Author takes children’s book award to heart

A KILKENNY writer has won the Eilis Dillon Award for a First Children’s Book presented by Children’s Books Ireland.

A KILKENNY writer has won the Eilis Dillon Award for a First Children’s Book presented by Children’s Books Ireland.

She was awarded the honour for her first novel, The Butterfly Heart.

The author, who has spent most of her life in Africa, including Kenya, Zambia and South Africa, only began writing after moving to Ireland in 2003.

“I first started writing fiction when I moved to Kilkenny nine years ago and in fact the first book I wrote (not yet published) was set in Kilkenny,” she explains.

“It was on the strength of the book set in Kilkenny that Sophie Hicks, my agent, took me on and that has made a big difference – it was through Sophie that Walker Books agreed to publish Butterfly Heart and the sequel to it, which will come out in May next year.”

She says her writing is informed by many things – “by people I have known, things I have observed, issues I think about or have worked with over the years, memories, things that make me laugh, funny observations that my children have made, a turn of phrase that I hear in the street, an expression I see.”

Of her first novel, in particular, she says: “I wrote Butterfly Heart because when I started to think of what to write after I had finished the other book my thoughts went back to Zambia, which is where I lived from the age of five to 15 – very formative years, and certainly years which have stuck in my memory.

“One of the things I remembered was how a girl that I had sat next to in class, in the Dominican Convent in Lusaka, had suddenly stopped coming to school. We later learned she had left because she had been sent away to be married to a man much older than her. This is one of the things the book deals with.

“It’s not, however, as I am sure some of the children who have read it would tell you, a heavy book despite the fact that some of the subject matter is. There is, I hope, a lot of humour in it, a bit of magic – where would a book be without a little magic? – a slightly mad teacher and characters that I hope readers will enjoy getting to know.”

She attributes some of her success to the feedback she receives from her partner and children.

“My partner Tom O’Neill is a writer – he is the author of Old Friends: The Lost Tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill – and that also makes a big difference because we can talk to one another about what we are writing, read one another’s work, share ideas. We also have a house full of available readers in our children – all of whom are between 16 and 24 so I probably shouldn’t describe them as children! – and that is great, because nothing is more helpful than having your writing read by others before you send it off to a publisher or agent.”

Ms Leyden says she has also received good feedback from her target audience, children.

“I have spent quite a bit of times visiting libraries and schools with the book and it has been incredibly rewarding to talk to the children who have read it and to see it through their eyes. The primary schools and the libraries in Kilkenny have been fantastic in their support of the book,” the author says.

“I received an email from Ms Mackey’s fifth class in St John’s congratulating me on the award and giving me a list of suggestions as to what to do with the prize money, so if you see me floating down a chocolate river in a Monster Truck eating all the Oreos I can consume, don’t be surprised, I will just be implementing their suggestions!”