Sunday 17 November 2019

Telling tales of 'Trottie'

Children's author Bernie Marsh talks to Ken Phelan about her new book and her work in Fingal with people with intellectual disabilities

A new children's book, launched in Rush Library last weekend and based on the exploits of a lovable island dog, aims to teach important social skills to youngsters while fostering a love of reading and bedtime stories.

'Trottie and the Farmyard Mystery', by first-time author Bernice Marsh, is the first of a trilogy of 'Trottie' books inspired by the author's and her sister's childhood holidays in the west of Ireland.

During completion of 'Trottie', Bernice's sister Angela, who collaborated on the book, sadly became ill with oesophageal cancer and passed away in 2013.

Determined to see the book to fruition in honour of Angela's name, Bernice persisted with 'Trottie', and enlisted the considerable talents of art teacher Anne McMullan, who illustrated the story to beautiful effect.

Speaking after the book launch in Rush Library on October 19, Bernice explains where the idea came from, and the important part that reading plays in children's lives: 'As a family, we went on holiday for twenty five years to Connemara every summer for two weeks, and of course we experienced all these things like sheep shearing, badger watching at night and all that sort of thing. So my sister then started to tell children within the family the stories, and they were fascinated by them. When they became adults, they said to my sister, 'would you not write these stories down as a book? So she said, 'well I wouldn't be able to do it', and I said I'd help her.

'So we planned the book first, then started to write. I was there with my sister from the beginning because I lived with her. But then she got seriously ill, she got cancer of the oesophagus, so I didn't know how long she had. But as it turned out, about a month before she died, I said, 'Angela, what about the book?', because there was about two thirds of this first book written.

'She said 'No, I couldn't', and I said 'no, don't worry about it'. But then when she died, in her honour, I decided that I was going to finish the book and write the other two books as well.

'So I've done that - it's taken me about three years to do that, and the three of them are written now with all the illustrations and everything, so this is really in honour of my sister.'

'Trottie and the Farmyard Mystery' tells the tale of an intrepid border collie who leaves his Irish island home of Gull Island behind to live on a farm on the mainland. One day, Trottie overhears his owners, Paddy and Nancy Sweeney discussing emigrating to England, and agreeing they will leave him in the care of nasty neighbour, Jimmy Reilly.

Trottie quickly concocts a plan to stow away on a fishing boat, leaving the island and Reilly behind.

Lost for days, he is eventually found by a friendly farmer, who brings him back to his home in Connemara, where he is given work minding the sheep and feeding the animals. Here, he meets new friends, as well as scoundrels Mr. Pudsy, the 'pompous pig' and Maudie.

Life on the farm is spent in blissful abandon until a cunning fox appears from the woods - and so the adventure begins. What happens next forms part of the trilogy, as Trottie sets out to defend the farm from the mischievous fox.

Speaking of the book launch last weekend, Bernice says: 'I found a publisher, Tribes Press in Galway, and straight away they were interested and they've been very supportive. Nothing's been said about book two or three yet, but we're just getting book one out at the moment.

'The book was launched last Saturday in Rush Library, and went very well. There was a lot of people there from the area, then a lot of people I know because I worked out there for years. We sold about fifty books, so that was grand, and we had children there which was great.

'I was petrified (about the launch). Writing the book wasn't hard, but getting it published and launched is a big challenge.

'I have possibly another book launch coming up - it's not finally arranged yet, but that's in Clifden in Connemara, then possibly another one in Kansas in the United States. My niece lives out there and I was there in April.

'There's a beautiful new library in Kansas, and I told the children the story for twenty minutes after the library had asked me in.

'So the librarian asked me when I was launching the book and to let them know when I'd be over so they could give me a launch. So I'll be over there probably in March or April.'

This is Bernice's first venture into writing children's fiction, but is something which has always captured her imagination, she says. As a psychologist (one of her many former occupations), she appreciates the value of storytelling for children.

She says: 'Well you see, children's fiction is so imaginative, and when you start telling children's stories at night when they're going to bed, that's the ideal time and they love it. Lots of parents when you talk to them they say that is the time to tell stories. You tuck them in after it and it's just wonderful. So it was really from that, telling stories to young children when they were going to bed, that's how I suppose we became interested in telling children's stories.

'I hadn't anything published before that, but I'd done a few academic things, but they're not published. I've lots of stuff on different aspects of psychology or language and things. But this is a different thing, this is fiction, and it's a fable with little lessons in it too, but in a gentle way.'

Bernice has worked as a teacher for people in with intellectual disabilities in Fingal for almost thirty years, where she entertains residents daily with her children's tales. In the past, she has also worked as a speech and language therapist and as a psychologist, so that she is well-placed in terms of understanding the role of storytelling in promoting childhood literacy and emotional well-being.

On her work in Fingal, she says: 'I teach everything, because it's a special education programme. A lot of the emphasis would be on communication, speech and language, a certain amount of reading and writing and maths, but it would be early stages of that, not the advanced stages. And then I do quite a lot of art with them, we make cards for all occasions, and then also we do drama and music, not as much music as I'd like to do, but we do some music. I use a lot of the Montessori equipment for that, because I'm a Montessori teacher as well.'

Bernice is very passionate about the importance of childhood literacy in a child's development, as she says: 'With childhood literacy, if you're able to read, the world opens up for you. So reading is so important, and the beginnings of reading, that's where you really have to do the donkey work. The child has to do it, the parent has to do it and the teacher has to do it.

'That early introduction to reading and making reading an enjoyable experience, they have to learn all the characters and all the individual letters of course, but I think if you approach it in the beginning in a fun way and a 'look and say' method of teaching reading, I think that's extremely important. That's what I do in the centre, but even with mainstream children I think that's important.'

And of course, she holds particular fondness for bedtime stories, where it all begins: 'With bedtime stories, I can't say enough about those, because the child is usually relaxed at that stage, and they're lying down nice and comfortably and ten minutes maybe less, you tell them a little story about something interesting, and you see the eyes just closing and the next thing is they're gone... I do that so often and I'm still doing it, and I'm still fascinated by it. I don't quite understand how it all happens, but it just seems to wind them down after a busy day. I think the bedtime stories are wonderful, and there are lovely little bedtime story books out there with lovely pictures in them. It's great for bonding with children, you get to know the child and they get to know the adult as well. So I think the children who are read to at night are very blessed. Those who are read to, it's wonderful for them.'

'Trottie and the Farmyard Mystery' is available in all good book stores now.

Fingal Independent