In March 2015 I spent a most enjoyable week in the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre in Yorkshire with my good friend Sheena Wilkinson. We were co-tutors on a residential writing course for some rather lively primary school children from the North East of England.
I always like to sit in on my co-tutor’s sessions, and in one of them Sheena handed out pictures. Mine was of a young girl, running across a shore, carrying a baby (or was it a doll?). If I remember rightly, we had twenty minutes to write a story.
The photo got me thinking about islands, about storms – Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island, off the Lleyn Peninsula, in North Wales, where I’d once had a week-long residency (unhampered by school-children, as it turned out, for the weather turned after I arrived, and it was too dangerous for any of them to attempt the crossing); Cruit Island, off the coast of Donegal, where I live.
I wrote and I wrote, and when Sheena told us to stop, there it was: Molly and the Stormy Sea. When I got home, after polishing it up, I tried the story out on a Welsh publisher who’d done some of my picture books before – but they were between editors and not in the mood for making decisions.
So I sent it to Andy Whitson, because a) I’ve long been an admirer of his work, and b) I like him. He loved the story and started drawing straight away but, try as he might, he couldn’t get funding for it – basically because I’d written it in English, not Irish.
So, very reluctantly, and only after a L-O-N-G time, I had to take it away from him. By now I was working with a new, rather exciting, Welsh publisher called Graffeg – this year they’re publishing Ootch Cootch, a picturebook I’ve written and my daughter Hannah Doyle is illustrating. I sent them Molly – and they loved it. Sneakily, without asking Andy, I also sent them an illustration he’d done for it.
Result! They wanted both! But would Andy – who only ever worked for An tSnáthaid Mhór, his own outfit – play ball? It turned out he would. I was over the moon.
But not half as over the moon as I was as the pictures started rolling in. They are utterly gorgeous. It is a beautiful book.
Sheena’s over the moon, too – that a workshop of hers has had such a happy result. And she confessed to me recently that the picture that inspired my story had actually been given to her to write about by Malorie Blackman, a past Children’s Laureate of Britain, on the very first Arvon course she went to as a student. What goes around comes around.
So Andy is publishing the book in Irish, under his own imprint – the translation is by Myra Zepf, Northern Ireland’s first Children’s Writing Fellow – under the title Muireann agus an Fharraige Fhiáin.
And Graffeg are publishing it in Welsh – they’ve only ever published in English before –under the title Mali a’r Môr Stormus.
So my twenty minute writing exercise is to be published simultaneously in Irish, English and Welsh. Could that be a first? A very delightful first?