Author Archives: SJ O'Hart

About SJ O'Hart

Mother, Daughter, Sister, Wife, Writer, Reader. My books, THE EYE OF THE NORTH and THE STAR-SPUN WEB, are available now wherever reputable and disreputable books are sold.

Skin

Last week, my family suffered a bereavement so profound, I don’t know if any of us will ever fully recover. This person was actually the second member of our family to pass away since the start of 2020, both of them young people, both of them parents, both of them loved and missed and cherished. It’s been a hard year, so far. A few nights ago, I found my mind wandering back to my childhood, and I remembered this story – one which I’d had published in a now-defunct online zine called wordlegs back in 2013. It’s one I feel a deep attachment to, because it came directly from my memories of being a little girl. Somehow, despite the story’s subject, it brought me comfort; it brought me back to a time when my lost family members lived and breathed and shone with the beauty of their youth. I’m proud of it. The story’s no longer available anywhere online, so I’m republishing it here, with thanks to Elizabeth Reapy, wordlegs‘ editor, who was the first person to see potential in it. Thanks, Elizabeth. (Coincidentally, Elizabeth’s second novel shares a name with this story, though they’re not similar in any other way! I recommend you check it out, along with her first novel, Red Dirt.)

A rabbit on a background of grass

Photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash.com

Skin

When I was a child, I had an uncle who hunted. He lived next door in what had been my grandmother’s house, which meant I saw him a lot; somehow, though, we never talked much. He had hounds who followed his every move like acolytes worshipping at the feet of a god, despite the fact that all he did was kick them and call them filthy names. Whenever he walked by their cage, they’d eat each other for the chance to get near him, and they’d howl like nothing on earth. Hearing it made my chest tighten up, like I’d suddenly taken a breath of cotton wool. My mother was always asking him to come in and have dinner, just to come next door for a little while and sit with his family, but he never did. He liked to eat with his memories instead, which didn’t bother me.

I thought my uncle was cruel, though people laughed at me for being ‘soft’.

‘Go on, you old eejit,’ my mother would say. ‘There’s many a dinner we owe to that uncle of yours.’

‘But he hurts his dogs,’ I protested.

‘Arragh, now. Dogs are used to that sort of thing. And anyway, they’re working dogs, duck. They’re not pets.’

I knew that. I knew they didn’t sit in front of his fire at night, snoring gently in the heat, like our dog did. And still, I worried about them.

I worried about everything.

 

About five weeks after my father’s accident, I came home from school to find Mam crying quietly in the sitting room. I stood in the doorway watching her for a while, feeling dizzy and far away. Eventually, she looked up, and she jumped a bit when she saw me.

‘Jesus! Pet, don’t stand there like that. You frightened the life out of me.’ She laughed, a short and hard sound, like a pebble in a shoe; then she hurried to wipe her eyes, rubbing them roughly with the tea-towel she still had in her hands.

‘What’s wrong, Mammy?’ I asked, afraid of what she might tell me.

‘Ah, now. Nothing at all. I just got a bit sad.’ She slapped her hands against her thighs, shoving herself upright in a businesslike, everything-is-great manner. ‘Will we get the dinner on? Are you hungry?’ She messed my hair as she strode past me towards the kitchen. ‘Did you have a good day in school?’

‘Mam, is Daddy all right?’

‘Grand, love! He’s grand!’ she said. But she didn’t turn around and tell me to my face, and that’s how I knew she was lying. She had a thing about looking people in the eyes when she was telling them the truth.

 

My father worked in a factory that handled heavy chemicals. I didn’t know then, and I still don’t really know now, exactly how his accident happened, but it had something to do with a pressure gauge and an over-filled tank, and probably his own negligence in not wearing his safety gear. He’d often told me he and the other men didn’t bother with things like eyeguards and ear-protectors.

‘Sure, I have to be able to hear if the machines are labouring,’ he explained to me once. ‘How can I do that, if I’m all muffled up? If I can’t hear the motor, it could go, and it could kill the man standing beside it. My ears’ll be nice and warm, but someone else’ll be going home on a shovel.’

But it had been my dad who’d been rushed out of the plant in a screaming ambulance, one which had hit the road in spots as it flung itself around the bends on its way to Dublin. It had been him who’d been burned, him whose flesh had melted. Him who was driven out of his mind with the pain.

Him.

Mam hadn’t let me see him for ages, and when I was allowed to visit all I could think about was mummies in ancient Egypt. We’d been doing them in school. Dad’s bandages looked cleaner and whiter, I thought. Other than that, he’d do in a museum.

‘I love you, Daddy.’ I remember telling the tiny square of scarlet I could see peeping out between the swathes of material. ‘I love you.’ I wanted to kiss him, but Mam told me ‘no’. Dad told me nothing, because he couldn’t talk. Anyway, I don’t think he was even awake.

‘Good girl,’ said Mam as we left the hospital, ready for the long journey home. ‘You did very well.’

I wondered all the way home what I could have done better.

