A Conversation with Margrit Cruikshank

Irish Children’s Literature and the S.K.U.N.K. Chronicles

Irish children’s author Margrit Cruickshank delighted thousands of readers with her books – spanning the globe with the adventures she created. Longtime fan Alan Early, now the author of his own series, revisits some of Cruickshank’s work and talks to the writer who influenced so many new Irish writers. 

As a writer, you’ll get asked this one questions time and time again. Invariably I’ll list off the standards; Roald Dahl, Goosebumps, maybe even Judy Blume’s Fudge series. More than once I’ve had the follow up question of: “but what were your favourite Irish books?” The first time I was asked this, I admit that I struggled. For a heavily silent minute, I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer. It wasn’t that I didn’t read books by Irish writers when I grew up in the pastel-coloured 1990s. I did. Voraciously. It was just that they didn’t play to my particular interests. So much of Irish children’s literature of the 1980s and 1990s seemed more concerned with the past or wildlife than I was. I enjoyed reading these stories mbut, if I’m completely honest, very few of them gave me what I really wanted from a book. I wanted to see kids like me: kids with the same concerns I had, kids getting caught up in adventures with larger-than-life characters and notorious baddies. Dahl et al delivered this in droves, as does contemporary Irish children’s literature. But in the 1990s, we were sadly bereft of Artemises and Darren Shan’s vampire princes.

So the first time I found myself staring down the barrel of the question, one word popped in my head. Skunk. Or, rather I should say S.K.U.N.K., standing for Skulduggery, Killing, Unscrupulousness, Nastiness and Corruption.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the S.K.U.N.K books by Margrit Cruikshank had been a major influence on my writing. For the uninitiated, the series introduces us to young Aisling and her eccentric godfather Seamus. It’s up to this ragtag bunch of eco-warriors and an obese tabby cat called Mulligan to stop the nefarious S.K.U.N.K gang time and time again.

THESE BOOKS FEATURED IRISH CHARACTERS DOING SOMETHING IRISH CHARACTERS VERY RARELY DID BACK THEN: SAVING THE WORLD.

As soon as the word S.K.U.N.K popped into my head, I felt the need to re-read them, to visit my old friends of Aisling and Mulligan once more. I scoured my parents’ house for the dog-eared copies I cherished as a chubby ten-year-old in Leitrim and, when I found them, was instantly sucked into the world of freak flood fiascos and splitting earths all over again. But something niggled as I read; Margrit Cruickshank – the author who had been such an influence on me, who showed me that Irish stories could be as off-the-wall and epic as their British and American counterparts – hadn’t written a book since 2003. I was delighted to have the opportunity to have a conversation with her to ask why.

Cruikshank, who worked as a van driver, a waitress, a post-woman and a teacher before putting pen to paper, was born in Scotland and moved to Ireland when her husband got offered a job in Dublin. She had always written as a child but never considered that she would ever become a professional author. Her father had always been a great storyteller; whenever he dragged the family out for walks he would tell the children stories to keep them going. It was carrying on this tradition that first brought Cruikshank to writing.

‘I wrote Anna’s Six Wishes for my daughter who was terrified of spiders. It started off as a story to make her un-terrified of spiders. And guess what – she’s now in her forties with two children but she’s still terrified of them! So the power of the pen is not as much as they say.’ Like so many parents and writers, once she had started telling stories, somebody suggested that she try to get them published. She did. And even though her first response was a rejection letter, it was complimentary enough to encourage her to keep trying. She decided to attend a writing class and this was where she found even more focus. ‘I met a very nice editor who looked at something I’d written and told me to send it to Poolbeg. That was the first S.K.U.N.K book.’

Reading the S.K.U.N.K series as a child (and later Cruikshank’s novels for teenagers), I was always enthralled by her feisty protagonists. Aisling, for instance, spoke back to her elders, was often petulant, had an eye on the boy in the local record shop and she was far more interested in how her hockey team was doing than in getting her homework finished on time. And I loved her. In a time when talking animals and kids of bygone ages populated Irish children’s literature, I felt that I knew Aisling. I was Aisling. For Cruikshank, writing about a contemporary child was simply the obvious thing to do: It was the beginning of children’s literature coming of age. The person who broke the mould was Carolyn Swift. My kids were of the age where they devoured the Robbers series because it was set in Dublin. It was their town.’

