Books Make Things Better with Kieran Fanning

As a child, stories were a huge part of my life, in the form of play, TV, comics, video games, and of course, books. Our mother always encouraged us to read, and a trip to one of the two bookshops in Carlow town was always a treat.

However, it was perhaps a box of Weetabix that turned me into a writer. This particular box contained a free book, but one unlike anything I’d ever seen before – it was a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book. In this interactive series, the reader decides the direction of the story. My nine-year-old brain was well and truly blown. I read as many of these books as I could get my hands on, and even penned my own, The Magic Sword. I still have it!

From this series, I progressed to game books, in which the reader collected items and defeated enemies with dice. And again, I wrote my own version, The Samurai.

Fast forward into adulthood, and that love of interactive storytelling remained. I published my own series of interactive puzzle adventures with Mentor Books. These ‘Code Crackers’ later went on to be published in the Czech Republic and the US.

My first proper novel was published in 2015 by Chicken House and Scholastic. The Black Lotus is about a group of time-travelling, trainee ninjas with superpowers.

When Scholastic contacted me to write a book of Irish Fairy Tales, Myths & Legends, I jumped at the chance. I’d grown up with these stories, and as a teacher, had been exploring these tales with my students, for years. My editor basically gave me free rein in choosing what to include.

And so, my research began. A trip to the local library saw me return home with armfuls of material, and what fun it was to dive into a storytelling tradition that dates back thousands of years. It was lovely being reacquainted with familiar classics like the ‘Children of Lir’, ‘Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge’ and ‘Oisín in Tír na nÓg’. The problem I soon faced was what to put in, and what to leave out, and what order these stories should take.

I decided to divide the book into four sections. The Mythological Cycle contains some of Ireland’s oldest stories, like the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and Balor of the Evil Eye. The Ulster Cycle of stories is set around the first century during the reign of King Conor Mac Nessa, and primarily focuses on the warrior, Cúchulainn. The Fenian Cycle came about two hundred years later, and is mostly about the hero, Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The final section of Fairy Tales and Folklore are more recent and were part of an oral tradition of storytelling. A seanchaí (storyteller) would have travelled from village to village telling these stories around firesides. These tales often contained supernatural creatures like the banshee, fairies, leprechauns and the devil. Repetition, magic and talking animals were also common features.

Although these stories were the most recent, we decided to put them first in the book, as they are perhaps the most accessible to children outside of Ireland, and they also contain the most variety. Some of them, I’d been familiar with, like the story of Labhraidh Loingseach, but most were new to me. ‘The Lazy Beauty and Her Aunts’ is an Irish version of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale that we are all so familiar with. Similarly, ‘The Twelve Wild Geese’ is an example of an international wonder tale, with various countries having versions of it that include doves, ravens and ducks, instead of geese.

It was such a pleasure to discover these stories and to be allowed to retell them in my own way, while staying true to the source material. In the tradition of all the seanchaí who have gone before me, I added my own little flourishes and additions, tweaking some of the endings to make them more palatable for my audience, because stories like these are living, breathing things, and each time they are passed to a new generation they evolve a little. Hopefully, in the future, a storyteller or writer will take one of the stories in my book and add his/her own little twist.

This project was a joy to work on, and hopefully will help keep these magical stories alive for generations to come.