 

I was at the kitchen table one evening trying to think about my maths homework when I heard the keening of my uncle’s hounds. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Mam, who was sitting at the far end of the table over a cold cup of tea said, ‘He’s home early. He must’ve had a good hunt.Why don’t you go and have a look, and say hello?’

I swallowed as she spoke, my spit tasting sharp and sour. ‘But Mam – I’m doing my homework, I have loads.’

‘It’s Friday, hon. You’ve plenty of time to do your homework. And your uncle’s been so good. Go and say hello, he’d love it. He’s very fond of you, you know.’

‘No, he isn’t,’ I said. ‘He hates me.’

‘Now, that’s just silly.’ She got up, grabbing her cup of tea, and crossed to the sink to throw it away. ‘Go on outside now, just for a few minutes, and I’ll have a treat for you when you come back in.’

‘What sort of a treat?’ I didn’t move from my perch in front of my copy book. I drew a line under my sums, carefully, and kept working. I still couldn’t add up properly without drawing dots beside the numbers like a baby out of Senior Infants, but at least I’d learned to draw them lightly so I could rub them out afterwards. I hated maths, but it was my dad’s favourite thing in the world besides rock and roll. I wanted to show him how good I was at adding and multiplying when he came home from the hospital.

‘God, Claire, I don’t know,’ snapped Mam. ‘A bit of apple tart. I’ll make you some custard. All right? Just go on outside, just for a few minutes, and talk to your uncle. I’ll call you when you can come back in.’

I slapped my copy book shut and shoved myself out from the table, making the legs of my chair stutter and skip along the lino. The sound of it normally drove Mam crazy. Today, she said nothing. She just stood and watched me as I stamped over to the back door and wrenched it open.

‘Good girl. I’ll only need a minute.’

 

I crept out of our back yard and into the lane, watching my uncle beat his dogs into his garden. It wasn’t a bit like ours, full of greenery and flowers; my uncle had covered his over with roughly-finished concrete after my granny had died, the shed that had been her pride and joy now a falling-down monstrosity beside the pristine dog pen. I hung close to our back door until he’d corralled the last hound, thwacking and slapping at them with a thick stick, shouting until they listened to his voice over the red-misted pounding of their own hearts.

They all had names, these dogs, despite the fact that all my uncle ever did was abuse and hurt them. But he gave them all names.

Over his garden wall, a clutch of freshly-caught rabbits lay. I didn’t touch them, but I felt sure they’d be still warm and supple, their eyes still bright. Perhaps their last breath hadn’t been fully exhaled. I felt a sour taste in my mouth again, and I swallowed hard against the rush of sudden liquid up my throat.

‘Howya,’ said my uncle as he slid home the lock on his garden gate, nodding vaguely in my direction. I returned the greeting, and perched on our back step to watch him. I tried to think about things I could say to him, but he made me scared, so I didn’t say anything.

He started to sing under his breath, huffing out through his nose, as he grabbed his huge knife from its holder on his belt. He wiped the blade once or twice on his trouser leg before severing the twine that bound the rabbits together. They plopped wetly onto the stone slabs he’d untidily cemented on the top of the wall.

Despite myself, I watched.

‘Time to drop your drawers,’ my uncle muttered, taking one of the rabbits in his hand. He held it up, the rabbit swinging gently as he turned it this way and that, appraising it. Then, he laid it flat on the wall and swiftly, as easily as if he was tying his shoelaces, he ran the knife around the rabbit’s legs, one at a time. He worked at the carcass with his fingers for a few minutes, the movement looking almost gentle.

When he pulled at the rabbit’s pelt, ripping it away from the body like he was removing a sock, I screamed so loudly that I gave him a fright. He dropped the knife and turned to stare at me. Perhaps he’d forgotten I was there.

It was the redness. The rawness of the flesh. The muscles, clearly visible; the sinews and tendons. The colour, so private and painful. Something I should not be able to see. White bandages flashed into my mind, white bandages and scarlet skin. Scarlet skin and pain, and pain equalling death.

I ran for the door to my house, slamming it, not caring about the noise.

My mother was on the phone in the hall, clutching the tea-towel to her eyes. I ignored her and ran for my room.

 

‘Claire,’ I heard her say, much later. ‘Come out here, please.’ My closed door muffled her voice.

I was buried in my duvet, my face swollen and sore. I’d cried all evening. My mother’s phone call had been brought to a swift end after I’d burst back into the house, but she’d mentioned ‘doctor’ and ‘treatment,’ and she’d wept, before she’d been able to hang up. I’d stuffed my head under my pillow, trying not to hear, but I had anyway.

‘Claire,’ she said again, knocking gently. ‘Come on, please. I want to speak to you, young lady.’

Every muscle ached. I felt like a piece of paper, crumpled up so badly it could never sit flat again. I stumbled to the door and pulled it open. My Mam’s eyes were full of tears, and that set me going again. I let her wrap me up in a hug, her belly warm and soft. I tried not to wet her jumper, but I didn’t really manage it. My face was soaking, and covered in snot.

‘Your uncle is downstairs, love. He wants to talk to you.’

