Still Shining . . .
People always want to know how you got started as a writer. I don’t know why, because it’s not as though there is some magic formula that people can use to ‘get started as a writer’ and then it will all roll out beautifully. I know people realise this, but still, they do persist in wanting to know how every writer got started as a writer.
I have generally tended to evade that question, because the answer to it can lead to a place that the questioner really doesn’t want to go. Sometimes I know it will be all right, that they won’t be embarrassed or upset if I tell them the truth, and if I feel that is the case – if I’ve got a good rapport with them – I do tell the story of how I got started as a writer. But mostly I fudge it, or at least I have done that in the past.
Well, I can’t fudge it now, because now it’s out there. That’s fine. I haven’t been fudging the answer all these years in order to protect myself; I’ve been doing it in order to protect the person asking the question.
So the answer to the question is that my first book was one for small children about stillbirth. I wrote it for my own son then aged five/six, when we had this experience in our own family. I went looking for a book on this most painful of subjects to help me to explain it to my little boy, and I was very surprised (as well as disappointed) to find that there was nothing suitable. Absolutely nothing. It seemed it was a shocking idea, and certainly not something to be discussed with children.
Indeed it is not something anyone would want to discuss with children, but sadly it is something that every now and then, in particular families, needs to be discussed with children. I knew I needed a book like this, and when I didn’t find one, I knew that there had to be other mothers, other families, who needed such a book.
A short time after the event, I sent my manuscript to my friend Íde Ní Laoghaire, who was editor with The O’Brien Press, to see if she thought it might be publishable. She thought it would be tricky to publish it, but she also thought I was a children’s writer and suggested I try my hand at it. I was taken aback. I had no idea of becoming a children’s writer. But the people at O’Brien were quite sure. They suggested I have a crack at writing some other books for children. Well, they were the professionals, so I took them at their word, and I went on to write a few books for young children. After that, they called me in and said, ‘You are a children’s writer for sure, but we think it’s time you wrote a book for older children.’ By now I’d published three books for young children with them.
‘What about my real book?’ I asked, meaning All Shining in the Spring. They said they’d come to that in due course, ‘but for now we’d like you to think about ….’ And so I went on to write my first novel, Amelia, set in a Quaker family in Dublin in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I. It did pretty well, and then I asked O’Brien once again about my ‘real’ book; and they agreed to publish All Shining in the Spring. So my fifth book was really my first book, if you see what I mean.
This was a very brave and generous decision on O’Brien’s part. It wasn’t the kind of book that was going to sell heaps; it’s a book for a blessedly small audience. But for that small audience, it is a very important book. They did a lovely job, commissioning Donald Teskey, who at that stage was not so well known as an artist as he is today, to do the illustrations.
All Shining came out around the same time as the sequel to Amelia, which was No Peace for Amelia. I went on to publish several other children’s novels with O’Brien, right up until the turn of the present century. And meanwhile All Shining went on selling in a small way, until eventually it went out of print.
I went on to work with the London agent Sophie Hicks, and to publish in the UK, at first with Puffin and then with Hodder Children’s and also in the USA; I also pubished two novels for adults in Ireland. I maintained friendly relations with O’Brien, and my last novel with them, Kate, was an Irish edition of a novel I had published with American Girl.
In 2010 I had the great honour to be appointed Ireland’s first laureate for children’s literature, Laureate na nÓg, and just around the same time I set up my own children’s publishing company, Little Island Books. I was now writing in Irish, publishing with Cois Life, as well as English, and I also started translating children’s novels from German, which were published by Little Island, along with work by new Irish writers for children. I have recently retired from Little Island, though I continue to have an advisory role there.
The remarkable thing is that this whole rich and varied career began with a book, All Shining in the Spring, which came to be written because my baby boy was born and died within a single breath. He came, he went, and he left me a gift that has transformed my life.
For many years now, All Shining has been out of print, but there has been a constant demand for it. People would ring me up or email every now and then and ask me if I had a copy they could buy or borrow.
Meanwhile, my son Matthew – that little boy for whom All Shining in the Spring was written three decades ago now – has taken over as publisher with Little Island. One of the first things he wanted to do as publisher was to reissue this book. As the very first reader of All Shining, indeed as its intended first audience, he knew better than anyone what an important book this is, for children and families experiencing the death of an infant at or before or soon after birth. As far as we know, there hasn’t been another book of this type published in the meantime, which is remarkable, considering how much Ireland has changed in the last thirty years. By now the rights in the text had reverted to me, and O’Brien was most generous in allowing us to re-use the original charming and sensitive drawings by Donald Teskey.
(c) Siobhán Parkinson
About All Shining in the Spring: The Story of a Baby who Died
A book to help children and families cope with the loss of a baby. Based on the author’s personal experience.
Order your copy online here.
And see here for an invaluable resource page to accompany Siobhán’s book.