The Book of Alex

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.

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Making Murphy’s Law

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. 

Paul Nugent

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!

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Making Bread and Butter

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.

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Eva and the Perfect Blog Post

To celebrate the new paperback edition of the wonderful picture book Eva and the Perfect Rain, author and illustrator Tatyana Feeney tells us all about her writing and illustrating process.

by City Headshots Dublin

When I became interested in making picture books, I really was thinking about the illustrations and making beautiful art to go with a story.

But after working on some character design projects in art college, I started to think about stories to go with my drawings, or stories about the characters that started to evolve as I was drawing them.

What was different about Eva and the Perfect Rain, is it was the first story I wrote that began with the words.

When I first moved to Ireland, I was amazed and intrigued by all of the words that are used to talk about rain. The words and phrases that I heard made me think of different textures, colours and ways of showing weather. ‘Soft day’, ‘sunshower’, ‘pelting’, ‘lashing’, ‘bucketing’, they are all so descriptive and I realised I wanted to make a book that would show what those words look like to me.

This is how Eva’s story started.

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The Making of Flossie McFluff

Following the publication of the wonderful Flossie McFluff – An Irish Fairy, author Eoin O’Brien and illustrator Audrey Dowling tell us all about the making of Flossie McFluff.

Eoin O’Brien

I have always loved fairies. I love the idea that there are magical creatures looking after forests and wild places, taking care of all the tiny creatures and the natural world. There is so much magic in nature – and more the closer you look – that it is not hard to picture little guardians keeping an eye on it all.

Flossie McFluff began as a name. It just popped into my head one day, and made me smile. It was partly inspired by meeting one of the famous McNutt family from Donegal, who make beautiful woollen things – what a great name! And I think that Flossie is from somewhere towards the north of the country, where there is lots of magic.

Since writing the book, I discovered another Flossie – Flossie Donnelly, a twelve-year-old who organises ‘Flossie and the Beach Cleaners’, a campaign to clean beaches in south County Dublin. I imagine my Flossie would get on great with her!

I have heard that a good way to write a story is to create an interesting character and then sit back and see what they get up to. So, I thought about Flossie, and what she might be like: She’s very small, small enough that a big gust of wind would probably send her flying, but she’s feisty and tough. She’s a faithful friend, always ready to lend a hand, but she’s also likely to have a fit of giggles at any moment. She talks to trees and flowers, and lets them know that they’ll always have a good friend in her. And she loves just flying around, singing a little song to herself.

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A Whaley Big Blog Post

This week, author and illustrator Gerry Daly tells us all about creating his latest picture book, Finn’s First Song – A Whaley Big Adventure!

The story of Finn’s First Song – A Whaley Big Adventure started a few years ago when I was painting humpback whales in the picture book Where Are You, Puffling?. I really enjoyed painting them, especially the huge splash that they made.

Humpback whales make loud and spectacular sound patterns that are repeated, just as we would a favourite song. Finn’s First Song is about the adventures of a baby humpback who, after becoming lost, learns to sing himself and reunites with his mum.

I’m certainly not alone in being fascinated by these massive creatures and what life is like beneath the ocean surface. In school we learn that a whale is the largest creature on the planet; that blue whales are even bigger than the dinosaurs; with a beating heart as big as a small car and an appetite to eat up to 3.5 tonnes of food in one day. It’s all enough to give a lot of mind boggles!

A couple years ago I got to see whales in the ocean for the first time on a whale-watching trip off the coast of West Cork. I learned more about their long migration from the African coast to Ireland, how they revisit each year for the tasty food that they love and, of course, how they sing to each other over vast distances.

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Wee Donkey, Big Personality

This week, author Erika McGann and illustrator Gerry Daly tell us all about their latest picture book, Wee Donkey’s Treasure Hunt, particularly, how this mischievous and cheeky donkey came to life and how her adventure developed.

Erika McGann

When I began working on my first picture book, I was very tempted to write it in rhyme. I grew up loving Each Peach Pear Plum and everything Dr. Seuss, and there really isn’t anything as musical or joyful as a well-written story for children in verse. But as it was my first attempt at writing a book for that age group, the added pressure of doing it in rhyme was too intimidating. I had to consider language level, structure, and content for an audience that was new to me, not to mention jamming a full and fun story into such a tiny word count. I could see myself getting close to the deadline, sweating, frantically searching for something to rhyme with ‘orange’. Although my first drafts had occasional, accidental rhyming phrases (which gave me a silly amount of glee), I knew I should wait until I had a little more experience with the age level to do it properly.

A couple of years later I was finishing up a series for older kids and looking to submit a new project to O’Brien Press. I was dying to do something just for the fun of it, and it finally seemed time to give the rhyming children’s book a go. I’d recently worked on Where Are You, Puffling? with Ger, and I thought another adorable animal protagonist would be great craic to write. I searched images of cute animals for a bit of inspiration and came across a brilliant photo of a wide-smiling wee donkey with her nose pressed up against the camera lens. She made me laugh, and I figured I’d found the right character to work with – cheeky, loveable, and great for a giggle.

