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Interview with the director of Children’s Books Ireland – Elaina Ryan.

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In the run up to the twentieth birthday of Children’s Books Ireland (CBI), and their annual conference in September, DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE spoke to their director, Elaina Ryan. Expect a lot of big book love, support for Irish writers, and an eight foot bird.


The first question is a simple one, what is the CBI and what is its role?


Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) is the national children’s books organisation of Ireland; we have been in existence for twenty years. Through our many activities and events we aim 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. We strive to make books central to every child’s life on the island of Ireland through developing audiences for children’s books, supporting and celebrating excellent authors and illustrators. Our core projects include an annual reading campaign, publications including Inis magazine and the Inis Reading Guide, the CBI Book Clinics, the annual CBI International Conference and the CBI Book of the Year Awards. We also administer the Laureate na nÓg programme on behalf of the Arts Council.


When and how did you first come to CBI?

I’ve been at CBI since September 2013, when I came from Little Island Books, an independent Dublin-based publisher under the stewardship of Siobhán Parkinson, a woman of many talents and an excellent mentor. I had been working at Little Island in some capacity since 2009 after completing a Masters in Publishing Studies, and had found myself very much at home in the world of children’s books and eventually progressing to Managing Editor at the small press. CBI had always been a big part of my work at Little Island, from submitting books for review, entering titles for the CBI Book of the Year Awards and attending events including the CBI Conference. I was well aware of the importance of the organisation as a support for all aspects of the children’s book sector, from artists to publishers to audiences, and the breadth of partnerships and projects that CBI was and is engaged in appealed to me very much. Mags Walsh, my predecessor, had done an extraordinary job as Director in her ten years with CBI; applying for the role after her tenure was both exciting and daunting.



What does your job as director involve? And what are the more unusual scenarios that happen working with children’s writers and illustrators?

CBI’s core team consists of three full-time staff members and myself. Broadly speaking, my colleagues’ roles break down into publications (Jenny Murray), events and programming (Aoife Murray) and administration (Ciara Houlihan) with lots of exceptions and nuances that happen naturally in a small team. I oversee the team, and have responsibility for leading the organisation as a whole to deliver our programmes to the highest standard, in keeping with our strategic plan. Day to day, that means managing budgets and funding, maintaining relationships and partnerships of all kinds, raising the profile of the organisation (often including media appearances), working with my Board of Directors, governance, strategic planning. The job is so varied that it’s hard to describe a typical day! I also work closely with the Laureate na nÓg Project Manager and the Arts Council on the Irish Children’s Laureate programme and its international network.


Unusual scenarios: we do find ourselves in all sorts of hilarious and brilliant situations, often when working on events and with festivals. For some time, we housed an eight-foot tall multi-coloured bird in our office, a beautiful creature designed by Chris Judge and made real by the International Literature Festival Dublin (then Dublin Writers Festival). The bird has travelled extensively and had its own courier! We’ve traipsed around fields with large rolls of paper and bags of art materials to deliver large scale Monster Doodles at Electric Picnic; we’ve brought storytellers on steam trains and up lighthouses while Eoin Colfer was Laureate na nÓg and, at the other end of the spectrum, we’ve had meetings with government ministers to advocate for issues of national importance. Every day really is different.



Are there any misconceptions that writers may have about CBI?

Certainly: we spend a lot of time explaining to all kinds of people what CBI doesn’t do, including publishing books, promoting individual books as a service, and selling books.

What we do do is to try to be as supportive as possible, and many writers understand that right from the beginning of their careers. They sign up for membership, come to the conference and find a whole tribe of likeminded people in other CBI members, from publishers to booksellers, parents, reviewers, academics and librarians. People tell us all the time what a valuable network it is for them, and from our point of view, being part of it makes writers known to us, which is useful when we’re programming our own events, giving guidance to other festivals and organisations, and working with alliances like Words Ireland to provide professional development supports.



Why should readers or writers or illustrators join CBI?

Simply put, becoming a member supports us in the work we do, and if you’re interested in children’s books, we hope that work will benefit you in some way. Members get three copies of Inis magazine each year, which is produced by CBI with two editors, Juliette Saumande and Siobhán McNamara, and which is full of features and reviews on children’s books. They also get the annual Inis Reading Guide, which recommends all the best books of the year with a particular focus on Irish authors, illustrators and publishers. The guide is produced with our Book Doctors acting as section editors and sifting through many hundreds of titles to find the cream of the crop for each age group. There’s an online resource area on our website which is members only, and our members can take part in the CBI Book of the Year Award Shadowing Scheme, free of charge. They’ll also get reduced entry to the conference.



What events have you planned for the rest of 2017?

We’ll have heaps of Book Clinics all over the country – our Book Doctors talk to children about what books they’ve loved or hated, or about their interests in general, and prescribe a tailored list or prescription of books for each individual that we’re confident they’ll love. We’ll be bringing it to Tipperary, Limerick, Kilkenny, Meath and Dublin, with more dates to be added. Laureate na nÓg PJ Lynch will be working on Big Pictures with a range of partners which will be announced very soon. We’ll have our International Conference in September, which is the same weekend as Culture Night, and then our table quiz to close out the year in December. As it’s our 20th birthday this year, we may also have a special event around Christmastime – more details to be announced closer to the time.


And of course there is the CBI conference this September.

The conference is one of my favourite points in the year – I used to attend before I worked at CBI and always found it inspiring and sometimes overwhelming, as there’s so much to take in over the weekend. This year it will take place on 23 and 24 September at its home in the Light House Cinema in Dublin, and guests will include Lucy Cousins, Kate Di Camillo, James Mayhew, Rob Biddulph, Cecelia Ahern, John Boyne and Shane Hegarty just to name a few.

You can get the full line up via Twitter here and book tickets here. The atmosphere is far more like TED Talks than the name ‘conference’ might suggest – we aim for the weekend to be friendly, professional, informative, entertaining, stimulating. And it gives children’s book folk a chance to talk to each other – some members come every year, regardless of the line up, and it’s a welcoming environment for people who are interested in children’s books from any perspective. Don’t miss the New Voices panel which has ten up and coming Irish authors and illustrators reading from their work with the threat of the five-minute klaxon sounding before they’re finished. The weekend openswith a special Culture Night event (details to be announced) in Dublin City Centre on Friday 22nd September. We’ll also celebrate our birthday at a special reception on the Saturday, and hold our AGM and EGM on the Sunday.

Thanks so much for talking to us, Elaina. I am one of those die hard CBI conference attendees, and I can highly recommend it! 

Olivia Hope

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