Inis 66: Party Lines
As part of the ongoing celebrations highlighting twenty-five years of the organisation, former Children’s Books Ireland Director Mags Walsh, sat down with current CEO Elaina Ryan to ask questions submitted by friends and colleagues of the organisation.
In the past two years, the Children’s Books Ireland awards have seen books by a Traveller and an Irish person of colour win awards. Do you think the democracy and inclusiveness of the judging process played a part in shining the light on those books, which otherwise may have been ignored? Also, what do we need to do as an industry to make sure minority voices are heard?
So yes, and no. I do think the awards process is hugely inclusive, I do think it’s hugely democratic, and I think that the values of inclusion and representation, while they’re not named as our values in the strategic plan, have very much been built into the organisation. I think those books have come to the fore, because the judges can only work with what’s there. And they haven’t been there before. You know, Why the Moon Travels is an extraordinary book and a worthy award-winner, but it also is the first book by an Irish Traveller about Traveller folk tales that has appeared. And likewise, with Adiba Jaigirdar, she had two books out in the one year to be judged one against the other, she was effectively in competition with herself.
So those books are new to the industry. And what the industry needs to do is keep going. I think it’s not enough to just have one. The danger always is just to say, well, we’ve done that now, for Sinéad Burke to be the only little person, or for Adiba to be the only person of colour. I think we also need to look at the entire cycle of publishing. We’re doing our Raising Voices programme at the moment, which is supported through the Arts Council Capacity Building project and in partnership with the Dublin Book Festival, Illustrators Ireland, Publishing Ireland and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. It’s an amazing project. And it’s really hands on for six Fellows.
Now, that’s not a lot of people. Underrepresented voices is what we wanted – and we got a lot of underrepresented voices applying, but they’re not applying equally, so we’re not reaching them equally. We’re not hearing from as many traveller writers or trans writers as we are, from, say, the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community. So even within what we assume might be a homogenous group, there’s more of an intersectionality and a real range of who’s included and who’s not.
We need to be making sure that the publishers are still getting those voices through and making sure that the booksellers are making space for them and selling them in the same way as they sell other books and that it doesn’t become this kind of specialist niche. There is loads of work to be done, but also there is lots of excellent research, especially coming out of the UK. So I think everybody is learning and learning very fast.
This theme has come up a couple of times – if you had three wishes that the government had to grant Children’s Books Ireland, what would they be?
Okay, first easy one, I would ask them for a sustainable school library grant for every school in the country, primary and secondary. Which would be enough to get the libraries to where they ought to be. So having that advised eleven-to-fifteen book items per head in the school library. And that the library can be refreshed, and also that there would be a qualified librarian with it. This is all one wish, the librarian isn’t separate!
You sound like you’re trying to trick the genie in Aladdin!
Yeah, I am surely! I know that the JCSP libraries make such a massive impact in the schools that they’re in, but there are only thirty of them. So we’ve thousands of schools who just don’t have the books, that expertise, and who also don’t have the time to lift their heads for all of the resources that are there for them. in light of the current UK Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell releasing her Life-changing Libraries report this week, we are looking at all those components of a gold standard library, including resources and expertise and space and brilliant books. Ongoing money for school libraries to even the playing field for every child would be magnificent.
The second thing, I think, will be our baby book-gifting. The First Five strategy out of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is a remarkable thing, once it all gets delivered on. I would really love for that to be rolled out in the way that Book Start exists in so many countries around the world. I’ve just come from an EU Read meeting in Brussels, and spent two days listening to people talking about early years book gifting. The likes of Finland, where their population is not enormously bigger than ours, are giving away tens of thousands of books every year to babies and looking for sustainable investment. So, again, that statement that a book can be read to a child from the very, very, very start for all families, regardless of their background, I think is hugely important. And it’s a message that we really need to get across.
What else am I going to wish for? There are such big things that need to be dealt with. I think there’s a huge amount to be done in terms of child poverty and direct provision that just is a block for everything else. So while you can have specific initiatives that put patches on everything, I think, properly looking at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and looking at what the Children’s Rights Alliance are saying about what needs to be done for children’s wellbeing overall, is huge.
And there’s going to have to be massive investment in that very broad, ‘How are children doing?’ question, particularly after Covid, because I think we haven’t seen half of the extent of how that’s knocked onto people. From learning loss and children who are anxious and to the much more extreme scale of things for children who are not in safe environments.
Three good wishes there; address child poverty and the lack of rights for certain children, sort out book-gifting and sort out school libraries.
