For this blog post, author and illustrator Conor Busuttil tells us all about creating his latest book, Billy Conker’s Nature-Spotting Adventure.
From a young age, I was absolutely fascinated with nature and the wildlife around me. Growing up in the countryside near Strangford Lough in County Down, there were plenty of opportunities to explore and learn about nature. So, when given the nudge to write my own book, it simply had to be about animals and the issues they currently face.
It was my lovely agent Gill McLay who suggested that I should do some sort of hide-and-seek book – she knows I love drawing in intricate detail and hiding little things within the page. I will admit, butterflies came to my tummy at the thought of the task ahead, but once The O’Brien Press, and the late publisher Michael O’Brien in particular, gave their instant support – we were off!
I draw in quite a traditional way – pencil, pen and ink, then watercolour – so any faults could be fatal. However, with the awesome team of designer Emma and editor Nicola there to assess everything and be my support on certain days, I sincerely enjoyed every stage of the process.
Here is one of my favourite pieces to work on: the Ocean spread. I loved researching all the diverse creatures, as well as the challenge of drawing an underwater scene.
Everything would begin in very rough pencils. I was confident enough in my animal knowledge, but I soon found there was so much more I had to learn. Although the book doesn’t mention specific locations, I still needed to make sure that the animals on each spread could co-exist and possibly bump into each other at some stage.
It was a joy to draw some of these wonderful, interesting creatures – every time I did an internet search or pulled out my wildlife books for reference, I would learn something new.
One of my favourites to create from the Ocean scene had to be the humpback. Whale-watching is a dream I have yet to check off my bucket list!
“Here, Alan,” said my Granny, tossing a book in my direction, “you like the scary stuff, don’t yeh?” I made an effort to intercept the fast-moving paperback missile, but like every GAA ball, rugby ball and basketball that had ever been thrown to me, I fumbled the catch and the book hit the floor. I picked it up, looked at the cover, and was immediately sorry that I did.
The cover was an illustration of a white faced, shiny-haired fright of a man, with red rimmed eyes, jet-black hair and a wide open mouth filled with razor sharp teeth. His overall demeanour suggested that he was quite willing to bite the fingers of any hand that dared to pick up the book whose cover he graced. In short, a nice sort of chap. Written over this demon’s head were three words: Dracula, Bram and Stoker.
I was 10 years old when I first read Dracula, and I became almost as infatuated with Bram Stoker as I was with my other literary love at the time, Charles Dickens – the difference being that the works of Charles Dickens didn’t leave me waking up with screaming nightmares at 3am in the morning (Thanks, Granny!).
Bram was a Dubliner and I remember pleading with my long-suffering Dad to bring me to Bram’s childhood homes at Marino Crescent in leafy Clontarf and slightly less leafy Buckingham Street, so I could see where he played and imagine what he had been like as a child. I even inveigled my long-suffering father to bring the family on a summer holiday to Scarborough in England, just so we could visit the pretty harbour town of Whitby, a little further up the coast, and the place where Count Dracula landed in the book, emerging from his Transylvanian-earth-filled coffin to take his first evil steps on British soil.
But I loved Charles Dickens too and over the years I had often wondered what Dublin would have been like in Dickens’ day; I had read so much about Dickensian London, with the Artful Dodger, Ebeneezer Scrooge and Uriah Heep, et al roaming the streets, but I had never read anything about Dickensian Dublin. Until, that is, I came across a book about Dickens in a second-hand bookshop. The book was old, big, full of illustrations, and, best of all, only a fiver. I picked it up and it opened on a spread with had a reproduction of a playbill from when Dickens had visited Dublin in 1858, performing dramatic readings from his books at the Rotunda Round Room.
Dickens had visited Dublin!
I immediately thought again of Bram Stoker. How old would he have been in 1858 when Dickens visited? Only 11 years of age! Was there a chance he would have gone with his family to see Dickens perform? Or maybe he was a bit of a rebel who may have ditched his family and gone with his friends … I could feel a story coming.