Well before the general public had heard of global warming or melting ice caps, S.K.U.N.K’s villainous modus operandi was to speed up environmental decay and hold the world to ransom. Cruikshank always wanted to write something with a scientific bent. She felt very strongly that children weren’t interested enough in science and believed that she could help educate them about issues such as the ozone layer through comedy and crime capers. While she tackled important environmental matters in S.K.U.N.K, she explored even more pressing social issues in her young adult novels, Circling the Triangle (which won the Reading Association of Ireland Special Merit Award in 1991) and The Door. Addressing topics such as binge drinking, sexuality and homelessness was something she feels she couldn’t help. ‘I have very strong social leanings and as a writer you put a lot of yourself in your books. Anytime the Irish author, Larry O’Loughlin, introduced me to someone, he would say: “She was the first person to put a gay character into a book in Ireland”. And I always had to think, did I? It had never been my intention, but there’s a character in Circling the Triangle who obviously had to be gay. It made the most sense for the plot. I wasn’t trying to break that taboo. But I was lucky that my interests chimed with the zeitgeist.’ Cruikshank believes that this social awareness is still alive and well in children’s and young adult literature today.

AN AWFUL LOT OF AUTHORS’ WRITING IS POLITICALLY LEFT OF THE CENTRE. IT’S WHAT MAKES US WANT TO WRITE TO A CERTAIN EXTENT. THERE ARE MORE LEFT-WING THAN RIGHT-WING AUTHORS I WOULD SAY. IT’S UNFORTUNATE FOR THE POOR TORIES.’

For Cruikshank’s most recent books, Don’t Dawdle, Dorothy (1999) and We’re Going to Feed the Ducks (2003), she returned to where she began: writing for younger children. These are beautifully illustrated and colourful picture books full of multi-eyed aliens, grumpy old bears and a menagerie of hungry wildlife. They are a world away from the teenage angst of Circling the Triangle. ‘I never thought to myself: “Now I will write a book for older children or now I will write a picturebook”.’ Each one just started with an idea and took shape from there.’  With a list of published work as varied as Cruikshank’s, I wondered if there were any writers that were a strong influence on her. ‘Nobody in Ireland was writing young adult fiction back then. Anne Fine was definitely an influence. I thought her books were brilliant, while Robert Cormier was my son’s great hero. When I gave him the manuscript of Circling the Triangle, I said “People will recognise that this is you and if you don’t want it published, I understand.” And he said “It’s not as good as Cormier, but it will do.”’

We’re Going to Feed the Ducks was Cruikshank’s last book in 2003. ‘I’ve told my agent, I’ve given up. I met her for lunch last year during the Edinburgh Book Festival. She said that she had been clearing out her office and that she had finally threw out the manuscript of mine that had been lying on her floor for years, deciding that I wasn’t going to do anything with it. And I said, “Good. About time too!” Then, of course, after talking to her I thought that maybe at some stage I’d go back. But I have a very busy life here. I wrote all my first books just for the joy of writing and I never really minded if they got published or not.’ Yet Cruikshank is as interested in the world of children’s literature as ever. She regularly reviews for Inis magazine and reads a lot to her grandchildren. But if there’s one thing that she misses about writing, it’s the absolute joy of when something comes together. ‘The click,’ she says, ‘when you get when two disparate ideas meld and you think yeah, that – that – will work. Also the fun of writing dialogue. The slog bits I don’t miss – and there are always slog bits – but you get through them.’

Before saying goodbye to Cruikshank, I have to ask one last fan-boy question that’s been plaguing me since I re-read the S.K.U.N.K series.

What is this terrible gang of environmental terrorists up to nowadays?

‘Oh! Well, if we’re lucky they’d be holed-up in London trying to get hold of David Cameron and taking Osbourne away somewhere. But somehow I don’t think they are. I think they’re probably superannuated and enjoying an unhealthy old age, somewhere on a beach with their ill- gotten gains.’