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Turning Children’s Books into an Animated Series by Emma-Jane Leeson

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Emma-Jane Leeson

Emma-Jane Leeson

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“Grab your backpack, let’s go! Jump in, ¡vámonos!”

Anybody who knows a child born between 2004 – 2008 will need no introduction to the above phrase. They will most likely be blocking their ears now to stop the unfolding of the ear worm that is the theme tune to Dora the Explorer!

Where it Began

My daughter Lily-Marie was born in July 2004 and it was on one of those many sleepless nights every new parent experiences with a new baby, that I scribbled down some stories for her. They were the stories my dad told myself and my siblings at night when we were children after my mam had finished reading a book to us.

These verbal stories about Johnny McGory became a part of my daughters’ childhood as they had done with mine. Dora was also a huge part of her childhood and a grand vision exploded into my mind one day thanks to the infamous Spanish speaking cartoon character.

The daily ‘Uno, dos, tres’ from my young daughter and the expectation to see an iguana or a baby jaguar in our garden (in the boglands of county Kildare, mind you) made me ask: Why can’t children around the world say ‘a haon, a dó, a trí’ and expect to see a hare or pine marten in their gardens? It was what Johnny Magory had done for my family after all.

That inspired thought some 15 odd years ago has led to this moment now where we’ve received development funding from Screen Ireland for the Johnny Magory TV animation series.

From the Biscuit Tin to the Dragon’s Den

You might think those years seem like an awful amount of time but allow me to explain what happened in the interim:

Firstly, the Johnny Magory stories I had scribbled down stayed safely in a biscuit tin in the locker beside my bed for 12 years, never once seeing the light of day. It was my mother who gave me a little nudge approaching my 30th birthday 5 years ago to maybe ‘do something’ with the stories to mark the occasion.

So, I self-published the first story Johnny Magory in the Magical Wild in 2016 purely with the intent to give it to my family and some close friends. I was utterly delighted with the book and the people that I worked with, in my HR career with one of Ireland’s corporates at the time, asked to buy a copy from me. Turns out they also knew the story about Johnny McGory from their childhoods.

From the moment I held the first copy of that book, I could see this character on a TV screen, singing, dancing, exploring and educating children in my head.

I was bitten by the book bug and continued to self-publish these stories from my childhood filled with Irish heritage and wildlife whilst I worked full-time in corporate Ireland. In March 2019, I made the decision to leave my career and pursue this Johnny Magory game full time.

I was under no illusion of just how tough the publishing world could be but I was ready for the challenge and with my trusty business plan prepared I embarked on one of the best adventures of my life.

I have always viewed myself as a business owner and an entrepreneur with a talent for storytelling as opposed to an author who knew about business.

My first challenge was ensuring my Local Enterprise Office knew this. I persevered through the many rejections and comments about ‘authors get help from the Arts Council and not the Enterprise Board’.

However, I was shortlisted for Enterprise Ireland’s and Ernest and Young’s IBYE (Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur) competition a few weeks after leaving my career in 2019. There I was given the opportunity to learn to pitch my business in a way that resonated with Gavin Duffy of Dragon’s Den fame. On my first attempt I told him that I had written a series of books and I was going to turn Johnny Magory into the Irish Dora the Explorer. I told him I was creating a brand and not just books and that it would be a global series, not a Rosie and Jim style set-up.

Bringing Big Ideas to Life

Big words I know, and I honestly look back on that day and wonder where I got such conviction from. But it was the animation idea that got me over the initial hurdle and ultimately changed the mindset of the people I needed to help open doors along my path.

Following this, I was accepted onto Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers phase 1 programme and subsequently the game changing phase 2 programme. It was there I was assigned my mentor Ronan McCabe who is the man behind Zig and Zag and Dustin the Turkey but he was also, at that point, the Treasurer of Animation Ireland.

Ronan was fantastic. As much as I had done my research into the animation world, Ronan explained the process in lay man’s terms and the behind the scenes working of the industry. It was at an animation conference that Ronan had invited me to observe, that he introduced me to Ian Hamilton of Elk Studios in Dundalk.

After an initial chat or two, we both recognised the similarities of our values and ethos and officially began the process of getting the animation show on the road. We committed to apply for the development funding from Screen Ireland when they opened the last round of 2020.

This obviously involved a lot of paperwork, filling in the application form and contracts between us both. However, it also involved settling on an initial animated character design for Johnny and his family which was fantastic for me to see my character being reimagined yet again. We also set to making a bible to include up to 50 examples of episodes. We really dived into the characters, completing full profiles for each and giving an overview of their ‘world’.

When word came through in March that we had received the full funding grant available on our first try it was such an incredible feeling. We are now working to create a trailer for the programme and also 2 or 3 full scripts working with professional screenwriters.

On having this we will approach broadcasters and channels and pitch to commission the full first series and continue to tell the story about Johnny Magory to children across the globe.

(c) Emma-Jane Leeson

Author photograph (c) Leinster Leader

About Johnny Magory: In the Magical Wild

Johnny Magory in the Magical Wild is the first in the series of adventures of Johnny Magory.

Join in the excitement with this bright, fun book.

Join Johnny as he has the time of his life at the forest party with his magical woodland friends, Mr Badger, Mr Fox, Mrs Squirrel and many more.

Johnny’s Mammy said he has to be home for lunch but will Johnny and his trusty dog Ruairi remember to make it home on time?

“So off to the bottom of the garden he did bowl, 

To his little secret passage, down a rabbit hole. 

Johnny’s hidden tunnel leads him into the magical wild, 

Where he has special friends, who’ll only talk to a child”

In this book, we meet the badger, fox, corncrake, hedgehog, red and grey squirrel, frog and swan.

The first and much loved Johnny Magory Book. The boy is told to be back for lunch, he has so much craic at the forest party, will he remember?

Order this and other books in the series here.

About the author

The birth of her first daughter Lily-Marie inspired Emma-Jane Leeson to jot down a few of her daddy’s stories on one of the many sleepless nights! 12 years after that, her mother encouraged her to ‘do something with the stories’ as it was approaching her 30th birthday. With no aspirations for becoming an author, Emma-Jane self-published her first story ‘Johnny Magory in the Magical Wild’ purely for family and friends, whilst working full time in Bord na Móna. The team in her office told her they also knew the ‘story about Johnny McGory’ from their childhood… Much to EJ’s shock as her father had her and her siblings convinced that he himself had invented the rhyme!

The buzz of creating her first book had EJ hooked and she continued to self-publish more adventures whilst working full time in some of Ireland’s biggest corporates as the popularity and word about the books organically grew and spread.

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