We shall miss the red duffle coat-clad figure of Robert Dunbar seated in the front row at children’s book events, listening attentively and poised to ask a searching question of the speakers. Following an illness, Robert died on Thursday, 22 July 2016, and the large gathering at the event held a few days later to celebrate his life and work was evidence of his wide range of contacts within and outside the world of children’s books.
Robert, a native of Dunseverick in Co. Antrim and a graduate of Queens University, Belfast, began his working life as a secondary school teacher of English. In the 1980s he moved to the Church of Ireland College of Education in Dublin to lecture in English. There he consolidated his reputation as a remarkable teacher who could enlighten and enthuse students with a love for English language and literature, and especially children’s literature. Through his work with children, with student teachers and with teachers on post-graduate courses, he has brought generations of children – and adults – to a lasting love of good books.
At the time Robert moved to Dublin, children’s literature was not properly established as a subject for serious study at academic level, and writing and publishing for young readers was at a low ebb in Ireland. This, however, began to change in the late 1980s and 1990s, as a demand for books set in Ireland and featuring recognisably Irish characters with whom young readers could identify began to grow, both in schools and at home. Robert was at the forefront of all this, initially contributing to the conferences and publications of the Reading Association of Ireland (later the Literacy Association of Ireland). He was one of a small group involved in establishing the Children’s Literature Association of Ireland (CLAI), and soon after became a trustee of the Irish Children’s Book Trust – both of these organisations merged in 1997 to form Children’s Books Ireland.
Robert loved the print medium; he compiled and edited three anthologies of Irish fiction for children and one poetry anthology. He was the first editor of CLAI’s Children’s Books in Ireland, a journal which later became Inis, and he continued to write and review for the journal, almost to the end of his life. He reviewed for a number of other publications, including Books for Keeps, and his editors have commented on his command of language and meticulous adherence to the requirements of the publication. While his insights were perceptive, his reviews were almost always encouraging, and many emerging authors, have commented on how much Robert helped them, both in gaining recognition and in their development as writers.
To serve with Robert on an awards panel was to be treated to masterful critiques of the books submitted. In these confidential circumstances, Robert could let himself go, with wit and erudition mixed, while always maintaining that the highest standards in writing were what readers of all ages deserved. His adherence to this tenet underpinned his constant advocacy for all that brought children and books together, and informed all aspects of his career.
Robert is survived by his wife Carole, who is also an accomplished scholar of children’s literature, and his two children, Dominic and Gráinne, and four grandchildren. In later years, introducing books to his grandchildren was one of his great delights, and those of us who worked with him in CICE will always remember his joyful account of reading to his day-old first grandchild, Jack.