#MGiechat Returns January 8th!

QuinlanIf you love reading or writing middle grade books (books for a readership aged 8-12), and you’re also a twitter user, then our monthly twitter chat #MGiechat is making a comeback and getting a makeover.

This all started in 2015 when I realised that there were no Ireland-based chats on twitter about middle grade books, and decided that I should start one. It ran for 2 years but in 2017, I got overloaded (in a wonderful way!) with writing/editing The Book of Revenge, short story commissions, residencies abroad (Australia and Iceland) as well as freelance, and social media had to take a back seat.

So, consider #MGiechat up and running again! It will run on the first Monday of every month, from 8.30pm to 9.30pm. There’ll be themed chats, interviews and special guests.

Our first chat is on Monday January 8th and we’ll be talking reading and writing aspirations for 2018, along with special guest author, Nigel Quinlan, who is due to release his second book The Cloak of Feathers.

Do come along and say hi. We’re a friendly bunch. See you there?

It’s Time to Talk & #CoverKidsBooks

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Picture Colm Mahady / Fennells – Copyright 2016 Fennell Photography.

I’ve always loved children’s books and now, as a children’s author about to start writing my fourth book, I read more of it than ever. But I’m finding that even though I devour books at a phenomenal rate, the recommendations keep coming in and my TBR pile continues to grow. Every day I discover a new author or story I’ve yet to explore. I’m immersed in the world of children’s books and still I find it difficult to keep up; so how about the young readers out there?  What support are they getting when it comes to making reading choices? And is it enough?

The Importance of Children’s Books

Children’s literature – the entire range of books for young readers, from the youngest picture book to the oldest YA, including fiction, non-fiction and poetry – is growing every year. We’re living in a golden age for children’s books, with increasing demand. Reading is a vital part of a child’s development, impacting more than just the formative years; the books we read when young formulate future reading habits and lifelong attitudes.

I always talk to readers about books being magical doorways, and writer, Shane Hegarty’s description of the reading experience is one that truly resonates. He says, “Children’s books are time machines. Space ships. They are portals to other worlds. They transport readers into other lives, other perspectives. And they can make you feel part of something bigger, even if you are very much alone. There is something about the impact a story can have on young readers that is really something special. Just watch how they re-read and re-read the same books, over and over.”

There’s no denying that reading for pleasure has a lifelong impact and yet, despite our awareness of this, research conducted by Imogen Russell Williams reveals;children’s books typically get 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of sales.’ I asked Hegarty, experienced as both a journalist and a children’s author,  to share his opinion on why this current imbalance situation has arisen.

“I would guess that newspapers have been slow to catch up on the interest in children’s books because of inherent bias among editors, journalists, who generally believe that they and their readers want to read reviews of books they themselves might buy. Because children don’t read newspapers (and, let’s be honest, listen to each other rather than critics) they’re not targeted through content. Of course, adults read children’s books but I’m not sure it’s seen as anything other than a curious niche interest. A huge amount of children’s culture is overlooked by the mainstream press.”

As a result of this imbalance, a campaign called #CoverKidsBooks is now calling for answers and asking important questions.

What is #CoverKidsBooks?

“Book reviews and other media coverage should be guiding the public, helping them discover the riches of contemporary children’s books.  Are they?” – Middle Grade Strikes Back

Started in the UK but gathering recognition on a more global scale, #CoverKidsBooks is a campaign that looks at the discrepancy between the number of children’s books published and purchased, and the amount of coverage received in the national press. The campaign takes a positive approach, celebrating the coverage received and calling for more. It’s all about readers and ensuring that as many young people as possible can find the books out there for them; not just the top sellers.

As S.F. Said (@SFSaid), one of the founders of the #CoverKidsBooks campaign, stated during our #MGiechat on the topic (transcript here): “It’s about EVERY part of the beautiful jungle. Picture books, MG, YA, non-fiction, poetry: we love it all! Children’s books need their own space, but they also need to be part of the wider conversation, so all #CoverKidsBooks wants to do is enable the conversation and open a space for all those voices – the more the better!”

Why Do We Need to #CoverKidsBooks?

Writer Sinead O’Hart (@SJOHart) sums this up perfectly on her blog; “We need to #CoverKidsBooks on the radio, on social media, in traditional media, on the television, and get it going as a topic of conversation. An adult looking for a gift should know straight away where to find advice and recommendations. A child looking for their next read should have no problem finding just the right book for their needs, and should be able to access a library (with knowledgeable staff) and/or a bookshop (also with knowledgeable staff) without trouble.”