The next bunch of questions are from my special guests and I suspect you will guess who they are as I move through. What do you actually do in work?
Oh, what a very hard question to explain to a four year old, and I try, often. Well, the easiest explanation is that I have a team and our team’s job is to make sure that children are reading for fun, and that they have the chance to read for fun. And that somewhere in their life they have books, and their adults know things about those books. That is the simplest way to put it because they don’t want to know about the accounts and policies and everything else.
What Sadhbh also wants to know is why do you wear earrings to work?
I do like a big earring! Well, I find bracelets very hard when I’m typing. I do like jewellery to dress-up an outfit, and I’m around a lot of artsy folks who appreciate my earrings. I do have a tiny pair of book earrings, but I don’t wear those ones very often.
So this is kind of a combined question from [Elaina’s daughters] Fiadh and Sadhbh – How many books have you talked about this year? And how many books have you talked about in all the time that Children’s Books Ireland has been around?
It’s enormous because generally, there’s all kinds of talking about books. There’s the media – formal talking about books – where you’re going, hello, Claire Byrne, here are fifteen books that I’m going to recommend to you. But then we’re talking about books all day: we have a Slack [online] workplace, which now functions as the office for all intents and purposes, we spend an awful lot of time flagging up new books there, particularly if it is brand new Irish débuts, and there’s a huge amount of them coming through for this year, and next year, an awful lot of people just getting published. So I mean, if we said that we talked about seven books every day?
I think I think you talk about more than seven books a day, because even in this chat, you’ve named about five books, and if you’ve had a couple of chats in the day?
Yeah we do chat in short hand so you're kind of constantly just throwing out ideas. And anytime you meet anyone, like at the recent Global Ireland Summit, sitting next to diplomats and they’re like, ‘Oh, great. I have a three-year-old; can you recommend me some books?’ and you just end up leaving them bits of your notebook with Chris Haughton and Oliver Jeffers and Aoife Greenham scribbled on it. So it is very hard to calculate!
And finally, a question from both of them. Do you ever colour in the books in the office?
No! Not unless they’re colouring books. No, you cannot colour in the books and we’ve had conversations about this! We don’t get a lot of colour-in books in the office, so no, I certainly do not colour in the books but I’m very interested in how the illustrators colour in the books, I’m always fascinated with their process. But I would not attempt to do it myself!
So we’re back to kind of the question surrounding Children’s Books Ireland and its size and things. This again, was a theme that emerged quite a bit. How big do you think the organisation should grow? And is there a point when big becomes too big?
So there has been this ongoing constant swing. I suppose trying to balance the ambition of the organisation and of the team, with size of the team. And trying to get that right. The more that we want to do, the more we have to add, and then those new people are very excited about things. And we say yes, and then we do more and, and it’s just kind of grown organically where we’ve managed to bring people in. Sometimes that’s down to funding and there’s always a master plan behind it.
We’ve had several restructures to allow us to do the things that we want to do. I don’t know how big it should grow. I was speaking to somebody at Scottish Book Trust. They now have, I think seventy headcount, Stichting Lezen in Germany has sixty and BookTrust UK has something like eighty. I think that is oftentimes down to the addition of a big chunk of government funding to run their national baby book-gifting programmes and I don’t think that we actually want to do that.
I feel that the government has their strategy, they want to do the baby book-gifting, they’re going to do their pilot and trial it with their six-thousand babies. Hopefully, it will be rolled out wider and we can lend our expertise. So I don’t see us being that team of fifty. Now, if we could be twenty, that will be really helpful. We are currently about eleven–twelve, depending on the time of year, whether we have an Awards Administrator in the door, and that growth has been both amazing and challenging.
Because actually, the hop in 2019, from an incredible major donor coming on board, allowed us to add a Communications Officer, which we could never go back from; a part-time Research & Evaluation Officer, which is amazing, because it allows us to gather a huge body of evidence, which makes our case much stronger, which makes our actual initiatives much stronger, because we can be addressing the needs and the gaps that are out there. And we can be evaluating our programmes properly and talking about their impact.
Other funding has allowed us to add people to our book-gifting team. So it’s been absolutely mega to have the team grow. However, we’re still probably about two bodies down for the level of work that there is there to do, so it’s constantly trying to figure: How big is the role? How much can we say yes to? and managing that risk from a governance point of view as a charity, of bringing more bodies in and being able to sustain them. We’re playing with that all the time and trying to be as responsible as we possibly can. But there’s also plenty that we would really love to do if we had more people.
