Inis 66: Bímís ag Léamh
In May 2020, two months into a pandemic that would last another two years, Áine Ní Ghlinn was announced as the sixth Laureate na nÓg (Children’s Laureate).
Laureate na nÓg is an amazing honour, an incredible award. However, blown away as I was by the honour itself, as far as I am concerned, the most important aspect of the role is the opportunity it affords. An opportunity to do something really worthwhile, to advance an aspect of children’s literature that you feel passionate about.
As Laureate, you can choose a project, and during your tenure, the Laureate na nÓg Project Manager and the Children’s Books Ireland team help you with the implementation and delivery of that project.
It was clear from the outset that any project would be challenging because of Covid-19. The entire project team, myself included, would be working from home. We were lucky, of course, that we had Zoom and could at least see one another on screen. However, there came a point when (as a friend of mine said) we were all dreaming ‘in 2D from the shoulders up!’ However, in spite of that, how would we have survived the pandemic without Zoom?
It was strange to be the Pandemic Laureate, the Lockdown Laureate. There were a lot of firsts - the first Laureate na nÓg to write exclusively in Irish; the first Laureate na nÓg who had to cut her own hair for the official photograph; the first Laureate na nÓg to be presented with her medal a year and a half after the initial appointment. When President Michael D Higgins made the ‘presentation’ in Áras an Uachtaráin, there was no actual presentation. The president was not allowed handle the medal and I was not allowed shake his hand. We had to maintain our distance. My three sons could not attend, not to mention friends or colleagues.
Did all this bother me?
I suppose it did – just a little. However, it was insignificant in the context of everything that was happening all around us as the virus raged through hospitals and families across the world. We all heard stories of people saying goodbye to their loved ones through hospital and nursing-home windows. We all saw the television footage of lorries transporting coffins from Bergamo in Italy.
I was lucky to be alive, healthy and busy. I knew that I could fulfil the role of Laureate na nÓg from home. There would be challenges but challenges are there to be overcome.
As regards the Laureate project, I knew I would be working – at least in the short term – from home. As the first Laureate na nÓg to write exclusively in Irish, I began with a broad and ambitious aim. I wanted to lift the cloak of invisibility from Irish-language children’s literature. I wanted everyone – young and old alike – to see the wide range of high-quality books available for young readers in the Irish language. Most of all, I wanted to inspire children to read in Irish for pleasure, and not just as schoolwork.
Easier said than done, of course. Fine words butter no parsnips. Mine was an ambitious aim. How would we achieve it? An added challenge, of course, was the fact that schools (the obvious place to find young readers) were operating online during the pandemic?
I thought back to my own childhood. What inspired me to read? I spent most of my childhood with my nose in a book. When I was in primary school, a library van used to come to the school from time to time with a wide range of English-language books.
As well as that mobile library, there was a small Irish-language library at the top of the classroom. This was my magic corner. A series I still remember was An Leaba a D’imigh HÚIS by Bernard Share and William Bolger. I read every book in that series again and again. There were school texts and novels too – Jimín Mháire Thaidhg, Séanna, Píobaire Hamelin and many others besides. I devoured them all.
Could that be a Laureate project? Could we offer starter Irish-language libraries to primary schools across the country? Could we add to whatever Irish-language libraries they already had?
Yes, that would be my project! A library box, a Bosca Leabharlainne, for primary schools. A box filled with beautiful, inspirational books for children to enjoy. Books to suit a range of age groups and reading ages.
This was a project that could certainly begin during lockdown.
By the time the preparation would be done and the boxes ready for delivery, surely the pandemic would be over. We had to believe that schools would be open again.
We now had a project. An ambitious project and a very costly one. The next step was finance.
Where would we get the money? There wasn’t a project ‘budget’. We needed funding. We needed partnership.
This turned out to be surprisingly easy. Much easier than I expected. Foras na Gaeilge very quickly saw the value of the project and came on board almost immediately. Within a few months, Children’s Books Ireland, Foras na Gaeilge and the Arts Council were all working together to realise my dream.
Children’s Books Ireland began with some research. Would schools welcome a Bosca Leabharlainne? It was clear that they would.
I began to read. I buried myself in children’s books as Gaeilge, reading every Irish-language book ever written for young readers. A lovely way to spend lockdown! Reading all day? What’s not to like? I read and re-read book after book. I made list after list. I spoke to experts. I listened to advice and suggestions. The lists kept on growing. They changed from day to day.
At that point, I had no idea how much money we would have to spend, how many books could be delivered to schools.
How could I even begin to make a selection?
If I could choose twenty books…
If I could choose fifty books…
If there could only be ten books in the Bosca Leabharlainne…
List after list after list.