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RTE2 Swipe Club – a great show in Ireland. More please!

With more than 8000 children’s book published every year, bookshelves can be crowded and prove intimidating to parents unfamiliar with what’s there. In addition, teachers, librarians, and anyone involved in the care of children need help locating a wider range of books that can suit all their young readers’ needs.

Hegarty explains how this can be done; “Through encouraging good journalists and critics to treat children’s culture seriously and to interrogate it as they might anything else. Through writing those pieces ourselves. Through talking about it with the passion and intelligence of the current campaign.” And yet, Hegarty also raises another important question.

“We’ve got to ask, in the age of the internet, how important newspaper reviews really are. I’ll play devil’s advocate here. Do we want newspaper reviews because we think it’s a service to readers, or because having grown up with print as a measure of validation they make us feel better about ourselves? Do we want children’s books properly critiqued, or do we just want them to be “promoted”?

To me, the answer is simple: the reason for seeking out coverage has to be about the reader. It has to be about giving children access to books and not seen as another marketing tool to boost book sales. It has to be honest, not bought. And the positive impact of #CoverKidsBooks so far shows that this can be done.

How Successfully is Ireland Covering Kids Books?

“In an Irish context, I think we have it better than in the UK,’ says Hegarty. “In general, you are far more likely to see an Irish writer (from any genre) on one of the big TV chat shows, or hear them on national radio. Eoin Colfer just did a Gay Byrne’s The Meaning of Life. Louise O’Neill and Derek Landy have both been on the Late Late recently. How many children’s authors other than David Walliams would could even dream of being on, say, Graham Norton? Much print media here also treats writers seriously, gives them space. And they regularly give a good slot to children’s writers as much as the more traditional “literary fiction” authors. It’s a smaller country, with a smaller pool of guests for radio/tv shows to scrap over. Frankly, that’s to our advantage.”

However, Hegarty also acknowledges that review space is an issue, with book review space “at a premium in Irish papers. There’s also the question of what sort of books are reviewed, with literary fiction and doorstopper non-fiction seeming to get preference. Children’s books tend to get the round-up treatment, although their nature means they sometimes offer editors useful colour illustrations to otherwise drab books pages. And they are good at reviewing homegrown books. I know from my past experience in The Irish Times that the experience and enthusiasm of a reviewer such as Robert Dunbar is seen as invaluable.”

There are certainly plenty of people in Ireland working hard to encourage reading for pleasure and make sure that children have the access they need to the widest possible range of children’s books. As writer, Sarah Webb (@sarahwebbishere), recipient of the2015 Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) Award for outstanding contribution to children’s books in Ireland, points out, “Irish schools use a wide range of children’s books in their classrooms and this is to be encouraged and nurtured. We are also building new libraries in Ireland which is so vital to building young readers.”

Hegarty highlights the important work done by “librarians, teachers, parents, readers of all ages, writers, booksellers, festival organisers. If we step away from media alone for a moment, children’s books have clearly never been in a better place. In Ireland, it’s especially so given how many writers there are now. A kid can go into a bookshop or library in Ireland now, sit in a big, colourful kids section and read a book on almost any topic – many utterly taboo only 10/20 years ago – for as long as they want to before someone turns the light out.”

I have experienced first hand the excellent initiatives in place thanks to Children’s Books Ireland (@KidsBooksIrel), including the innovative SwipeTV children’s book club on RTE2, our national station. I was lucky enough to have The Book of Learning featured on April 20th episode, with live reviews from young readers – and I received a flurry of emails from children from all over the country during the week after it aired – so there’s no doubt in my mind that media coverage has a positive impact. Write,r Niamh Garvey (@msniamhgarvey), also gives a nod to the CBI publications. She says, “I love, love, love the Inis guide to kids books, it is great for introducing you to titles, all teachers should have it.” High praise indeed and very much deserved.

So What Needs to Improve?

It’s clear that we have a decent foundation, but of course, this is just the beginning. The fact that so many people are sitting up and taking notice of the #CoverKidsBooks campaign is proof that there’s room for improvement. As Sarah Webb says “In 20 years time I hope I’m still around to report the coverage of children’s books has improved from the green shoots of 2016.

