Canada – the Ottawa Album

Our last gig – a Q&A session with Neil Wilson

Our last stop in Canada was the Ottawa International Writers Festival. They have had many Irish writers take part over the years and last year brought writers and illustrators to Dublin for the CBI conference. The sun came out in the capital!

We saw wonderful Inuit art in Ottawa and also the fabulous Maman by Louise Bourgeios which deserves its own album! There is a lovely picturebook about Louise and her Maman, who was a weaver, illustrated by Canadian illustrator, Isabelle Arsenault

Canada – the Montreal Album

With Dr Susan Cahill at the Irish Studies’ Centre in Concordia University, Montreal

Next stop on our tour of Canada was the Blue Met Festival, Montreal. Click on images to go large/get info/scroll

Then it was off on a train to the capital, writing as we went…

Canada – the Moncton Album

The first of three photo albums from my trip to Canada representing Irish children’s lit with Deirdre Sullivan, Óisín McGann and Dave Rudden. First CBI sent us to the Frye Festival in Moncton, New Brunswick  (for more info, roll over or click on an image)

We spent four lovely days with the folk at the Frye Festival but then we made the mistake of going to Magnetic Hill…

Magnetic Hill is drawing us away…

Illustrator Saturday: Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

An interview about my work with Kathy Temean:

Writing and Illustrating


After I found my agent in 1999, I started to focus completely on my creative work and finally began to find my own particular voice and visual style. In my picture book work I like to explore the blurred line between the imagined and the real in childhood and those little/big moments of change and discovery. More recently I have begun to write novels for children – a steep learning curve! I’m really enjoying the process and I’ve discovered I can pretty much write anywhere – airports, planes, coffee shops, waiting rooms, parks …

Being a children’s writer/illustrator allows me to indulge my love of travel as I often ‘have to’ go places to do research – Oklahoma for The Long March, London for the novel I’m working on now – and I sometimes get invited to take part in literary conferences in far-flung places like Paris…

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The Emberley Picture-Book Dynasty: Part 1

This is a blog featured on Writers Rumpus. Part II coming soon.


W Drummer HoffThis is part 1 of a 2 part look at an amazing family of children’s book creators. This installment is about an exhibit and an interview with Ed Emberley and his wife Barbara, who started it all. The other half of this story will appear on Friday, April 7 and is an interview with Rebecca and Michael, who are the Emberley adult children, and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, an Irish author/illustrator who is married to Michael.

Ed and Barbara Emberley’s One Wide River to Cross was the sole runner up for the Caldecott Award in 1967. The following year, Drummer Hoff really fired the Emberley career off in style, when it won the prestigious Caldecott Award. The story’s message of peace and disarmament, published during the Vietnam War, is still as hopeful today as ever. Barbara Emberley’s story adaptation and Ed Emberley’s brightly colored block print artwork, which he developed in his…

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The Ed Emberley Exhibition



For the first time in its 120 year history the Worcester Art Museum just outside Boston is hosting an exhibition of a children’s book illustrator, and that illustrator is Michael’s dad, Ed Emberley. We went to see it in January with Ed and Barbara and some good friends.


Ed has written and/or illustrated more than a hundred books over his long career, working in various mediums and many styles, always experimenting and exploring. The exhibition in Worcester displays a wide variety of his art, rough sketches and finished pieces for some of his most iconic books, including Drummer Hoff (Caldecott Medal 1968), the best-selling and innovative Drawing Book series and many more.

The art for One Wide River to Cross (Caldecott Honor 1967) was created using woodcuts, some of which you can see pictured below:

dscf0378Woodcuts are always carved in reverse so you can see the animals are marching in the opposite direction on the prints (below). This is final art marked up with instructions for the print run. dscf0377

In the printed book there are colourful backgrounds, like so:

The art for The Story of Paul Bunyan (1963) was also created using woodcuts. Below is a print pulled from the ginormous woodblock Ed made as a promotion for the book – that’s the woodblock you can see to the left of the image. We all laughed when Rick stood in front of it, having unintentionally dressed the part!


