The first time I met a ‘real live’ children’s writer was in my early twenties when I was a part-time bookseller in Hodges Figgis bookshop on Dawson Street, Dublin. A bestselling American author called Paula Danziger was visiting and I was drafted in from the academic floor to help manage the signing queue.
She spoke at length to each child, answering their questions and listening carefully to their answers. She signed their books, often mirror writing her signature much to their delight. She was bubbly and funny and made even the shyest child open up and smile back.
After the signing she thanked all the staff warmly and shook each person’s hand. ‘Thank you so much for all your help, Sarah,’ she said. ‘I didn’t do much,’ I answered. ‘What are you talking about?’ she said. ‘You chatted to each child in the queue and made them feel welcome.’ I left work that day walking on air, delighted to feel noticed and appreciated.
And that is at the heart of meeting any writer – what makes the experience so important and in some cases transformative – it’s not what they say but how they make you feel.
Paula Danziger and all her enthusiasm and kindness made me want to work in the children’s department. I’m still working in the children’s book world over twenty years later, now as a writer and programmer of children’s and family book festivals like Dubray StoryFest (Saturday 28th September in Airfield).
Nowadays many Irish girls and boys meet a children’s writer in school but this is a fairly recent development. In the 1970s and 80s it certainly didn’t happen in the schools I attended.
I asked the question on social media – when did you first meet a children’s writer – and people responded with glowing memories of meeting Roald Dahl in Kenny’s bookshop, Galway in 1987. Others remembered Don Conroy, Marita Conlon McKenna or Tom McCaughrean coming to their school or local library and the excitement of the visit.
Primary school teacher, Derek Carney said ‘I was in a very small rural primary school and it was such a big deal that they had a few schools come together to draw with Don (Conroy). It was magical and topped off when kids from my own school got to see him a few years ago. Full circle!’
The Writers in Schools scheme has been running in Ireland since 1977, administrated by Poetry Ireland and funded by the Arts Council. Writers have spoken to over 500,000 children to date and I’m proud to be one of the writers involved.
Anna Boner, Development Officer for Writers in Schools says ‘The experience (of having a writer in the classroom)… can have a profound effect on children in terms of esteem and sense of achievement. Teachers can find themselves surprised by who responds to the experience of a writer visit most, like a child who rarely speaks in class who then volunteers to read aloud a poem or story they have created. Often the most heartening feedback we receive comes directly from the children.’
One child said: I didn’t think I could write stories but I love my Titanic story and now it is my favourite thing.
Another noted: It made me feel happy and it made me believe in myself.
Elaina Ryan, Director of Children’s Books Ireland says ‘Meeting a writer or illustrator does so many things for a child: it demystifies the process behind a book, which is a powerful thing for children who are not readers and may not come from a culture of reading or being read to.’
There are statistics to back up the importance of school visits from the National Literacy Trust in the UK. They found that pupils who had an author visit were twice as likely to read above the expected level for their age (31% vs 17%) and were more likely to enjoy reading (68% vs 47%) and writing (44% vs 32%).
Outside the classroom there are now arts and literature festivals all over Ireland which bring children and children’s writers together. As the Programme Director of Dubray StoryFest I invite the very best writers and illustrators to our festival, along with scientists, astronauts and storytellers. Joining us this year are Alex T Smith of the Claude books and tv show fame, Shane Hegarty, Judi Curtin and Sarah McIntyre.
Children are naturally creative beings. Seeing illustrators like Peter Donnelly, Niamh Sharkey and Chris Judge create amazing pictures right in front of their eyes at the festival will be hugely inspiring.
Listening to writers like Marita Conlon McKenna and Philip Reeve talk about their process and how writing isn’t always easy will be a real eye-opener for children. It will make them realise that trying again after failure is important for everyone, even multi award-winners!
And you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be cheered by the very sight of national treasure, Don Conroy drawing his beloved owls and seals and talking about Irish wildlife with such passion. It will be one of the highlights of Dubray StoryFest for both children and parents!
By hosting events for children and teenagers, festivals are showing their commitment to the creative and cultural lives of our young citizens. At Dubray StoryFest we have a whole area dedicated to babies and toddlers where they will stick, collage and crayon with award-winning artists Tarsila Kruse and Niamh Sharkey, plus the new Dlr Writer in Residence, Sadhbh Devlin.
Writers and illustrators also benefit from events. Elaina Ryan explains: ‘The incomes of children’s writers tend to rely heavily on live literature events or teaching in some form. With the festival scene thriving, there are more local and national festivals programming events for children, young people and their families. Here, Children’s Books Ireland’s role is to advocate for artists to be paid appropriately and to lead by doing so ourselves.’
Anna Boner says school visits (and events) can be ‘a lively break from the solitary experience of writing. They can also be hugely rewarding for the writer when they see directly the joy their work can bring to children and the impact their books can have. Finally, the children tend to be honest in their feedback so they can be very useful sounding boards for new ideas!’ So everyone wins!
For more details of Dubray StoryFest see: https://www.dubraybooks.ie/storyfest
This piece first appeared on The Irish Times online edition.