I think communications is always a huge thing, the problem with Children’s Books, Ireland has always been that we are doing incredible stuff, but why don’t more people know about it? I think teachers are so busy, they’re being asked to do 20,000 things at any given time, especially since Covid, where they have a huge kind of wellbeing and stewardship remit on top of, ‘it’s science week’, ‘it’s maths week’, ‘teach the actual curriculum’. So having an additional communications person; having an educational outreach person, dedicated to actually speaking to teachers and meeting them where they are, would be extraordinary. Having someone to support on general communications and PR would be amazing. Having a publications person would be amazing so that we can split that out from a current role. So, I’m going to say I would like us, in the near future, to be twenty.
What has working for Children’s Books Ireland taught you? Have you picked up any life lessons?
So many life lessons. I feel like every day is a learning day, from a professional point of view. It’s a completely different job now to when I started. There is the whole professional development side of things over the last few years in terms of growth, and management of a team, and working remotely. And also the fundraising element of things and the newer focuses on equality and diversity, and inclusion and sustainability. It feels like constant learning. There is absolutely something every day and sometimes it’s small, but very important – like yesterday we were talking about flags and inclusion and what the colours on the Pride flag mean. Or picking up about new authors and illustrators, or to be learning from someone about how their organisation functions or project ideas that they have.
From a personal point of view, it’s very hard to narrow it down, you get to work with such unbelievable people. From the core team, to this sort of army of supporters on the outside, and then to the army of supporters of Children’s Books Ireland who have come before us – from executive team, to all of the board members who have served, the founding members who have served, the actual members. So life lessons out of it are quite difficult.
I suppose getting to know people better over the years. You have no idea of what people have going on at home, as a general life lesson, you know, you just have no idea of what people have going on in the background. And I think children’s book people bring the best of themselves to whatever they’re doing. And that has been almost to a man (and mostly woman) across the whole children’s books community. It’s such a lovely place to work. It is such a lovely, lovely community to work in. The other thing I’ve learned that I could probably learn a bit more is that, ‘“No.” is a complete sentence’. At some point, we need a poster that says, ‘No more new ideas’!
Ah yes, we used to say it ten years ago – no more ideas!
Going back to the growth of the team, my job really at the moment, and probably the biggest learning over the last two years when we have been hyper-productive and said ‘yes’ to everything (partly to keep the organisation afloat and keep things going during the pandemic but mostly because we could do something good) If someone asked, ‘Can you spend this €32,000 on books for vulnerable children at Christmas?’, well, we have to say yes to that. So now, having kind of come out the other end of the pandemic, I think, actually, the biggest lesson is to cut your cloth. There will always be more to be done. But it’s like having a really big handbag, you just get a bigger handbag and fill it with more stuff, you will always find more things to do.
Also sometimes things are good things, but they’re not strategically relevant to us. We have put a decision-making matrix in place, because oftentimes, an amazing project will come our way or there’ll be an idea but it’s actually not our remit to do it. We cannot get blinded by the fact that things are a brilliant thing to do when they’re not actually for us to do. And so you have to be really careful about what you say yes to. That is probably the biggest lesson, that I should write down somewhere.
It needs to be on a framed Post It note!
You’ve attended many events and talks over the years with children’s writers and Illustrators from conferences to festival panels. Do you have a standout event that you’ll never forget?
There are different types of events, there are events for children and there are events for us nerdy grown-ups who just want to see the people who are there to talk us through their work. So for the nerdy grown-ups, Jon Klassen at that Rebels & Rulebreakers conference was such a dream. I love his work, I think it’s so smart, so witty. He and Mac Barnett are just beautiful company to be in. And seeing all of his mad unpublished books, it wasn’t even the year with ‘Failure’ as the theme, but it was a howl. I just thought it was so generous of him, and Sarah Crossan was that year as well. I remember her putting up her notebooks and not realising it was going to be a cinema screen. You could read them all clearly, and she thought it was going be like a small screen!
So I think broadly speaking, people are so generous when they come and speak to communities of adults who come from the same world as them. And Jon Klassen is something that I will always remember because I just felt it was like a look inside his brain. As a follow-up, we programmed Mac and Jon for Christmas 2020 on Zoom, and it was just so lovely. They were talking about Extra Yarn and the fight that they had with their editor about certain things. There’s a character in the book in a kind of a string vest and shorts, and Annabel knits him a hat because he doesn’t want a jumper. And at first Jon drew him with a brown paper bag with a bottle in it, and he had nothing on and you could see his nipples. Their editors were like, ‘this is inappropriate’.
