As the festive season is upon us once again, we face the reality of having to brave the cold Irish winter to buy our loved ones their Christmas gifts. Considering this, I have put together a list of 12 Irish Children’s Literature authors to guide you in your book-buying frenzy this year. Though many of these texts have become almost canonical texts in Irish Children’s Literature, I would argue that they are enjoyable reads for anyone of any age. There is no feeling more delightful than curling up in front of the fire with a good book and a warm mug of something delicious.
To begin, may I introduce (though he needs no introduction) Mr. Oscar Wilde:
- Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 and he was educated at Trinity College Dublin. Known as a writer of diverse form, Wilde is most widely known for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. As great as both these texts are, there is a special place in my heart for his collection of children’s stories, The Happy Prince & Other Tales. Surely influenced by his parents, who were both well versed in myth and folklore, Wilde wrote these early stories in the first years of his children’s lives, publishing The Happy Prince & Other Tales in 1888. In the following years, he added to these short stories more in kind, which have come to be collectively known as Oscar Wilde’s Stories For Children.
This is the delightful collection which I recommend, of which my own copy is tragically dog-eared from years of happy reading. Wilde does not shy away from dry, quick witted humour in his children’s stories nor does he sanitise them with purely happy endings, opting instead to present themes of loss, death and cruelty. However, it is this rawness that feeds the beauty of these stories. They are timeless and beloved to children and adults alike exactly because Wilde has pulled the truth gently through them.
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2. Ella Young and Maud Gonne
Ella Young was born on December 26th 1867 in Co. Antrim. However, her family moved to Dublin, where she was educated. She was an Irish author, poet, activist and Irish myth & folklorist. She was actively involved in nationalist politics in Ireland. Through her art and political activism, she became close friends with William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne, who would later illustrate Young’s first Irish mythological stories for children, entitled Celtic Wonder-Tales. Young was incredibly spiritual and considered the world of the supernatural to be deeply intertwined to her everyday life. It is this spiritual practice and education that best informs the lyrical quality and the pace of Celtic Wonder-Tales.
Maud Gonne, known as the ‘Irish Joan of Arc’ for her part in the struggle for Irish independence from English rule, was born in 1865/1866 in England. When her father, an army officer, was stationed in Ireland, the family moved to Dublin where Gonne would grow up among poor Irish children, a far cry from the life of wealth and opulence from whence she came in England. After the death of her mother, Gonne and her sister were moved between France, Switzerland and Italy. As she grew up, Gonne travelled extensively throughout Europe and was exposed to many new and radical ideas.
After the death of her father, Gonne became financially independent and travelled to live with her aunt in Paris. There, she fell in love with Lucien Millevoye, who was active in French political activism. Influenced by Millevoye and by the unfair treatment of the Irish that she witnessed during her travels to Ireland, Gonne became a figurehead in Irish politics. It was as a result of her activism that she met William Butler Yeats and Ella Young. She remained a leading figure in Irish politics for the remainder of her life, despite often having to spend long periods away from Ireland.
Young’s Celtic Wonder-Tales is a delightful volume of fourteen stories from Celtic mythology and folktales. Included in this work are the stories, “The Golden Fly”, “The Children of Lir”, “The Cow of Plenty” and “The Tangle-Coated Horse.” The stories centre around the old Irish gods and heroes of the Tuatha De Danann. These stories intertwine the importance of the land of Ireland to the mythology of the Irish people. This is a text which I could be gifted forever and never be sick of. Not only are the stories beautiful but I personally love that this text is a collaboration between Young and Gonne to educate Irish children on their own heritage and mythology and that it continues to do so today.
You can find a version here:
3. Patricia Lynch
Patricia Lynch was born in Cork in 1898 but moved with her family to England following the death of her father. A prolific children’s literature author, Lynch’s talents for writing and storytelling were apparent from an early age, with many of the artistic adults in her life encouraging her in her early years. Because of how widely she had to travel during her childhood, Lynch herself notes that the people she met and the places she visited all contributed to her strength as a writer. However, the vividness of her work and its creativity are best displayed, in my humble opinion, in her children’s stories set in Ireland.
In 1934, The Turf Cutter’s Donkey first appeared as a serial publication and eventually was published as a novel. The narrative follows two children, Seamus and Eileen, who along with the rescued donkey, Long Ears, have many great adventures together. One of the things about this text that fascinates me most is that the text was illustrated by Jack B. Yeats.
Despite this text’s importance in the history of Irish Children’s Literature, I cannot quite recommend it for its crude portrayal of the Travelling Community. Instead, what I recommend to you is Patricia Lynch’s own autobiography on her childhood, A Storyteller’s Childhood. If The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey does not appeal, perhaps her own life’s story will. Not quite a gift for children, A Storyteller’s Childhood is a fascinating read for those of us who are interested in finding first-hand accounts of Irish childhoods. How much of her narrative we can trust is another question, however, as a first-class storyteller, Lynch’s self-reflective work remains one of my favourite reads of 2021.