In a Middle Grade Strikes Back interview with librarians, the lack of diversity was highlighted as one major issue that needs urgent attention. “Coverage of children’s books is ridiculously limited and this is very damaging to literacy. Currently the lack of coverage of great and diverse books means that developing readers are mainly being guided towards mass marketed books.  That is not to say that there is not a place for mass marketed books, but it should not be the only choice.”

How you can get involved

As S.F. Said says, ‘every single person out there who cares about children’s books can make a difference to #CoverKidsBooks. The more voices that are heard, the more likely that media will listen & give kids’ books the attention they deserve!’

In short, writers, illustrators, publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians, teachers, families, bloggers, readers are all vital to the campaign’s success. This means everyone who cares about children’s books talking about them in a public forum, sharing knowledge and skills to help young readers gain access to the bigger, wider world of magical doorways/time machines/portals that are out there.

You can read more about the #CoverKidsBooks campaign/research and follow the updates/get involved here.

This article was originally written for writing.ie 

Publication Day: The Book of Learning

E.R Murray - The Book of LearningIn 2009, I started a story about a girl called Ebony Smart. Today, that story, The Book of Learning, hits the bookshops – and I can hardly believe it’s real.

I didn’t work on The Book of Learning every day of those six years. It took around one year to write and another to perfect, but that’s how long it’s taken to see the book in print.

So a huge thank you to everyone at Mercier Press for making it happen, and to everyone who has supported me along the way.

For me, this is such a huge day.

Share it with me by taking an extra hour for yourself, to do something you love.

Now we can explore the ocean?

The sea – with its wild moods, terrible power and impenetrable beauty – is something that’s always felt special in my life.

I have fond memories of childhood trips to the red-brick seaside village of Whitby, feasting on the best smoked kippers in the world. We’d brave the walks at the wild North Gare and South Gare (I lost a cousin to a freak wave here) and would tackle the cold wind and industrial skyline of Redcar, where the Dundalk sequence in Atonement was filmed. Then there were the yearly trips to Blackpool for pontefract cakes and an evening tucked up in a coach, trawling the infamous light displays of the Golden Mile. Inland, I gorged on Jules Verne and Jonathon Swift, Hemmingway and Sinbad films, dreaming of sailing exotic oceans.

As an adult, I’ve swam with sharks (Australia), stingrays (The Bahamas) and dolphins (Jamaica) – but oddly, I’ve always travelled by air. I’ve snorkeled in some of the world’s most beautiful spots, but still have a list of oceans to explore. Now, I live near the sea and use it as a constant food supply; mackerel, pollock, winkles, cockles, seaweed, razor clams – they’re all part of my regular diet and every day I realise how lucky I am to have this opportunity. The sea is just five minutes walk from my front door and I can see it from my window. I would never have imagined such things were possible.

But what sparked this post was an amazing new feature from googlemaps. We are no longer confined to the earth; now we can explore the oceans. As a young girl, I could only have dreamed of something like this being possible…

Broken homes don’t mean broken lives

Nice clean bear looking for a reading partner

“Why do you write for children?

This was the interesting – and completely unexpected – question that I was confronted with last week. It’s not a shocking question by any means; it’s just that writing for children is what I do, but, like any other career I’ve had, I’ve never thought about why. I’ve never even considered writing for children as an occupation that needs explaining (which probably says a lot right away).

Caught unawares, I was amazed at my reply. Not only could I answer without thinking about it, this was my immediate response:

“I adore children’s literature. A love of reading is the best gift I ever received and I want to foster it in others.”

OK, not the most eloquent, but this answer stuck in my head afterwards because I wondered whether, upon reflection, it was really true. You see, writing’s not like a regular job where you turn up and muddle through – even if it’s a bad day – because you know you’ll get paid. To be a writer, you have to love what you do. Always. Fact.

But do we know why we write? And why we write what we write?

I have many ideas which would make excellent adult books, but every time I sit down to write them, the words automatically transform into children’s fiction. I love every minute spent working on my manuscripts – from the initial concept and free-flow writing, to the research and editing – but I’m sure I’d love every minute of writing adult fiction too. After all, I adore reading it. So why does this happen?

Looking at my response, I was surprised to find that the true, honest reason really was lurking there. Yes, I love children’s literature and yes, falling in love with reading was the best gift I ever received. But the final part of my reply is the crux of the matter.

“I want to foster it in others.”