Now, what friend or friends could I give Bram in this story? Bram was upper-middle-class, one of the ‘Quality’, well-educated and well cared for, a sporty boy with an unshakeable ambition to be a writer and a thirst for adventure. The friend would have to be the polar opposite: a poverty-stricken orphan, one step away from the workhouse, a girl who lived by her wits, without any adult supervision or help. I already had Bram and Dickens, two well-known characters, why not have Bram’s pal being the best-known Dublin character of all – a person whose name is sung by countless voices, the length and breadth of Temple Bar, on a nightly basis; a fictional character whose name is known far and wide but whose story has never been told? A legendary girl who I might be able to bring to life-alive-oh?
Yup, the one and only Molly Malone.
In my story, Molly would be 11 years old like Bram, a part-time fishmonger (as she is in the song) and a full-time sneak thief. She would meet up with Bram, become best friends, and they would have the most amazing adventures around Dublin, visiting places that the reader can still visit today. To this end I took long exploratory walks around the city, scouting for possible locations – locations that eventually ended up driving the narrative of the book. There was Molly’s tumbledown shack beside the Royal Canal at Newcomen Bridge, where she and her pre-teen gang of young thieves, The Sackville Street Spooks, stored their ill-gotten gains. There was the Debtors’ Prison where, in a pre-MABS 1858, people who owed money were locked up – we could have a jailbreak there. There was Smithfield Market, the site of a monthly horse fair and carnival. Maybe there would be sideshows at the carnival with strongmen, dog-faced boys and, oooh, fortune tellers!
The only location that ended up featuring heavily in the book but doesn’t exist today is the much-missed Nelson’s Pillar – in its place in O’Connell/Sackville Street now stands the Dublin Spire – but my Granny had told me enough stories about climbing the 168 steps to the viewing platform under Admiral Horatio Nelson’s imposing statue, and the amazing views over the rooftops of Dublin and out into the bay, that I felt I could bring it to life.
But every story needs a villain – who might the villain of The Sackville Street Caper be? Who would be capable of terrifying and terrorizing the master of macabre himself, the great Bram Stoker? Well, maybe a Transylvanian Count might do the trick. A creepy Count might also inspire the 11 year old wannabe author in my book to write his greatest work! So, Count Vladimir was added to the Sackville stew; a hissing, covetous, Scrooge-like old sinner, intent on stealing the Irish Crown Jewels from Dublin Castle, and desperate to recruit the best sneak thief in Dublin to help him do it. Will his evil plan succeed, or will Bram, Molly and the Sackville Street Spooks thwart his wicked scheme? Weee-eeell … the book is now available in bookshops, libraries and from www.obrien.ie, so yiz can all find out for yizzerselves!
This book, from start to finish, has been a joy to work on, being so rooted in the books of my childhood, and in the history of my home city of Dublin; I loved working again with my amazing editor Helen Carr; I treasured every trip I made and every precious page of research I pored over.
And I have my Granny, Nanny Gigg, and her good aim to thank for it.
I had a lovely chat with debut children’s author, Alex Dunne, all about her first children’s book, her inspiration and her writing process.
Could you describe The Book of Secrets in five words?
‘Labyrinth meets Irish folklore’ oh wait, that’s four … how about ‘fairies return and hijinks ensue’?
What inspired you to write The Book of Secrets?
I’ve always loved Irish mythology and folklore and am particularly fascinated by fairies as they exist in the Irish tradition – the stories they feature in are often quite dark and scary – so I always knew that one day I would write something where they featured prominently. In 2018, I decided to take part in NaNoWriMo (a month-long challenge held every November where writers from around the world attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel). Not knowing what to write, I took a look through my ‘Dump Sheet’ (the very sophisticated Google Doc where I collect random ideas that have yet to find a home in one of my stories) and two things jumped out at me – a picture I had taken of a Bronze Age ringfort called Mooghaun, which sits just outside the town of Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare, and a snippet I had written a few years prior about what to do if you hear the fairy music. That’s when the idea for The Book of Secrets was born.
The Irish mythology in this book is so cleverly written and so chilling, did you research Irish myths and legends for this book?
I did quite a bit of research for the book because I wanted to ensure that everything I included had some basis in Irish myth and folklore (even if I did occasionally invoke my artistic licence here and there!). I read a lot of books by prominent folklorists and storytellers, such as Eddie Lenihan and Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, but one of my main sources of research was duchas.ie, the website of the Irish Folklore Commission. It’s such a wonderful resource for anyone looking to research or write about Irish history and folklore because it collects first-hand accounts from people who lived and breathed these stories.