My heart jolted, and I shook my head, grinding my eyes shut. My mother soothed my sobbing shoulders, stroking me gently. She kissed the top of my head. ‘Shush, now. He wants to say sorry.’

She evicted me from the embrace and stood me back from her, arm’s-length away. She rubbed my clammy cheeks with her rough thumbs.

‘Try and smile, pet. Try and be nice.’

I nodded, two more hot, fat tears spilling out. Mam wiped them away.

 

My uncle stood in the kitchen, looking out of place. It was like seeing a clown saying Mass. He had his flat cap scrunched in his hands, and something else too. I couldn’t see it properly.

‘Claire, Uncle Paddy has something he wants to give you,’ Mam said.

I glanced up at my uncle’s sun-darkened face. I noticed, for the first time in my life, that he had bright blue eyes. Brighter even than Dad’s.

‘I’m awful sorry, duck,’ said my uncle. His spoke quiet and low and liquidy, like he had a cold. ‘I should’ve thought.’

I felt Mam shove me from behind, her fingers sharp in my back.

‘That’s all right, Uncle Paddy,’ I said. I ran my fingers over my hot and sticky cheeks, wiping away the last traces of tears, suddenly feeling shy.

‘Here you are. Your Da was always saying how much you loved reading. I haven’t a lot of time for it myself any more.’ He cleared his throat with a sound like someone taking their foot out of a cowpat and held out a roughly-wrapped brown paper parcel.

‘What do you say, Claire?’ Mam asked.

I looked up at my uncle again. He had grey in his hair, all around his ears just like dad had, and soft wrinkles around his eyes that were so familiar.

I ran my hands along the jagged edges of the tape he’d used to wrap up my gift. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered.

‘Now,’ he said. ‘I’ll be gettin’ on, so.’

‘Will you not stay for your dinner, Paddy? I’ve plenty in the pot.’

‘Not at all, not at all. Sure I’ve my own bit made, inside. I’m grand altogether.’

‘All right so, Paddy. If you’re sure,’ said Mam, eventually.

My uncle nodded and started twisting his cap again, looking down at his muck-encrusted boots. ‘I’m after draggin’ half the field in here,’ he said.

‘Never you mind. It’s only a bit of muck. It’ll all be grand. Won’t it, Claire?’

I smiled up at my uncle, and he nodded at Mam before throwing me a wink. I clutched my book to my chest as my uncle turned towards the door.

‘Yes, Mam,’ I said, as my uncle slipped out the back door into the evening.

 

 

Winner, Winner, Monster Dinner!

Hello, all. I hope everyone’s coping with whatever version of the Covid-19 Lockdown is happening in your country; things here in Ireland are locked down pretty tightly, but so long as more people are staying healthy and well, it’s worth it.

Thanks to everyone who entered my recent Creativity Competition – I hope it gave you all a little joy, and something to while away an hour or two. I hope it showed you, too, that books are a wonderful spark for creativity of all sorts. Reading them and letting your imagination fly while you soar through the adventure in their pages is (of course) the absolute best, but when you’re finished reading there are always questions you can ask yourself about what you’ve read, pictures you can draw, projects you can undertake, and models you can make. The possibilities are endless.

And so, the announcement you’ve all been waiting for *mild fanfare*…

The winners of the competition are the creators of this amazing pair of monsters, who go by the names of ‘Bob’ and ‘Bob’. They’re Abominable Vampzooloos, which is simply the best name I’ve ever heard for any monster anywhere, and the entry came with a heartwarming story about how Bob met a little girl in a forest, who was the only person who saw him for the brilliant creature that he was – and ‘to this day, Bob and the girl are friends.’ Well, of course they are.

Winning Entry No 1 (Loftus)

Image: S Loftus

This wondrous entry was made on behalf of a young lady by her mum, Sarah, and she wins a hardback copy of The Starspun Web – along with my everlasting admiration.

The other winning entry is this marvel:

Winning Entry No 2 (James)

Image: L James

This fearsome Cloud Spider came with his very own OSCAR Case File, which added a certain je ne sais quoi to the entry (as Madame Blancheflour would probably have said). The Cloud Spider’s creator is named Liam, and he will win a hardback copy of The Eye of the North, as well as my fondest wishes.

Thanks once again to everyone, particularly Bob, Bob, and the Cloud Spider, for giving me such joy over the past few weeks. I’m sending everyone positivity, creativity, solidarity, and peace of mind as the next few months roll by – we’ll all get there, together. And always remember: keep reading. Stories will get you through.

Competition Time!

So – it’s a strange world we’re living in right now. I’m mostly at home these days, as my child’s school has been closed due to the current Coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak, and I’m privileged (and very glad) to be in the position to take up full-time care. However, life does and must go on; I still have a book deadline to make (I hope I’ll be able to tell you more about my upcoming projects soon), and the world has to keep turning.