Part of the joy of walking around the exhibition with Ed was being able to ask questions about the techniques he used. Here is a small selection of pieces from the exhibition – click on an image if you’d like to read how it was made. (You will need to roll down a bit below the image for the info, if you’re using a phone.)

We also heard some family memories. Barbara, Rebecca and Michael were often drafted in to help finish art and Barbara and Michael tried to recall who did what on which book. Most of Ed’s pre-computer book illustrations were created using the “pre-separation” process – a technique which involved using Ed’s original black line art combined with three additional paper overlays indicating colour placement. Michael explained that for a book like the ABC, he might have created the overlays on say, an alligator, Rebecca a bear, Barbara a cat.  Meaning, with a felt-tip pen, Michael would have marked the areas which Ed intended for the alligator as yellow, red and blue, literally ‘colouring them in’ (on overlays) like a highly detailed coloring book. Yes, it’s confusing if you’ve never seen it done! Ed’s studio is in the family home, Barbara worked on many of the books and in more recent years Rebecca and Ed have created books together, so all the books are deeply woven into everyone’s memories.

It was really interesting to see Ed’s work explored in this way. He has created so many great books that it can be overwhelming, but the exhibition doesn’t try to show it all. Curator Caleb Neelon and Worcester Museum director Adam Rozen chose some favourites from across Ed’s work and the result is terrific.

And it was great fun going to see it with friends – Tom and Rick, Anne, Sika and Susannah. We made a party of it! The show runs at Worcester Art Museum (MA) till April 9th.

Rudolph’s First Christmas

Cover of 1994 publication illustrated by Michael. This edition is no longer in print. ©Robert L.May Company

Cover of 1994 publication illustrated by Michael. This edition is no longer in print. ©Robert L.May Company

Bob fidgeted in his oak office chair. He glanced up from his typewriter at the clock on the wall. 3PM. Two more hours and he could leave. The holidays had just come and gone, but the usual joyous event had been celebrated under a cloud.

The papers that year were full of bad news. A massive war looked likely again in Europe. Germany’s new fascist leader Adolf Hitler had just announced in parliament his plan to exterminate all European Jews.  Bob and his wife Evelyn were both Jewish.  Germany would soon march its rebuilt army through Vienna, Prague and then into Poland, killing thousands of people on its way. Russia had invaded Finland, Franco’s Fascists had taken over the government in Spain. Britain was arming for war. America was watching nervously.

Bob wanted to get a something nice for his wife, who was terribly ill with cancer. It was snowing outside on the streets of Chicago, but working for Montgomery Ward, one of the biggest department stores in the city, he could shop by taking the stairs up to the ladies department without going outside.

Bob glanced at the clock again. 4PM. One more hour. He hit two keys at once and his typewriter jammed. He cursed just as a bell rang and he was called to the phone. He crossed the room, wiping deep blue ink from his fingers as best he could before he picking up the inter office line.

“Bob?  How’s it going? Not busy are you? Good. Listen, gotta job for you. Boss wants to get started on this year’s Christmas campaign early. Macy’s is killing us. He wants a promo piece, yeah, something for the kiddies. Something happy. Uh huh, ‘first 200 customers through the door gets one free’ kinda thing.”

Bob glanced at the clock again – 4:45.

“Nope. Boss wants you. You’re always doing those funny little poems. And Bob, the boss wants to see some ideas tomorrow. Christmas will be here again before you know it. You on it?  All right. See you, 9AM, sharp.”

It was already dark outside, the holiday lights still up, blazing in the store windows, gathering crowds of post-holiday shoppers. But deep in the basement offices of the advertising department of Montgomery Ward department store, there were no windows. Just the glow of a green desk lamp.

Slumped at his desk, Bob aimlessly sharpened a pencil with his pocket knife. How was he supposed to work on something happy for kids with all the madness going on in the world?

He tried to focus. Other young Jewish American artists at that time, also engrossed by the horrors unfolding across Europe, were creating new kinds of superheros – comics artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger created Batman the same year, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster created Superman just the year before.

