Laureates help inspire Derry children from across the globe

The Mayor of Derry, Councillor Kevin Campbell and avid reader, Sophia Byrne 'pictured at the Verbal Arts Centre with Australian Childrens' Laureates, Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor. (0304SL01) Photo: Stephen Latimer
The Mayor of Derry, Councillor Kevin Campbell and avid reader, Sophia Byrne 'pictured at the Verbal Arts Centre with Australian Childrens' Laureates, Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor. (0304SL01) Photo: Stephen Latimer

One Derry family were more thrilled than most to meet Australian Children’s Laureates, Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor, during their visit to the City of Culture this week - their children grew up with Alison Lester’s books!

Culmore woman Catherine Logue, her Australian husband Dan and their two daughters Maeve (130 and Sophia (8) got the chance to meet author Alison Lester face to face and have her sign their well-worn beloved books.

“My husband Dan is from Sydney and I’ve lived there on and off over the years,” Catherine Logue revealed during Tuesday’s Verbal Arts centre event. “Maeve, my eldest girl has actually been sent these books from Australia over the years, and I think the favourite one in our house was Magic Beach - she was sent that a baby and its been read over and over since then by my other children. These books have been part of our lives for so many years, and so when I read about the Laureates being here today in the ‘Journal’, I just knew we had to come along. Sophia and Maeve were pretty excited about it all too.”

Travelling internationally and celebrating a love of books and storytelling is the ethos behind Australian Children’s Laureates, Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor. The pair had travelled from Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy for a whirlwind tour of Ireland from April 1-3 as guests of Arts Council NI.

After a series of free workshops in Belfast, the Laureates arrived at the Verbal Arts Centre on Tuesday for further workshops and an illuminating interview session hosted by Joe Mahon of Lesser Spotted Culture. The ‘Journal’ caught up with the two Laureates to find out more about.

Boori Monty Pryor was born in North Queensland. His father is from the Birrigubba of the Bowen region and his mother from Yarrabah (near Cairns), a descendant of the Kungganji and Kukuimudji. Boori has written several award-winning books with Meme McDonald and his picture book collaboration with Jan Ormerod, Shake a Leg, won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction in 2011. Boori’s stories are about finding strength within to deal with the challenges without.

Despite hailing from the other side of the planet, Boori has been to Derry before. “I spent a day and a night here in Derry a few years ago and it was lovely,” he smiles.

“As Laureates, Alison and I were invited over here to share our cultural literature and our stories. Over the past twenty or more years, I have worked with over one million children across Australia and I suppose the journey then teaches you how to teach. My philosophy when working with kids has always been - if you listen to the children they will teach you how to teach them.”

Boori - who later takes to a didgereedoo and mesmerises everyone in attendance - reveals a surprising origin to his career in storytelling.

“I began writing stories to get out of trouble,” he says. “It was a way to escape, I suppose.”

“But from my point of view, I come from the oldest stories in the world, which are now meeting up with the newest stories in the world. That’s my role, I get them to meet each other and share their stories. It’s been a really interesting journey here so far, very tiring, but very interesting here. And very cold!”

Alison Lester is a popular and best-selling writer and illustrator of children’s books, and has won many awards, including the Children’s Book Council of Australia Picture Book Award for Thing by Robin Klein (OUP), and Honour Book for The Journey Home (OUP).

Alison’s first impressions of Derry were of a strong, resilient city. “It’s cold, but incredibly beautiful here,” she says. “It’s also very moving to see places that you’ve heard about on the news for decades and to realise that people here are managing, I suppose. I’m amazed that people have figured out a way to manage and move on from the past here, there must be an awful lot of hurt people here who have had to just get on with it.”

Alison and Boori are now half-way through a two-year post, as she explains: “This is the first time that Australia has had a Laureate and I think part of the reason they chose the two of us is that we both do an enormous amount of work with children anyway. For the first Laureates I think they wanted people who were out there actively working in the community and Boori does a lot with indigenous kids. My thing is that I love helping kids to tell their own stories. So I go into a classroom and work with kids and we create books on the spot, and the kids get an enormous amount of pride from these books. It’s all about building self-esteem and making them proud of their own stories and who they are.”

Alison hopes to leave a legacy as Laureate. “I would love to think I’ve helped a lot of kids start to read and feel good about themselves. I want them to know they have stories that are worth sharing. Everyone’s got a story - you just need to feel that you can do it.”

Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive ACNI, said she was “delighted” that the Laureates accepted the Arts Council’s invitation here. “As world leaders in child development through the arts, the Australians have much to teach us, especially about recognising and nurturing the stories of our own communities, both old and new,” Ms McDonough said.

Derry’s Mayor, Kevin Campbell, was also at Verbal Arts Centre on Tuesday and welcomed the seasoned authors to the city. “It’s great to see the Children’s Laureates coming to Derry as obviously, reading is so important for children. They have travelled from the other side of the world to be here and we are proud and thrilled to welcome them to Derry during our year as City of Culture,” the Mayor said.

See Sunday’s ‘Journal’ for photos of the Laureates’ Children’s Workshops in Derry.