A #Bold Girl Learns to read

I was a slow reader. I couldn’t learn the ABC and my progress through the Peter and Jane readers was painful. I dreaded when my turn came to read in class; I stuttered and stumbled trying to make out those little black marks. My teacher thought I was lazy but even when I learnt the letters they stayed stubbornly separate; they would not form words inside my head. I remember the shame and panic, frowning and frowning at my allotted sentence as the whole class – fifty kids – waited. Once, I thought I recognised something.

‘Peter… saw, ’ I said triumphantly. I was sent straight to the corner to face the wall.

Not saw, bold girl! Was.

Towards the end of the school year I’d turned seven and was still making no progress. One day Miss Farrelly held up a book. It was thick, like a novel. It was dark blue. There was a wizard on the cover. A wizard!

‘This,’ Miss Farrelly said, ‘is a book for advanced readers. Those of you who find Peter and Jane too easy may buy it. If your parents wish you to have it they should send in three shillings and sixpence tomorrow.’

I wanted that book. I wanted it badly. I went home and told my mother there was a book to buy and I needed 3/6.

‘But you can’t read,’ Mam said.

‘Please, please,’ I said. ‘I’ll read it, I promise.’

‘If you don’t read it, it will be a waste of money,’ Mam said.

Now, my parents were book people. They saw books as necessities, like food and shoes. My sisters and I grew up surrounded by books. Here are some of the beautiful picturebooks we had as children:

But Mam hated waste. It took some persuading but the next day I marched up to Miss Farrelly, coins in hand.

‘This book is for advanced readers,’ she snapped. ‘You can’t even read.’

‘Mammy said I was to get it,’ I said.

Miss Farrelly rolled her eyes and tut-tutted but she handed over the book.

At home that afternoon I pulled the precious thing from my schoolbag and opened it. The letters sat there, black and unyielding. My joy turned to horror. Mammy would kill me! Mrs Farrelly would say she told me so. I looked at the first page. There was a lovely illustration of a dog and a fisherman. I was full of terror but also full of longing. I wanted in, wanted into the story.

Sandy… the… Sailor… Dog… said the title. A half hour later I realised I was three stories into the book. I was reading, reading fluently, gobbling words, turning pages. Something magical had happened; some switch inside my head had flipped. I was a reader.

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This is a piece I wrote for #BOLD GIRLS. BOLD GIRLS is a Children’s Books Ireland initiative to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland. It’s a celebration of brave, adventurous, curious and feisty girls and women in children’s literature, past and present. You can find info on the FEATURED AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS, the BOLD GIRL READING GUIDE and the SCHOOL RESOURCE PACK HERE.

 

 

NOTE: Miss Farrelly was a stern teacher but who wouldn’t be, faced with 50 kids? She lived nearby and always had a hello and a smile for me as I passed from child to teen to adult. In ‘real life’ she had a twinkle in her eye and a hearty chuckle.

Rules for Researching (learned on the fly) -The Long March, part 2

Here are some of the rules I worked out about writing a book set in another time, place or culture when I was working on The Long March:

Ask every question at least twice; you may get different answers.

As described in my last blog I arrived in Oklahoma to research The Long March with a very rough first dummy under my oxter. The main character in that early version was a Choctaw boy but he spoke English; he was called Tobias, he wore European clothes and lived in a typical American log cabin. ‘Tobias’ was a result of the small amount of research I’d managed to do from Dublin via letter and fax (it was 1995) with a Choctaw contact I’d been given. When I was told the Choctaw would have had American/European names, clothes, houses in the 1840s I was startled, but accepted that if my contact said that’s how things were, then that’s how I had to portray them in my book.

After a week in Oklahoma everything changed. Now I knew my main character would have had two names: a Choctaw name plus a European name for the missionaries who lived amongst the tribe. I knew he and his family dressed in traditional Choctaw dress, with some European influences. I knew he lived in a log cabin but one without windows, as the Choctaw only used them for sleeping and storing. I knew Choctaw was his first language, and he had a maternal uncle, a moshi, who took the lead in disciplining and teaching him. I discovered all these things through conversations with Choctaw artist, writer and historian Gary White Deer, and other historians and archaeologists I met through him.