But the big fight that they had was about the direction of travel, basically when the evil guy in the boat comes along and wants to buy Annabel’s box of yarn, the boat is going the wrong direction, and Jon just cannot live with that fact; all the picturebook illustrators were hooked. But it also appealed to people who maybe didn't think so much about the structure of a picturebook. I love that they can be so approachable and so detailed, and so funny and so generous with their time. Jon and Mac are my two favourites in that respect.
They seem to really resonate with the Irish books community don’t they, there’s something very special about that relationship.
Absolutely, Mac Barnett’s Book Club Show Book Club for both grown-ups and children was so sustaining during the pandemic, my kids absolutely loved it. California-time afternoon used to be our bedtime here. So, at about seven o’clock every evening, we would put Mac on and he would read a book of his until he just ran out of them, and then he started reading other people’s books and reading from his older chapter books. It was so generous and so entertaining, and so comforting during the pandemic to have that so yeah, I think we’ve a real soft spot for him. Also I think in terms of children’s events, Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve are just astonishing to watch. They are so funny, and it’s not everyone can or should do that.
Something I learned coming up under Siobhán Parkinson at Little Island Books, was always to be very aware that not everybody has to be all singing, all dancing, or all performance and games all the time. And it’s not making less of those folks who want to go in and not talk about themselves but do creative writing workshops instead. But [Sarah and Philip’s] physical presence does so much for them in front of a group of three-hundred people, where you know, she’s wearing two hoops under that skirt and has made a fascinator herself, and Phillip is singing on a ukulele about pony poo! I’ve had those songs in my head for days and I think, paired with the quality of their brilliant books, they are stand-out when it comes to events.
Interesting that both of those cases were duos. I love them too, to see people in pairs, bouncing off each other and in turn bouncing off the audience.
Tell me more about Children’s Books Ireland’s work in areas of disadvantage and how it works?
Book-gifting has grown to be an enormous beast. When Daiden O Regan, our Children & Young People’s Programme Manager, left this year, I went to rewrite her job spec from 2018, and book gifting was mentioned just at the end of her existing spec: ‘and also book gifting’. Now, we have a Book-gifting Manager and a Book-gifting Assistant, both full-time roles. It has grown hugely.
In February 2018, we started out with the five Robert Dunbar Memorial Libraries. They were put in as a start to try to plug the gap that the lack of school library funding had left, and as a means of honouring Robert, because we wanted to do something for him that would have meant something to him, and something that Carol and the family were happy with and could stand over. Also to give us more of an insight into what was actually needed so that we could lobby properly with evidence. And that’s just built up over the years. When we talk to funders, and partners and corporates about it, they’re horrified that there is no money, they can’t believe it … they just cannot believe that there is no money, they find it so shocking. That shows that it hasn’t been in the news, nobody’s talking about it and it’s just quietly been let happen. So it started there. And it grew enormously.
We looked at what was really needed and what we could do, so we did more and more of that school book gifting and then added Bookseed in Limerick, the baby book-gifting scheme, which was a huge labour of love to set up in terms of establishing a relationship with the public health nurses and with the libraries there, who are phenomenal. And it grew. And we realised that we were good at it and we could do it well. We could use our expertise to pick books that were going to work for the children in that area, that we knew how to get funding for it, and that it would actually make a difference. So it just got bigger and bigger.
Because that whole idea of making sure that children have access to books is very much a two-pronged beast: one is to plug the gap and the other is to lobby and to advocate. That kind of big picture vision, we have to get this to stop being a problem on the large scale. While also doing as much as we possibly can to alleviate the problem. It became a huge, huge thing.
We had been working for a long time with Riverbank Arts Centre and they were in touch with the children in direct provision locally. They talked to us about what they were doing with those families. They had given them each a ‘culture card’, so that the children could come over and watch a movie and get popcorn and visit the gallery and take part in everything. Riverbank are so amazing on participation and autonomy for young audiences, and it made us really think about what it was that we could do for those children. We also learned a lot in the pandemic by putting ImagineNation out into the world. It was an activity book full of commissions from Irish authors and illustrators, and it worked really well for a lot of children. We were trying to get to everybody, regardless of who has a printer at home or not. But some kids don’t have crayons. You know, some kids don’t have English as a first language.
