- Director of CBI Celebrates Little Island
Elaina Ryan, Director of Children’s Books Ireland, presided over the Little Island celebration held on May 14th and delivered a beautiful speech on the importance and achievements of our publishing house to date.
When I read in the Irish Times a couple of weeks ago that I would be presiding over Little Island’s fifth birthday party, I was somehow even more chuffed than when Siobhán first asked me to say a few words. I did envisage a sash and a sceptre, but I didn’t want to take the attention away either from Patricia Forde’s fantastic novel The Wordsmith or indeed from the birthday itself.
It’s fitting that The Wordsmith is the 50th book published by Little Island – a book about the curation of words, about the importance of the arts, and about one young woman’s fight to preserve language, creative expression and beauty in a society that desperately needs it. Ireland in 2010 was not in the same drastic position as Ark, but in the same way that Letta and the Desecrators believe that song, music and language are necessary for a society to function, Little Island’s beginnings were rooted in the belief that there was a need to bring new voices to Irish children, both from Ireland and in translation.
The arrival of Little Island on the publishing scene was hugely important in a way that I don’t think I fully appreciated at the time, although the response to it from many of you and from the wider children’s book community in Ireland told me very quickly that this was an extraordinary development, and a welcome one. In one way, it was a brave thing to do, establishing an imprint, as it was then, solely for children’s books, at a time when there were so few publishers producing books in the English language for young people in Ireland. But in another sense it was absolutely necessary: voices in translation are crucial now more than ever as Ireland continues to change and as the worldwide campaign for representation of diversity in children’s books grows ever stronger. And Irish writers and illustrators need support, need pages for their words and their art to land on, need guidance and skill when it comes to making their books the very best and most beautiful that they can be before they go out into the world. So as brave as it may have been to establish the imprint, there was a sense of belief both within and outside of the company which allowed Little Island to evolve into an independent entity after just a year in existence, because people were sure that this publisher was needed, was already doing excellent work and was worth investing in.
I count myself extraordinarily lucky to have worked at Little Island from the start. It makes the highlights in the following years all the more meaningful: I have been in a room when a student has named a Little Island debut as their favourite writer. I have toured with writers around the country and I have seen them develop in a way that is impressive, exciting, yet never surprising. I have met incredible people, both real and imagined – it seems unfair to pick particular characters from the books but I can boast having read 49 of the 50, and I plan to rectify that last one by getting my hands on a copy of Pucker Power tonight, having missed what looked like a brilliant launch with an actual pug last week! These books are really special for their readers, and they bring them from remotest Sweden to Mexico or Derry, to imagined Dublins and real Belfasts, to cow beauty pageants in Finland and murder mystery in Muinbeo. Some of the books reflect home for young Irish readers and others take them far away, to a long time ago or what might lie ahead.
Working with children’s books, as many of us know, is a joy, but publishing, in a small company, on a small island, next to a larger island which speaks the same language, is also a lot of hard work, and I think it’s important to recognise that Little Island has worked hard for its successes and continues to strive for the highest of standards – when it comes to seeking out the best in writing and illustration, in production values, and in all of the many other processes that go into getting a book from a manuscript on a screen into the hands of a child who will love it.
It is a fact that Little Island would not exist today were it not for Siobhán Parkinson’s ambition and determination. As Ireland’s inaugural Laureate na nÓg from 2010 to 2012, she excelled while maintaining her careers as a writer, translator and publisher. She had a vision for what Little Island would be and could be, and she knows the entire landscape of children’s books in Ireland and internationally. She was uniquely positioned to make this work, and she had then, and still has now, everyone rooting for Little Island to succeed. Siobhán is an extraordinary mentor: she was for me in the four years we worked together, she is for the writers she publishes and I have no doubt that she continues to be for Gráinne Clear, who is an able, enthusiastic and talented publishing manager. (I promised I would avoid all seafaring and island-related metaphors, so I will refrain from referring to Gráinne as the first mate.) Gráinne brought fresh energy and new skills to Little Island, and has just the right combination of imagination and intelligence to do brilliant things.
Proud parents of a youngster like Little Island are always concerned with firsts, and the series of ‘firsts’ that Little Island has achieved in its five years is remarkable.
