Feature Articles

Laureate na nÓg Siobhán Parkinson writes..

(PI News July/August 2011)

'When I was inaugurated as Laureate na nÓg in May of last year, Mags Walsh, director of Children’s Books Ireland (effectively my new boss), assured me that CBI envisaged a maximum of four to six public engagements throughout the year.

Hah!

I could end this article here, and you could work it out for yourselves, but I know you would much rather hear the gruelling details. Well, I know you’d all love to hear about my swoops around the country in the government jet with a high champagne component, getting to meet the Queen, the Taoiseach, God – all that glamour stuff, but they said I wasn’t to mention any of that, so instead I’ll focus on the slog it’s been, for example, tearing over the border on … the Enterprise. This is sadly not a starship, it’s a train – a nice train, to be sure, but it just hasn’t got the same ring as a starship, has it?

I’ve been to Bangor and to Omagh and to Belfast, because of course Northern Ireland gets to have a slice of Laureate na nÓg too. And I’ve been to Waterford and to Galway and am off soon to both the Parnell and Merriman Summer Schools, at least one of which is located Beyond the Pale. And of course I’ve been in lots of places in Dublin, including on the radio, which is the best place of all, because that way you get to reach people you just don’t get a chance to meet personally.

What I do when I get to these places, real and virtual, is I talk, and what I talk about his how great children’s books are and how great children’s writers are and how great children’s libraries are and what great readers children are. You might think that people should know all this stuff already, because after all, we’ve all been children, even if some of us no longer qualify for half fares on Iarnród Éireann; and of course people kind of do know it, but they need to be reminded, and that is what the laureate is for: reminding people about children’s books and how important it is that every child gets a chance to find the books that will change their lives forever. Forever. Because the books we read in childhood are the books we love best, and they are the books that make readers of us. If we don’t get that opportunity to fall in love with literature in childhood, not only will we have missed out on one of childhood’s most intense pleasures, but we may never, ever catch up. Terrible thought!

I do try to listen as well as talk, and I try to take on board what other writers have to say, and teachers and librarians and, of course, children. I do meet children. I meet them even when I am not laureate (which is most of my life). I meet children who read (or at least they pretend to when I am in earshot), and I meet children who write, which is a kind of advanced reading that book addicts tend to get into once they’ve exhausted the gateway possibilities. There are only so many book clubs and book festivals and launches and bookshops and book events and workshops and readings and book programmes. There comes a time when you have to grow your own, and that’s when readers become writers. This is, as I say, an advanced stage, and if it has already happened in a school or library near you, it is probably too late to halt this nightmare scenario. Sorry, grownups, that is just the way it is these days: they start with Noddy, before you can say Big Ears it’s Patricia Lynch, Hans Christian Andersen and … eeeek …. Derek Landy, and after that, your laptop is no longer your own. It is permanently open to a Word file that gets longer and longer and longer and longer, and one day it may even sprout pictures.

One of the things that really gets me worked up is school libraries. It is as plain as the nose on Rudolf’s face that all schools need good libraries, because all children need good books. We do have libraries in schools, but they are a kind of optional extra that really lucky kids might get. And it’s not even a question of money. Money is still being spent on books in schools, but it is not always being spent well – and the way to make sure it is spent well is to have properly trained librarians (take a bow, public library system) helping the schools to make good book choices. So this is one of the things I talk about when I do all this talking.

As well as this highly exciting time I’ve been having scooting about the country, banging on about books and libraries, I also have some even more exciting plans for this second laureate year, including an international exchange with an Austrian writer of children’s books, a trip to Sweden, to the Gothenburg Book Fair, to meet Sweden’s first children’s literature ambassador (that’s the Swedish for laureate), maybe a trip to the United States to make them aware of what great children’s books we have over here, and, the very best thing of all: LIL, the Laureate International Library, a small mobile library of books from different countries, some translated into English, some in other languages, which you can have visit your school or library, and from which children can borrow books in their own language or in none. (That’s a mystery, but it is possible. Think about it).

Watch this space.

Disclaimer: Not only have I not met God or any of those illustrious people mentioned above, I have never even seen a picture of the government jet. But I did get to meet President McAleese, and all the people who tell you how great she is – they’re right. And she loves libraries.

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