All schools in the Republic of Ireland are currently closed, in the hope that it will help to slow the spread of the virus, and it’s possible that schools in the United Kingdom will follow suit in the coming days. As a result of this, authors and artists and performers and other creatives all over the internet have decided to offer free content to help keep children amused, entertained, and (most importantly) creating during the time they’re at home. I have a Resources page – click this link here to pay it a visit – which might help with that, and I also wanted to run a competition…

So. In the interests of fostering creativity, and of celebrating the fact that I was recently shortlisted for a fantastic competition (the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Award) here’s what I’m proposing.

Prize Picture

I have a couple of hardback US editions of The Eye of the North and some of The Starspun Web knocking about, and I’d very much like to send one copy of each to a pair of good homes. (Winners can choose which book they’d like, of course.) I’ll also throw in some signed bookplates and a poster, which I’ll gleefully make out in the name of the winner’s choice (as in, if you don’t want them for yourself, just tell me who to sign them to and I will). The catch?

Well. The catch, if you choose to see it that way, is you’ve got to get creative. On my Resources page you’ll see fact sheets, a word-search, a colouring page, and some suggestions for activities. Based on these suggested activities, I’d like entrants to take their pick from one of the following small projects, and get their thinking caps on.

The Eye of the North-based activities

1. Based on this Resources page, design your own mythical monster and write a story or a poem about it. I’d love to see you make a model of your monster, perhaps from modelling clay or paper or tinfoil or whatever you have to hand, and I’d really love to see you write your story, or poem, out by hand with your own drawings dotted through the text. And if you’re feeling extra-adventurous, recite your story or poem for your friends and family!

2. Based on this Resources page, draw your own dog-sled team and pick names for all your dogs. You can have as few as two or as many as twelve, and they can be called whatever you like! Have a read of the Resources page for more information about the things you need to think about when naming and positioning your dogs, and for a true story in which sled dogs and their humans saved the day, and then come up with an emergency situation, where you and your dog team are all that can save your people from certain doom… I’d love to see drawings as well as stories told in words. Give it a go!

3. Take a look at the activities on this Resources page. If you’d like to tackle the first one – thinking about ways, big and small, in which we can all help to tackle climate change – that would be fantastic. You can tell me about the climate change activists who inspire you, as well as the kind of things you and your family are doing every day to help things to get better, and the kind of things we can all do (citizens and government alike) to help the planet. Drawings, models, diagrams, charts, words – they’re all good. Show me what you’ve got.

4. You could also tackle the other activities on the Climate Change Resources page and imagine you’re a creature who has always lived in a cold, icy environment. You can choose to be a real creature, or you can create one from your imagination. Then, think about the ways climate change might affect or impact you and your way of life. Draw me pictures of your creature, make a model of it from whatever you’ve got, go wild.

The Starspun Web-based activities

1. Check out my Resources page about the North Strand Bombing, which happened in Dublin in 1941. This real-life tragedy is part of the plot of The Starspun Web. I’d love it if you could imagine yourself into the night of the bombing and write your own story – I’ve given a few ideas for starting points in the Resources, but you can imagine it any way you like. On the Resources page there are some links where you’ll find out more information about the bombing; they might help you to create your story. You don’t have to set it in Dublin; it can be set wherever you like. Don’t worry about getting it ‘right’; it’s your imagination, there’s no right and wrong. And, as always, if you fancy drawing me some pictures to illuminate your tale, I’d be thrilled with that.

2. Or, if you fancy getting stuck into thinking about alternate realities and other worlds, check out this Resources page – it talks about a famous scientist who spent several years in Dublin (and who is mentioned, tangentially, in the opening pages of my book), and his work in the many-worlds theory. For this exercise, I’d like you to open your imagination as wide as it can go, and design your own alternate universe. It can have anything you like – trees made of custard, creatures with woolen teeth, whatever you can dream up – and tell me how you’d get from our world to your alternate reality. Pictures would be great – draw me a graphic novel! – but whatever way you do it, I want to know about the other worlds inside your mind.

3. Next, there’s the Resources page that focuses on the Tunguska Event, which – as you might remember, if you’ve read The Star-spun Web – forms part of the plot to my own book. If you’d like to imagine that you were there on the ground in Tunguska on June 30th 1908, and write me a story (with pictures!) to describe what it was like and what you saw, that would be amazing. If you’d prefer to imagine you’re in your own house when a meteorite comes crashing through your front room, that’s amazing too. Tell me the story, draw me the picture, make a model meteorite. Whatever you like!

4. Last, but by no means least, there’s this fab Resources page all about tarantulas. (Be warned: there’s a photo of a spider on the page.) Have a read through the facts, and then take a look at the activities. If you want to tell me about the animal you’d choose to bring with you on your adventure, that’d be amazing. Tell me what the adventure is, what your animal is, what its name is, and why you chose it, and then write me the story of your adventure – with pictures, if you can. Or, you can design your own tarantula – either an animal, or a tarantula-shaped vehicle, or a tarantula-based character, or whatever you like – and tell me a story about it. Are you going to be the hero, or the villain? Pictures, models, diagrams are all welcome.

