Every year, I look forward in longing anticipation to the Childrens' Books Ireland conference; to that feeling of welcome and 'home' that feeds this particular kidlit enthusiast with. I am with my people; my tribe; all very diverse and different, but all very connected. CBI has actually built a strong sense of community in the childrens' book world. We BELONG, and we are excited about welcoming new members to our family. This years' theme was indeed BELONGING and each speaker brought a greater, broader sense of that term, of how we can get that across to children and their grown-ups; parents, teachers, librarians, publishers... this years' conference was truly wonderful.
I'm going to take you through some of the highlights; for me. It may be a rather long post, so I will break it into two...covering both days, but there will be a lot of pictures (not the best quality, I'm afraid...sorry.) I hope it will nourish some of you the way it nourished me.
....when I say nourished...
We began with coffee/tea and these wonderful cupcakes, provided by Gill publishing to celebrate the new book by Peter Donnelly; The Presidents Surprise! (ISBN: 9780717184811) This is the 3rd in his picture series featuring the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins and it is marvelous. They all are!
You all need to know one thing: we do have the best President in the world!!!! And these books let you in on that fact.
The cupcakes were delicious and it was a fabulous way to kick off the conference!

"Books are mirrors, but they are also windows."

After the housekeeping and introduction by the wonderful Elaina Ryan, our first session got under way.
Kwame Alexander took to the stage...and he told us 5 stories. They were his stories; stories of childhood, of his parents, of learning, growing, becoming and publishing.
Kwame grew up understanding the power of words. His mission is to "change the world on word at a time." And we must know our stories. Knowing the stories are "proof of belonging".
Once,after winning the Newbery Medal in 2015 for the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children; Kwame was asked, by a librarian, what colour the kids in his book were; she said the children would want to know. His response was that she should contact him after sharing the book with the kids IF they asked that question. When she got back to him, not one child had asked. You see; we need to stop segregating the books. Let all the books be for all the kids. "Books are mirrors, but they are also windows." Yes...children need to see themselves reflected in books, but they also need the windows to peer into other lives, other stories..and learn them, so we all belong. His verse novels are embedded with that sense of becoming and belonging.
In our second session, we met Daisy Hirst and her wonderful, colourful array of picture books for children. After receiving her MA in book illustration from the Cambridge School of Arts, Daisy was taken on by Walker Books and her first book, The Girl With the Parrot on her Head was released into the wild. In all her stories, bright, colourful, child-like illustrations tell stories of the full range of a childs' experience in an authentic way, and helps them cope with feelings that can be overwhelming. They are whimsical and joyous and very, very real from the perspective of the child. "Seeing a reflection of yourself helps you feel at home in the world and in books. It gives you a sense of being validated; of belonging." Her books give us an understanding of the importance, the urgency of valuing childrens' expressions of creativity.
Next, Celia Rees came to us, in conversation with Anna Carey (journalist and author of such books for young people as The Real Rebecca and The Making of Mollie.) Celia has a large back catalogue of books, but you may know her best for the award-winning and incredibly absorbing Witch Child. Her new book explores a unique world; one created by the Bronte siblings as children that is as real and vivid as our own real world. In Glass Town Wars, we enter this space through the experience of a contemporary, cautious boy who, initially believes he has slipped into a computer game, but discovers otherwise...that he has time-slipped, no just into the past, but the rich, textured past of imagination. A past-imaginary world where he does not belong, and yet must somehow find a way to belong. Historical fiction lends itself to fantasy with great facility here, as fantasy exists in that 'not-time', timeless space where we can deeply explore the sense of self. Just stunning!
And then there came A Coven of YA Witches! Moira Fowley Doyle, Sarah Maria Griffin and Deirdre Sullivan were in conversation with Mairi Kidd (Scottish writer, researcher on literature, languages, feminism and translator.) What followed was a lively discussion on 'witches'; witches as women/the other holding their own power, speaking in their own voice and how that is received in the contemporary world. They shared thoughts on how the word "witch" has attained something of a broader definition; "shorthand for a community of the silenced". (Deirdre Sullivan) This is something that we see very present in the reporting of current events and re-examination of history as we things exposed; as we talk about things never spoken of before and the stories come to light. Along the way, we met the characters in their books; the escape artists, those silenced voices, those trying to uproot long family trees and the baggage that comes with that...as they claim their place, their sense of belonging. Truly amazing stuff!
We ended our day with Jarvis, that wild and wonderful picture book creator whose books achieve a sense of the personal. His stories act as little treasures to be loved, laughed at and that hit a point of real understanding. If you read Jarvis' books, you are immediately struck by the desire of each character to both be seen for who they are and to have people (or animals, really) on their side. Personally, I can whole-heartedly recommend Mrs Mole, I'm Home. It expresses the search for where one actually belongs and the work you sometimes have to do to get there with humour, joy and that bit of drama that is part and parcel of everyday life. All of his books show the need for belonging and self-determination. And...they are simply marvelous.

So as we bid farewell to Day One (with a wine and cheese reception, of course) we left our space with a greater sense of the childrens' books community. And...we just couldn't wait for Day Two, which you'll find on the next post.
To learn more about Childrens Books Ireland, the events, outreach programmes and all the incentives that make this organisation so incredible, please follow the link below.


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