Beyond the Stars is a unique book, insofar as it’s a collection of short stories from eleven of Ireland’s most celebrated authors for children (plus one from an extremely talented young lady named Emma Brade, of which more later), sold in aid of Fighting Words, a creative writing centre in Dublin. Each story is illustrated, with one particularly industrious chap, Oisin McGann, not only writing but illustrating his own story, and they are all (stories and illustrations alike) awesome.
The book is the brainchild of Sarah Webb, who conceived of it and contacted the authors involved, asking them to donate their time and work. She writes about her experience here, taking us through the conception and construction of the book, and her experience of conducting the authors and illustrators from bare outline to fully-finished product. Fighting Words is a cause she is passionately involved with, and many authors – particularly those in Ireland – would be familiar with it and the great work it does in encouraging people who might not have a chance to take part in creative writing classes to do just that. It works with people of all ages, but much of its effort is focused on schoolchildren, which makes Beyond the Stars a particularly appropriate way to raise funds and awareness for the cause.
There are twelve stories here – twelve tales of Adventure, Magic and Wonder, as the cover illustration makes clear – and each of them have a wintry theme, taking place at that time of year or somehow involving snow, or cold weather. It couldn’t be better pitched, then, to go on sale in October, when the year is beginning to get slow and creaky, and the nights are getting long, and the breeze has a bit of a bite in it. The first tale is Roddy Doyle’s The Star Dogs, which – once the intrigued reader has a handle on what’s happening – unfolds into the most wonderful imaginative landscape, at once completely separate and (because it involves dogs, and is written in such a humane and emotional way) intimately involved with a modern child’s experience. It’s touching, and exciting, and it will open the reader up to learning more about the real events surrounding the story.
I loved Judi Curtin’s How to Help Your Grandda, written entirely in letters between a small boy with a cold grandfather and the rich, if inflexible, owner of a home heating business, and the gradual relationship which grows between them. I really loved Celine Kiernan’s beautiful, if heartbreaking, story of a wintry battlefield, The Last Cat, and I read the last few pages of this story over and over because it grabbed me right in the heart and wouldn’t let go. The aforementioned Oisin McGann’s tale Across the Cold Ground is a touching tale of cameraderie and courage in the trenches of World War One, and the lengths to which a soldier will go to keep a tiny piece of home with him in the midst of an icy war zone. But my favourite story by far was Discovering Bravery by Emma Brade, the last story in the collection. Emma is a teen writer, who won a competition to be included in Beyond the Stars. Her story is beautifully written and deeply touching, telling of a young girl named Ruka who must learn, through the example of her older brother Rowan, what the meaning of courage truly is, and I loved it. I was amazed to learn the author’s age; her work easily holds its own among the other stories, and her voice is as engaging as any of her more seasoned co-authors.
Beyond the Stars is published by Harper Collins, who are donating all proceeds from its sales to Fighting Words, and it is available in all good bookshops and/or in your usual online retailers. If you have, or know, a child who likes stories (or even a big child who likes stories!) this book would make a beautiful Christmas present, and the fact that every sale is helping to fund a fantastic project like Fighting Words makes it all the better. Highly recommended.