CBI Comments on Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards

Hearty congratulations are due to the winners of the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, which were presented on the 16 November. Of particular interest to us are the Specsavers Children’s Book of the Year Awards – well done to Dave Rudden, whose debut novel Knights of the Borrowed Dark took the Senior prize, and to Kathleen Watkins and Margaret Anne Suggs for their picturebook, Pigín of Howth. Children’s books are rightly recognised and benefit from these high-profile awards, complete with coverage from RTÉ and other media outlets which have enormous power to positively influence a book’s success.

pigin BGEIBAChildren’s Books Ireland is disappointed that, in the discourse around winning picturebook Pigín of Howth, the book’s illustrator, Margaret Anne Suggs, is frequently omitted – a specific problem indicative of a much greater issue concerning recognition for book illustrators. At the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards shortlist announcement some weeks ago, a printed brochure was distributed to guests from across the literature sector: shortlisted authors and illustrators, booksellers, media, sponsors and literature resource organisations were in attendance. In the list of nominees for the Specsavers Children’s Book of the Year (Junior category) Kathleen Watkins was listed as the book’s author; the illustrator, Margaret Anne Suggs, was not mentioned. Other illustrated books, A Child of Books by Sam Winston and Oliver Jeffers; Rabbit and Bear by Julian Gough and Jim Field and Historopedia by Fatti and John Burke, were also shortlisted and both the writer and the illustrator in each case credited for their work. Children’s Books Ireland and Laureate na nÓg wrote to the awards organisers, and CBI also wrote to the book’s publisher, Gill Books, and received quick and open responses from both, apologising for the omission, seeking advice regarding best practice from CBI and offering to meet subsequently to discuss the matter. The video reel at the shortlist announcement credited Margaret Anne Suggs as the book’s illustrator, and an assurance was given that all publicity would credit both artists appropriately.

At the ceremony, when the winner of the award was announced, Kathleen Watkins’ name was called; Margaret Anne Suggs’ name was not. One physical award was handed to the author, and the illustrator was removed from some photos by photographers who wished to have ‘the author alone’. In the @BGEIBAS Twitter stream, a graphic with the author’s name and picture accompanied the announcement – there was no mention of the illustrator. A pinned tweet on @Gill_Books feed reads ‘Kathleen Watkins’ #PiginofHowth has captured the nation’s heart & won Junior Children’s Book of the Year at #BGEIBA http://bit.ly/pigin-winner’. The illustrator, Margaret Anne Suggs, is tagged in the tweet and appears in the photograph attached, but she is not credited as a co-creator of the book. A tweet from @GillEducation reads: ‘Huge congrats to our @Gill_Books colleagues & Kathleen Watkins on the #BGEIBA. Go Pigín!’ Gill Books’ website has details of Pigín of Howth book signings with the author only all over the country. No biog of the illustrator is provided here, or on the back inside flap of the book alongside the author, though her name is listed on the cover and spine. The Irish Independent (17 November) pictures Kathleen Watkins with her husband, Gay Byrne, and the article opens with a reference to Kathleen’s win, alongside a quote from the author about future adventures of Pigín. There is no mention of the illustrator. On 29 October, Pigín of Howth was the bestselling children’s book in the country and was listed in The Irish Times’ book charts at number 1. The author’s name was listed; the illustrator’s was not.

The problem, it seems, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a picturebook is. The illustrator of a picturebook tells a story just as much as the writer, sometimes a different story and sometimes an augmented story. When young children read it they see the illustrations first, and may recognise the illustrator’s style if it’s someone they’ve loved before. Anecdotal evidence supports this, we have heard of a child balking at being given a Julia Donaldson book illustrated by Emily Gravett – the giver’s understanding was that the child loved Julia Donaldson books, when in fact what she loved was Axel Scheffler’s illustrations. The illustration animates a story, adds detail, richness. This is not attempting to take anything from writers or to devalue their contribution, but in a picturebook for this young age group the illustration is such an integral part that when the book is being reviewed, promoted or considered for an award, it’s generally the combination of all the elements, narrative and visual, that have to be taken into consideration when judging the book as a whole (or separate elements for specific awards e.g. CBI’s honour award for illustration which specifically recognises children’s book illustration). The writer and illustrator are co-creators of the finished work, whether they have physically worked together to produce a collaboration or, as is more common, whether they have been brought together by a publisher and work in isolation on their separate elements.

Sarah McIntyre, an American illustrator living in the UK, explains why recognition is so important when it comes to picturebook illustrators:


Sarah’s Pictures Mean Business campaign advocates for recognition for illustrators on an equal basis with authors, emphasising that their contribution fundamentally affects the reader’s experience: these are not just pictures to accompany a text. Good picturebooks have a synergy of text and image which results in a book which is greater than the sum of its parts. From a career development point of view, this recognition is crucial for illustrators. What good is it to an illustrator for their book to be an award-winner and a bestseller if their name is not associated with it? Authors and illustrators rely on contracts with publishers in order to make their living – pictures mean business in a literal way, in this context.

With the help of Illustrators Ireland and Laureate na nÓg PJ Lynch, CBI will continue to advocate for illustrators and to further the Pictures Mean Business campaign. CBI looks forward to meeting with the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards organisers and with publishers to discuss this issue further, with the aim of gathering support for a wider awareness-raising campaign so that picturebook illustrators are given proper credit for their work.