Find a copy here:
4. C. S. Lewis
Clive Staples Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast to two highly educated parents. He was known to be a child prodigy, showing great aptitude for reading and writing from an early age. An incredibly intelligent young man, Lewis was successful in securing a scholarship to university. After serving in the infantry, he began his studies at Oxford where he continued to excel academically, going forward to professorship.
Deeply religious, C. S. Lewis wrote many texts on Christianity, both fictional and scholarly. Interestingly, he was converted to Christianity through the influence of his dear friend, and famous author in his own right, J. R. R. Tolkien. One of the most renowned of Lewis’ religious fictional works is The Screwtape Letters. However, it was in 1950 that C. S. Lewis first published the children’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, beginning with the canonical children’s literature text, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which continues today to enrapture its readers.
Religious allegory aside, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a fantastic fantasy text, following the story of four siblings who have been evacuated from London to a distant relative’s house to keep them safe during the war. The children discover a mysterious world called Narnia by accident while playing hide and seek, with the youngest stumbling into this world through a magical wardrobe. The children come to realise that not everything is as it seems in this fantasy place and they join in the struggle for good to win over evil. What I love about The Chronicles of Narnia is the narrative voice that Lewis uses throughout where at certain moments he plays with the reader-narrator relationship.
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5. Eilís Dillon
Eilís Dillon was born in Galway into a Nationalist Irish family in 1920. Dillon is considered as a foundational figure in Irish Children’s Literature, one who treated her young reader with respect and avoided condescension, opting instead to show the truth as it often is; bare and sometimes ugly. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a supporter of Aosdána. She served on the Arts Council, the International Commission for English in the Liturgy, The Irish Writers’ Union and The Irish Writers’ Centre. As part of the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year Awards, a special prize is awarded in her memory, The Eilís Dillon Award. This is awarded to the best first children’s book of the year.
The book I recommend is Dillon’s The Island of Ghosts, the Bisto Book of the Year Award winner of 1989. It is a thrilling story, set off the west coast of Ireland, where two young boys take a trip to The Island of Ghosts with an outsider, Mr. Webb. When the two boys don’t return, they are presumed drowned by everyone in the village. But their sisters, Barbara and Cait, refuse to accept this and instead set out on a brave mission to find them. The Island of Ghosts is a brilliant story, interrogating notions of which adults can be trusted, how the land echoes its own history and its own people, and how children are often right, despite what adults may think.
Find a copy here:
6. Kate Thompson
Kate Thompson was born in Yorkshire in 1956. She studied law in the USA, but left to travel India, finally relocating to the West of Ireland in 1981, where she has lived ever since. During the 80’s, she began to take writing seriously and joined the North Clare Writer’s Workshop. A decade later, she began to publish novels for children and adults prolifically. She is a skilled fiddle player and traditional Irish music enthusiast, with this passion reflected in her trilogy series, The New Policeman, with its first text published in 2005.
The New Policeman, the first book of the trilogy, is a captivating read for late primary school/early secondary school readers. Set in a fictional rural Irish village of Kinvara, the young protagonist, J.J Liddy, sets out to discover why time seems to be getting faster. Thompson weaves together rural modernity with Celtic mythology beautifully, with each chapter referencing an Irish traditional tune.
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7. Siobhán O’Dowd
Siobhán O’Dowd was born in 1960 in London to Irish parents. She was educated in London and continued her studies, receiving a BA in Classics from Oxford. She also received a MA with distinction in Gender and Ethnic Studies.
She was an incredibly passionate person who worked hard to better the world for others less fortunate. Because of her work with the Rushdie Defense Committee USA, which she both founded and contributed to enormously, she was named by Irish-America Magazine and Aer Lingus as one of the ‘top 100 Irish-Americans’. She also co-founded the English PEN readers and writers programme which brings authors into schools in disadvantaged areas, prisons, and communities.
She released many incredible novels for children, including Bog Child, The London Eye Mystery series, A Swift Pure Cry and Solace of the Road. However, the text I recommend is one that was released posthumously, A Monster Calls. Dowd died in August of 2007 after a difficult battle with cancer. Before her death, as she was receiving treatment for her cancer, she began the text A Monster Calls which follows the story of a young boy whose mother is dying of cancer and how he manages to cope with his grief. She also set up the Siobhán Dowd Trust, which aims to provide books and support to public schools in disadvantaged areas, to children in the care system, to young offenders, and those with additional needs.
After her death, her editor received Dowd’s manuscript for A Monster Calls, including notes on how she wanted the story to be told. The book became a collaborative project with the author, Patrick Ness. It was a major success, winning many awards and even becoming a successful film. The picturebook is outstanding and deeply moving. I have read it countless times at this stage and yet it still brings me to tears every time.
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8. Oliver Jeffers
Born in Australia in 1977, raised in Belfast and living in Brooklyn, New York, Oliver Jeffers is a visual artist working in the mediums of painting, illustration, bookmaking, collage, performance and sculpture. Jeffers is also an incredibly successful and talented picturebook artist, winning awards such as The New York Times Best Illustrated Books, the Irish Book of the Year Award and The British Book Design Award. His picturebooks explore themes of friendship, environmentalism, imagination and exploration.
