Under the Spell of the Hawthorn Tree

Earlier this month, Today FM posted on their Facebook page an original copy of Under the Hawthorn Tree, which got a phenomenal response (over 25k likes in a couple of hours!). Michael O’Brien, The O’Brien Press Publisher, talks about how the bestselling book and its iconic cover came to be.

Looking back on 1989, when I introduced artist Donald Teskey to Marita Conlon-McKenna, she was virtually unknown and he was in the early stages of his career as a painter.

Marita had submitted Under the Hawthorn Tree, a brutal yet brilliant story based around the Irish Famine, the question raised was, would parents want their children reading about starvation and death in 1840s Ireland. This made the illustrating of the novel critical, to set the right tone when capturing the tragedy which caused one million deaths and one million to leave Ireland’s shores. It needed an illustrator who could capture the drama and action of the three children fleeing across Ireland to save their lives, yet in a style that would encourage them to read and enjoy the book, rather than be scared by the hardship depicted by Marita.

My first experience of Donald Teskey was through the café his wife Kim Bloom ran in Terenure; on the walls she displayed wonderful drawings by him showing the urban life of Dublin at the time – gritty yet beautiful. I was greatly impressed! This was before Donald’s exhibitions in the early nineties, which launched his stellar career as a landscape painter. When Kim introduced me to Donald and I saw his portfolio, I was blown away and I asked him to illustrate some O’Brien Press children’s books, including Under the Hawthorn Tree.

Recently, I asked Donald about illustrating Marita’s books, and he said he was influenced by Louis Le Brocquy’s Táin illustrations. He said: ‘I wished to give the reader an inkling of what was going to happen – to capture the humanity of the story.’

Donald went on to create similar illustrations for Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home to complete the trilogy.

Since those days, Donald Teskey’s reputation and work has spread internationally to major centres of art: Paris, London and New York. He elected a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy and is represented in major collections including the Arts Council, Irish Museum of Modern Art, AIB, Limerick City Gallery of Art, KPMG, Butler Gallery, The Ulster Bank, OPW and The Ballinglen Arts Foundation.

O’Brien Press is printing a limited edition of Under the Hawthorn Tree with the original cover. Check it out here.


30 editions on, it’s as fresh as ever

In 1990 a very unusual manuscript from a new author arrived in The O’Brien Press. It was a story about the Great Irish Famine and involved the desperate journey of three starving children across the country to find their relatives: it involved death, danger and a faint hope of safety — and it was aimed at children. Nobody had read or heard of anything like this before, and we realised that this was an opportunity to show Irish children their own history in a unique way.

We had been publishing children’s books for a few years at that point, convinced that there was a need for Irish material for Irish children, rather than continuing to rely on books from Britain: lashings of ginger ale drunk on the White Cliffs of Dover simply did not reflect the experience of Irish people! This book, Under the Hawthorn Tree, was exactly what we were looking for.

We commissioned fine artist Donald Teskey to paint the cover and do chapter-head illustrations, and we published the book, which was a sensation: within three years an incredible 45,000 copies were in print. Author Marita Conlon-McKenna was a celebrated writer and wrote two more books, Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home, which completed what became known as the Children of the Famine trilogy.

Ten years later the book was selling as strongly as ever and, in 2000, we felt that a new look was in order. We commissioned Anne Yvonne Gilbert to produce new cover artwork for the trilogy. By this stage the international success of the book was well-established: in 1991 it won the Reading Association of Ireland Award and International Reading Association Award in 1991 in America, and was available in many translations: there have been 14 at the last count!

An amazing 20 years after first publication, the book continues to build: last year we decided it was long past time for us to work with Ireland’s premier children’s illustrator, PJ Lynch, and he created fabulous new covers for the trilogy. A new US edition was published last April by Jabberwocky, an imprint of Sourcebooks, one of the most imaginative independent presses anywhere. And now we have just received stock in for the 30th printing of this book: 30 printings in 20 years, and life sales of over quarter of a million copies sold of our editions alone: which all goes to show that a great story, in the hands of a gifted storyteller, can transcend the fascination with the new that the book world is often accused of.

So congratulations to Marita on this great achievement and for keeping history alive for children the world over.


Children of the Famine new covers again

Well, PJ Lynch has finished the covers, Emma has worked her magic with the type and the new books are at the printers now, going on sale in a couple of weeks. It has been great to see these lovely new covers evolve and Marita is delighted with them: we all love a happy author!

Under The Hawthorn Tree cover

This is the finished Under the Hawthorn Tree cover front, back and spine, and it just jumps off the page!

Continue reading “Children of the Famine new covers again”

Another country conquered!

Well, you can now get OBP books in another country, as copies of our first Albanian editions have arrived in the office! It’s amazing that so many countries, and small countries at that, can justify the effort of producing and selling literature in translation.

Obviously, doing a local edition of an international blockbuster is an easy decision, but there has to be an element of passion or courage involved in translating a children’s novel about the Irish potato famine (Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree — the new PJ Lynch covers are just about finished, by the way, and are lovely) or Irish dancing (Kate by Siobhán Parkinson) into Albanian, even with the valuable support of the Ireland Literature Exchange.

It takes us to a grand total of 44 territories/languages (well, I have included Film and Audio there) that our stuff is available in, which I reckon is quite impressive …


P.J. Lynch doing new covers for classic children’s trilogy

Best-selling children’s author Marita Conlon-McKenna’s most famous books are getting a great makeover. PJ Lynch, Ireland’s most celebrated children’s illustrator, is creating new covers for all three books in the best-selling Children of the Famine trilogy. It’s the first time PJ has worked with us, and it’s really exciting.
The first one he’s done is Under The Hawthorn Tree, and we now have the full painting in the office!

The three new editions will be available from all good bookshops in April 2009. Perfect for PJ Lynch fans.


Continue reading “P.J. Lynch doing new covers for classic children’s trilogy”