So why had my first contact told me that the Choctaw were fully europeanised in 1847? Were they mistaken? No. They were simply describing the past as it had been for their family.

The Choctaw lived side by side with Europeans for a century or so before being removed to Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma). Some intermarried and many did business with the French and the English, and the Choctaw occasionally fought alongside the French in their disputes. A few Choctaw even owned land and slaves, but these were a tiny minority. In 1847 most of the people who had endured the removal from Mississippi and Alabama to Indian Territory were still living in the traditional Choctaw way.

Mind the Gap.

We all carry preconceptions. In 1995 I was full of them – things which had to do with my being Irish, European, white, female, a twentieth century human. No doubt I’m still full of them but I wasn’t aware enough then to know how they might blind me into adding erroneous details to the story and images. Some were glaring mistakes: in that first dummy I built a fence around the boy’s cabin. Fences are part of European culture, not Native American. Some errors were more nuanced: I had the Choctaw argue vehemently back and forth about sending money to Ireland, as if they were Irish folk relishing a good old barney. The Choctaw would have seen such arguing as rude. They’d have spoken politely at the meeting but ultimately acted however they saw fit. Luckily for me Choctaw historian, Gary White Deer, generously gave me his time and knowledge, picking up my mistakes and misconceptions. He showed them clearly to me as I wrote, rewrote, and sketched, sketched again, doing so much editing work that he is credited as such in the book. I couldn’t have made it without him.

Original, historic research is only as reliable as the source.

There is always a distinct possibility (probability, even) of bias with original recorders of events and culture (primary sources), but sometimes people are just sloppy. In the 19th century, several artists travelled across America drawing and painting the First Nations and Gary and Marshall Gettys suggested their work as a great resource. They both particularly recommended the paintings of George Catlin but warned me that he had a habit of adding details to images, such as random tepees and feathers because his clients in New York and Europe liked them (the Choctaw never used tepees and wore few feathers). He also tended to redraw images, occasionally flipping them. So, in the drawings below, the baldric (beaded sash) is shown worn correctly in the left image and incorrectly in the flipped image.

 

‘Never fall in love with your research’.

I’d heard Morgan Llywelyn say this a few years before at a conference and I came to understand exactly what she meant while working on this book. As I researched I found lots of little details and stories, some of which nestled nicely into my story, adding to it. However, I also caught myself trying to shoehorn in favourite facts just because, well, I wanted to. In the end I saw that they were pointless padding, cluttering up the narrative, and I duly ‘killed my darlings’. But ultimately I think none of the research goes to waste. With The Long March and also my novels Timecatcher, Dark Warning and Hagwitch, I’ve noticed that it all seems to be there, invisible but present, sitting between the lines.

Cultural appropriation.

Would I attempt The Long March if the idea presented itself today instead of in 1994 when I had only two books to my name? Simple answer: no.

It was only naiveté that let me think writing and illustrating a book about another culture would be difficult but do-able. Even though The Long March tells of an actual event which connects the Choctaw culture to mine I think the answer is still no; I might approach it from an Irish perspective instead, write it as an Irish immigrant observing from the outside perhaps. Today I’m too aware of the potential pitfalls and of the wholly valid arguments against attempting to write from inside another culture. At the time, as the enormity of what I’d taken on finally dawned on me, there came a point when I’d have given up on the book if Gary hadn’t been there to stop me making a mess of it. At the time I wrote and illustrated it I thought it would only be published in Ireland. It would have been tempting (but inexcusable) to think that the story of the gift was the important thing and the details of Choctaw culture didn’t matter so much in a book only available here. Ultimately the book was published in the USA and has had a long life there; longer than in Ireland. It was also published in Korea.

Though I wouldn’t attempt it now I loved making The Long March. I learned so much, about the Choctaw, about the Irish Famine, about myself, my cultural blindness and misconceptions; I developed my writing craft, I stretched myself artistically, I got to grips with the joys and hazards of research. In the end I wanted to get it right and serve the story of this amazing connection between the Choctaw and Ireland. And in the end I think that’s all any storyteller can do when they create a story set in another place or time.