So. Some ground rules for the competition:

You don’t have to complete an activity for the book you want to win. So, if you fancy winning The Eye of the North but one of the activities for The Starspun Web strikes your fancy more, or vice-versa, that’s absolutely fine. Go for whatever one you like the best.

Please ask your grown-ups to send photos of your work to sjohart @ sjohart . com (no spaces) or send it via Twitter, tagging me (my handle is @SJOHart), so that I can see it, if they don’t mind it being publicly visible. You can ask them to hashtag it #TheEyeOfTheNorth or #TheStarSpunWeb if they like.

I’d like to be able to share some photos of the entries I receive on my social media profiles. I won’t share anything personal (so, no faces or names), but if you don’t want me to share the stuff you send me, please do let me know when you enter. It’s not a problem at all.

On your entry, let me know which book you’d prefer. I’ll draw one winner for The Eye of the North and one for The Starspun Web.

I’m going to leave this competition open until May 1st, and I’ll draw a winner from the entries after that. Then, assuming no delays with the postal system, I’ll get the prizes sent out as soon as I possibly can.

Does all this sound good? Let me know if you have questions. Share the competition far and wide – it’s open to adults and children alike, or even adults and children working together. I really hope it helps you to spend some time creating something new, using your brilliant brains and stretching your imaginations, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

Ready – Set – Create!

 

World Book Day 2020!

One of the greatest joys about being a children’s author is getting to meet actual children – and when you get the chance to meet some actual children on World Book Day, it’s a hundred times more wonderful. Yesterday, which was World Book Day in Ireland and the UK, I was lucky enough to do just that!

My books – plus my travelling companion, Violet the Tarantula!

I’m lucky that the town I live in, while small, has a wonderful primary school. It’s large and airy, full of light and the sound of laughter and learning, and the walls are covered with art and projects and wonderful messages about self-belief, love, caring for others, and looking after our planet. It’s a fantastic place to spend a day, and when you get the chance to visit and talk about books, things just go super-nova cool.

I was asked to give three author assemblies, or author talks, yesterday, so bright and early I packed up my things – including Violet the tarantula – and off we went. We brought some slides with pictures of my childhood, the books I loved when I was little, and the stories which inspired me to write books of my own, and which helped me to be the person I am today. I got the chance to talk about my own stories, The Eye of the North and The Star-Spun Web, and I was delighted to answer brilliant questions like ‘what’s your favourite mythical beast?’ ‘Will you name a character in your next book after me?’ and ‘What age are you really?’ We talked about books, and stories, and creativity, and (because the school’s theme for World Book Week was ‘Curious Creatures and Wild Minds’) we had some brilliant chats about mythical monsters, amazing animals, and how to grow and nurture our wild, creative minds.

There’s nothing better than looking into an audience of young faces and seeing their bright eyes as they think about ways in which to find and encourage their own spark of unique brilliance, and it’s a privilege to be able to tell them all how they are all rocketships of potential, just waiting to do amazing things. ‘Each of you will change the world,’ I like to say, at the end of my author talk, ‘and I can’t wait to see what you’ll do with your wild and precious spark, the unique fire that’s in each of your hearts.’

So – what are you going to do today with your wild and precious spark? Go forth and be a Storyfinder, soaking up the world around you, and see how many stories you can create!

Thank you to the staff, teachers, and pupils of St Mary’s Primary School for making me so welcome yesterday, and for giving me a glimpse into the creative wonder that is their school. I hope to come back again very soon!

The Starspun Web hits North America

I’m a day late with this, but… well. Life. It gets in the way sometimes, right? Right. On with the show,

Yesterday, November 12th, those lovely lot at Knopf Books for Young Readers in New York City published my second book, The Starspun Web. (For reasons best known to themselves, my US editors removed the hyphen from the title, but I’m happy with that.) Here they are, my US book babies. Don’t they look pretty?

The Eye of the North had a cover designed by Jeff Nentrup, a US-based artist; its younger sibling The Starspun Web‘s cover echoes the UK edition, and in both cases the artist was Sara Mulvanny. I’m so pleased and proud with how they turned out, and I hope they’ll brighten up shelves in bookstores all across North America.

If you’d like to add my new book to your own shelves, here’s the link to buy it at Barnes and Noble, and here’s the link to buy it via Indiebound, and here’s the link to buy it at Powell’s, and here’s Amazon’s link, if that’s your preference. Thank you so much to everyone who has helped me to bring this book to publication – it’s a long hard journey, and every bit of support is invaluable.

Author Events, Audiobooks, Awful Catastrophes*, and Bath

If you follow me on my social media accounts (and if you don’t, sign up to check me out on Twitter here and Instagram right over here) you’ll have spotted that, last week, I was part of an Author Dream Team touring around Dublin leaving signed copies of books all over the place. It was so much fun.