So we had a version of it that was simplified and that was based on the feedback after the first round of sending ImagineNation to direct provision centres. We learned a lot from that. But also, we were hearing about the children who were worst off during Covid. And that really pushed us to talk to our partners about what we could do about that and how we could reach them. And I suppose by partners, I mean funders in this context, but also we had a huge amount of charity partners. We reached out to all sorts of organisations, like St Vincent De Paul to individual direct provision centres. We work with the UN High Commission on Refugees. We were working with women’s refuges, with parents in prison.
There was a huge range of children that we reached. We set that up as a Christmas appeal every year and it was enormous in 2020, with thanks to the Arts Council coming in with funding, and then KPMG matching it and Toyota Ireland coming in with more. And we had to trust our partners on the ground, that they knew how to get it to the children who needed it most, whether that was BUMBLEance or Children in Hospital, Ireland. So those relationships with other charity partners have been hugely helpful in terms of the big Christmas blast of books.
Getting to build up schools’ awareness of what we’re doing has been enormous for the school book-gifting. This year some 647 schools applied for our book-gifting programmes; that’s one in every eight schools on the island of Ireland. The applications tell you an awful lot about what’s going on in schools and about how you can measure deprivation, and I don’t like to use that word but it is relevant. The DEIS model is no good for just black and white saying these are the people who need it, and these are the people who don’t; we ask for a narrative description of why they need these books. And we read all of those.
We have learned a lot over the last while by listening to what the need is and where it is, and we have put the hand out to an awful lot of amazing funders who have said ‘Yes’, from the Community Foundation for Ireland, to the Ireland Funds, individual donors, our own Leading Lights who have thrown €10 or €12, or more in many cases, in the pot. It’s something very tangible, so it’s something that individual donors, as well as funders, can understand and very clearly see the need for, so we’ve been able to do as much as we can.
We’ve kind of touched on this before in the three wishes, but this is back to a money question. If Children’s Books Ireland or Inis had an unlimited budget, what would you like to introduce?
Well, we need somewhere to live, don’t we? So let’s get an office that fits us all and has storage space and is easy to work in, that is accessible and has WiFi that works all the time and hot water! I remember presentations of yours, Mags, from ten years ago, that started: ‘Imagine we lived in a place like this’. And I think, again, growth is an ambition of the organisation, so headcounts, we just need more bodies in the door. And that would be very exciting in terms of what it is that we can do.
If we can have a unlimited money, then maybe we can run the school library system, we could just become a sub-Department of Education or make them a donation every now and then, I think it would help us to increase the reach massively, because you would get all of the resources to where they need to go. There’s an awful lot either in our office or on our website, just waiting to find the right parent, caregiver or teacher.
For Inis, I think we could probably grow the editorial team even more. So we split it, we’ve now got three editors, we have a zero to nine, a ten to young adult and an Irish language editor. And they’re always busy, because the publishing industry just keeps churning out books and never stops. It’s absolutely enormous. And it’s so much work.
I would like to pay our whole team properly for the level of work that we’re doing. We have so many volunteers, hundreds of volunteer reviewers who do this out of the goodness of their hearts for a book token at the end of the year, and that’s something we only added in Covid, because they were reviewing from PDFs, and didn’t even get an advance copy of the book to keep. The arts is generally underpaid – we set fair rates for artists, and we’re benchmarking our own team at the moment, but at the same time, you would love to sit down and just know, comfortably, that everybody’s value is being recognised from the artists that we work with, to the freelancers, to the core team.
I think everything can grow, you just want to do it bit by bit so that everything doesn’t get out of hand either. So I think we’ll grow things bit by bit to make sure that we’re doing it right.
What’s the most surprising things you’ve learned about children’s books or the industry in general?
It continuously surprises me that while the reputation of children’s books has grown and everyone is standing on their own two feet, you still get an awful lot of people who ask, ‘Why aren’t you going to write for adults? or ‘When are you going to write a proper book?’. So, seeing children’s books as little brother or sister, it endlessly surprises me that folks can’t see the craft that’s involved in making the books. Also just the number of people who have a book in them. Absolutely everywhere you go, somebody’s writing a book and they want your advice.
And a good proportion of them actually make it, that’s what surprised me over the years, a goodly proportion of them do actually make it?
Yeah, absolutely. There are people slugging away for years, but I think people in children’s book-affiliated professions will make it, and that’s not really a surprise, because they are very much of that world.
What’s been the lowest point in Children’s Books Ireland and what’s been your greatest challenge?
Hmm, it’s kind of the same question, I suppose. The greatest challenge is trying to deliver on what it is we want to do and look after the team at the same time, especially over the last two and a half years. That has absolutely been the biggest challenge. I think, Children’s Books Ireland has always been a place where we are very invested in the team that runs everything. And everyone is a leader, you are responsible for all of your projects, even now that we’ve got more specialised jobs. And while you’re not responsible for your own communications, or your own evaluation or your own translation to the Irish language any more, you are still very much a leader within a small team.
