Culture Night 2019: Irish illustrator Mary Murphy and British illustrator Jarvis spent the evening in the window of Dublin’s Hodges Figgis bookshop, drawing for passers-by whose requests were written on whiteboards outside. The Children’s Books Ireland Book Clinic was busy inside the shop, with Book Doctors writing personalised reading prescriptions for children. These events were free, as many of our events are. But it is not enough to simply make something free and hope that this improves access to the arts for those who are not being reached.
The Arts Council’s Equality, Human Rights and Diversity Policy states that ‘it is crucial that the Arts Council takes a proactive and focused approach to guaranteeing a basic human right: ensuring that everyone who lives in Ireland has the opportunity to engage with and participate in the arts’. Ultimately, our goal at Children’s Books Ireland is to ensure that every child on the island of Ireland has access to the joy of reading, and we must strive to identify the children and young people who are not getting artist visits to their schools, who are not attending festivals, who are not reading (or being read to) and who do not have books in their homes – who may not have homes, for that matter.
For Culture Night 2020, the Arts Council has invested in Books Make Things Better, a project that will support Irish authors, illustrators, translators and publishers, and will put over 1,000 books in the hands of children in DEIS schools, family hubs for families experiencing homelessness and direct provision centres nationwide. We see this as the gift of a bedtime story where it is most badly needed going hand in hand with a boost to a community of practice around children’s literature that has faced an extremely challenging year. These are new, high-quality, Irish-published books, selected on the grounds of excellence – books that we think will bring a smile to a child’s face, connecting them with culture and including families in Culture Night who may not have participated before. From the Dead Zoo to Hy Brasil and away to Mars, children will have the chance to start their journey as a reader, both visually and in beautiful poetry and prose. The accompanying Books Make Things Better reading guide will showcase brilliant books by Irish authors, illustrators, translators and publishers, highlighting the talent and graft put in by so many artists and arts workers and giving people an easy way to find brilliant books at their local library or to support bookshops, artists and publishers by buying the books locally.
Every year, we give thousands of books to children in areas of need through schools, early learning and care settings, public health checks and through partner charities like BUMBLEance and Barnardos. As the announcement came from Government that schools would close in mid-March, we were about to embark on a programme of activity that would see us donate over 5,000 books to over 160 schools and early learning settings to spark excitement about reading. It makes a big impact, but it’s a drop in the ocean: the demand for our school library donations was around 56 times greater than the number of schools we could support.
Like so many other arts organisations, we needed to innovate and strive to reach those audiences. We teamed up with An Post to create the ImagineNation playbook, with high-quality creative activities from some of our best authors and illustrators. 215,000 families received the playbook through An Post, The Irish Times and free download. Support from The Community Foundation for Ireland allowed us to send a further 15,000 copies, with art materials, to children most in need to meet the demand we met after the first print. We worked with Family Friendly HQ to encourage grandparents to share a story virtually with the children in their lives while staying at home. And thanks to support from Smurfit Kappa, we came up with The Any-Book Book Club, a guide full of activities for children to do with any books they have at home and without a printer or any special art supplies.
The pleasure of brilliant writing and illustration that connects with and moves a reader, that can help to make them laugh, provide some escapism, allow them to see themselves or stand in another’s shoes, is tremendously powerful. A book is cheap, but it can mean so much to the reader when it’s the only book they have, or when it’s that one you remember from your own childhood that sticks with you throughout your life. Books make things better – we really believe that, and we’ll be working hard over the coming years to make sure that every child has the chance to experience the joy of becoming a reader.
Elaina Ryan is the CEO of Children’s Books Ireland, the national children’s books organisation of Ireland. Through its many activities and events, the organisation aims to engage young people with books, foster a greater understanding of the importance of books for young people and act as a core resource for those with an interest in books for children in Ireland.
Children’s Books Ireland is funded by the Arts Council through the Strategic Funding programme.