Vashti Hardy (author of Brightstorm and Wildspark (with more wonders to come from her magical pen), James Nicol (author of The Apprentice Witch series, and with more work on the way), Lorraine Gregory (author of Mold and the Poison Plot and The Maker of Monsters) and Pádraig Kenny (author of TIN and Pog and, hopefully, loads more stuff in the future) and me spent the day going from bookshop to bookshop, meeting booksellers and readers and unsuspecting members of the general public (who probably wondered who on earth had let us loose on the bookshop stock with a packet of Sharpies), and we all had a thoroughly wonderful day. It’s wonderful to meet and talk to other authors, people who really love books and stories as much as you do, and I know I gained so much from listening to the others talk about their work, their upcoming projects, their methods and secrets – and, of course, gaining lots of insider knowledge and sneak peeks, which is (seriously) the BEST part about writing books for a living.

Here’s a brilliant photo of all of us, with added Mary Brigid (Hodges Figgis’s amazing children’s bookseller):

I’m also pretty chuffed to be able to announce that Oakhill Publishing have acquired the rights to release an audiobook of my first novel, The Eye of the North, which is AMAZING news. I’m so delighted! There’s something really special about being able to listen to a book – it’s like someone telling you a story. I know the folks at Oakhill will do a wonderful job, and I’m delighted to think of my book reaching new readers. Thank you to my agent, Polly Nolan, and my brilliant publisher, Stripes Books, for doing the deal on my behalf.

And, while I’m here, did you know I’m appearing at this year’s Bath Festival of Children’s Literature? Yes, really! Catherine Doyle (author of The Storm Keeper’s Island and The Lost Tide Warriors) and I will be in discussion about myths, monsters and making stories on September 29th at 12 noon. You can get tickets over here, if you fancy coming to see us.

And now for the not-so-good stuff (I should have begun with this, really…)

I’m working on a new story at the moment (all very hush-hush just now, sorry about that) and it had been going well. I’d reached the 45,000 word mark, I had a detailed synopsis in place, I knew exactly where the story was supposed to go, but for some reason I just – stopped. I hit a wall that I couldn’t break through. For weeks I laboured over one particular (not very significant) plot point that simply wouldn’t come right, no matter how many words I threw at it, and finally, after spending at least 20,000 words trying to make it work, I had to do something drastic.

I gave up.

(*This is the Awful Catastrophe, by the way.)

However, like most Awful Catastrophes, it actually turned out to be the best thing, in the end. I’ve learned by now (though, of course, sometimes I forget) that when I reach a complete block in a story, and when absolutely nothing I try helps me to get through it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m simply being lazy/unoriginal/untalented/ridiculous/insert adjective here. What it sometimes means is that the problem I’m trying to solve is better off left unravelled. In this case, what it meant was that despite the fact that I’d already done so much work (almost five months of drafting), and that I had a synopsis which had passed muster with people much more knowledgeable than me, what I’d actually done was start the story in entirely the wrong place. (I didn’t work this out on my own: I have to thank Vashti Hardy for her brilliant suggestion that I try to find a different place to enter my story from. She’s brilliant. Go read her books.)

As soon as this realisation dropped, I knew I’d have to junk the work I’d already done – but that actually made me feel happy, and relieved, because I knew I’d written the story wrongly in the first place and this was my chance to tell it the right way round. Yes, it’s more work; yes, it’s hard to say goodbye to all the effort I’d previously made. But oh – the joy of knowing I’m finally on the right path, and the draft I’m aiming to complete now will be the story I should have been telling all along.

What I’m saying is: I gave up, but I didn’t really. I just wrote my story upside down in order to find out how to write it rightside up, and sometimes that’s the best (if not the most time-efficient) way to do things.

So. I hope you’ve all been having a wonderful summer. It’s almost my favourite time of year, and I’m working on a book that excites me, and it’s almost been TWO WHOLE YEARS since The Eye of the North was published in the US and Canada (which makes me itch to do some sort of giveaway – watch this space), and I’ve also had a little bit of good news about my US edition of The Starspun Web (coming in November, and no I can’t tell you what the good news is), so all in all, I’m feeling pretty professional around here.

I hope you’ve all been reading and writing with your usual gusto and aplomb, dear people, and until the next time I have a chance to update this sadly neglected blog, I bid you all farewell!

My Dream Library…

To be honest, my dream library is just any library, as they’re all doorways to infinity. I love libraries, and I love people who love libraries, and more than anything else I love a good school library. When I was at school the library was simply the big room in the middle of the building where people were sent when they were in detention, or missing a class for whatever reason. It had very few books in it, and no librarian (not that I recall, at least). I spent no time whatsoever in it as a youngster, as I was far too good (read ‘boring’) to ever have detention, and I never missed class. Sadly, I never went in to find a good book, either, as there weren’t any.

So, when a friend of mine – who works as a secondary school (High School) teacher here in Ireland asked for some advice as to what books to buy to stock her brand-new school library, I was elated. I thought about our gigantic, empty library in my old secondary school, and how I’d love to have the resources to fill it with brilliant books, and I had a long hard think.

And here’s what I came up with.