Who was your favourite character to write in The Book of Secrets?
Of the fantastical characters, I loved the Pooka because I’m a sucker for trickster characters. I love villains who are morally grey – he’s not strictly evil, but he cares so little for humanity that he’s happy to use them for his own entertainment. Of the human characters, I loved Granny. She’s not based on anyone I know in real life but is more of an aspirational character. She’s the kind of old woman I hope to be some day – fiercely independent and still believing in magic.
This week, author Muireann ní Chíobháin and illustrator Paul Nugent tell us all about the inspiration and illustration of their picture book Murphy’s Law.
Muireann ní Chíobháin
I’m a dog person but I’ve never been lucky enough to have one of my own. I’ve never met a dog I didn’t like. I can’t walk past one without stopping to say ‘Hi’. It means a trip to the shop can take longer than it should with all the pooch stops. I can’t help myself because basically dogs are simply pawsome! I spent many years living next to Herbert Park in Dublin which afforded me the great joy of meeting all kinds of gorgeous fur friends every day.
But one day, I met a puppy like no other and our brief encounter left me with the seed for a story. Irish Wolfhounds are very big dogs, even as puppies, and their owners must be the biggest dog lovers ever because they need lots more walking than other dogs, or so I’m told. This day, I saw a girl being dragged from tree to tree, bench to bin, by a very enthusiastic young hound, whose spectacular tail was wagging all over the place. He managed to do the impossible; scare the brazen D4 pigeons into giving me and my sandwich space for once by running about excitedly and swishing his huge tail uncontrollably. Unfortunately for him, his excitement was leaving a trail of minor destruction behind him. He was accidentally trampling on newly planted shrubs, knocking over signs, chasing footballs mid-match and confiscating frisbees. His enthusiasm was a joy to watch but a job and a half for his owner to keep up with. But she never shouted or scolded the puppy, just laughed and tried to minimise the chaos. The furry whirlwind bounded over to me, pulling his owner behind him. We all chatted. He was a new puppy, full of beans: a trouble magnet with no name yet.
‘He’s a law onto himself. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong when he’s around,’ his owner chuckled.
‘You should call him Murphy so,’ I said. The dog barked in agreement. We laughed. ‘Is that your name so?’ I asked. He barked again.
‘Must be!’ said his owner.
You couldn’t write it, or could you? We parted ways and I could swear I heard her call him Murphy in the distance as he tried to sub in as a goalie in a football game on the green. That night I jotted down the first lines of what would become Murphy’s Law about the happiest dog in Ireland who, despite being a trouble magnet, clearly made his owner the happiest dog owner ever.
When I first read the text for Murphy’s Law, I knew it would be a lot of fun to illustrate. It already had so much of Muireann’s brilliant humour packed into it, but it also had room for me to populate it with details and my own interpretation of Murphy’s mischief. The book takes Murphy to lots of different environments, and it was a joy to think of how things could go wrong in each one!
The design for Murphy came to me almost immediately and didn’t change much from the initial concept to the finished book. The design for his human best friend, Mary, however, was a little trickier. I’ve always found non-human characters a lot easier to design for some reason. The original design had Mary rounder and more cartoonish, which contrasted a bit with Murphy’s texture, so the design evolved to mirror him more. I thought of Mary as a more dependable, less clumsy, human version of Murphy, and I think the finished design conveys this!
This week Emma Larkin, author of a new sports adventure book Twin Power – Throw In!, tells us all about the importance of GAA in her life, the inspiration for her new book and her writing process!
Could you describe Twin Power – Throw In! in five words?
Football, friendship, fun, community, teamwork.
What inspired you to write Twin Power?
I was inspired to write Twin Power as I wanted to give children a book about things that they know and love, which in this case are Gaelic football and friendship. I also wanted to show in the book the dynamic of a group of friends that consisted of boys and girls and how they interact and play football together, as equals.
Your ‘Izzy’s Magical Adventures in Sport’ series is GAA focused as well. What draws you to write about GAA?
The GAA holds a special place in my heart. When I moved to Kerry, from Cork, in my late twenties, with my husband and our young son, the GAA was the place where I first made friends and got to know people in my adopted home. The irony was that we moved to where my husband is from in North Kerry, but I ended up getting to know more people than he knew! I took our son to training in our local GAA club, St Senans, where I got to know some parents. This led to me going to the mother and toddler group in St Senans clubhouse after our next son was born, which led to me joining the ‘Mothers and Others’ football group in Finuge/St. Senans ladies football club, which led to making more friends and which also got me involved in coaching football; you’re getting the gist now, I’m sure!