I think we said yes to everything, during Covid. It has been a very hard in one sense; it was very easy to move online in 2020 and to still do everything. But we were all operating on fumes and the buzz of doing amazing things, and managing to thrive and to do stuff that would make a difference to children when they absolutely needed it most. But now we need to de-escalate. The challenge is very much slowing down that pace, not doing more than we can take on and looking after everyone in the process.
We haven’t been immune to the great resignation, people are re-evaluating what they want to do and where they want to be and they have their own things going on. And so there’s a lot of new team in the door at the moment. I’m currently without a fundraiser, a new Administrator & Office Manager and a Financial Controller started in June, our book-gifting team started in May, our new Oifigeach Gaeilge started earlier in the year, and our new Laureate na nÓg Project Manager started in January.
Effectively, it’s almost a total renewal of the team in the last year, other than Jenny, she’s here eighteen years, and Aoife, who is here eleven years – the originals are still standing! After no turnover for probably the first six, seven years of my career at Children’s Books Ireland, there has been a lot of people moving at the same time. So maintaining that lovely, lovely culture within the team, especially when everybody is remote and it’s harder to build up that kind of shorthand, relaxed atmosphere and just understanding of people outside of outside of the zoom box.
That’s quite difficult. It’s not something that was difficult in the early days of Covid; we picked up our laptops, we left, we got the work done and everybody knew each other. We had great craic on quizzes, we did Irish classes, we had virtual drinks. And everything was kind of okay. It’s actually now, I think, is the hard part, and now is the time that we need to get folks back face-to-face. Because it might seem like such a soft thing, but that team behind the scenes, liking each other is one of the levers of change, if you’re going to be all theory of change about it, and I think it’s essential.
And Children’s Books Ireland has always benefited from a very positive culture. It’s always had that kind of thing going through it for many years.
Having stupid quizzes and sending people jellies in the post every now and then will get you an awful long way. And I think when you’re too busy to do that stuff, you know that something is wrong. So it’s just keeping that warmth. We named warmth as one of our values, which is a bit of a mad value from a corporate point of view, in one sense, but ‘excellence’, ‘connection’, and ‘warmth’, were the three things that we landed on. And I’m really sorry that we didn’t put fun in there, it seemed very light at the time. But actually, it’s at the heart of absolutely everything, I’m going to put it in there for the next strategic plan.
Thanks to our Research & Evaluation Officer, I’ve found some evidence that shows that the enjoyment of reading is actually crucial to all the other benefits of reading. And it is the one piece of research that I think everything at Children’s Books Ireland falls into, you have to be having fun when you’re doing this as a young person, as an artist as well, I think if you’re not having fun, you’re not going to keep doing it as a writer or an illustrator.
How did you manage having the kids at home and work during Covid?
It was really very structured in the beginning, because when we were all at home, I would start at half, seven or eight in the morning and work until one, two, or three o’clock. And then Rob, my husband, would switch. And then he would work from, say, one o’clock until six or seven o’clock, and then we put the kids down to bed and then we would both work in the evening. So it was just fairly solid work. And I think that you’re kind of running on fumes, but actually, it was fine. Because you knew it was a short period of time, because you’re so invested in what it is you’re doing but you don’t want to be doing that in the long run. But it was actually kind of okay, in that first bout, in a weird sense. You know, it wasn’t in lots of senses. I’m sure we have rose-tinted glasses looking back at it.
I sort of don’t even remember, it’s kind of like the thing that childbirth does, slightly wiped from your brain. And it’s only when I see photos of that first week or two that I was oh, I remember seeing that, and I remember taking every teddy out …
Oh yes, we played a concert for the teddies. I got a big roll of paper, it’s still stuck on the kitchen cupboard and I put about one-hundred activities on it. At the time the kids were two and four, and it was mostly for our own heads to have a really quick cheat for when we felt ‘oh my god we’re cracking up, what can we do?’ I drew the pictures of what it was next to the word because at the time Fiadh couldn’t read and Sadhbh was only two, so with a four-year-old and a two-year-old it was things like ‘let’s play sink or float’ or ‘let’s make a St. Patrick’s Day cards’. We’ve had three St. Patrick’s days of this poster being up!
