Reviews 2008

Irish Children’s Writers and Illustrators 1986-2006: A Selection of Essays

Irish Children’s Writers and Illustrators 1986-2006: A Selection of Essays. Edited by Valerie Coghlan and Siobhán Parkinson. Dublin: Church of Ireland College of Education Publications & Children’s Books Ireland, 2007. 168 pages. €15 (paperback).

As the title makes clear, Irish Children’s Writers and Illustrators 1986-2006 is a collection of essays about Irish children’s writers and illustrators at the turn of the twenty-first century. Each of the thirteen chapters focuses on the work of one author or illustrator, prefaced by a creamy title-page with eye-catching reproductions of dust-jackets on one side and a comprehensive check-list of titles in print on the other. The collection is beautifully presented: there are over thirty pages of full-colour illustrations, the typeface is clear and large, with wide margins, which allow for a great sense of space and for the addition of notes and marginalia. Made for dipping in and out of, it is the kind of book that librarians and booksellers keep behind the desk, that parents thumb through for ideas, that teachers hold as an authority, an oracle they consult before class. This book does what all books are meant to do - it actively encourages reading by sending the reader off in search of other books.

This collection is clearly the product of a small, close community of authors and academics - some of the contributors mention that they have personal friendships with the writers and illustrators in question - and is born out of a warm, self-assured commitment to the values that lie at the centre of that community. Like all small communities this one is exclusive. Coghlan and Parkinson lay down these terms of exclusion in their introduction, noting that “the so-called boom [in Irish children’s writing] had more quantity than quality to it” and this collection includes a carefully-selected handful of texts which “[reflect] the best the Ireland had to offer and work that could stand scrutiny at an international level.” As a result, some popular (and hugely commercial) authors such as Marita Conlon-McKenna and Michael Scott are gently nudged out of the ring, and some authors who have been largely forgotten by booksellers and readers alike are ushered back in.

This collection is “a snapshot of excellence” - it is both commemorative and celebratory. There can be no doubt that it lays down the framework for a canon of Irish Children’s literature. Redford and O’Dea, for instance, provide enthusiastic, sincere accounts of the merits of their subjects and pave the way for the establishment of a readers’ canon - a canon of really good books. But a canon of international and literary merit must be established through allusion to and alliance with texts which we already identify as having canonical worth. Apart from one rather pompous reference to Milton, these comparisons are largely successful. Three of the contributors in particular, n Bhroin, Dunbar and Piesse, focus on how their subjects fit into a cultural, historical and literary milieu, darting from Said to Winterson to Kafka and from prejudice to translation to issues of cultural identity. In challenging the limits of their subjects like this, these contributors acknowledge that in establishing a canon of Irish children’s literature we should not allow it to become a self-contained category. However, some of the contributors do not seem to be interested, or aware, of the overall project of the collection and discuss their subjects in personal rather than academic terms.

At this point, the cover-image of the collection deserves a mention. PJ Lynch’s oil-painting of Gulliver in Lilliput makes for a striking and memorable image and one which is particularly attractive for the student of children’s literature. Reminding us of the adult critic galumphing among children’s texts, this image is all about comparison and relativity. But while these disparities of interest and perspective are playfully harmonised in Lynch’s painting, they are not reconciled within the collection itself. The problem with this collection is that it falls between two stools - the blurb on the back cover claims that it is, primarily, a resource for students of children’s literature and, secondly, a handbooks for parents, teachers, librarians and readers. The proposed readership is uncertain and, to a certain extent, the authorship is uncertain too.

The essays were originally published as stand-alone articles in Inis and Coghlan and Parkinson make it clear in the introduction that the collection is “exactly equivalent to the series.” Here the essays remain very much separate pieces - the creamy pages which divide up the chapters act as barriers to cross-criticism and internal comparison. While contributors and editors are comfortable enough to compare Eoin Colfer to Milton and Matthew Sweeney to Kafka, no-one compares Siobhán Parkinson to Kate Thompson or P.J. Lynch to Niamh Sharkey. The editors’ introduction establishes the social and cultural milieu from which these texts emerged but it does not identify or analyse the trends and motifs which connect the various texts. Coghlan and Parkinson assert that the unifying principle behind the collection is a sense of “Irishness” - all the authors and contributors are “Irish by birth, background or affiliation” - but an awareness of national and cultural identity comes in many shapes and sizes and this “Irishness” ultimately fails to bestow unity or coherence on the collection. Irish Children’s Writers and Illustrators 1986-2006 would have benefited from the inclusion of an editorial chapter which could draw all of these authors and illustrators together clearly and definitively.

But while the lack of comparative analysis and firm conclusion is unsatisfying from a student’s perspective, it certainly does not negate the merit of the collection as a whole. It is an exceptionally beautiful book, and it is clear that a lot of time and effort went into its production. The clear layout and the wide range of topics and styles make it an enjoyable read and a useful addition to any bookshelf. If this collection is more at home in the library or the classroom than on the student’s desk then so be it.

Jane Suzanne Carroll
Trinity College, Ireland