Bringing the Past Alive: Writing Historical Novels for Children

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.

Illustration by Rachel Corcoran
Continue reading “Bringing the Past Alive: Writing Historical Novels for Children”

Our Favourite Inspiring Women from Blazing a Trail

Lauren O’Neill and Sarah Webb accepting their Irish Book Award
Shona Shirley Macdonald (author and illustrator of The Pooka Party), Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill at the Irish Book Awards 2018

This week Blazing a Trail won the Children’s Book of the Year (senior) Award at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. This is a wonderful award and we, at the O’Brien Press, are very proud of this book and the remarkable women who created it. Blazing a Trail – Irish Women Who Changed the World was written by Sarah Webb and illustrated by Lauren O’Neill. Sarah and Lauren have chosen their favourite woman from Blazing a Trail with a disclaimer that this is very difficult to choose because they are all amazing in their own right!

 

 

Sarah Webb

I’ve spent the last two years in the company of some of Ireland’s most remarkable women and it’s hard to select one as my ‘favourite’. As I read about the women in turn, I discovered the truth about each individual journey – the obstacles they had to overcome, their tenacity, their determination, their hope that Ireland might be a different place for women in the future – and my admiration for all of them grew and grew.

However I discovered that one woman in particular had direct links to my family and also changed the course of my own education and that is Sarah Purser.

Sarah was an artist, patron and businesswoman who was born in Dún Laoghaire in 1848, the town where I live. She studied art in Paris as women were not allowed to study at the Royal Irish Academy (RHA) in Dublin at the time. Later, Sarah became the first woman to be given full membership of the organisation at the age of seventy-five.

She became well known for her portraits and painted some of the most famous Irish people of the time from Maud Gonne to Douglas Hyde.

In 1903, she set up An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass) and, thanks to her excellent business skills, it became a world-wide success, exporting glass to churches around the globe. It makes me smile to think that the stained glass windows in churches in Canada and New York and many other places were shipped over (and in many cases created) by Irish women at a time when women’s art was not widely appreciated or celebrated. Stained-glass artists Evie Hone and Wilhelmina Geddes and Harry Clarke all made glass for Sarah’s company.

Every Tuesday, Sarah held salons in her house for artists, writers and academics. My grandfather, WB Stanford, was a classics professor at TCD and wrote widely on the Greek language. He attended these salons with my grandmother.

Sarah also helped establish History of Art courses in both Trinity College Dublin and UCD. I studied History of Art in TCD; a course I loved. It is responsible for my abiding love of art, illustration and picturebooks.

And finally we share a first name.

Sarah Purser, I salute you!

Lauren O’Neill

It’s obviously very tough to choose a favourite among the Blazing a Trail women – they’re all very unique individuals. In terms of the artwork, Eileen Grey was probably my favourite to draw, or the aviators, Lilian Bland and Lady Heath. I love how those images turned out! I think the woman who made the biggest impression on me though was Margaret Bulkley, who lived her whole adult life as a man, Dr. James Barry. Her, or I should say his, academic achievements alone were amazing. But he was also the one who made the biggest leap in terms of how he wanted to present himself to the world. You have to admire that level of self conviction! Also he was a big animal lover, which deserves a big thumbs up. He was a very interesting character both to research and to draw.

The artwork for Blazing a Trail was actually a bit of a departure from my usual style in kids’ books. Generally I’m more focused on linework but for Blazing a Trail I combined line drawings with figures that felt a bit more painterly, which seemed to work well with some of the more historical subject matter. I mostly work digitally but I always use scanned textures in my work on some level. For Blazing a Trail I sketched out lots of small composition thumbnails in pencil for each image, and chose the one that I felt would work best full size. I would then take a photo of it on my phone, send it to my computer and paint over it in photoshop. At the end, I added in scanned paint textures to give everything a more organic and traditional feel.

 

Sarah Webb and Lauren O’Neill, November 2018

Blazing a Trail is available to buy here and in all good bookshops

 

Irish Book Awards Shortlisted Titles

The O’Brien Press are absolutely delighted to have two of our books shortlisted for three Irish Book Awards.

Blazing a Trail By Sarah Webb and illustrated by Lauren O’Neill has been shortlisted for two awards:

The Journal.ie Best Irish-Published Book Of the Year

The National Book Tokens Children’s Book of the Year – Senior

The Pooka Party by Shona Shirley Macdonald has been shortlisted for the following award:

The National Book Tokens Children’s Book of the Year – Junior

If you haven’t already heard about these amazing books then here is a little bit about them and a sneak peak!

Blazing a Trail  is a book for everyone who dreams of changing the world.

‘Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.’
– COUNTESS MARKIEVICZ, rebel leader and politician

From daring aviator LADY HEATH to savvy gold prospector NELLIE CASHMAN, fearless sea captain GRANUAILE to world-class dancer DAME NINETTE DE VALOIS,
scene-stealing actor MAUREEN O’HARA to record-breaking runner SONIA O’SULLIVAN, activist MAUD GONNE to President MARY ROBINSON, meet the remarkable Irish women who shaped the world we live in.

Discover their achievements, the ways in which they devoted their whole lives to making a difference, and with each original stunning illustration, feel the essence of these important trailblazers.

‘We are all made of star stuff.’
– DAME JOCELYN BELL BURNELL, astrophysicist

Packed with fun, fascinating facts and stunning, full-page illustrations, this book celebrates the trail blazers who have shaped the world we live in.

Ready to walk in their footsteps? A world of bravery and discovery awaits you.

Made by two remarkable women, author Sarah Webb and illustrator Lauren O’Neill.

Sneak Peak Below!!

The Pooka is a magical shapeshifter who lives in the mountains all alone; fixing things, painting, dancing and singing. Suddenly, none of this seems fun any more, the Pooka realises that its lonely and hasn’t seen its friends in ages!

After having some time to think, the Pooka decides to throw a big party and invite all of its friends. Join the Pooka as it attempts to throw the Pooka party of the century in this fun and beautifully illustrated picture book.

A madcap tale of what to do if you feel sad and lonely, starring one shapeshifting hero with some musical monsters, flying cakes and a guest appearance by the Moon.

Sneak Peak Below!!

Don’t forget to Vote – click here!

Elena Browne, October 2018