We also had to consider the fact that the books that would suit Gaelscoileanna or Gaeltacht schools wouldn’t necessarily work for English-medium schools. The children wouldn’t have the same reading level. Books that a five-year old might read in a gaelscoil could be linguistically challenging for a ten-year old in an English-medium school.
There would have to be two boxes - one for Gaeltacht primary schools and Gaelscoileanna across the country (including Northern Ireland), and another for English-medium primary schools. Thanks to the generous funding from Foras na Gaeilge and the Arts Council, there would be twenty-five books in each box.
I made the final lists. Twenty-five wonderful books on each. However, there were other wonderful books that weren’t included in that twenty-five. These went onto the backup B-List. Children’s Books Ireland staff did Trojan work ordering books, coming back to me when certain books weren’t available, and ordering the next choice from the B-List. From selection to administration, this was already a huge project.
The next step was to contact schools. E-mail, press and social media were all involved in spreading the word. An application process was put in place so that schools could apply. Twenty schools would also get an artist in residence scheme. A separate application process was put in place for this.
Before too long, the applications were rolling in. The books came rolling in from the publishers. Finally, between February and March 2022, at a cost of €440,000 (from Foras na Gaeilge and the Arts Council), 2,200 library boxes were sent out to schools all over the country – a total of 55,000 carefully selected books. No application was rejected. Every school that applied received their Bosca Leabharlainne.
We had a minor concern that in some schools, the Bosca Leabharlainne might end up left in a corner, unloved and unused. Not every teacher would be interested in promoting reading for pleasure in Irish. Not every teacher would be confident enough about their own reading skills. How could we inspire teachers to use and enjoy the books? Children’s Books Ireland suggested a handbook to be included in every Bosca Leabharlainne, a handbook that would offer ideas on how to get full value from the books.
Dr Claire Marie Dunne from Marino Institute of Education (an expert with a lot of experience in creating reading guides and resources) and I went to work immediately. We compiled approximately eighty ideas – ideas for games and activities: pre-reading activities, reading activities and post-reading activities. Claire Marie and the Children’s Books Ireland team assembled the booklet (Bímis ag Léamh). As well as hard copies in each Bosca Leabharlainne, the booklet is available online at www.childrenslaureate.ie.
Online too (at the same link), there are videos made by three writers, Sadhbh Devlin, Máire Zepf and Muireann Ní Chíobháin with even more ideas about how to encourage reading.
As regards the artist-in-residence scheme, there were hundreds of applications. We couldn’t accommodate every school that applied, and it was extremely difficult to choose twenty. Ultimately, twenty-one were chosen. Following an online seminar with the Laureate team, the artists got to work. Their task would be to work with children and teachers to promote reading as Gaeilge for pleasure and to engage staff and students alike in having fun with the Bosca Leabharlainne.
From the stories that came back to us as well as the messages and photos shared on social media, it was clear that this aspect of the scheme was overwhelmingly successful. We heard stories about games and plays; we saw photos of crafts and reading parties. The schools selected for this scheme were certainly the lucky ones. We would have loved to accommodate another twenty-one!
Foras na Gaeilge’s generosity went a step further again. They provided additional funding – €116,000 – for the residency scheme. Every child who took part in the scheme would receive two books to take home: a total of twenty-one schools and 4,148 students. In other words, another 8,296 books. On top of that, the extra funding allowed us to provide even more books for the ‘residency’ schools. A further 8,451 books were gifted to the schools themselves. These were allocated in proportion to the number of students per school.
From beginning to end, this was a major endeavour for the Children’s Books Ireland team. The administration involved went far beyond the call of duty! From the early research stage to the applications process, to the ordering, sorting, packing and distribution of books, the CBI team did incredible work.
To my knowledge, this is the single biggest Irish-language literature project ever undertaken. More than half a million euro has been spent on access for children to Irish-language books, on inspiring children to read for pleasure rather than as school or homework.
I am so grateful to the Arts Council and to Children’s Books Ireland for giving me this incredible opportunity, to the staff of Children’s Books Ireland who did so much work during and after the pandemic to realise my dream, to the Arts Council and Foras na Gaeilge for the provision of extraordinary funding, and to everyone who helped and advised me from the beginning.
My term as Laureate na nÓg will come to an end in May 2023. A lot has been achieved. However, there is always more to be done and I hope the good work will continue beyond that date.
Ideally, I would like to see training offered to young teachers and student teachers, so they know how to promote reading as Gaeilge for pleasure. I would also hope that An Bosca Leabharlainne will not be forgotten in a year’s time. This starter library could be built on from year to year and I would hope that schools, parents and libraries will continue to inspire children and young people to enjoy reading as Gaeilge for pleasure.
Let’s get reading. Bímis ag léamh.