This blog is written especially for the students of MIE where I am currently writer-in-residence. It refers to researching The Long March, a book about the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the aid they sent to Ireland during the Great Famine, when a million Irish people died and a million emigrated. The Long March is currently out of print but may be available in libraries.

Learn About Bats!

moon-bats

I studied bats and owls quite a bit before beginning the finished art for Owl Bat Bat Owl. I pulled out books on the subject and sketched directly from photos to ‘learn’ them. By sketching from photographs I got a handle on bat wings and how they move.

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In the book I’ve simplified the bats and I’m taking major artistic licence with the babies (bats have single pups – rarely twins, never three), but I like to begin with the real animal and how it moves and behaves. I prefer to consciously simplify/take artistic licence, rather than do stuff by mistake!

After a year drawing owls and bats for Owl Bat Bat Owl it seemed like serendipity when Bat Conservation Ireland got in touch to ask if I’d do some illustrations for a new website they were making called Learnaboutbats. I asked if I could use ‘my’ bats for the site. They said yes, and we were in business.

Making images for the website I discovered I still had plenty to learn about bats! Like all illustrators working to a brief I provide rough line drawings initially. This is so the client can spot mistakes and problems before I take the image to full-colour art.

There were loads of wee problems with my initial drawings. For instance I clustered sleeping bats together in a cave for the hibernation image. Mistake! Bats need to cool down to hibernate so they keep their distance from one another. The images of tightly packed bats I was referencing were of summertime roosting mums.

Screen-Shot-2017-12-05-at-17.05.32Myself and Niamh Roche at Bat Conservation Ireland emailed back and forth until I had the details right, then I went to colour. The site went live in October and you can fly over to learnaboutbats.com for lots of wonderful Bat Facts.

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There’s info on Irish bats, on a year in the life of a bat, and a slide presentation that will be great for use in the classroom.

You can download worksheets to print out for your class, library group, or the small bat fans in your life.

There are suggestions for games and activities too! https://www.learnaboutbats.com/fun-things-to-do/

Get clicking. https://www.learnaboutbats.com/

And there are t-shirts! Ours arrived in the post this week 🙂

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This is my third year as writer-in-residence at Marino Institute of Education. (MIE) is an associated college of Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Dublin. MIE offers courses across the continuum of teacher education and prepares specialist education practitioners at early years, primary and further education levels. 

Hello, Marino!

© Róisín White

Hello to the students and staff of Marino Institute of Education. Let me introduce myself. My name is Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick and I am your children’s writer-in-residence for 2017/18. I am a writer/illustrator and I’ve been making books for children since 1988. Here are some of my books:

Since 2006 I’ve also been writing novels for older kids:

My main interest as a picturebook creator is in charting the personal journeys we make in early childhood, the small events which change us, the little battles and triumphs as we grow up. I’m told that Izzy and Skunk has been used with children by psychiatrists and There is used in classrooms to introduce kids to philosophy. My novels are rooted in myth and legend but ultimately they are concerned (as so many stories are) with how we each twist and turn and struggle (and laugh and dance) towards adulthood.

Over my career I’ve worked with Irish, UK and US publishers and my books are in many languages. The Sleeping Giant has been my Irish bestseller; Izzy and Skunk, I’m a Tiger Too and There are probably my most widely read worldwide. Izzy even made it into Farsi. There has been popular in Japan and I was privileged to have the poet and philosopher Shozo Kajima translate – and write an introduction to – the Japanese edition.

My work has won many awards, including four overall Bisto/CBI Book of the Year Awards and six honours. There was an Eric Carle Museum Best Picturebooks of 2009 choice and The Long March is a Smithsonian Notable Book. My most recent book, Owl Bat Bat Owl, has just been designated a Junior Library Guild Selection for Fall 2017 in the US.

Owl Bat Bat Owl is a wordless picturebook and I look forward to sharing it with you. I’ll speak about where the idea came from and how it developed, and also about how wordless books work with children and how much they can learn from them. For those of you who’ve met me already and heard me speak about Owl Bat Bat Owl, I will be designing a new talk for you. Any suggestions? Let me know in the comments below!