Whatever a child’s background, situation or level of learning, I want to help them enjoy reading. It’s that simple. I won’t go into detail – ‘misery lit’ is not my thing – but my upbringing was far from usual, not at all pleasant and certainly not something I’d ever wish anyone else to go through.

Yet the brutal truth is; many children throughout the world are trapped in abusive homes or dangerous environments. And even though there is more awareness, leading to more support facilities, the sad fact is that these children are still trapped, their experiences limited.

But a broken home doesn’t have to lead to a broken life: even children in vulnerable situations can be the masters of their own destinies. And as far as I can see, education is the key factor.

This doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in a classroom learning facts. Especially since, for many of these children, that environment won’t suit at all. But if a child can take control of their own learning – can see the value and relevance of it for themselves – then that can make a major difference to their whole lives. This may sound cliche, but it’s true.

I’ve heard people say that everyone can remember one inspirational teacher that set them on their path in life; well I had many. As a child, no matter what was happening around me, books were my haven. They showed me other places, ideas, attitudes and possibilities that no one else was going to share. They opened worlds that were otherwise unavailable.

Old friends and teachers

I was moved by the kindness of the Old Gentleman in The Railway Children and admired the tomboyish Jo March in Little Women. I dreamt about joining the adventures of Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn. Outraged by the mistreatment of Celie in The Colour Purple, I was also strangely comforted by the idea that not everyone else’s life was easy. I fell in love with Santiago’s passion and determination as he fought to bring his great marlin home. And I loved and hated Scrooge in equal measure.

Whatever I wanted to know, to experience, feel; it was all there, neatly tucked away in a few pages of my own private world. And the beauty of it was, every time I finished a book, it would lead me somewhere else; a recommended read, another book by the same author, a completely different genre which conveyed similar messages.

There is a wealth of current and classic children’s literature out there and I’d love to add to it.

“I adore children’s literature. A love of reading is the best gift I ever received. It saved me and I want to foster it in others.”

Last week, I surprised myself with this answer, and after investigating it further, I’ve surprised myself even more. But the findings were so personal, I was in two minds whether I should even post this at all.

But I always believe we should do everything with honesty and with as much passion as possible. So, that’s why I went ahead with the post. And for that reason also, I will continue to write every day.

What should children read?

Some personal favourites – but what about you?

I’m starting some children’s book clubs this winter and would love your thoughts on what to select for the reading list.

I live in such an amazing rural community which has not only been welcoming and supportive, but has also enabled me to create the kind of environment necessary to write full time.

As summer draws to a close, I’m aware that the winters here are very quiet and the nights are long. Perfect for writing – but not always so great for the local children. So I thought I’d give something back.

The local bookshop was thankfully looking to start some children’s events and has agreed to host the book clubs. So, we’ve a lovely, comfy room, with hot chocolate, brownies and wall to wall books – now all we need is to choose the reading list!

The aim is to encourage and nurture a joy of reading through a a range of stimulating and exciting books. I’m thinking a mix of genres, formats and styles. The books on offer should excite, inspire and challenge; but reading is such a personal experience, I don’t want the list to be completely coloured by my own preferences and opinions.

This is where I need your help.

The book clubs will be for 10 – 12 and 12+ age groups and will run weekly. I’m planning six week blocks, and thinking of covering 2 books per six weeks (depending upon the reading ability and enthusiasm of the group, this may change). At first, the books will be chosen by me but as I get a feel for the group, I’ll give choices and put it to the vote. Of course, as time goes by, the children can also make suggestions. But there has to be a starting point.

As a child, I was an avid reader and would read every minute I could. I’d read anything and everything. When I was ten I was diving into classics such as The Railway Children and Secret Garden, Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn. I moved on to Dickens and the Brontes, probably understanding very little but enjoying it immensely. The language, the rhythm; that’s what attracted me. By the age of twelve I’d skipped to Lord of the Flies and Stephen King; I wanted gritty content, and I wanted to look cool.

I still love reading – and, writing children’s fiction, I also read plenty of it – but this is not about me; it’s about fostering the same love of reading in others. After all, I believe the gift of reading is one of the best gifts you can ever receive.

So what I would like to know is…

1) When you were 10, and when you were a teenager, what books were you reading? And which ones stayed with you?

2) If you’re a teacher of have children of your own – what books would you like your children to be reading and why?

Thanks very much in advance for your ideas.