The past 50 issues of Inis have required hard work, dedication and creativity from reviewers, contributors, and editors. In a number of feature articles, we will share some memories from former Inis editors. We start with Siobhán Parkinson and Valerie Coghlan, who were co-editors of Inis from 2002 to 2004.
ISSUES 1–11 (2002–2004) SIOBHÁN PARKINSON
When I was writer-in-residence at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Julie Rowan, who was chair of Children’s Books Ireland at the time, asked Valerie Coghlan, who was librarian at CICE, if she would consider editing Children’s Books in Ireland. Valerie said she didn’t want to take on the whole thing on her own, but she’d love to be reviews editor, and she had an inkling that there was an editor in the house. Which there was – me. Valerie asked me if I’d like to share the editorship, with her looking after the reviews and me taking charge of the articles and the copyediting.
So that’s how we got started. Once we got going, one of the first things we wanted to change was the name of the magazine. The title Children’s Books in Ireland had made lots of sense back in the day, but when the Children’s Literature Association of Ireland and Children’s Book Trust morphed into Children’s Books Ireland in 1997, the name of the organisation and the name of its magazine were just too similar.
We asked the membership to come up with ideas. They came up with a range of suggestions, but in the end (modest cough) my own suggestion of Inis (pun on ‘island’ – I am keen on islands – and ‘tell’ in Irish) was accepted, and Inis issue 1 was published in the summer of 2002.
Kieran Nolan, who had been doing typesetting and layout jobs for CBI for some time, was enlisted to come up with a new look for the reinvented magazine. We gave him a pretty free hand, but we did, I remember, stipulate that we wanted to have reviews and articles in separate sections, which hadn’t been the case with the magazine up to then. I know, we were very extravagant and demanding. But the newly designed magazine was pleasant to read and to use and we were very happy with it. Later, we also, very daringly, asked CBI if they could run to colour printing, and the first all-colour issue appeared in spring 2003.
We also asked the board of CBI for a free hand as editors. A magazine that represents an organisation has to reflect the organisation’s values, but at the same time, editors need to have editorial control, or they will quickly lose interest. CBI very cheerfully gave us full editorial authority, for which we were very grateful. This gave us the freedom to shape the magazine in a way that reflected our own tastes and values as well as those of CBI. We commissioned articles from all kinds of children’s books people; we ran a series of articles on contemporary Irish writers and illustrators (later published as a collection of essays by CBI and CICE jointly); we looked beyond Ireland and the UK and did our best to cover international children’s books also; we eschewed certain kinds of articles, such as author interviews (a perfectly valid form but one we felt was a little over-used), in favour of more thoughtful and critical articles.
Siobhán Parkinson is an award-winning writer, editor, translator and publisher of books for children.
ISSUES 1–11 (2002–2004) VALERIE COGHLAN
During much of 2001 to 2004, I ranged between exhilaration and a nagging headache – not due to any stimulating substances, unless you count printers’ ink, nor indeed to working with Siobhán, who could not have been a better colleague, especially when it came to Inis planning meetings over a bottle of wine.
In my time with CBI’s magazine, there were no kindly folk in the CBI office to help sort through the piles of packages that are a review editor’s lot. Headaches began with finding a parking space outside the CBI office – initially in Parnell Square and then in Camden Street – near enough to allow me to transport the sacks of waiting book mail to my car without adding too much back-strain to my book-induced maladies. Once home, the sacks were carried upstairs to my son’s bedroom, the books were scrabbled out of the padded envelopes and corrugated wrapping they came in – adding finger-blisters to my growing list of ills – and the paper waste was dumped. We had to get an extra recycling bin for all of it. My son’s bed – fortunately a double – became the mothership for the initial selection process, the books all being piled up on it and me walking around and around it, considering. (My son didn’t have to sleep under the books, as he had already moved out.)
Balancing acts were necessary in selecting books to suit the panel of reviewers. There were logistical quandaries too. Books had to be fairly allocated between each section and between genres. However, books are not published according to this rule; at the time, fantasy was beginning to come into the ascendancy, and it was sometimes difficult to find many review-worthy books for eight to tens. Books from Irish publishers, authors and illustrators did receive preference, but in an effort to make sure that reviews emanating from the closely knit Irish children’s books circle were not too kind, I sometimes enlisted overseas reviewers. My strong belief is that constructive and justifiable criticism is helpful, and that a review editor has a responsibility to readers, as well as producers, to ensure that quality is paramount, but this was sometimes challenging.
There were no online reviews at that time, and in an effort to bring some attention to the many excellent books which didn’t make the initial cut, I enlisted ‘The Walrus’ – whose identity was a closely guarded secret – to write a round-up column mentioning these. At least the Walrus’s reviewing took place in my house, but all the other books had to be parcelled up and posted out.
Receiving reviews was the exhilarating aspect of the job, especially if a reviewer didn’t agree with my assessment of a book! And that’s what makes reviewing fascinating and why independent reviewing journals, such as Inis, are an essential part of a democratic book community. As each issue of the magazine was published, complete with generally thoughtful assessments of a wide range of books, we knew it would assist the decision-making of those who had the responsibility of selecting books for young readers and the choices of the readers themselves.
Valerie Coghlan is chair of Children’s Books Ireland and was a founder member of the organisation. She is an independent researcher and lecturer with a particular interest in visual texts and Irish children’s literature. She has written and lectured extensively on these topics and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College Dublin for her work with children’s literature.
We are both grateful to our contributors and reviewers, some of whom are still writing for the magazine. Inis still maintains a tradition of independent, high-quality reviewing and support for emerging authors and illustrators and smaller publishers.
We had a glorious four years. It was a tremendous amount of work, mostly unpaid, but it was great fun, we both learnt a whole lot and we felt very happy, when we moved on, that we had a sound tradition to pass along to the next editors. (Siobhán could have made another shoe joke here, but we will leave that one to your imagination.) SP & VC