The lists below are divided into YA-level books and MG-level books (so, broadly, books for Senior Cycle first, and then books for Junior Cycle), but I’m very much a proponent of letting kids choose the books they want to read, so I wouldn’t worry too much about age limits. The list is made out this way simply because that’s how I sent it to my friend. I hope you find some ideas for your next amazing read in here!

Image credit: S.J. O’Hart

YA/Slightly Older BooksClick Here to Download the List

MG/Slightly Younger Books (Books for Everyone) – Click Here to Download the List

These lists are not alphabetised – they’re written exactly as they came out of my head – but I hope they give you some help if, like my friend, you’re lucky enough to be building a school library or perhaps buying a present for someone in your life. (Or yourself, of course!) They’re also not comprehensive – I’m sure I’ve forgotten so many brilliant books that I meant to include, so I’ll try to revisit them in a week or two and update any omissions – and they are largely focused on books published recently. Of course, they also reflect my own personal taste, which may not suit you, but please do get in touch if you want to ask about personalised recommendations.

Happy reading!


The Green Wave

This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for ages now, but somehow never managed to find the time. Recent events – specifically, the EU elections here in Europe, which have seen (particularly in Ireland, my home country) a surge in support for the Green Party (or its equivalent in other countries) – have finally given me the impetus I’ve been searching for. So, buckle up, buttercups: here are some of my personal top tips for living a greener life and, particularly, reducing the amount of plastic you consume – because, when you think about it, is there anything more important facing us as a species? I don’t think so. These tips are all things that I have personally done, which means they’re all things you can do too. I hope you find them useful.

Right. At the risk of sounding like a po-faced monstrosity, let’s get started.

1. Change Your Toothbrush

I don’t just mean ‘buy a new one’. No. What I mean is: change it from a plastic-handled one to one made from more sustainable, renewable and (importantly) biodegradable/compostable materials, like bamboo. I’ve been using a Humble Brush for a few years now (no, not the same one. Ew! Don’t be disgusting) and I find them absolutely amazing.

Image: funkymonkeypants.com

The Humble Brush works, feels and performs exactly as well as any plastic toothbrush, but it has one important difference: the handle is made from bamboo, which disappears (under the right conditions, i.e. in landfill or compost) within a year. Considering it takes between 800 and 1000 mindboggling years for a plastic toothbrush to ‘biodegrade’, this is a no-brainer. I’ve also recently started to use the Bambooth toothbrush, which is even fancier than the Humble Brush; it has a colourful bamboo handle, variegated nylon bristles, and it comes in its own cardboard carrying tube. Bambooth’s absolutely brilliant tagline is ‘Change the Handle, Change the World’, which sums it up for me.

2. Change Your Detergents/Soaps

This one is super-easy and will save you money, too. Instead of using plastic boxes filled with plastic pods to wash your clothes – you know the type, the ones filled with gunky detergent which you toss into the drum of your washing machine – try using the simple, old-fashioned cardboard box of loose washing powder. Admittedly, if you’re unlucky (as I often am) sometimes you’ll have spillages – but it’s worth it. When you run out of powder you have a very recyclable box, and that’s all. No plastic. No nonsense.

I also use solid hand soap at all the sinks in my house – you can get an endless variety of scents and sizes and colours and shapes, and anti-bacterial ones for the bathrooms. Try to get ones that come in cardboard and paper wrapping, which means you have brilliant soap which lasts for ages, costs a fraction of what the fancy plastic squeezy liquid soap bottles do, and leaves no lasting waste behind.

3. Think About Using Solid Shampoo/Shower Bars

This one’s a bit more tricky, as not everyone is going to like solid shampoo. Those of us with thicker hair, or longer hair, mightn’t be too enamoured of the feel of a solid shampoo, but if it suits you to try it, then please do. Some I’ve used (SoapNuts, in particular) have given a great lather and a wonderful clean. Of course, using soap in the shower instead of (or alongside) plastic bottles of gel is a huge help.

4. Change Up your Sanitary/Babycare Shop

Back when my little one was a baby, we made a choice to use washable/reusable and/or biodegradable nappies/diapers. We used several brands of washable nappies – Little Lambs, Charlie Bananas, and G Nappies primarily, all of which worked fantastically well – and at the end of our nappying/diapering journey we supplemented our stash with biodegradable nappies. The brand we used was Kit and Kin, but there are loads of brilliant options available now. Just think: babies are a small-ish percentage of the overall population, but nappy/diaper waste is a huge problem. Every baby in diapers is changed perhaps ten times a day, or more; every single one of those diapers/nappies goes into the bin, and into landfill.

Where they do not disappear. Just imagine the sheer numbers.

When I was pregnant with my child, I went for a walk one hot summer’s day. I passed a bin filled with used nappies, and the smell made me retch. It was then I swore we’d try to find the greenest option possible for our own child’s diapering needs. If you have a bum (or bums!) in nappies in your house, maybe look into greener options. They exist in abundance. I’m very happy to help if you have questions!

