Irene Halpin Long meets a class of book lovers in Cork, and also chats to established authors about what they read as children.
The author, Margaret Atwood, said “reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practise”. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. I decided I would seek the opinions of two different sets of readers and writers, to better understand the role of children’s literature in their lives.
Madeleine D’Arcy, Mary Morrissy, Billy O’Callaghan and William Wall are all published authors. The sixth class pupils of Upper Glanmire National School and their teacher, Niall O’ Sullivan, are avid readers, storytellers and writers.
Billy O’ Callaghan says his grandmother told him stories long before he could read. He “fell so completely in love with reading, that it has proven impossible ever after not to have a book near at hand”. Like the other authors, Madeleine D’Arcy was encouraged to read from a young age. Madeleine began to read at age three, “probably because my mother read to us a lot and often took us to the local library”.
Mary Morrissy remembers reading lots of Enid Blyton: “Everything she wrote — the Five mysteries, the Secret Seven, Malory Towers.
“Also The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope. These books were like currency in my childhood — traded and swapped incessantly and talked about.”
For William Wall, the classic adventure stories held a particular attraction, including Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. “The sea has been a big part of all my books, almost a character in some of them. I think Stevenson is the root of that”.
What books are children reading today that could prove to inspire our future writers? David Walliams was the best selling author in Ireland in 2017 and was a firm favourite with the sixth class pupils of mostly 12-year-olds at Upper Glanmire National School in Cork. Kevin Reynolds says: “I like the way he can make his books really funny without trying.”
Jessica Murphy is also a fan of the Walliams books and says they “create pictures in her head” and “take her to different places”. Parallels can be drawn between Walliams’ work and Roald Dahl’s. Most notably, Walliam’s first two novels, The Boy in the Dress and Mr Stink were illustrated by Quentin Blake who also worked on Dahl’s books.
Walliams also dives straight into the action, his characters are lively, the plots are well woven. Above all, he respects the young reader’s intelligence whilst still nurturing their imagination. Elements that make a great story, say the pupils.
But, it is not just Walliams that these young readers were keen to opine upon. Michael Morpurgo was a favourite with Rebecca Kelleher because “he writes about animals and how the animals take care of their owners”. Bobbi O’Connell is a fan of Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful because “it’s real”.
Like author William Wall, who loved DC comics as a young boy, Ryan Lock expressed an interest in reading comic books and illustration.
“I like books because I love drawing and it gives me ideas. If I read a book that hasn’t got pictures, once I finish the book, I can go back and think about the characters because I don’t know what they look like and I can draw them from my head,” said Ryan.
Other favourite authors mentioned by the children included JK Rowling, Tom Gates, Roald Dahl, Oliver Jeffers, Enid Blyton and Anthony Horowitz.
Should we continue to read children’s literature into adulthood? Mary Morrissy thinks people should read what they want to read. “I don’t like the idea of prescriptive reading,” she says.
William Wall says: “I don’t think it matters what people read, as long as they read, but I think it’s not a good thing to simply circle round the reading you did as a child. If nothing else, books should be a way to encounter new situations, learn about other people’s lives, meet new ideas and learn different ways of experiencing the world.”
The pupils had a slightly different perspective.
Darragh O’Callaghan believed it was necessary for adults to read children’s literature “because they will know what children like, they’ll know for presents”. Jessica Murphy says “it will bring them back to when they had happier books, instead of depressing and boring books”.
It seems that encouragement is needed to turn readers into writers “Being a real writer was not something a person like myself could aspire to,” says Madeleine D’Arcy. “The idea of being any kind of artist was unutterably glamourous and unattainable. I felt no sense of entitlement. Earning a living was what mattered.”
With her husband’s encouragement, Madeleine began writing fiction at age 45 and won her first literary prize at 49. “It’s never too late,” she says.
Mary says “I’m not sure I’d have come to writing without prompting, because it hadn’t struck me that being a writer was an ambition that I could have”.
Billy admits that he was writing for years before showing his work to anyone. “It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I found the courage to start submitting my own stories to magazines.”
The pupils’ teacher, Niall O’ Sullivan, reckons he has several potential writers in his class. “They don’t give themselves enough credit. They are brilliant at writing and script writing. Some of them have copybooks full of stories.”
Roald Dahl said the “the prime function of the children’s book writer is to write a book that is so absorbing, exciting, funny, fast and beautiful, that the child will fall in love with it. And, that first love affair between the young child and the young book will lead, hopefully, to other loves for other books.”
The kids of Upper Glanmire National School already seem to be well along this road, and even in this digital age where screens are never far away, children’s books are still thriving.
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