Siobhán Parkinson is an award-winning author, and was Ireland’s first Children’s Laureate. She is also publisher with Little Island, one of Ireland’s most interesting children’s lists. As celebrations for Little Island’s fifth birthday get underway, Siobhan introduces her list.
You know how people say what great storytellers the Irish are and how many Nobel prizes for literature we have snaffled and how everyone here’s a writer and the ones who aren’t writing poetry are writing novels or plays and the rest are writing books for children? Well, it may be a cliché but it’s also true. So what else would you be doing other than setting up a publishing house in Dublin? You’d be mad not to!
Of course, that’s not how or why Little Island got set up at all. As it happens, the true story is also quite good. I fancied the idea of doing a spot of translation from German, so I had a chat with a publisher I know and I asked him what would he think of publishing children’s books in translation, and he said, ‘Brilliant idea!’ I have to say I was a little taken aback at his enthusiasm. Sadly (as I thought at first), he added, ‘But we can’t publish only children’s books in translation; we’d have to have a children’s list.’ Ah, so not such a brilliant idea after all, I thought. But then he went on, ‘So why don’t we set up a children’s list, then? And, since my publishing house is called New Island, we could call it Little Island.’ Now it was my turn to say, ‘Brilliant idea!’ Then he added, ‘You’ll head it up, of course. And we’ll have a little guy reading a book under a palm tree as the logo.’
Flabbergasted I was. I had gone to a meeting as an aspiring translator and I left it as commissioning editor of a children’s list with a prestigious literary publishing company. We published our first list as part of New Island Books in 2010 – and parted company with New Island later that same year, for reasons that were purely practical, and Little Island transmogrified into a new, independent children’s publishing house. But since we loved the name and our friends at New Island had no objection, we kept it. And so a whole new literary island was created in the great and fragmented archipelago that is Irish publishing.
That was 2010, now it’s 2015, and we are five years old this year. We published our fiftieth book this spring.
Two of our books from that first 2010 output were shortlisted for the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year award (affectionately known as Not-the-Bisto – since it used to be the Bisto award). Taking Flight, a novel for teenagers by Sheena Wilkinson took both the Fiction Honour and the Children’s Choice award, which was an astonishing achievement for a first-time author and a tiny new publishing house. Sheena’s next book, Grounded, the sequel to Taking Flight, won the overall Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year award two years later and again also the Children’s Choice – an unprecedented achievement. Too Many Ponies, for a slightly younger age group, was also shortlisted for this award, and we have high hopes for Sheena’s new YA title Still Falling, which just came out this spring and has been very favourably reviewed. Meanwhile, Sheena has been beavering away on another project to be published later this year with Little Island – a historical novel published to coincide with the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Rising and, of course, the WWI commemorations, Name upon Name.
The second Little Island book shortlisted from our very first year’s output was the hilarious diary-style novel Prim Improper by Deirdre Sullivan, for young teenagers. Deirdre went on to write two more books about the inimitable Prim, and the latest (and last) of these, Primperfect, was also shortlisted for both the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year award and the European Prize for Literature. Deirdre will have a new book with us in 2016, this one a tough and gritty YA title, Needlework, quite a departure from the witty Prim books.
Kevin Stevens has had a long and varied career as a writer and editor, and has published three adult titles. His first book for teenagers, This Ain’t no Video Game, Kid, came out from Little Island in 2010, and we are bringing out a truly amazing title by Kevin about a Muslim boy growing up in small-town America, A Lonely Note, this autumn. In between these two books for older readers, Kevin wrote the highly successful The Powers: The Not-so-super Superheroes and Pucker Power: The Super-powered Superpug, mock super-hero titles for children up to about age 11. The Powers was chosen by the Dublin – UNESCO City of Literature office as its Citywide Read (children’s equivalent of One City, One Book) in 2014, and it went on to be the most borrowed children’s book in Dublin city libraries that year. An important factor in the appeal of these books is the lovely artwork by the Irish illustrator Sheena Dempsey. There’s a very amusing accompanying website.