But Bob would invent his own, quieter character. Small, persecuted, an outsider – one of Santa’s reindeer. A little deer with a big nose – an all too common antisemitic caricature of the time. Rudolph. Rudy the Red-nose. Bob began to type, typed some more. The nose became the key to the story. Soon the clock showed 2AM. But he’d done it. He had his hero.

rudolph3It’s impossible to know the exact genesis of any creative idea. But some facts are clear, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was undoubtedly born on a dark day in January, 1939, in the mind of Robert L. May, at a small desk in the advertising department of the Montgomery Ward store in Chicago, amid very personal, unimaginable grief and inescapable daily accounts of inhuman global turmoil, cruelty and suffering.

Sadly, before the work was completed, Robert L May’s wife, Evelyn, died. Robert was told he needn’t finish the project but he chose to work through his grief, eventually completing it in August of that year.

The rhyming poem was an instant hit.  2.4 million copies were given away during Christmas 1939. The hopeful tale of a plucky little deer with the big red nose was just the antidote to the gloom of world events.

The little book slept during the war because of paper shortages. Then after the war, another 3.5 million were printed. In 1946 Robert asked his boss if he could have the rights to Rudolph. In an act of unusual generosity, his boss agreed.

A few years later, Bob’s brother-in-law, a struggling songwriter named Johnny Marks, proposed writing a song about Rudolph. He was convinced it would boost Rudolph’s name around the world.

He was right. The song was indeed a hit, becoming the best-selling record in America for over 30 years. The May and Marks families have been caretakers of Rudolph ever since – almost 80 years. The two families need to agree on most projects, deciding what is best for the famous little deer, who is practically part of the family.

I personally became involved in Rudolph’s world when a local Boston area publisher, specializing in quality reproductions of historical literature, Applewood Books, contacted me to illustrate a second, less known and never fully illustrated story about Rudolph, titled Rudolph’s Second Christmas. They had already reprinted an exclusive edition of the first book with the original illustrations by Montgomery Ward staff artist Denver Gillen, with great success.

I met Robert May’s daughter, who at the time was managing the family Rudolph business. She told me 99% of her job involved chasing bootleggers who were using Rudolph’s image to make illegal t-shirts, coffee cups and toys. Many of the Rudolph toys you see are actually black market contraband.

I agreed to illustrate the book, and its success led to a second book project, a new edition of the original story, Rudolph, The Red-nosed Reindeer. It was published in 1994. No, I didn’t get rich. I was paid a one-off fee. You never own anything relating to a license character. I’ll never see the art again but I knew this before I started.

I’ll never suggest I suffered the mental turmoil Robert did, but somehow it seemed fitting that the color work on the first book was completed with my drawing-hand in a cast (due to an untimely broken wrist), with the help of a good friend -a skilled artist- and a lot of painkillers.

It was a rewarding experience overall, illustrating such an iconic character of American children’s literature. I grew up watching the beloved TV version. Too bad I didn’t get a chance to draw my favorite character from that animated version – one Robert L. May never imagined Rudolph would meet – the abominable snowman.

Inside backflap of cover

Author/illustrator info on the inside cover flap of the 1994 publication ©Robert L. May Company

All illustrations by Michael Emberley © Robert L. May Company. Strictly copyright protected.

Make Way for Ducklings – Ipswich, Mass. Version

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCluskey is a classic American picturebook set in Boston. The statue commemorating the book is in Boston Public Garden and I took this photo in May, a few days before Michael and myself met one tenacious mammy duck and her two plucky ducklings in downtown Ipswich Mass. What followed was a pretty amazing set of coincidental sightings, as we anxiously followed their attempts to get back home.

dscf6379Day one: we paused on our way back from morning coffee/work to look upriver from the bridge over the weir (A).b-wierIn this photo the water is quite calm but that morning it was very turbulent and we were alarmed to see a duck leading her two tiny babies into the tumbling water, attempting to scale the weir.

