books Ireland Award (previously the Bisto Award), which was announced last Tuesday. The overall winner of this year’s Award was Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick for Hagwitch, a novel about theatre, puppets and magic, set partly in 16th-Century London. Oliver Jeffers won the Children’s Choice Award for The Day the Crayons Quit; and Honour Awards went to Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, P J Lynch and Paula Leyden.

The next big event on the calender is the Children Books Ireland Conference, where our newly minted Laureate will be joined by fashion illustrator and milliner turned book guru David Roberts (Dirty Bertie), spoken word darling and best friend of Adele (yes, that Adele), Laura Dockrill, and US picture book maker, Leslie Patricelli.

Taking place at the cool Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield, Dublin, next Saturday and Sunday, it’s a must for anyone who wants to find out more about children’s books.

For further info about the world of children’s books visit www.childrensbooksireland.ie

Sarah Webb is a writer and a children’s book commentator. She is the Children’s Curator for the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival

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