Monday 20 November 2017

Books: A place of wonder for younger readers

Once Upon A Place, Eoin Colfer, Little Island €15.99

Wexford writer Eoin Colfer, author of Artemis Fowl.
Wexford writer Eoin Colfer, author of Artemis Fowl.

Anne Cunningham

Eoin Colfer, Laureate na n'Og, writes in his introduction to this anthology about the importance of the sense of place in every story. Our memories of a place will forever influence our feelings about it, and it would appear that place is as important in a piece of fiction as is plot.

Place is equally important in the poems we love as a nation. Yeats' wild swans beguiled him in a very specific spot. Kavanagh's stony grey soil was not of Donegal, and Louis McNeice's lamenting the city which wouldn't have him, alive or dead, was of course about Dublin.

"Why do so many writers come from Ireland?" Colfer is often asked, and he responds that the answer is in the question. Flaws and all, Ireland is a magical place. But not all of the stories in this book have rose-tinted glasses. Jane Mitchell's There and Here, for instance, tells the story of a young girl living in a Mosney-type immigrant settlement and it is harrowing stuff. Roddy Doyle's The Pumping Station contrasts Kilbarrack Road of 1968 with what it is now, reminding us adults that "progress" is a word we should approach with caution. Especially if it's used by town planners.

Colfer himself has a short story in the anthology. The Ram King is a riotously funny historical fantasy set in the mythical kingdom of Exterios (Hook Head). Derek Landy's The World's Greatest Teen Detective is quite the contrast, set mostly on the beach in Rush, Co Dublin and in the present day.

Fifteen-year-old Evan's detection and profiling skills are sought by Scotland Yard, Quantico and even Rush Garda Station.

Jim Sheridan's Number 13 is one of the more esoteric tales, describing how Johnny - an adult - deals with the monster on his back, a small boy who's been there ever since the day Johnny revisited his childhood home.

Oisin McGann's story Stream Time tells the tale of a Viking woman whose funeral pyre doesn't catch fire. So she sails upstream on the Boyne, through space and time, taking in the Normans as she passes Trim, the ravages of the famine in Navan, and the aftermath of The Great War in Slane. Approaching Drogheda under the new 21st century suspension bridge "…white, seamless stone and taut cables, impossibly delicate" she finally reaches home.

The poems are as striking and ingenious as the stories. Mark Granier's The Dirty River, Stillorgan is particularly evocative, and could be any stream or stagnant pond where us old fogies played as kids, on "…our own / Mucky stretch of the Amazon." Enda Wyley's The Cabin in the Woods hits a similar note, while Pat Boran's Bus Stop declares that; "The world is full of beautiful places; / this is not one of them." But Cruit Island in Donegal is certainly one of them, as painted by Kate Newmann in How To Feed A Stranger's Donkey.

Beautifully and generously illustrated throughout in charcoals by multi-award winning illustrator PJ Lynch, the drawings are simply enchanting.

This book is a gift that could be given to any child of any age, the younger kids could be read to. But it's also a gift we should buy for ourselves. Rarely does one find such a rainbow of outstanding talent in one little book, one truly exceptional anthology.

In his poem Advent, Kavanagh wrote "Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder". Reading Once Upon A Place might just fill up some of that chink so it shrinks to a very tiny crack, and your wonder might be restored. This book really is that good.

Sunday Independent

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