I think the GAA creates a fantastic community spirit, which is vitally important to so many people. There are also some really interesting characters there. I absolutely did not base any of the characters in Twin Power on people I have met in real life, though! I was definitely inspired to write about the GAA community by the fantastic people I have met there and, especially, the amazing children in the club, where I am involved in coaching.
Who was your favourite character to write in Twin Power?
That is a hard question, but I think it was Aoife. It’s between Aoife and Aidan, but I have a real fondness for Billy too. I think Aoife had the hardest challenge in Twin Power– Throw In!, so that is why I am saying Aoife. But at the same time, she was hugely supported in the story by Aidan and, to a lesser extent, Billy, so I am very fond of them also.
This week, Ciara McLaughlin, author of new cookbook Bread and Butter, tells us all about the inspiration behind her cookbook and selects her favourite recipes!
The first idea for this book came during my final year of art college, while I was thinking up a self-directed project to finish my training in graphic design and illustration. At home we had been saying for years that it was time to upgrade the little blue notebook that sat in the top cupboard and held all the family recipes. Over time the ingredients of all our favourite dishes had been jotted down, amended and perfected, but revamping this grubby but treasured little notebook seemed like a mammoth task, especially in final year when every mark was precious! However, I was drawn to the idea of exploring my family’s food heritage and diving into the stories behind all those recipes.
I finally set myself the project and knew instantly what the main focus of the book would be: Granny McLaughlin. It had to be all about her because the food I was baking at home was all about her. The recipes I was using had all been hers, passed down through the family in the little blue notebook and baked for every Christmas, birthday or Friday night tea. Granny had died before I was born but she was still present in these moments. She was very much a part of my upbringing and she had achieved that by baking her way into the hearts of those who knew her. Baking was Granny’s way of nourishing, caring and loving and that’s something that you will definitely find in my family. You’re hardly in the door until the kettle’s boiled and a scone is plated up with butter and homemade jam. It’s great! I think there’s an element of traditional Irish hospitality behind it but the same traditions are shared by cultures across the world. Food has the power to connect people –even those who are no longer around –and that’s why I knew I had to write this book.
The ’university project’ version of Bread and Butter was a small prototype of only sixteen recipes, but it caught the eye of Michael O’Brien at The O’Brien Press and that’s when the real journey began. I had met with Michael at the publishing house and email discussions took place throughout the pandemic, but when the official contract came in the post, I could not believe it. My first emotion was pure fear, accompanied by a chorus of ‘what ifs…?’ I knew from making the prototype version that it would be a lot of work as all the elements had to be considered: writing, photos, illustrations, design and printing. I was also teaching full-time, running a home-baking business and training for a marathon, so it was a daunting prospect to say the least! Thankfully my family dragged me out of the terror and into the realm of excitement by offering their support and talents. Mummy is a fantastic home baker and knows the kitchen inside out from her years spent teaching home economics. Daddy was a graphic designer so he knew everything about the design and production side of things. I also had the support of the team at O’Brien from the very start and they almost made me feel like I knew what I was doing.
My editor Emma Dunne had the pleasure of reading the shabby first drafts and was so supportive throughout the entire writing process. The eighty-odd recipes that made the final book were carefully arranged to reflect the feel and flavour of the four seasons, using local produce and fresh ingredients. Through my writing I wanted to weave in some of the stories that conjure the charm of Granny’s quaint farmhouse, along with tales of my own childhood to show how the recipes were almost this living and changing thing.
When it came to the photography stage, I didn’t even own a camera! Over the course of a few weeks I gathered together the necessary equipment and transformed our little barn into a makeshift photography studio. It was a really intense time of the publication journey, but my family helped out a lot and kept my spirits up. The joy I felt when every recipe was accompanied by a stunning photo was unimaginable and now I just had to make it look like a book!
Designing the book was a lovely part of the process. It was like tidying up all the bits and pieces and was the moment where everything started coming together. Ivan O’Brien and the rest of the team were always at hand for advice and when the pages began to take shape it was incredibly exciting. Finally, after a few busy months, I had a fully designed recipe book, complete with photographs and illustrations for every season! At the end I was a mixture of exhausted and elated but I wouldn’t change my experience for the world.
