“WHY are these books always in America, and why are they always boys?”
It was these questions from her book-loving daughter that prompted Cork teacher and author Leona Forde to create a very Irish young heroine for her stories.
The result has just hit bookshelves in Milly McCarthy Is A Complete Catastrophe; the first of a three-book series centred around a young girl with heaps of Rebel pride.
It is Leona’s first novel, but the writing bug and love of stories has been there from a young age.
“I’m from the city originally, from Ballyphehane near The Lough,” she tells The Echo. “I went to Pres Ballyphehane and had some great English teachers there.
“I decided I would study English in UCC, which I absolutely loved. I became an English teacher; I have been teaching in Kinsale (Community School) for 15 years.
“I have always written but only for myself. I had written a short story that was published in Australia years ago, when we were backpacking, before I even graduated as a teacher. And just in the last couple of weeks one of my poems was chosen to feature in Cork Words 3.”
But it was a fateful conversation with eldest child Asha (now 12) that put her on the road to publication.
“Asha eats books, just devours them, and she had gone through lots of different series She was learning all these new words, she would come in to me and say ‘Mom, what’s a sidewalk’. At one point she said to me, ‘Why are these books always in America and they are always boys,” and that got me thinking ‘she’s actually right’.
“And I think its important that children see themselves in books. We have great books in Ireland on our culture – gods and goddesses and Irish myths – but she couldn’t see her life in a book.
“She goes to a gaelscoil, they go Irish dancing and they are involved in the GAA and camogie, all the things that make an Irish school experience – the Feis Maitiu and stuff like that.
“So I started telling her this story about a girl called Milly McCarthy who is from Cork and has Rebel blood and she goes to a gaelscoil and is always getting into trouble. We would laugh about little stories that I would make up for her. Asha is really good at art so she would draw little scenes I was telling her about.”
Milly took a step closer to the page when Leona got the opportunity to do a creative writing course as part of plans for the new Junior Cycle English programme.
“I did the writing workshop online with these five brilliant girls and [children’s author] Patricia Forde. It was Patricia suggested I send something off to a publisher. Initially I sent of a picture book [for younger readers].
“I had a call with Gill (publishers) and they said are you writing anything else, and I said I’m writing a story for my daughter, and I gave them a feel of what Milly was about and they said ‘we need to see that’.
Leona sent them an initial six chapters and then more when they asked for more: “Based on that, they signed me a three-book deal.”
At that stage, in June, 2022, Leona had less than half of what she would need for a full book written. What followed was a busy summer. Fuelled by coffee from husband Tony Speight (of West Cork Coffee) and with a readymade panel of readers in children Asha 12, Rían 10, 7 Isaac, 3 Indy – Leona got writing.
“When it is something you enjoy, it doesn’t feel like work at all,” she said. “I would sit in the car and write, whenever the kids were busy doing something I would grab my notebook - and I still write on pen and paper – and then type it when I got home at night time. That’s where I’m editing and adding to it.
“It’s funny but when you live with four kids, they are constantly coming up with stories or telling me little things. They are my biggest bounce off - it’s like I have three critics in the house!”
If the scenes she wrote struck a chord with Asha, Rían and Isaac, Leona knew she was on the right track. Her children also loved the illustrations from Dublin-based illustrator Karen Harte, and Asha’s original drawings have inspired some of the artwork in the final book.
“When we were looking for an illustrator, I said to Gill ‘is there any possibility we could use Asha’s drawings as the basis for the characters’, so three of the characters are modelled on her original drawings - Karen worked with them,” Leona says. “Milly is one of the characters, she came up with the idea that it would be a plait to the side and a quiff and that the hair would be a bit wild and she’d have red hair.”
Leona is now editing the second book of Milly’s adventures, while promoting the first one and continuing to teach full-time. It is a hectic schedule but her pupils and colleagues in Kinsale Community School are thrilled with her success.
“It was lovely when I told my own students, they were so lovely about it and everyone was delighted,” she says.
She has also been thrilled by the feedback from early readers, with parents telling her they have enjoyed reading them to their children just as much as the children enjoyed hearing the stories. Aimed at readers from 7-12, Leona was keen to ensure the Milly books would work both for young readers on their own and those reading with their parents.
“I like when the book is enjoyable for both so I liked putting in a few things a child might not get but the adult reading definitely will get and find enjoyable,” she says. “The adult gets that bit of nostalgia as well, what it was like in an Irish primary.”
As a newbie to the world of children’s publishing, Leona has been blown away by the support she has received.
“When I initially started writing, I went to the children’s book conference in Dublin,” she says. “At this stage I knew I had the three-book deal but I felt like a bit of an imposter, but Irish authors are so amazing.
“They were so welcoming, they had loads of advice, it was such a lovely community to be involved in from the beginning.”
She has been inundated with messages of support as Milly hit the shelves this month.
“It’s just been absolutely amazing, everyone’s got everyone else’s back, it’s like ‘let’s all celebrate each other’,” she says. “It has been so lovely to be part of it.”
Milly McCarthy Is A Complete Catastrophe by Leona Forde and illustrator Karen Harte, published by Gill Books. Available now. Leona and Karen will appear at an author reading event for children at Waterstones on Patrick Street on Saturday, March 11 at 3pm.