No Place Like Home: Sophie Kirtley's favourite Northern Irish stories
Published on: 14 July 2020
The Wild Way Home author Sophie Kirtley shares her favourite Northern Irish books - from stories steeped in history and lore to beautiful books about the natural wonders of her homeland.
I’ve always felt so proud of being from Northern Ireland and even though I now live in England I do get ridiculously excited every time I hear a Northern Irish voice on the radio or see a wheaten loaf in the ‘speciality’ section of the supermarket. Northern Ireland will always be ‘home’ to me.
And one of the things I love most about Northern Ireland is that it’s a place just steeped in stories: everybody has a story and nobody’s shy to tell you theirs. I grew up with stories in my blood – my dad is a born storyteller, turning every household happening or minor misadventure into a great yarn. My mum loves stories too, but more as a reader - she always encouraged me to read and through her I first discovered some of the books by Northern Irish children’s authors that are still amongst my favourites today.
First up, a real oldie:
What Do You Feed Your Donkey on? Rhymes from a Belfast Childhood, collected by Colette O'Hare, illustrated by Jenny Rodwell.
This is one of those books that I made my mum read to me over and over again when I was wee. It’s full of street rhymes and skipping songs and all of them are written the way we really speak – full of our lovely beefy Norn Iron accent! I read them to my own kids now and, much to their amusement, lay the accent on really thick! I also have always loved Jenny Rodwell’s illustrations; full of earthy detail… and ever-so-slightly menacing too.
Picture books have a really special place in my heart. None more so than this absolute classic by Northern Irish author, Martin Waddell.
Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson
My own children adored this book…and still do. I think it’s the perfect comfort read; a bit scary but deliciously warm and full of love too. And maybe I have a particular soft spot for it because those three owl babies remind me, just a little bit, of my own three (considerably less fluffy) hatchlings! The notion of siblings looking out for one another is something that resonates deeply with me and sibling love is one of the most important themes of my own book The Wild Way Home.
The theme of worry and anxiety is also tackled brilliantly for older children by another wonderful Northern Irish author, Lara Williamson.
Like all of Lara Williamson’s books this is a story full of hope and full of heart. It’s fantastically quirky and fun but it’s also got just enough realism to make it moving and relatable; in the story Mabel faces the tumult of a changing family dynamic which is a situation that will be familiar for many child readers. There’s such a lovely pulse of kindness and humanity beating through this book – it’d warm the coldest of hearts.
Which brings me to another warm-hearted Northern Irish gem of a book, this time for teenage readers.
Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain
This is such a delightfully charming book. It too has a sibling relationship at its heart, as it tells the story of twins Birdie and Finch who are members of a circus family. It’s a quirky coming-of-age story, exploring young love, sexual identity and friendship with real sensitivity and a lovely lightness of touch. I especially love the setting of the circus… and the sheer Northern Irishness of it too! I can see why Kelly McCaughrain won so many awards for this book – it is just gorgeous.
My final choice isn’t really a book written for young people; it’s a book written by a young person… and it’s a book for everybody.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
This book makes me miss my Northern Irish homeland more than any other. It’s like an ode in celebration of the natural wonders of our small corner of the world – plants, flowers, animals, birds. In this remarkable book, fifteen year old Dara McAnulty tells his own coming of age story within this landscape which has been a source of inspiration and of wonder to him. The pages sing with a natural world that is both familiar and strangely new. It’s a delight!
There’s just so much amazing creativity coming out of Ireland at the moment – North and South – it really does feel like a golden age in which to be writing. As a debut Northern Irish children’s author, I’m just fizzing with pride to find my book, The Wild Way Home, sharing shelf-space with wonderful books such as those I’ve mentioned here.
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