From first books to first awards, Irish and international, Little Island boasts CBI book of the year award winners and shortlistees, Bord Gais energy awards shortlistees, White Ravens and indeed a Reading Association of Ireland award given to Little Island to recognise the quality of its list as a whole. Most recently, Deirdre Sullivan’s Primperfect was one of three Irish shortlistees for the EU prize for Literature, alongside books for grown ups, which represented a coup not just for Deirdre and her publisher but for children’s books in general, being considered, as they ought to be, on an equal footing with books for adults. Then there were first reprints and rights sales, sending more books out into Ireland and overseas, bolstered further still by distribution in the UK with Walker Books and into the US. Firsts in new languages come all the time, from German to Swedish and Finnish to Brazilian Portuguese. First colour illustrations and an céad leabhar as Gaeilge came together with Alexandra and Fionnuala, with their stunning red highlights from Carol Betera’s drawings, and soon afterwards a first full colour picturebook – the stunning Wizardling from Binette Shroeder. A new first is on the horizon with Kevin Stevens’ next book – an adult book entitled A Lonely Note.
This list of firsts might seem like I’m rattling it off, but what I’m trying to say is that Little Island is growing up and growing up fast – the milestones are flying by and the company is evolving and getting better and better. But what hasn’t changed, I think, is the sense of community that exists between Little Island’s islanders, in the broadest sense. Siobhán did her level best to teach me some German at one point, and one of the words that stays with me is Gemütlichkeit, which, Wikipedia tells me, describes a space or state of warmth and friendliness. From the authors of the first six books (Jean, Tom, Renate, Burkhard, Mark and Maeve) to the 50th, I have no doubt that the relationship with the people behind the books, including the editors and designers, is one of Little Island’s great strengths, that authors and illustrators feel they are in good hands, that their publisher truly believes in their work and that they will go to great lengths to ensure its success.
And as well as that great good feeling, it is also a testament to Siobhán, Gráinne and the team of supporters that is behind Little Island, that as a business, it is here five, years on, proudly publishing excellent books and no doubt with big plans for the future.
So on that note, I would ask you all to raise your glasses in a toast:
to Little Island, and the next five years.
- Happy Birthday Little Island!
Last week we at Little Island celebrated our fifth birthday in style – with a party at the National Library of Ireland and the launch of The Wordsmith, our 50th book. The National Library was the perfect setting for this bookish party, and it was fantastic to see so many friends and supporters of Little Island at the event.
Elaina Ryan, Director of Children’s Books Ireland, presided over the festivities and gave a beautiful speech about Little Island’s journey thus far. Of the 50 books published by Little Island to date, she said ‘[T]hese books are really special for their readers, and they bring them from remotest Sweden to Mexico or Derry, to imagined Dublins and real Belfasts, to cow beauty pageants in Finland and murder mystery in Muinbeo. Some of the books reflect home for young Irish readers and others take them far away, to a long time ago or what might lie ahead.’ Elaina’s speech also praised Little Island’s achievements over the last few years such as translations of international books, the first Little Island picture book (The Wizardling), Sheena Wilkinson’s Grounded winning CBI Book of the Year, and Deirdre Sullivan’s Primperfect being shortlisted for the EU Prize for Literature. Another exciting first is the forthcoming publication of Kevin Stevens’ A Lonely Note, a book for adults!
The Wordsmith by Patricia Forde was particularly suitable for the occasion, as it deals with the importance of language and the role of the arts. On the death of her master, Letta is suddenly promoted from apprentice to wordsmith, charged with collecting and controlling words in dystopian society of Ark. When she uncovers a sinister plan to suppress language and rob the people of Ark of the power of speech, she must act to save words and culture before they are lost forever. This is a powerful book that makes the reader think about the role of words in their own life, and the importance of the arts for self-expression.
The Wordsmith was launched by Dr Amanda Piesse of Trinity College Dublin, whose speech thoroughly explored the many themes of the novel. She highlighted how it makes the reader think about their use of language and the beauty of words. Dr Piesse has also written an essay on The Wordsmith for Little Island. She states that The Wordsmith ‘continually reminds the reader of all that would be lost were that vocabulary not available to the telling of this tale. The structure of the narrative walks its reader through carefully calibrated degrees of dystopic experience which repeatedly invite reflection on different kinds of deprivation and damage, and different kinds of response to humankind’s relationship with its environment, its kinship groups and its means of self-expression.’ Her thoughtful speech reflected the power and fascination of Patricia Forde’s tale.
Patricia Forde gave a lovely speech, and best of all, she read an extract from The Wordsmith. The gripping passage Patricia Forde read, in which a mysterious visitor arrives at the wordsmith’s shop, ended on a note of suspense and left readers hungry for more.
And of course, what kind of a birthday party would it be without cake? We had a stunning book cake from Cathy’s Cakes n’ Bakes. The beautiful manuscript-like book with its Gothic lettering and curling pages was perfect for both The Wordsmith and the celebration of Little Island’s birthday. It wasn’t easy to cut into the cake, but it was as delicious as it looked! Check out all the photos from the event (taken by Mark Granier) here.
