Educating young bookworms... with a Cork twist

A new children’s book set on the Atlantic coastline revisits protests held at the Old Head of Kinsale in the naughties, to deliver a message of community resilience and hope writes ELLIE O’BYRNE
Educating young bookworms... with a Cork twist
Kevin Doyle and Spark Deeley who are behind The Worms that Saved The World

IT’S a colourful book aimed at the two to seven year old age-group. In “ The Worms That Saved The World,” Connie the earthworm and her friends find their environment threatened when a golf course is built on their remote Atlantic headland. Made ill by chemicals from the golf course, the lowly worms team up with a host of other wild animals to take a stand and reclaim their home.

If the story and landscape in Kevin Doyle and Spark Deeley’s new book seem familiar, it’s because author Kevin’s inspiration for the story came from his involvement in protests at The Old Head of Kinsale over ten years ago, when local residents and activists campaigned for public access to the traditional walkways of the cliff-top headland.

Purchased by businessman John O’Connor in the 1990s, the Old Head of Kinsale became the scene of local resistance after they denied the public free access to the luxury golf course property; An Bord Pleanála and Cork County Council erred on the side of keeping public access, but O’Connor fought the decision to the Supreme Court and ultimately earned the right to deny the public access to the headland.

Kevin was involved in the accompanying public protests, which included public picnics as well as mass trespasses, from the early days. Even though the protests weren’t successful and the public currently don’t have access to the Old Head, he says he wanted to celebrate the positive aspects of the movement in his new book.

“The picnics were family-friendly events with a nice convivial atmosphere,” Kevin says. “In the aftermath, having not won the campaign when the golf course management were able to say, ‘you can’t walk here anymore, end of story,’ which was very disappointing, but there was still a very positive sense of what a great campaign it had been.”

Kevin’s political background in socialism and anarchism is evident in his children’s book, as the earthworms enlist the help of other animals to defeat big business and restore the safety of their home. He says there’s a parallel between how we view ecology and society: “We’re often told in society that it’s dog eat dog; Darwinism feeds into that. But there is lots of research and evidence on how communities co-exist and help each other. The book is a good way to talk to children about how there’s mutual solidarity in nature too. Some of us go out and kill left right and centre, but there is a lot of peaceful co-operation between species as well.”

Kevin was a stay at home dad to two girls, Reidín and Saoirse, at the time of the protests and he says the elder remembers attending the picnic protests, while the younger, Saoirse, now 17, provided the inspiration for the worm protagonists of the book.

“Saoirse really liked gardening and was fascinated with worms so we’d made a couple of wormeries,” Kevin says.

The Worms that Saved the World, by Kevin Doyle and Spark Deeley
The Worms that Saved the World, by Kevin Doyle and Spark Deeley

“That idea of the worms as a community grew out of that: grassroots, literally! Worms have a delicate existence, and yet they’re very much a part of the health of the soil.

“Also, they’re a little on the lowly side in the grand scheme of things, but also very much essential, so I suppose there’s a bit of a metaphor there.”

Another important aspect of the story, as a father to girls, was to provide a positive and pro-active role model in the form of the book’s heroine, Connie.

“There’s still an overwhelming amount of material that reinforces stereotypes,” Kevin says. “Especially with the gender stuff, there’s a real lack of strong female characters when you look at the books that are out there for the two to seven age-group.

“There’s definitely space there for different ideas that are more in tune with a changing society and a changing Ireland.”

Kevin has primarily written short stories for adults; he was last year’s winner of the national Michael McLaverty Short Story Award and he teaches creative writing in Cork. But his former incarnation as an industrial chemist may have also influenced the ecological message of his worms’ plight, he says.

He studied chemistry in UCC and worked in the chemical industry in Ireland and abroad, and while researching for The Worms That Saved the World he was shocked to discover how environmentally damaging golf courses can be. Many use large quantities of pesticides and herbicides, and even add blue die to their water hazards for aesthetic reasons.

Six years in the making, The Worms That Saved the World didn’t really come about until Kevin met illustrator and community art educator Spark Deeley. Originally from Birmingham, Spark has been living in Ireland for nearly 30 years and has been involved in several self-publishing projects, including a book she both wrote and illustrated called “Into the Serpent’s Jaws.”

Kevin had been searching for a collaborator he saw eye to eye with, and with his new illustrator he quite literally found that spark: a mutual interest in social justice and community movements.

“Good critical cartooning doesn’t come out of a vacuum,” Kevin says. “A lot of the best illustrators have a strong political interest. When I saw Spark’s book, that was the really important next step in moving away from the story I’d been playing around with for so long.”

“The minute Kevin told me about it, I felt kind of in tune with what the book was about,” Spark agrees.

“It touched the part of me that feels so strongly about the earth and the health of the earth, but also about homes, and how society doesn’t prioritise homes as a really important part of what makes a healthy community that can function from an earthed, secure place.

“My motivations come from wanting to create a more equal society, and Kevin’s idea seemed like the right idea at the right moment.”

The duo opted to self-publish following several attempts to follow the traditional publishing route. With the recent boom in self-publishing, Spark says that it has come to be seen in a new light.

“For me, there’s something very empowering about self-publishing because you can do so much with it: you can decide how you want your book to look and everything about it.

“To me, it’s a way of making my creativity accessible to a broader audience.”

An official launch event for The Worms That Saved the World by Kevin Doyle and Spark Deeley will be held at Cork City Hall on May 5 from 6pm to 7.30pm.

The book will be available to pruchase from Vibes and Scribes and other Cork booksellers.

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