First published by IBBY for IBBYLink 37
I learned to read very early and was a voracious reader – I don’t know what age I was exactly, but I must have been quite young to be such a fan of Enid Blyton’s collections of short stories about Mr Pinkwhistle! I was given The Naughtiest Girl in the School as a present and, because I didn’t know how such books worked. I read it the same way as I did Mr Pinkwhistle – choosing a random chapter to start off with then another… It was incredibly confusing and the ‘stories’ didn’t make any sense and were all about a girl called Elizabeth, but I couldn’t work out what was going on! I must have read about four chapters before I realised that it was one long story and had to start at the beginning and read all the way through – which was rather spoiled by the fact that I’d already read the penultimate chapter!
Once I got my head around it, I really enjoyed this new format and getting my teeth into longer stories – more Naughtiest Girl stories followed, then the St Clare’s series, Malory Towers, the Five Find-Outers, the Adventure of Spiggyholes, the Famous Five and Mr Galliano’s Circus[i]. I just ate them up.
The books were full of girls called Felicity and Gwendoline and Penelope playing lacrosse, eating cress sandwiches and drinking ginger beer. Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1970s, I had never met anyone called Gwendoline or Penelope and I had no idea what cress was. I was shocked that the children were allowed drink Ginger Beer as I assumed it was alcoholic… but I adored the books anyway and read and re-read them endlessly.
Flight of the Doves was written by Walter Macken and it began a voyage of discovery for me. This was an era before ‘teen’ (and even more so, before ‘tween’) literature. It can still be a tough time for readers – outgrowing their childhood favourites but not ready for adult themes quite yet. Back then it was nigh on impossible to find material for an avid and very able reader in her teens. I went on to read Macken’s The Silent People – a moving adult novel set during Ireland’s Famine. This led to Famine – a magnificent book by Liam O Flaherty and then O Flaherty’s short stories both in English and in Irish.
My journey continued with Across the Bitter Sea, by Eilís Dillon then onto Quiet Flows the Don (Aleksandrovich Sholokov) and a raft of Russian writers.
This in turn initiated my interest in the publishing industry itself and on graduating I emigrated to the UK in search of work in publishing. I never thought I would end up spending all my working life in Children’s publishing – as an editor, publisher and writer. Now, once more, I find myself back under the influence of that first reading of Flight of the Doves – reliving that feeling of discovering someone like me in a book.
It’s a feeling I nurture and keep at the centre of my publishing philosophy as I try to make books that include a range of children. So when I write or publish books with little assertive girls or black boys or naughty frogs or grumpy bears, it’s not to fight racism or strike a blow for feminism or counter disabled stereotypes or promote empathy - though, of course, I hope it will do all those things. My driving force is to make sure all children see themselves IN books. Books show children the world and they need to see themselves in books to know they have a right to be in the world. I know that – Walter Macken taught me.