Imagine Nations Through Story: a new website from iBbY Ireland
According to its introduction, www.imaginenations.ie is a resource website aimed at bringing international children’s literature to an Irish audience through reviews of children’s books and features from academics, librarians and activists with a focus on international books. It was launched on 2nd April 2014 for International Children’s Book Day, which this year was hosted by iBbY Ireland, the Irish section of the International Board on Books for Young People. The site is managed by iBbY Ireland, ‘as a space where those with a passion for bringing children and books together can gain access to information on important works of literature published for children, engage with debate on current issues surrounding international children’s literature, find out about upcoming events and projects and access links to the children’s book community both at home and abroad.’
The new website will be a constantly updated and evolving resource for teachers, librarians and parents.
Work to design and launch this flexible, user-friendly website began a year ago. Imaginenations.ie is a very welcome development and makes a fresh and interesting addition to other resources available to the children’s literature community in Ireland.
The reviews section is sensibly organised according to approximate age category. At first an image of the cover of the relevant book appears accompanied by a brief review. Then, with a click on the title, a more detailed review with full bibliographical details appears. Helpful keywords are provided and there is a space for comments. These features will be especially useful to the hard-pressed busy teacher or librarian who needs to cut to the chase. This interactive dimension to the site will no doubt develop further over time. The reviews, really well-written, incisive and of a very high standard, are well organised. Valerie Coghlan, Irene Barber, Elaina Ryan, Deirdre Sullivan and Catherine Ann Cullen are the current reviews editors.
Some policy decisions need to be revisited or fine-tuned; for example, some titles reviewed might not strictly fall within the iBbY Ireland mandate as outlined above in that it would be difficult to make a case that certain books provided ‘a focus on international books for an Irish audience’. It is difficult to see how Bog Child or An Táin, both of which are reviewed here, fall into that category. Another example is the question of providing versions of a review in both Irish and English where Irish language books are concerned. At present one Irish-language title is reviewed only in English, and another in both languages. There is also a joint review of one title only, The Weight of Water,and it would be interesting to know why this was considered appropriate.
Imaginenations.ie also provides a very interesting blog and essay section which offers a platform for developments in the conversation about children’s books, whether scholarly or from an editorial viewpoint. There are some pieces of a very high standard indeed here. I was particularly impressed by Becky Long’s superb essay on the role of myths and legends in the work of Kate Thompson (although here again it would be interesting to see the argument for including it – and indeed Julie le Blanc’s piece on the Morrígan – as contributing to the iBbY Ireland misson.
Children’s literature research and taught programmes are now offered in some shape or form in most third-level institutions. There is now a wealth of scholarly material available, so iBbY could usefully extend its search for academic contributions to beyond the walls of Trinity College Dublin!
One essay which is completely on iBbY target is Christine O’Neill’s fascinating piece on ‘Story Toys, translating Fairy Tales,’ which is informed by her own experience of translating a range of materials, including interactive games and high-quality 3D interactive pop-up books into German. Emma Byrne’s piece on The O’Brien Press’ Bridges series is another very relevent and interesting piece.
The publication of an ebook, Shoes, Ducks and Maids of the Sea: Irish Retellings of The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen has provided a most innovative and exciting challenge for iBbY Ireland and demonstrates the enthusiasm, generosity and can-do attitude of all involved. The idea for a collection of stories by Irish children’s writers to be based on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen was first proposed in January 2014 and the book was published on the launch day of the Imagine Nations website on 2nd April 2014. In that very short time, authors were contacted. An impressive fourteen of them accepted the challenge, came up with ideas, wrote and submitted their stories – and all from the generosity of their own spirit! I would strongly suggest that a short biographical note on each of the writers who contributed to the volume be included on the ebook site, including a reference to their most recent publications. Their generosity deserves no less.
Gráinne Clear edited the stories and Martin Reilly did the overall design. Niamh Sharkey permitted her wonderful poster to be used as the ebook cover. All this work was done gratis by very busy people. Who says that Irish generosity is dead? The Celtic Tiger certainly spared the children’s books enthusiasts. The stories chosen by the authors are, happily, hugely varied, from very popular tales to the much less well known, such as ‘The Saucy Boy’, chosen by Paul Timoney, and ‘The Beetle who went on his Travels’, chosen by Paula Leyden.
Given the time constraints it is not surprising that the stories vary enormously in intent and in execution. Some, such as Anna Carey’s ‘The Snow Queen’, stay close to Andersen’s original. Others, such as Oisín McGann’s rap ‘Em’s New Suit’, or Sarah Webb’s ‘The Ugly Duckling of St Stephen’s Green’, take risks – in my view, very worthwhile risks – in doing something new, contemporary and streetwise with the originals; since 2005, the 200th anniversary of Andersen’s birth, several new translations or versions of the stories have been published in English and it would not have made sense for iBbY Ireland to simply try to replicate this process. Sheena Wilkinson’s ‘The Lighter Seller’ contributes a contemporary and Dublin-set version of Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’. It comes very close indeed to the world of sex-trafficking and exploitation of some of our new migrants and does not flinch in the face of Andersen’s use of pain which sometimes amounts to a pornography of childhood suffering. Siobhán Parkinson’s demolition of some of our favourite politically correct notions about gender and violence makes her story ‘Steadfast’ (a retelling of ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’) a razor-sharp piece of satire.
The target readership of the stories varies from children of ten years old up to adults. Andersen was a great but troubling writer. His misery, cruelty, passivity, religiosity and sentimentality – typical of much 19th century writing for both adults and children – can now be somewhat alienating. At his very best he can still please with his simplicity, as in those universal stories of youthful triumph and honesty, ’The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘The Emperor’s new Clothes’, or with his completely moving and engaging use of symbolic landscapes that mirror the human heart, as in ‘The Snow Queen’. The Irish writers of the stories inspired by these pay tribute to both the trouble and the greatness.
Future developments might include multi-media and interactive versions of such stories. For example, Oisín McGann’s contribution cries out for oral recitation. The question of illustration could also be considered, which was impossible within the time constraints imposed here. Thought could also usefully be given by iBbY Ireland or perhaps more appropriately by CBI to developing a children’s books website dedicated to the use of children. That way children’s ideas and thoughts about books could receive appropriate consideration and recognition. Such a site would be invaluable in the ongoing debates about books for children.
The beauty of the website is that it is fluid, open to constant evolution and updating. It opens up the possibility of reciprocal engagement with other iBbY countries. It is freely available to all. Congratulations are in order to iBbY Ireland and to all the writers who contributed so generously to this exciting venture/work in progress in the very best sense.
My comments are based on my most recent accessing of the site on April 28th 2014.
The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) is a non-profit organization which represents an international network of people from all over the world who are committed to bringing books and children together
Previous iBbY Ireland publications include Changing Faces, Changing Places: A Guide to Multicultural Books for Children in 2001 and Cross-Currents: A Guide to Multicultural Books for Children in 2005.