His picturebook This Moose Belongs To Me (2012) is the perfect gift this festive season. Balancing an important environmental message with humour, Jeffers’ picturebook follows the story of a young boy, Wilfred, who claims a wild moose as a pet. However, the wild moose has other plans. The illustrations are absolutely incredible and are bound to awe adults and children alike.
Find a copy here:
9. Siobhán Parkinson
Siobhán Parkinson grew up in Galway and Dublin. She studied English Literature and German at Trinity College Dublin and continued her studies, being awarded a doctorate in English Literature. She has worked as an editor and a writer, holding many different residencies and teaching Creative Writing on the master’s programme for Children’s Literature at St. Patrick’s College, DCU. She is the founder of Little Island Books, an independent children’s publishing house in Dublin in 2010. She is deeply committed to the promotion of children’s literature and is actively involved in the Writers in Schools scheme, an initiative of Poetry Ireland. She has won countless awards for her writing, including a Bisto Merit Award. She was Ireland’s first Laureate na nÓg, holding this position from 2010-2012.
Though there are many incredible titles which I could recommend, such as the award-winning Sisters – No Way! or Something Invisible, the text that I returned to over and over as a preteen was Bruised. It follows the story of a 14-year-old boy and his little sister as they attempt to run away from their abusive home situation and seek refuge in Galway. Though it has been said that there are issues of character consistency in the text, I would argue that there is a much stronger issue at stake for a text dealing with such sensitive subject matter, that being the agency of Jonathan as a child in an abusive situation. What I found (and still find) so refreshing about Bruised is the amount of agency Jonathan displays and champions for himself. The story is heart wrenching but ultimately uplifting, with an ending that allows space for Jonathan to decide what he wishes to make of his own life.
Find a copy here:
10. Nick Sheridan
Originally from Kilmuckridge in Co. Wexford, Nick Sheridan studied Journalism at DCU. Sheridan has won multiple awards across the fields of journalism, broadcasting and filmmaking. In his early career, he was the presenter on a children’s and young people’s news programme, news2day, on RTE.
Sheridan’s Breaking News: How to Tell What’s Real From What’s Rubbish makes the perfect gift this Christmas for those budding journalists amongst us. The book elucidates how the media operates and what children can look out for in the news in order to discern whether the source is trustworthy or not. It is directed at a readership between 8-12 years old. Despite the gravity of the topic, Sheridan manages to lift the tone with humour and make the subject accessible for a wide range of child readers. It includes interactive activities which I personally loved in my books when I was young(er).
Find a copy here:
11. Sarah Webb
Sarah Webb is an outstanding Irish children’s writer who has received many accolades for her children’s books. She runs creative writing clubs for up-and-coming writers, reviews children’s literature for The Irish Independent, and organises children’s and family events for literature festivals. She is passionate about the field of Children’s Literature and has been acknowledged for her hard work in promoting and championing children’s books by Children’s Books Ireland in 2015, who awarded her with the ‘Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Books in Ireland’ award.
Sarah Webb’s latest release, The Little Beekeeper of Henrietta Street, has been met with rave reviews so far and I am absolutely dying to get my hands on a copy. However, until then, what I can offer you is another of Webb’s brilliant books for children, Blazing a Trail: Irish Women Who Changed the World. The book explores the many incredible Irish women who have achieved greatness in many different ways, such as Lady Mary Heath, Mary Robinson and Countess Markievicz. The illustrations by Lauren O’Neill are absolutely stunning and bring the text to life. This book is a brilliant gift for those of us who love to be inspired by the great achievements of others, who look for the stepping stones and patterns between the stories.
Find a copy here:
12. Sarah Crossan
Sarah Crossan was born in Dublin but emigrated to the U.K. when she was just six years of age. She studied at The University of Warwick and The University of Cambridge, continuing on to teach English for ten years before dedicating herself full-time to writing. She has received numerous prestigious awards for her work, including the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the CBI Book of the Year. She has had great success with the translations of her novels into different languages with her novel, One, winning the Dioraphte Literature Prize in its Dutch translation. She champions creative writing, working in schools to help promote writing to the next generation of young writers.
Though there is much to choose from in terms of Crossan’s work, I have decided to suggest to you her positive poetry collection, Tomorrow is Beautiful. This year has really tested everybody’s limits to remaining positive, and sometimes, we need a little reminder what there is to be so positive about. Crossan’s Tomorrow is Beautiful is the perfect gift for those of us who feel quite deeply about the world and can get quite tired. It is uplifting and hopeful, without being too corny, featuring work from classic poets such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, as well as new contemporary poets who are sure to remind you what makes the world so beautiful. When things are a little too overwhelming or depressing, this book is the perfect reader’s retreat.
Find a copy here:
With so much to choose from, this list is by no means exhaustive, however, I hope it can guide you in your shopping this year and perhaps lead you to discover new favourites in Irish Children’s Literature.
I would urge you also, if I may, to shop local and buy from your local bookstores. They are in need of your support and patronage during these uncertain months and we most definitely need them. If there is no greater joy than reading, the joy that comes from the knowledge that you have supported other Irish book-loving families this Christmas comes very close.