Thank you to everyone who came to the National Library to celebrate this milestone for Little Island, particularly Amanda Piesse and Elaina Ryan for their wonderful speeches, and Patricia Forde for her brilliant book and her reading. Here’s to the next five years!
And to celebrate our fifth birthday we are offering you, our wonderful readers, €5 off any book on the Little Island site using the code on the voucher below. Make sure to use it before the end of June. Happy reading!
- ‘Wordsmith: a skilled user or maker of words’
Dr Amanda Piesse, lecturer in English Literature and Children’s Literature in Trinity College Dublin, has written a wonderful essay about The Wordsmith by Patricia Forde for Little Island.
Patricia Forde’s The Wordsmith conjures a post-apocalyptic society, Ark, where natural resources are in short supply and carefully measured out. There, language too is being forcibly rationed; it is limited to a proscriptive core vocabulary, List, in order to sequester and suppress knowledge, understanding, autonomy and self-expression, all in the name of survival. Forde’s aptly-named apprentice wordsmith Letta, far from being allowed to be a creator, is at best a curator of the words and concepts being withdrawn from circulation, at worst complicit in the cultural control that Ark’s founder, John Noa, deems necessary.
Letta already carries a catalogue of loss. Her parents set off in search of something better when she was a small child, leaving her in the care of master wordsmith Benjamin. She knows little of her own kinship history, but her apprenticeship gives her access to a unique historical cultural understanding. When her much –loved master fails to return from an official field trip, and the explanation given by Noa simply doesn’t tally with the material facts, Letta finds herself turning to the marginalised members of the counter-cultural movement –to the musicians, the artists and the poets, for whom the act of poetry is a rebel act – in her search for a better understanding.
The novel, set in the future, speaks simultaneously to the past and the present. One of the wordsmith’s tasks is to supply uniquely branded tally sticks to the primary school, a notch to be added for each use of a non-List word, fifteen notches to result in expulsion from the community. From this moment, the whole novel resonates with an extra paradigm of representation, the suppression of Irish under colonial oppression. At the same time, specialist vocabularies are available and allowed to specialist workers, from healers to gavvers (the word Forde borrows from Romany to denote the brutal and rather dull law enforcers), creating closed and exclusive communities of expertise. Only the wordsmith has access to them all; everyone else outside of these corporate clusters has no access to their language, and little access to their concepts, and is thus unable to intervene in their practices – a particularly modern complaint.
The novel aligns its readers with the position of the wordsmith. It is thus at once entirely accessible and subtly nuanced. The characters are sensitively evoked; patterns of speech in particular identify and distinguish them. Forde looks at the question of language from the perspectives of a range of characters, in a range of vocabularies, and offers different articulations of and from a number characters – sometimes she tells us what they say, sometimes what they think, using List for one and a richer interior voice for another. This conjures countless possibilities for the direction that the plot might take. The piece’s own rich vocabulary continually reminds the reader of all that would be lost were that vocabulary not available to the telling of this tale. The structure of the narrative walks its reader through carefully calibrated degrees of dystopic experience which repeatedly invite reflection on different kinds of deprivation and damage, and different kinds of response to humankind’s relationship with its environment, its kinship groups and its means of self-expression. John Noa’s argument for the restriction of language is that nuanced language admits deceit, that plenitude in language encourages desire for excess, that hot words result in war, that comfortable words can conceal catastrophic procrastination. Forde’s novel demonstrates that, indeed, all of this is so, but that that is part of human nature (all Forde’s characters are caught up in moral conundrums, even her heroes) and that language is the solution as well as part of the problem, ‘the final sign/that we are human, therefore not a herd’.
The point that language allows us access to who we are and reveals who we are is made explicit towards the end of the novel:
‘We need words,’ [Letta] said. ‘Why can’t you see that? We can think because we have words. Without them, we won’t have memory to look at the past or imagination to glimpse the future. Without words we will be imprisoned in the here and now for ever.’ [Noa] shook his head.
‘Would that be so bad?’ he said.
‘Yes!’ Letta shouted. ‘Of course it would. The here and now is only the smallest part of who we are. Each of us is all that we have been, all of our stories, all that we could be …’
It’s an articulation towards which the entire novel has built, which the novel has already demonstrated with all the tools available to it.
A novel in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Hoban’s Riddley Walker, The Wordsmith reminds us all of the power and responsibility that comes with language, and of all that we lose if we neglect its power. It’s a work of art that contains within itself the reason why it is so and no other way.