Obviously we’re not short of books and we could run a Montessori school with all the stuff that we have here for them. My mother sells art supplies for schools, so we had squeezy bottles of paint and everything coming from Waterford with couriers. We actually had to split the day, we couldn’t work with the kids in the background because they were too small. When we are working at home now, my kids have been in meetings with my ‘work friends’. They’ve been babysat by Jenny while I’ve been doing things on stage. You know, there’s been everyone mucking in and people being very tolerant.
Do you practice speeches in front of a mirror before you do them?
No! I’ve never done that.
Do you talk off the cuff more often than not?
It depends on what it is. And I can absolutely speak off the cuff for media things, while always having a list prepared for recommending books, but it doesn’t throw me if someone throws you a random question like, ‘What did you like to read as a teenager?’ That kind of thing is absolutely fine. But if I’m standing up at, say, the Children’s Books Ireland Conference, and I have a twenty-minute slot where I’ve got to go through an awful lot of things that we want to tell our people about, then no, I absolutely don’t do that off the cuff. And I don’t do well when I do that kind of stuff off the cuff because I forget things. So I think it’s useful to be flexible, and you want to be natural when you’re trying to speak publicly. But a certain amount of preparation is always useful.
I really thought the subtext of those questions were – Elaina is really good at this, and I want to figure out how to get good!
I think I would do a terrible job speaking to myself in the mirror. I was asked to do a TEDx Talk right before Covid [which was since cancelled], about books and reading and it frightened the life out of me because you have to be so rehearsed, and so polished, absolutely, word by word. And they send you all the guides for how you do this, and they pair you with somebody to be a coach on that. You have to stick your cue cards around your house so that you’re looking at them for weeks. And it made me really anxious – and public speaking generally doesn’t make me anxious. Doing media doesn’t make me anxious. But that kind of thing of having a speech absolutely word perfect like an actor.
If you could interview any children’s author, illustrator past or present, who would it be?
Oh, I have been very lucky to be able to interview lots of them. And David Almond was such a dream, to be able to do that right before I started this job. I’d like to speak to Kate DiCamillo. She was one of those conference guests who did her presentation and blew everybody away. And I’d quite like to get into it, go probing. I think she’s got such a lovely attitude and she’s so talented. She’s one of those amazing humans that works from picturebooks right up through the ages.
I’ve been spoiled, to be fair; we get to speak to lots of the lovely and useful people. They’re not always what you expect either.
It’s always a mystery. When they walk into the room, you’re like, will they be who I think they are going to be? Have I put too much on them? Will I find out that they’re painfully shy and that they hate doing this thing, and I feel really bad for putting them in that situation in the first place? Or will they be dancing on George’s Street with us at three o'clock in the morning? What will they jump into?
Absolutely! Sometimes it’s actually dangerous to want to interview the folks that you have an awful lot of yourself invested in. And I’ve seen really poor interviews – actually, with David Almond. Where it was in Italian interviewer and I stayed for half an hour and I still didn’t get the meat of the interview because the translator was just translating all the lovely things that the interviewer wanted to say to David Almond about David Almond. It can be tricky to stay on track if you are completely overwhelmed by the human who’s in front of you. It’s always good fun to interview Eoin Colfer because you don’t really have to ask very much; he just runs with it. But I’ll take it Kate DiCamillo for now because I haven’t gotten to speak to her individually and I think she’s fabulous.
Who’s your favourite Laureate na nÓg?
I couldn’t possibly choose from all my children! That’s an answer I learned from Siobhán Parkinson who gets asked, ‘which of your own books is your favourite?’ I love them all in different ways.
Very good, very diplomatic answer. When you retire, we’re curious if you have plans to become the President of Ireland?
No, I have no plans to become the President of Ireland. I’m leaving that seat for you. Myself and Sarah Bannan [Head of Literature at the Arts Council] will help with your campaign, as we agree that that is the place for you, Mags. No, I certainly won’t be going near Áras an Uachtaráin, except to visit.
What gives you joy?
What a lovely question. More and more, I am realising that I need people. I need real people, real human people to thrive. In the last month, everything has opened. For the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards we had five hundred people in a tent in Merrion Square, and all those people are very much a part of what it is that we’re doing. And I didn’t really realise that that gave me such energy. So seeing our new team members, some on day two of their jobs, mucking in and running the awards with us alongside our long-term colleagues in one space; alongside all the shortlistees and their families, who in turn are all thanking us for looking after their ‘children’. Having that actual community around us is so important, and it felt like breathing a sigh of relief to have it back.
