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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 25 November, 2014

Column: Why I want to give a book to every child born in Ireland

Children’s Laureate Niamh Sharkey writes for TheJournal.ie about why reading is so important – and the reason she loves Dr Seuss.

Niamh Sharkey

MY NEW ROLE as Laureate na nÓg is to raise the profile of Irish children’s books in Ireland and abroad. I want children to get really excited about reading and drawing.

As a picture book maker my focus will be visual as well as literary. I make books for very young children and over the next two years I want to reach those who don’t have easy access to books. One of my aspirations as Laureate is to gift a picture book to every newborn child in Ireland. I think it would say a lot about us as a country.

So far it has been a bit of a whirlwind; I’ve been to Cologne, Annecy and Belfast in the past few weeks. The city of Cologne had a two-week celebration of Irish children’s literature, and invited twelve writers and illustrators over for an exhibition and school visits. John Boyne, and the previous Laureate, Siobhán Parkinson, were among those who were invited. The Irish Ambassador traveled down from Berlin to open Enchanted, an exhibition of 45 illustrations by Marie Louise Fitzpatrick, PJ Lynch and myself. It was a wonderful opportunity to highlight the world-class children’s writers and illustrators we have in Ireland.

I traveled from Cologne to Annecy in France, for the prestigious animation festival. This year cast a spotlight on Irish animation. I was there with Brown Bag Films with whom I’m making The Happy Hugglemonsters – an animated series based on my picture book.

I’ve been amazed at the response to my new role at home too. For a nation of readers and book lovers, having a Children’s Laureate has sparked lots of interest. We really care about reading and books in Ireland, and we need to be active in sharing this passion with the next generation.

I believe children are never too young to start enjoying books! Sharing stories and reading pictures enriches children’s lives and fuels their imagination. Parents provide a good reading role model; if your kids see you reading, they will be encouraged to. I’d encourage families to read together. This month I helped launch the Bord Gáis Energy Read Together campaign. They offer fun tips on sharing books with your child that are well worth checking out.

Avalanche of ideas

With Children’s Books Ireland (CBI), I’ve generated pages of ideas. I’m enthusiastic about promoting the visual side of storytelling. I’d love to start a huge Monster Doodle similar to the Big Draw Quentin Blake launched when he was the UK Laureate. I believe everyone can draw. Just pick up a pencil and make a mark. I would encourage children to keep a doodle notebook for sketching and writing their ideas down. A 2B pencil and a blank page can unleash an avalanche of ideas.

I want to highlight our children’s authors and illustrators – children’s literature in Ireland doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. This is particularly true of literature for the very young.

I think we need to expand the definition of reading and to think outside the box about how to draw in reluctant readers. I love funny books. The ‘Wimpy Kid’ series has been fantastic for hooking reluctant readers because of its humour.

Think about what started you reading! The Cat in The Hat changed my life. I loved the tangled wordplay of Dr Seuss. The books were great ‘read-alouds’, and had zany madcap illustrations. My weekly Beano sparked my interest in comics and illustration.  I’d make my own comics every Saturday with my brother Daniel.

As a child I borrowed books from the mobile library when it came to Swords. I can remember how eager I was to get my hands on new books. Over the years I have given countless workshops in libraries as a writer and illustrator. Some of the children at these workshops are being afforded access to books that they clearly haven’t had in their lives. Such workshops can offer them an introduction to the world of stories. As Laureate I’m keen to promote the highly valuable resource that Irish libraries are.

Reading and drawing should above all else be fun. Literature for children is profoundly enriching precisely because it is something that can be enjoyed, and there is such a wealth of quality Irish children’s literature out there to influence and inspire.

Niamh Sharkey was appointed Laureate na nÓg in May. For more information see childrensbooksireland.comchildrenslaureate.ie and niamhsharkey.com.

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