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Hedgehogs, Hoglets and Hibernation

Author and illustrator, Bex Sheridan, tells us all about the inspiration for her gorgeous new picture book, Go to Sleep, Hoglet!

I live with my husband, Jay, in a house filled with animals and in 2017 a spikey little hoglet joined the crew. We called him Mu. Mu is an African pygmy hedgehog (a domestic pet hedgehog). They’re smaller than wild Irish hedgehogs and look a little different. One big difference is that African pygmy hedgehogs who are kept as pets are not supposed to hibernate, but they still can. If they do they can fall ill, so making sure Mu stayed in good health meant understanding hedgehog hibernation. This was how the seed for Hoglet’s adventure was first sewn.

Mu doesn’t like me very much, he’s a very angry little hedgehog. I know he’s angry from how he acts, how he tries to spike me with his quills at every opportunity and he makes some very funny sounds. With his mood written all over his face (he makes no attempt to hide his anger), I couldn’t resist drawing him. There’s just so much expression in such an angry little guy! I had so much fun trying to draw each and every spike that I drew him several times and even made prints to share his anger. It turned out I actually enjoyed telling people all about him and sharing what I’d learnt about hedgehogs along the way.

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Ten-minute Chat with Úna Woods

Una Woods – Photography by Ruth Medjber @ruthlessimagery

On Culture Night 2018, Úna Woods asked for a ten-minute slot with the O’Brien Press team at our Pitch Perfect event. Two years later, I asked Una for ten minutes of her time for a quick chat about her debut picture book, Have You Seen the Dublin Vampire?

How does it feel to have your first book published?

I have always dreamed of writing and illustrating my own picture book. To finally see it printed is so exciting. I can’t wait to see it in bookshops!

What made you sign up for Culture Night in 2018?

My Friend Paula Moen persuaded me to go along to the Culture Night pitching event, as I was always talking about writing and illustrating my own book. It was great to finally have the goal of pitching my book to somebody and it was such a great opportunity to meet a publisher face to face.

Tell us about your Culture Night Pitch Perfect experience.

I was so nervous when I knocked on the door, as I didn’t really know what to expect. I pitched my idea to Emma Byrne,  the Design Manager in O Brien Press. At this point I didn’t really have a full story, but I knew that my story was going to be based around a friendly Dublin Vampire. I brought along some sketches and I had done up some colour samples, so she could see what style I intended for the book. She really liked what I had brought along. It was so great to be able to show someone my ideas and chat to them face to face. I felt really lucky to have met Emma, as she mentioned she liked vampires too. And so the adventure of making my picture book began!

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Virtual Interview with Carol Ann Treacy

This week, I had a virtual interview with the wonderful Carol Ann Treacy, author and illustrator of Barney Goose – A Wild Atlantic Way Adventure. Carol tells us about her inspiration for Barney Goose, her writing and illustrating processes and more!

What inspired you to write and illustrate Barney GooseA Wild Atlantic Way Adventure?
A few years ago we took a trip along the Wild Atlantic Way coastline. It was such a fun holiday, and I was struck by the beauty of marine and bird life there. I really wanted to capture that in some way, so I started thinking about creating an illustrated journey book. I am fascinated by wildlife and in particular birds (mostly because they can fly). I’m kind of in awe of how geese fly in formations and on such incredibly long journeys across vast oceans every year. I thought it might be interesting to tell a tale of a barnacle goose who starts his life as a displaced egg, away from other geese, but through instinct, determination and a little help from other animals he meets along the Wild Atlantic Way, finds his way back on track. And then he makes that unbelievable journey, thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, for the first time.

What was your creative process with this book? What came first – the illustrations or the words?

I start my process with notebooks, which are usually a mess that no one could decipher apart from myself! Initially, I worked on both the storyline and illustrations for Barney Goose in tandem. Whenever I got stuck, I could switch over, and one kind of informed the other. I worked on my main character, Barney the barnacle goose, first – they are such striking geese, with long, black necks and white-feathered faces.

After doing my research on the life and character of these geese, I started teasing out the story of Barney’s journey from West Cork to Donegal, and drawing some of the other characters Barney meets along the way. When I had my storyline in place, I submitted the text to my editor, Eoin O’Brien, for refinement. At this stage, Eoin suggested creating some ‘scamps’ – very rough sketches. Using a roll of parchment paper, I sketched out every double page spread as one long, continuous storyboard. This was my favourite part of the process, where everything started to come together. I love using a scrollable storyboard – it’s a great way to see just how all the scenes interact, and at this stage you can correct or change anything, before any detail is added.

Once everyone was happy with the sketched layout, I photographed my storyboard and started to work over my drawing in digital format. I used Adobe Illustrator and a Wacom tablet for drawing and painting.

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