As well as now having the ability back to then step away from it and take some time go to New York to a family wedding, and to see Hamilton on stage, and visit the Tenement Museum. It’s that dose of, ‘I’m gonna get out here and be an adult without my children, with my husband, in some culture, and eat some delicious food’. Having dim sum in Chinatown, while it was absolutely pouring outside, and just remembering those bits of yourself when your whole life has become children and work. It’s so important. So it takes having all the bodies back around to remind us of that, and that what we do is really important for them because so much of it has been removed over the last little while.
Helping children and books to find each other sometimes means bringing books directly to the children. But the most effective way to do this, in the long run, is to work with adults, especially teachers and librarians, who can bring books to hundreds of children over a career. Do you feel a tension between your professional awareness of the value of working with adults? The pressure to expend most of your energy working directly with children?
No, I don’t. It is very clear to me that there are reasons we talk to different audiences and that we talk to them in different ways. So it doesn’t feel at all like a tension. There are plenty of things causing tension in terms of how I divide my time and how we all as a team divide our time. But it just feels like different audiences that we speak to in different ways. And that it is all moving towards the same goal, which is the whole vision of ‘every child a reader’ that everything comes back to.
We had help working on our communications strategy as one of the non-financial supports that came from Rethink Ireland as an awardee. And the media agency we worked with were astonished by the number of audiences that we have. When you break down the number of people that we’re trying to talk to on any given day, that’s a hell of a lot of people, and if each of those need to have a strand under the strategy, it’s impossible. So it’s a bit of a microcosm of everything that we do. But we are trying to talk to families, parents, carers, librarians, booksellers, academics, artists, children, young people, teachers. That’s a big and varied audience, and they’re all in different places. I think we’ve always accepted that we speak to them in different ways, not everything we do is for everyone. And the things that we do are impactful in different ways.
So something like the Book Clinics: you might only see sixteen people in a session, but it’s so impactful for those children. And that personally expends no professional energy for me; because it works, it runs, we’ve tested it, we’ve tried it, we’ve spoken to the parents and carers, we have incredible people on our Book Clinic team, we have brilliant Aoife Murray running the whole setup. But that is one part of what we do. And it’s very clear to me that speaking to the adults is going to have such an impact on the children. We see it with our tiny people at home – if I don’t know what books to get them, there’s no point in me talking to a four and a six year old to get themselves on their reading journey, you have to be talking to the government to stock their school libraries or their teachers to know where to go that isn’t just David Walliams or Wimpy Kid and to give them variety. And to give them representation.
And the very last question is, how have you and Jenny Murray not killed each other yet?
Jenny probably almost kills me a lot of the time, I would think; probably I’m driving her mad much more than she’s driving me mad. We have a shorthand, you’d know this?
Oh yeah. I remember it!
You’re on a shared brainwave when you’re in the Children’s Books Ireland office, and sometimes what Jenny has written down in a message is not necessarily recognisably English, but you get it.
Oh you completely get it.
Jenny was described once by Patricia Forde, as the beating heart of the organisation, and that is absolutely what she is and what she was when she was the administrator, and what she is now as the Deputy CEO. She has an incredible brain for logistics, she works really fast and her relationships with everyone are amazing. She comes back from everywhere, going, ‘Oh, I met this taxi driver who was great craic’, and does not realise that everywhere she goes, she will meet a taxi driver who was great craic, because she’s great craic, and she just wants to have the craic with the taxi drivers, or the delivery drivers or the printers or the designer or whoever it is. Jenny is amazing at relationships, and many other things. So no, we have not murdered each other yet. It’s been long enough that we probably won't.
Yeah, I think you’re safe I think you’re through the difficult stages!
Yeah, well, maybe there was a difficult stage for her, I don’t think there was for me. Jenny acted-up into my role for my two maternity leaves and that was part of the reason that we wanted to recognise her as Deputy CEO, because she was doing the job without the recognition of the job and I think like she is a real leader in the team and it means that when I do step away that Jenny is there. She’s mighty craic, so we won’t be killing each other anytime soon!
With thanks to Chris Haughton, Joe Kelly, Liz Morris, Áine Ní Ghlinn, Jane O’Hanlon, Siobhán Parkinson, Fiadh & Sadhbh Ryan, Niamh Sharkey, Patrick Thorpe, Sarah Webb and Pádraic Whyte
Mags Walsh is Programme Director of Creative Schools at the Arts Council, supporting schools to put arts and creativity at the heart of their school community. She is a former Director of Children’s Books Ireland.
An abridged version of this article appeared in Inis 66.