Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Requiem for the Croppies: An Afternoon of Irish Children's Literature

Having grown up loving the folk and fairy tales of my father’s own Irish childhood, and then later, transitioning to reading some of the literary greats of that country’s notable array of authors, poets, and playwrights, I was particularly excited for Friday’s noon hour session on “Children’s Literature from Ireland”. I was looking forward to being inspired by these three descendants of an artistic culture that is known for its knowledge of the classics, for its easy sense of familiarity with and occasional irreverence for Western tradition and culture, and for its darkly hilarious cynicism bred of a combination of enduring survival and cultural vibrance in the face of poverty, starvation, and oppression. Needless to say, I had great expectations.

The event was conducted as a conversation with three authors: Deirdre Sullivan, a YA writer and award-winning author of Needlework , among others; Oisin McGann, an outrageously prolific YA author specializing mostly in science fiction and fantasy; and Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, a children’s book author and illustrator. Unique to an event profiling those who write for young people was the palpable sense of enthusiasm and desire to support and love whatever it was that these authors had to say – stemming from the widely-held belief that, in a world saturated with devices and virtual activities that compete and often win the attention of young people, whatever gets them reading books must be a good thing.

And what sorts of ideas and tactics do these particular authors deem best to draw in their young audiences?

Sullivan was asked about her book relying on the tradition of fairy tales (the pre-Disney, horror-filled, cautionary ones, that is) and responded, saying that she tries to build upon the difficulties that are actually being experienced by teens today in her writing, in the belief that sharing experiences is a key way to build empathy. And empathy, as all of the writers agreed, is a key purpose of fiction. Fitzpatrick, speaking about whether the ideas in her children’s books are conceived for the parents or the children reading them, pointed out wisely that adults reading the books can only look back and remember what it was to be a child, while children can only look forward, and thus each will perceive the books in quite different, but hopefully equally enjoyable, ways. McGann spoke about the storyline of his recent book
Ancient Appetites, that in some ways, seemed to follow the entrancing horror of in-group sacrificial murder bound by complex rules made popular by Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games . Speaking as he did later about writing being a craft, and imitation being the best way to perfect this craft, McGann himself would likely not resent this comparison.

Although hearing selections from each of their books was enjoyable (particularly Fitzpatrick’s wordless delight Owl Bat Bat Owl ), when each author was then faced with the question of how they viewed their role as a contributor to forming the ideas and worldviews of young people and to cite this with one or two main points that they hoped to communicate through their work, their answers were more lacklustre than anything. Sullivan faltered a bit, and then relied on the ever-popular but culturally damaging and, not to mention outright falsehood, of saying “I write for me”, following up with a mention of hoping to nurture teens through the difficulties of their lives through her writing. Fitzpatrick admitted (perhaps disturbingly) that she hadn’t really thought about the question before, but came up with ultimately the most satisfying answer of the three by saying that in all of her books she focused on moments in which small children overcame fear and loneliness. And McGann ignored the question entirely, instead stating that in YA fiction, it was important to get rid of the parents and any other adult authority figures in order to “give children the ability to solve their own problems”, this perhaps being a reactionary overcompensation for the helicopter-parenting of today’s culture. However, pitting parents and adults as the bad guys who hold teens back from doing what needs to be done? This seems hardly healthy or logical.

Where is the thoughtfulness of the great Irish literary tradition in which these authors are following? Where is the acknowledgement that great ideas can be best communicated through fiction, rather than books simply being another form of cheap entertainment for scroll-happy, action-seeking kids and teens? Where is the idea of the endurance of the human spirit through humour and a dogged sense of survival that Ireland has built herself upon? Ireland has changed drastically in the past twenty-five years, desperately playing socio-economic catch-up with America, and it seems that perhaps her literary tradition has also lost its characteristic flavour in the mad dash to leave the past behind.