Once we began watching we couldn’t look away. Over and over, Mammy Duck went into the foam, and over and over, the ducklings tried to follow her. After approaching the falls head-on multiple times, she led them to the right where a tree trunk was lodged, but the water there was particularly rapid so they couldn’t reach it. She gave up and brought them all the way over to the left where there’s a salmon run, but again it was too difficult for the little ducklings.


Every now and then she’d drop back to the stones in the corner of the photo above to let the babies rest, before starting all over again. The ducklings were tiring and it seemed only a matter of time before one or both of them was swept away. It was a huge relief to us when Mammy finally decided to give up and let the current bob her and the babies under the bridge we were standing on, where she led them onto a sandy bank mid-stream.

We went home, exhausted from watching. I googled ducks as soon as we got back to Ed and Barbara’s, and every article described how strong a mother duck’s instinct is to get back to her nest. We thought we had just witnessed one (sensibly) give up!

Day two: still on Irish time, we headed off early to Zumi’s for coffee.


After a few hours writing we again took the river route home, stopping as soon as we reached the water (1) to check for Painted Turtles. There was a duck swimming below us, with two small ducklings.

‘It can’t be the same one?’ Michael said.

‘This is right where we last saw her,’ I said. ‘And every other duck we’ve seen has four or more babies.’

The duck began to swim to shore and got up on the bank in front of us. We thought she was taking the babies out to bask in the sun. It took a minute to realise we had arrived just in time to witness the beginning of another attempt by Mammy Duck to get her family home.
2journeybeginsThe day before Michael had suggested that the only way the duck would get her ducklings upriver again was by land, but given the built-up nature of the water at this point he’d figured she’d have quite a way to go. He’d pointed to exactly where they were coming ashore right now as the nearest logical starting point.

This morning it seemed Mammy Duck had reached exactly the same conclusion.
3offtheygoWe watched her lead the ducklings across the path towards a carpark. It was railed off; we couldn’t follow. Instead we walked along the river path, watching as Mammy and babies appeared between parked cars, hugging the walls of the buildings as they went.

From the bridge (A) we watched Mammy Duck lead her babies out across another wide expanse of concrete until we lost sight of them. A woman crossing the concrete stopped and turned, as if she was watching them too, then came out onto the bridge through an employee gate.

‘Did you see the ducks?’ we asked. ‘Where did they go?’

‘Up towards the street,’ she said.

We felt sure they were going to walk around the big red brick building (B) and re-enter the river on the far side of it, so we sat down on a bench and waited. When nothing happened we decided to walk to the riverbank opposite the building for a better view.

But still, no sign of the ducks.


Red line is the duck family journey on day two – some of it a guess, as they were out of sight. The blue line is us, watching them.

We gave up. It was half an hour since we’d last seen them. They’d obviously slipped into the water and we’d missed it. We decided to walk the dirt track along the river anyway. I kept glancing at the bank opposite, just in case. At one point (C) I looked across and stopped. That would be a good spot to re-enter, I thought, if they haven’t already. I hung around for a bit. Then I thought I saw something – movement under the wheels of the car parked behind the pole.

‘It’s them,’ I called to Michael, who’d gone ahead. ‘Quick, quick! Here they come!’

4heretheycome And it was them. Mammy Duck and her babies on her tail. She led them into the water and let them rest a few minutes behind that clump of grass, before bringing them out into midstream.

5-rulookinatmeShe turned her head and looked straight over at us for a few seconds before she headed upstream. I’m sure she was checking us for danger but it felt strangely like a salute.
We followed through the trees till we reached a fence (D) and then watched the little family swim out of sight, thrilled to know they had made it home. We were amazed – at the tenacity of Mammy Duck, at the bravery and hardiness of the wee ducklings, at the serendipity which had allowed us to witness the whole thing.

dwatchingthemgoFair play to those babies! I hope they make through 2016 to begin families of their own in 2017.

Apologies for quality of duck photos – they were snapped on phone at extreme zoom.