I will also be writing a series of blogs during my residency especially directed towards you, student teachers in Marino. If you have any questions about my work, about one of my books, about children’s books in general, about writing and illustrating, please send them my way. You can contact me via Ciara Ní Bhroin. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Marino Institute of Education (MIE) is an associated college of Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Dublin. MIE offers courses across the continuum of teacher education and prepares specialist education practitioners at early years, primary and further education levels.  This is my third year as writer-in-residence.

Photo of me at work © Róisín White

Picturebook Journey, from idea to published…

…told mostly through images. Click on any image for a closer look.

New-Kid-1The idea for The New Kid started when I observed a small girl in The Happy Pear coffee shop. Something about the way she was wearing her coat resonated with me, reminded me of myself as a child… the above on-the-spot sketches and first version of text are dated 3rd January 2010.

New-Kid-2Early draft of the text which I printed out and immediately covered in edits. There were many rewrites and edits through-out the process, right up until I sent off the final art.

Early thumbnails as I tried to work out the story visually. I did this alongside shaping the text. Again, I wrote notes to myself all over these – change this, change that. These are working roughs, all about getting the idea out onto paper, not about making nice drawings.

Then I did sketches to find my characters. Ellie is based on the little girl I saw so I had her set from early on. The others had to emerge…

These images are from a set of more coherent roughs – I’m still working small, three spreads to an A3 sheet of paper – but I’m getting closer each time to how the book will look. I did at least three versions of the book at this size, copying the images which were working and changing/tweaking/losing others with every layer of reworking.

When I was happy with how it was working I made up a full size dummy and sent a copy to my agent (now I’d make a PDF and send it too). She showed it to Hodder and I had a contract! Yay! This was, I think, mid 2011. The work described above was done in two/three/four week runs, with gaps in between doing other things.

The editors then sent me comments, suggested some changes, pointed out weak spots…

New-Kid-18…and I took most of these onboard as I knew they would improve the book. One or two things I didn’t agree with, so we discussed and compromised, or I left those out. I did another set of full size roughs, there were a few more tweaks and finally…

…a set of ‘finished’ roughs – a set as close as I could get to the final images before going to colour. Last chance for major changes, so everyone looked at them very carefully. I roughed in the text as already planned with the design editor. Text needs to be placed where it reads well, looks well, and is not too near gutters or edges. There needs to be room to allow translations into languages, such as German, which will need more space. As the text in this book is sitting on the images I needed to make sure I didn’t paint fussy texture or dark tones underneath.

It was finally time to begin the finished art:

I worked in acrylics. It was very labour intensive and took about six months to complete – 15 spreads averaging two weeks a piece (some 1 week, some 3), and of course a few hit the bin along the way.

I referenced loads of images as I worked, some to ensure drew the animals/vehicles correctly, others were for colour reference. I had taken many photos a friend’s dog, and of a street in Cobh, other images were from books and the internet.

New-Kid-19

Then came the endpapers and the cover. The cover is very important as it is what makes people pick up the book in the first place – I’ll blog about that journey another day.

I sent off the art by courier and then a month later a set of colour proofs arrived – my absolute last chance to pick up errors in the text and tweak the colours if any of them looked strange. The colours in the final book will never exactly match the art; the best that can be accomplished is a close match with no odd colours. A few changes were needed – a spelling fix on the title spread, one spread looked rather dark, and the skin tones in two  had gone a little peachy.

The book headed off to China to be printed and bound. It can take six months to a year  to arrive back and be distributed to shops. I got my first copies in May 2014, so it had taken 4 years and 4 months from initial idea through to published book. About 10 months work spread out over that time, it’s hard to tell exactly; I was working on other books in between.

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It was a fairly typical picturebook journey for me; other writer/illustrators have different or similar processes and take less or more time. Michael discusses his process here: miss-brooks-story-nook-the-art-part-1

This post is especially for the students and staff at Marino Institute of Education, where I have very much enjoyed being this year’s writer-in-residence.