What attracted Kevin to writing for children was his involvement with Little Island in the development of The Nightmare Club series of mock-spooky little books with horrifying black-and-white illustrations by Glenn McElhinney. For this series we invented a writer, Annie Graves, who is permanently 12 years old and has conveniently mislaid her parents. The success of this series (sold to three other countries) is partly due to its appeal not only to the intended readership of 7-10 but also to children up to 12 or even 14 who may find reading challenging but are attracted by the comic style of these books. Scare yourself on the special website.
Since the Little Island concept began life as an idea about publishing books in translation, books of this type are close to our heart, and we have gone on to publish about a dozen of them, from languages as diverse as German, Swedish, Finnish, Brazilian Portuguese and Irish. Thin Ice by Mikael Engström, translated from the Swedish by Susan Beard, has been widely acclaimed. Bartolomé, The Infanta’s Pet, by Rachel van Kooij, and the amazing Fennymore and the Brumella (by Kirsten Reinhardt, illustrated by David Roberts), both translated by me, are personal favourites.
Until recently we published only novels for older children and teenagers and b/w illustrated books for ‘middle-aged children’, but last year we put a tentative toe into the picturebook market and brought out a fabulously beautiful picturebook in translation (a co-publication with Nord-Süd, Switzerland), The Wizardling by the astonishingly gifted Binette Schroeder of Germany (Editor’s Choice in the last issue of Books for Keeps).
Given the small population of Ireland, it is important for Irish publishers to crack the UK market also – but the structures of the book trade in Britain and the enormous competition from established and in many cases rich and powerful publishing houses make this difficult. We formed a sales and distribution partnership with Walker Books a couple of years ago and we benefit hugely from Walker’s reach and professionalism. Little Island books are now readily available in the UK, and our titles can easily be ordered through Walker.
Of course our books are also available direct from our website. Also on the website you’ll find teaching notes (called Book Guides on the website), which you can download for FREE and our truly lovely little magazine for children, Castaway, also downloadable for FREE – great for use in the classroom as well as for reading at home.
And watch out for our smashing new title this autumn: Once Upon a Place, a collection of short stories compiled by our current Children’s Laureate Eoin Colfer and illustrated with stunning charcoal drawings by the fabulous PJ Lynch.
Siobhán Parkinson, publisher with Little Island Books in Dublin, is also a children’s author and was Ireland’s first Children’s Laureate (2010-12). Several of her early books from The O’Brien Press in Dublin are still in print, and her current publisher in Britain is Hodder Children’s Books. She has a new book for the 9+ age group (Miraculous Miranda) coming shortly from Hodder and a book of new Irish fairy tales by a clutch of Irish writers for children that she edited, Magic!, illustrated in lavish colour by Olwyn Whelan, is due out this autumn from Frances Lincoln.
Taking Flight, Sheena Wilkinson, Little Island, 978-1848409491, £7.99
Too Many Ponies, Sheena Wilkinson, Little Island, 978-1908195258, £4.99
Still Falling Sheena Wilkinson, Little Island, 978-1908195920, £7.99
Name upon Name Sheena Wilkinson, Little Island, 978-1910411360, £7.99
Prim Improper Deirdre Sullivan, Little Island, 978-1848409484, £6.99
This Ain’t no Video Game, Kid Kevin Stevens, Little Island, 978-1848409478, £6.99
The Powers: The Not-so-super Superheroes Kevin Stevens, Little Island, 978-1908195838, £6.99
Pucker Power: The Super-powered Superpug Kevin Stevens, Little Island, 978-1910411308, £6.99
Thin Ice, Mikael Engstrom trans Susan Beard, Little Island, 978-1908195005, £6.99
Bartolomé, The Infanta’s Pet Rachel van Kooit trans Siobhan Parkinson, Little Island
Fennymore and the Brumella, Kirsten Reinhardt, illus David Roberts, trans Siobhan Parkinson, Little Island 978-1908195852
The Wizardling, Binette Shroeder, trans Siobhan Parkinson, Little Island, 978-1910411001