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Fatti Burke’s latest illustrated children’s book is picture perfect

John Burke and his daughter Fatti, an illustrator, joined forces to create Irelandopedia, the bestselling book on all things Irish. Their follow-up, Historopedia, looks to Ireland’s past.

A shared passion for our ancestors and our history has brought John Burke and his daughter Kathi together to create their second book.

On the face of it, John Burke, a retired primary schoolteacher from County Waterford, is a very different character to Kathi, a funky, heavily tattooed illustrator based in Dublin.

But appearances can be deceptive. And it’s their innate understanding of how the other feels and thinks that has proved to be a great success story in Irish publishing.

They’ve followed up the award-winning phenomenon that was Irelandopedia with Historopedia, a colourfully told and beautifully illustrated book which documents time and place over ten thousand years of battles, disasters, celebrations and times of great change.

It’s a mammoth period of time to cover in one book, but the father and daughter team’s shared interest in history — and their passion for bringing it into our lives — again proves to be a winning combination.

For Kathi — who works under her pet name Fatti — the book represented a great opportunity to work with her dad again, and to bring history to life for both the uninitiated and younger readers.

“I did love the idea of having a chronological document of everything, but one that’s fun. When I studied history up to my Leaving Cert, I’d never seen anything like this. 

"Everything’s together in the same thread of language, the same tone. It’s written for children, but I learned so much from it.

“It puts things in perspective. The illustration helps. When you think of something and there’s an accompanying illustration, Cromwell, say, you have on your mind all these other events that are on the page, and it rejigs your memory.

“Some children mightn’t understand the concept of time — how long is a hundred years? Was my dad around in the 16th century? 

"On the top of each page we have a timeline from the start of time until the 21st century, so the children can visualise it in the entirety of time, which is nice.”

John and Kathi, from Dunmore East in Co Waterford, ended up working together almost by accident. A well-known and in-demand illustrator, she fell under the radar of publisher Nicki Howard of Gill Books.

“She had an idea for a book of maps for children about Ireland,” she says. 

“She suggested we get a primary school teacher to write it and I’d illustrate it. And I said I knew a really good one! Once she met dad, she knew he was the real deal. It kind of made sense.

“It was only when the first book was finished I realised it would have been so weird to do it with a stranger. I could call my dad at any time. You need to make big decisions together. It became more of a conversation, a collaboration in the true sense of the word. We just had to trust each other.” 

For John, working on the first book gave him an opportunity to share the stories and myths he’d heard from travelling around every corner of Ireland.

Meeting him, it’s easy to see why he was snapped up by the publishing house. He’s a colourful storyteller who brings tales to life through richly observed detail. 

Name a town and he’ll tell you a story — you kind of wish you’d been in his class as a child, and indeed many of his past pupils used to go on cycling trips with him through the highways and byways of Ireland.

“I’d been teaching for forty years, in Passage East from 1970, till 2009 when I retired,” he remembers. 

“It was perfect, to be able to stay in the one area, get involved in the local hurling club, to be there in the local community in all sorts of different ways.

“I didn’t get married until I was nearly 40, so I had those 20 years just with the kids and with the people. I never regretted a second of it. When I was giving a little address on my retirement, it struck me that I actually grew up down there. 

"I’m from Dunmore East, and Passage is only seven miles away. But I was only 23 when I went down there.” 

Summers were spent on jaunts across Ireland with a growing band of companions. 

“I used to take the teenagers, past pupils, with me, cycling, camping, doing the kind of things you couldn’t do anymore, you’d have to have so much insurance.

“We’d go for 10 days to a fortnight. There was no set rule. We’d go cycling until we were either all too tired or we ran out of money, one or the other. We’d do Munster a few times, down through the Ring of Kerry, then other times we’d do Connaught.”

Even now, he says, he misses sharing new nuggets of information with his pupils. 

“When you teach children, any time you find out a new story, you want to tell it to the kids, that’s the whole point of it. I miss it, being retired, because I can’t go down and tell the kids!”

Whereas Irelandopedia shared the quirky stories and myths John encountered from talking with people on his travels, Historopedia is arguably a more ambitious work, seeking as it does to give an overview of the entire history of Ireland, from dinosaurs, to the Stone Age, throughout various battles and invasions, via famine and fenians and freedom fighters and everything in between. 

Appropriately, the coverage becomes more comprehensive in the history and culture of Ireland in defining times the past century.

All of our rich heritage is brought to life using the extraordinary illustrations of Kathi, who spent most of the past six months finalising her drawings for the book. 

Using everything from dragons and Celts to suffragettes and images of Gaybo and Bosco, it’s a unique portrait of Irish life.

For Kathi, whose day-to-day job as a freelance illustrator involves designing illustrations for a variety of corporate clients, the chance to work on another book with her dad was a no-brainer, and the conversation about further opportunities began almost as soon as the first book became a success.

The fact that their first book was widely read by the Irish abroad spurred them to embark on a book about our history.

“I lot of people of my generation, who’ve had to move because of the recession, who’ve relocated, are having kids, they’re Irish but they’re being brought up abroad,” she says. 

“It’s so nice to go: ‘This is where you’re from, this is your history’. They won’t be taught it in school, so they need to learn it at home.”

She decided to become a full-time illustrator after studying in Dublin’s National College of Art and Design. 

“When I left I wondered whether to be a graphic designer or an illustrator or a bit of both. I tried the graphic design thing for about nine months, I had a few internships. I found myself coming home from work, doing illustration, and I realised I wanted to do it full time.

“I took the leap. Now I work for myself, from home, in a little studio room. And it’s getting easier as more people see my work. I’m quite disciplined. You learn to be. I know every morning what I’m doing every hour of the day.

“I do a lot of work for design studios or advertising agencies who have clients they design for. They’d contact me to do illustrations. I do work for magazines and papers too.

“People know my style now, I like to be trusted.”

You get the sense father and daughter will collaborate again. John jokes he’s “got the bug” after working on both books. Like Kathi, his great hope is people will feel their history has been brought to life by this project.

“I’d love people to feel a real pride in what our ancestors did. When you stop and look back and see the things they had to go through, the things that they put up with, the things that they achieved. T

"hey were knocked back again and again and again, and yet we have what we’ve got because of them. We wouldn’t exist only for them. They managed to get through, they managed to survive, and we owe them so much.”

Historopedia (Gill Books, €24.99) will be published on October 21