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I first came to publishing books with children sixteen years ago. I had ten years’ experience of teaching children with special needs in Sligo, London, and Boston, where I did an M.Ed. in Intercultural Education at Emmanuel College. In Sligo, I worked with children from the Travelling community at primary level as a resource teacher. (Irish Travellers identify themselves as a separate ethnic nomadic group with defined cultural patterns of movement, marriage, and language. Hiberno-English as spoken by Travellers differs from the settled community and includes remnants of the Cant language, which predates Old Irish.) I realized there were no books for children with Travellers in them, and neither were there any appropriate pre-reading resources that recognized and celebrated Traveller culture. As a result, I started to collect Traveller nursery rhymes with a view to approaching a publisher. These nursery rhymes were part of Travellers oral culture, completely unknown outside of it.
I met with Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership (Ireland’s only dedicated publisher of books by children for children) in 2001 to discuss publishing the nursery rhymes. The Kids’ Own approach to children’s publishing is radical: children write, illustrate, and design the finished books. Following a series of workshops with children in Sligo—conducted by artist Orla Kenny, Victoria Ryle director, and myself as teacher—Charlie Barley and All His Friends (2001) was the result. Children illustrated the nursery rhymes and jokes and contributed to the design features of the final layout. What followed created a sixteen-year opportunity of writing and illustrating books with children. Of the twenty-five books published, twenty-four of these were non-fiction.
In that time, I have been part of the Kids’ Own team, facilitating children’s writing about their lives and identities: their cultural background; sense of humor; experience of travel; faith; and rights within the family, community, and schools. What started as a strong intercultural philosophy for children on the margins to articulate their realities has evolved into a space for all children to articulate their experiences of childhood.
“What do you think about children writing books for children?” I often ask children at the beginning of a new book project. The answer is always the same: Children think this a great idea. They say children understand children better than adults do; they know more about what children like to read. Yet children’s voices continue to be under-represented in a genre aimed entirely at them—children’s literature!
In the early days of this ongoing project, I was keen to harvest individual voices, stories, comments, and opinions without censorship—without altering children’s language, whether spoken or written. I would often record conversations and type them up verbatim afterwards. This provided the raw material that I edited with the children. Very simply, I would ask the individual or group of children whose conversations were typed if they were happy with the piece, if they want to change any words or add more, and if they thought other children reading it would understand their work? All the revisions were done by the children. When children have time and space to discuss their views and represent their experiences, the writing comes easily.
Collaboration is an essential part of my working with groups of children. It takes a very broad skill set to write, illustrate, and design a thirty-page book to publication standard. There are jobs for [End Page 65] everyone, and children discover just how creative they can be and how ideas emerge and finally evolve through a long process of making art together. Working collectively rather than individually is often a new experience for children. However, rarely have I encountered conflict where one child insists that a book go in a certain direction against the shared view of the rest of the group. When differences arise, we work through the ideas with the group so that all views are aired and discussed and then majority reigns.
My own writing has been entirely non-fiction, in poetry, prose, and plays. I find realism most compelling. My approach to writing with children mirrored...