I have quite a lot of favourite recipes from the book, all for very different reasons! Some have a beautiful backstory, others stand out because of the laughs we had baking and photographing them, and some are just plain delicious!
My favourite recipe from the spring section has to be pancakes because I adore them and they are so tasty no matter what toppings you choose to put with them.
This week, I chatted with authors Sarah Cassidy and Kunak McGann about their most recent book, Ah … That’s Gas! – The ads, fads and mad happenings that swept the Irish nation. I wanted to know about their favourite ads and fads as well as the ones they had never heard of before writing this book together!
Sarah and I had such a good time wandering down memory lane while writing this book, re-visiting favourite feelgood moments from our own childhoods as well as those from more recent times. There are so many events and experiences that we have shared as a nation, they give us a collective memory and a sense of who we are and where we come from, and it was a real joy to put those down in a book. Here are my three favourites.
I can still remember the rush of watching Riverdance for the first time. From those first haunting vocals from Anúna to the gazelle-like Jean Butler in the first solo dance, then Michael Flatley bounding onto stage with his bouffant hair and batwing-sleeve shirt, and Irish dancers flooding the stage in synchronised beats. Who knew Irish dancing could actually be cool?? Our hearts were full.
It is an undeniable fact that Ireland has the best butter in the world. It’s always been a prime export for us and Kerrygold were tapping into that with these crossover ads featuring our French friends. Made before anyone really knew the phrase ‘lactose intolerant’ and possibly the most iconic Irish ads of all time. Surely I’m not the only person who still walks into a room and asks ‘Zere is sumzing I can ‘elp?’.
In this blog post, author Donn McClean tells us about his inspirations for All to Play For and his experience of writing his first children’s novel.
Anna was in my head for a little while before she started to evolve in letters and words and sentences and paragraphs in front of me. She was a conundrum in my head: strong but fragile, consistent but unpredictable, independent but needing support, timid and shy and anxious, yet strong and brave and feisty.
Anna is a little bit of each of our four girls. (They’re similar, but very different.) Anna’s dad is a little bit me I’d say, but not too much me. He’s way cooler. He’s a little bit more my aspirational self than my real self. He’s a little bit my dad. (See above re: way cooler.) He’s probably a little bit my mum too, or a little bit my picture of my mum.
I lost my mum when I was very small, so small that I can’t remember what she was like, so it wasn’t difficult to write the longing that Anna felt when she didn’t have her dad in her life. It was more difficult to write that acute sense of loss though, when Anna went from having him to suddenly not having him. That part had to be sourced from imagination: how it would have been for me, how it would be for our four daughters if anything, God forbid, happened to me or my wife.
The Gaelic football part was easy. It was all we knew when we were growing up in rural Ireland. The nearest soccer club was a bus ride away, hurling was only played beyond the county borders, as far as we knew, and rugby was something that you watched on television when Ireland were playing, so we were all-in on Gaelic football.
This week, Sarah Webb chats to us about her experience writing her wonderful new children’s novel, The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street.
My new book, The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street, is about Eliza and Jonty Kane, who are aged thirteen and ten. When their father loses his sight and can no longer work, they have to move from their red-brick home in leafy Rathmines to a tenement flat in inner city Dublin. Here they find new friends and start working for a travelling circus in the evenings. Set in 1911, it’s the first historical novel I’ve published for children and in this blog I will talk about the research and writing of the book.
So how did I go about writing a book set in 1911? And where did the original idea come from?
A couple of years ago I visited 14 Henrietta Street, the Dublin tenement museum. I thought it would make a fascinating setting for a children’s book but I couldn’t find a way into the story. Then I attended a conference for festival programmers in Amsterdam (pre-Covid!) and met a Professor of Circus. She told me about the history of circus in Ireland and a bee charmer who visited Dublin with her circus, Patty Astley. I was intrigued. The night after meeting the Professor I spent the night in my hotel room reading articles about the history of the circus.
I discovered that travelling circuses often visited Dublin in the early twentieth century and bingo, I had my story. By adding a circus to the tenement setting I could balance the hardship of the tenement life with the drama and sparkle of the circus.