Lunch with the Laureate

Last week, I joined a bunch of writers and illustrators to have a lunch with Children’s Laureate, Siobhan Parkinson. The location was Airfield in Dundrum, which has nothing to do with airplanes, but is in fact a farm in the suburbs of Dublin which has a small cafe/restaurant, a farm shop and a vintage car collection, among other things.
Laureate Lunch 1
An eclectic mix of locations that was well suited to this gathering of diverse (but all very good-natured and entertaining) personalities. Siobhan wanted to talk about what she intended to do during her two years as Laureate, and to get our input. In the photo, left to right, is: Niamh Sharkey, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Michael Emberley, the Honourable Siobhan, some eejit at the back who didn’t smile at the right time, Marita Conlon-McKenna, Jane Mitchell, Sarah Webb and Aubrey Flegg. Mags Walsh from CBI was there too, but somebody had to hold the camera.
You may notice that I’m wearing a shirt in the photo. Despite the occasion, this was not an attempt on my part to look respectable – it was just what I had on that day. The fact that I almost always wear t-shirts to all but the most solemn occasions was brought home to me the last time I put on a shirt, and my stepson asked what I was ‘all dressed up for’.
Apart from eating a lovely lunch and talking shop (writers and illustrators are as bad as any other profession when you group them together), we discussed strategy. Siobhan intends to focus on two things that she hopes will promote the reading of books and the creation of them
First, she wants to push the idea of school libraries. This is not something we do very well in Ireland. Having a separate room, just for books (along with computers, audio books, comics and magazines etc) is still a bit more than many in the education system seem able to conceive. And actually putting a librarian in there too? Preposterous!
Laureate Lunch 2
Where you do find decent libraries in schools, it tends to be down to the initiative of a few individuals, rather than some policy (and funding) delivered from on high. We’re supposed to be a country that takes literature seriously. We can do a lot better.
The second focus of her campaign is to bring quality books from other countries and other languages to Ireland. We’re not great at this either, but this is a problem across the English-speaking world. Lots of other countries translate our books into their languages; we’re slow to return the favour.
If you think books published in foreign languages just may not be relevant to our culture, or may not appeal to young English-speaking readers, try a few of these on for size: ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ (French), ‘Inkheart’ (German), ‘Sophie’s World’ (Norwegian), ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ (German), ‘The Little Prince’ (French), ‘Pippi Longstocking’ (Swedish) and, of course, the magnificent ‘Asterix’ (French). The collective sales figures and critical acclaim speak for themselves. And do I really need to mention Manga? American, however, does not count as a foreign language (sorry guys, but you see enough action as it is).
Siobhan also wants to get children’s books taken more seriously on the literature stage in Ireland. We have the most passionate readership, the most profound effect on our readership, we have internationally acclaimed and multi-award-winning authors, and we achieve some of the highest sales in the world of literature . . . and we’re still treated like a cottage industry.
Our new Laureate is a charming, resourceful and willfully stubborn woman. Expect progress.