Featured Readers

Each month we sit down for a chat with a ‘Featured Reader’, to find out about their favourite books of all time, their literary preferences, recommendations, revered authors, & the likes...

This Month

Siobhan parkinson

Siobhán Parkinson

Photo: Robert Bennett

SInce I am visually impaired and can’t read print, I ‘read’ by listening to audiobooks, and I get to download novels for free from the public library system. How brilliant is that!

Siobhán Parkinson, Writer and publisher

Siobhán, tell us a bit about yourself...

I was born in Dublin, the eldest of three, and when I was four we moved to Loughrea, County Galway, my mother’s hometown, where I had lots of extended family. That’s where I went to primary school. Then when I was maybe ten or eleven we moved to Galway city for a year, and after that on to Letterkenny in County Donegal, where we also had family, as my father’s mother had come from there. That’s where I finished primary school and went on to secondary school and did my Leaving Cert.

So, a fairly mixed experience. It meant I was always the outsider, the new girl. Not a lot of fun, and I don’t think I was very good at making friends. Possibly explains why I spent so much time ‘stuck in a book’. That in turn meant I grew up bookish and quite academic – not a great move if you want to be popular. Also, my parents were stricter than other kids’ parents (I think that was possibly an urban/rural thing), so that wasn’t so fabulous either. I got lots of encouragement, though, and I sailed along through it all reasonably well. Still, I was glad when I finished school and got to go to Dublin, to university.

What is your earliest memory of reading? Do you have a favourite book or author from childhood?

My mother should have been a teacher. She didn’t get the chance, for a variety of reasons, but she would have been very good at it. She was home-schooling to beat the band before the expression was even invented. So my siblings and I all learned to read very early. The books I remember especially from early childhood were Enid Blyton’s Noddy books. The illustrator of those books never seems to get much credit, but the illustrations were enchanting.

By the time I was ten or eleven I was reading almost as much as I was breathing. Enid Blyton continued to be a favourite, as I think everyone of my age would agree, with the detective stories (The Five Findouters were my favourites) and the school stories (The Sullivan Twins series was the one I liked best) and especially The Secret Island, which wasn’t part of a series. I also read a range of other books. My mother would bring me a book every Saturday from O’Gorman’s bookshop in Galway (sadly long gone ar slí na fírinne) and they were almost always Puffin books. Two favourite Puffins were The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E Nesbit and A Little Princess by Frances Hodson Burnett, and I remember getting Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince in a Puffin edition for my eleventh birthday. I also have very fond memories of Little Women and sequels. I especially loved Little Men, which I think is often overlooked.

Do you have a favourite library now or from your past?

When I was a small child, the librarian in Loughrea knew I was a bookworm and she also knew about my addiction to Noddy books. There were loads of them, and a new one would come out every few months. She would keep the latest one for me under the counter, which I am sure broke a lot of rules, but I have never forgotten the thrill of that. Generally speaking, libraries were nothing like as well stocked as they are these days, but I was always keen on visiting whatever library there was in whatever town I was living in at the time.

You were appointed Ireland’s first Laureate nLaureate for Children’s Literature in 2010. How did that feel?

It was a very busy time. Because I was the first, we were having to invent it as we went along but Children’s Books Ireland, which administers the laureateship, were always very keen on allowing whoever was laureate to make their term as laureate their own, so I had loads of scope.

One of my main themes as laureate was international connections, and I did an exchange with an Austrian children’s writer and got to spend a week in Vienna visiting schools. That was fun. (I speak German.) I also visited Stockholm to meet their equivalent of a laureate, as they were just setting that up and had based their plans partly on the Irish model. That was great. They have a particularly super library for children in Stockholm, and lots of institutions that support literature and reading. The Swedes see literacy as politically empowering and see teaching kids to read as part of bringing them up to be good citizens, which is a bit different from the way we think about it.

Which of your books is battered and worn from using over and over again?

I have an old Penguin edition of Anna Thomas’s The Vegetarian Epicure that is falling apart. I am not a vegetarian, but I do enjoy vegetarian food, and particularly when I was young and poor, I found vegetarian meals a cheaper option. Vegetarian eating was considered eccentric in those days – that suited me fine! – and a lot of vegetarian cookery books were a bit dull, but this was (still is) a super one. I hardly ever consult it now, because I have internalised the recipes, but what made it such a great read were the little anecdotes from the author’s family (Polish American) food traditions, which made it feel as if you were a personal friend of hers.

What are you reading right now?

I have just, last night, finished Middlemarch. A real lockdown read. I last read it when I was eighteen, and I had totally forgotten how very funny it is – not all the time, but Eliot’s social observations are hilarious. I took a quick look at Wikipedia after I finished it, to refresh my memory on what people think are its main themes and I totally disagree that it is mostly about marriage, medicine, religion and the status of women (though it is also about marriage, medicine, religion and the status of women). I think it is mostly about money. Class too, but mostly money. My favourite character is Mary Garth. What a woman! Not only very grounded and sensible but very witty.

Now I am casting about for something else very glorious to read and wondering if I should try one of the George Eliot novels I haven’t read. I once tried to read Daniel Deronda, but the library in Phibsborough only had book 2; book 1 had gone missing. "OK," I said, "Can you order me book 1 so, and I’ll read that first?" "No," they said. "We can’t order it because it is fiction. We don’t order fiction." "It’s not, like, frivolous fiction," I said. "It is George Eliot. It is a classic." "No, we can’t order fiction, sorry." "But in that case, you have this book, book 2 of DD, which is totally useless, because you haven’t got book 1." "Sorry, we can’t order fiction." Grrr! Fortunately public libraries have totally changed their policy and libraries now are much more reader- (and fiction-) friendly than they used to be.

Nowadays, since I am visually impaired and can’t read print, I ‘read’ by listening to audiobooks, and I get to download novels for free from the public library system. How brilliant is that! (Don’t hold out much hope for Daniel Deronda, though!) But maybe I need a break from the 19th century. Any recommendations? I like witty books best. I wish Ali Smith would write another book, but I suppose she is smashed after that marathon tetralogy she finished recently.

Is there a book you think every child should have on their shelf?

Alice in Wonderland. I mean, come on, it’s a no-brainer.

Is there a book that opened up another culture to you?

Das Dopplete Lottchen by Erich Kästner, which I read as a child under the English title of Lottie and Lisa (later republished in English as The Parent Trap, after the movie of that name), and which I totally loved, partly because of the glimpse it gave into life in two great German-speaking European capitals, Vienna and Munich, which were totally exotic to me. Later, my German teacher at school read it with us in the original, which I really enjoyed, though I think my classmates thought it was stchoopit because we were teenagers and this was a book for kids. (But, like, that was our standard of German. We weren’t going to be reading Buddenbrooks, for heaven’s sake!)

Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.

I lived for a year in Munich in the 1970s and taught English in a school in Dachau.

Find out more about Little Island Books here and the Laureate na nÓg programme here.

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