I grew up in a house that collapsed with books. My father’s pile was mostly history and thrillers, my mother’s was fiction. You just couldn’t live in our house and read. I always say that I feel blessed to have been given the gift of loving books.
Ooks transported me from 1980s Ireland, with its protracted recession, falling living standards, dramatic rise in unemployment and emigration as the best option for young people.
Books you read as a child stay with you – the good ones anyway. Everyone has a book, or books, that really appealed to them. For me it was Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s series, Louisa May Alcott’s petite women and Anne Holm’s I am David.
Reading those books took me from boarding school in England to Massachusetts in 1860 during the American Civil War and then to a boy who escapes from a concentration camp in Eastern Europe and comes to safety in Denmark.
These books, and many others, have opened my mind to other places, lives, and situations. These stories helped me put myself in the characters’ shoes and feel what it was like for them, in their lives, in their country. I felt their fears, joys and worries. I encouraged the characters. I wept for them as they fell, and celebrated their triumphs.
When I became a writer and had children of my own, I wanted to write a book for children, but I couldn’t find the right theme, the right timing, or the right urge.
Writing has always been a compulsion for me, the stories
I’ve written are always based on themes and issues that I feel compelled to write about. I wanted to write for children, but I wanted to write books with strong themes, books with meaning, books that both moved and captivated children.
Then a few years ago I saw an image that would not leave me alone. It was the heartbreaking image of the body of Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on the beach trying to find a safe haven from the war in his country. The photo haunted me and I thought I should write about this. I wanted my kids to understand that some people’s lives are incredibly difficult. To know that it is a privilege to live and eat in a peaceful country and to have a bed to sleep in. Above all, I wanted them to understand the fate of others and how important empathy and kindness are in life.
That image, and other disturbing photos of Syrian refugees fleeing the war, were my first inspiration to write The new girl.
I contacted the Irish Refugee Council in Dublin and they put me in touch with the Wexford office who said a nice
The Syrian girl Sarra was supposed to talk to me for my research.
Video of the day
I was driving to Enniscorthy on a rainy night in November a few years ago and entered her house. I met Sarra, her mother and her sister Amira. Since that day Sarra has been in my life and we have become good friends. I feel very protective of her and proud of her.
She was smuggled through Turkey and then left on the beach in a dinghy. The smugglers had lied to them and said they would sail to Greece by boat, but were abandoned instead; 50 desperate refugees then climbed into a dinghy made for 12.
Somehow miraculously they reached Greece safely, where she, her sisters and her mother were sent to Ireland after a long wait. Sarra obtained her Leaving Certificate and is now studying pharmaceutical sciences.
Children have responded so warmly and passionately to The new girl that I know they want to read books with tough themes, but written in an engaging and accessible way. Let’s never underestimate children: they know a lot more than we think, they are exposed to a lot more than we realize, which is why I want to write books around serious topics, but with a lightness that makes children fall in love with the characters, want to turn the page and encourage them to think about the lives of others.
Children have always been open to reading about serious topics as long as they are treated in an accessible, empathetic way and, most importantly, the stories have hope. We always need hope in our stories.
With the world in such turmoil in recent years and the rise of right-wing movements promoting hate, racism, misogyny and disinformation, more than ever we need to promote empathy and compassion for others in our stories for young people.
And so, my new book, The truth About Rileyis about homelessness. I want children to be aware that not everyone has a home. More than 3,000 children are currently homeless in Ireland, which does not count for children in domestic violence shelters.
I feel so passionately that we need to reach children early and open their hearts and minds to the power and importance of empathy, compassion and tolerance.
I really hope my books will do that for the kids who read them.
Never underestimate the power of a good book on a child’s life. The good ones will stay with them well into adulthood.
Sinéad Moriarty’s ‘The Truth About Riley’ will be published by Gill Books, €13.99, and will be out September 15