It all started with my school poetry book, Soundings. Hands up who remembers Soundings? Originally published in 1969 and republished in 2010 with a forward by Joseph O’Connor. In the introduction O’Connor says ‘Soundings was the book that brought poetry into hundreds of thousands of lives’. He’s right, it did. However the book had one major flaw: there were twenty-two male poets included in its pages and only one woman, the amazing Emily Dickinson.
I asked my teacher about this and he said that women weren’t writing or publishing at the time. It was the same with my short story book, Exploring English and my history of art textbook. Every time I questioned this I was given the same answer – women weren’t actively making art or writing in the past.
After school, I studied Modern English and History of Art at college and I found out that this was untrue. Women were actively writing, drawing, painting, publishing, exhibiting. They simply weren’t in my books. The teachers had been given misinformation and in turn had passed on this untruth.
I wish I’d encountered some of the amazing women artists as a teenager. I only discovered Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois as an adult and it’s a crying shame as their work is so full of strength and power and agency. I delight in telling children about them when I visit schools.
Which brings me to the second reason that I wrote Blazing a Trail – my school visits. Every month I visit primary schools and talk to the students about writing and creativity. About three years ago we got talking to a class about President Michael D. Higgins and his poetry. ‘Of course, our ex-President Mary Robinson was a poet in her own way,’ I told them, ‘and still has a great love for the arts.’ They looked at me blankly. They had no idea who Mary Robinson was.
Since that day I always ask each class I visit ‘Who here knows who Mary Robinson is?’ On a good day I get two or three hands. So I decided to do something about this – I’d write a book for Irish children, a book featuring our own female heroes and pioneers, from Granuaile to yes, President Mary Robinson.
I sent an outline to O’Brien Press: a list of the women I’d like to include in such a book, a sample of one woman’s page – Dr Kathleen Lynn – and some notes on why I thought such a book was important. How it would help balance out the lack of women in Irish history books and school books. To their credit, they understood and loved the idea from the start, and it was the quickest deal I have ever signed for any book! We had some wonderfully interesting meetings where myself and the publishing team talked about the women that might be included and how the book would be laid out and illustrated.
O’Brien Press invited Lauren O’Neill on board to illustrate the book and I started researching in earnest. Lauren and I met later in the publishing process. People often refuse to believe that I met my illustrator for Sally go Round the Stars and A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea at the launch of our first book together, but it’s true! All of our interaction had taken place through the editor and book designer. With Lauren I had more contact, but my thoughts on the illustrations were still filtered through our editor, Aoife Walsh. It’s quicker this way and cleaner. Aoife put together all the feedback for Lauren.
The first illustration I saw for the book was of Eileen Gray and I was blown away by how Lauren had captured Eileen’s spirit and power. Lauren is an amazing illustrator and also designed the Blazing a Trial cover.
The research for the book took over a year, two full days a week. Luckily I was Writer in Residence for Dún Laoghaire Rathdown at the time, based in the Lexicon Library. I had access to their large reference library and their librarians were incredibly helpful, calling up books for me from all over the country. I couldn’t have done it without their help.
It took me several months to get the book’s tone and the word count right. I wanted to make the text accessible yet stretch the young reader. I worked on it and worked on it until I was happy with my voice and then I crossed my fingers and sent the first pages to my editor Aoife. Luckily she was delighted with my writing which was heartening.
After two years’ work the book is finally out in the world. It’s been a real labour of love for all concerned and I’m delighted to say that Blazing a Trail has been shortlisted for two Irish Book Awards – one for Best Senior Children’s Book and the other for Best Irish Published Book. Watch this space!
Children’s non-fiction is thriving at present. If you have a strong idea for a book and like research it’s definitely worth considering.
(c) Sarah Webb
Sarah Webb is the author of the Ask Amy Green and Songbird Café series for young readers. She worked for many years as a children’s bookseller and now combines writing with schools visits, reading and giving workshops at festivals, and teaching creative writing. In 2015, Sarah was awarded the Children’s Books Ireland Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Books. She is the Children’s Literary Advisor to Listowel Writers’ Week and was writer in residence for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in 2016/2017. For more, visit www.sarahwebb.info
About Blazing a Trail:
A book for everyone who dreams of changing the world.
From fearless aviator, Lady Mary Heath, the first woman in the world to parachute from an aeroplane, to Margaret Bulkley, the 18th-century surgeon who lived as a man, meet 28 remarkable Irish women who have taken the world by storm.
You may have already heard some of their names, like Countess Markievicz and Mary Robinson, but others, like Anne Sullivan, Lilian Bland or Anna Haslam, may be new to you.
Packed with fun, fascinating facts and stunning, full-page illustrations, this book celebrates the trail blazers who have shaped the world we live in.
Ready to walk in their footsteps? A world of bravery and discovery awaits you.
Made by two remarkable women, author Sarah Webb and illustrator Lauren O’Neill.
Order your copy online here.