The same principle applies to things like baby wipes, sanitary protection, cotton buds, plasters/bandaids, and so many small things we take for granted. Baby wipes are a scourge to our waterways, beaches and pipes; never flush them, even if the packet says you can. Try not to use them if possible (though I do admit they’re extremely handy, out and about), and look for biodegradable ones. We use Kinder by Nature, widely available in pharmacists nationwide. Sanitary protection (like sanitary pads/liners, tampons and so on) should also never be flushed, and there are loads of brilliant options available if you want to get away from plastic. Mooncups and reusable/washable sanitary protection work brilliantly for loads of people, but the option I go for is to use the Natracare range, which is very easy to find in most pharmacies and shops, and which is fully compostable. It’s plastic, chlorine, and bleach free, and the range works just as well as any plastic-packed alternative. I also swapped out my cotton buds/Q-Tips with plastic free alternatives, and I use plastic-free plasters/bandaids.

Something I discovered as my child grew older, too, was how often things like glitter and balloons feature in their lives. Glitter is a horror for the environment (I bought some biodegradable glitter, but it’s an expensive option) and balloons are even worse. At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, try to limit these things when you can.

I also replaced my clingfilm/Saran wrap with beeswax wraps, which I find to be very useful and easy to clean, though not really suitable for use with meat leftovers. (Don’t beat yourself up over a little clingfilm.) Another small change I’m happy to have made is swapping out plastic straws for paper ones, and bamboo ones for more sturdy challenges.

5. Shop Clever, and Remember the 3 Rs

It’s not always easy, but something you can do which really helps is to cut down on the plastic you buy in the supermarket. Some supermarkets provide biodegradable bags for loose fruit and veg; if yours doesn’t, then bring your own. If you buy fresh meat at a butcher’s, then bring your own (scrupulously clean) plastic box, with a perfectly sealable lid (a lunchbox is perfect) and ask them to put your raw meat products in it instead of in two or three throwaway plastic bags. Always bring your own bags to carry shopping home – I have a collection of cotton totes large enough to hold everything I own, and which I invariably forget to bring when I go shopping – and try to be aware, as you purchase, of how much waste the item will create, and buy accordingly. Try to buy meat and fruit products in clear plastic packaging, as opposed to black (it’s harder to recycle black plastic), try to buy packaging which is already recycled (companies like Ecover and Innocent are good for this), and try to buy cardboard packaging as often as you can.

We recycle scrupulously in my house, as I’m sure most people do, but the more important of the 3 Rs is the first one – Reduce. It’s easy to lessen the amount of rubbish leaving your house if you don’t use it in the first place! Reuse whenever you can – yogurt pots as planters for seeds or paint-mixing pots, fruit trays as storage boxes for small toys or crafting materials, plastic wrap (where it’s unavoidable to buy) as binliners – there are loads of things you can do. And then Recycle as much as you can. Please do wash out your containers before putting them in your recycling, and squash them down to maximise space.

Phew. So, if you’re still here, thank you. I’m (in case you hadn’t guessed) passionate about the environment and protecting it for future generations. I know it feels like we, as individuals, don’t have a lot of power – but that’s not really true. If every one of us made an effort to be mindful about plastic, waste and recycling, it would make a huge difference. If – as we’ve seen – we vote in large numbers for parties and politicians who will prioritise dealing with climate collapse, everyone will be better off. Governments and corporations need to move the dial, of course, but never feel like your own small effort is worthless. It’s not. I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful, and if you have any of your own, let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from fellow Greenies about the tips and tricks you bring to living a bright, green, clean life on this beautiful planet we all share.

The Star-Spun Web Goes on Tour

February is drawing to a close now, and I wanted to mark this very special month by writing about the wonderful week I spent in the UK, touring around with copies of my new book. I got to visit some incredible bookshops, meet some energetic, committed and passionate booksellers and – most importantly – talk to hundreds of brilliant children across six schools. I have to begin by thanking my amazing publisher, Stripes Books, and my Publicist Beyond Compare, Leilah Skelton (as well as Stripes’ Brand Director Lauren Ace, whose heroic driving skills made Day 1 happen!) – without them and their support, none of the amazing memories I made would have been possible.

The tour brought us to Oswestry in Shropshire, where we got to visit the incredible Booka Bookshop

The wonderful display in Oswestry’s Booka Bookshop which greeted me when I came through the door! Thanks so much to Carrie, Tim and team. (Image credit: Sinéad O’Hart)

…and from there we visited Woodside Primary School, where I got to meet some incredible storyfinders (particularly one young man named Thomas, whose books are going to be on shelves in years to come!) Then, we journeyed to Ripon, in North Yorkshire, where I got the chance to revisit the lovely Little Ripon Bookshop. It’s not so little now, having expanded into the premises next door, but it’s still as charming and welcoming as ever. I have to thank Gill, Simon, Phoebe and all their team for taking such care of Leilah and me, and for helping us to get around to the local schools which hosted us on the tour. I was also amazed to meet the superbly talented (and very bouncy) James Nicol, author of The Apprentice Witch  and its sequels, who came all the way over to Ripon just to see me! Thanks so much, James – and I can’t wait to read A Witch Come True.

The Little Ripon Bookshop’s front window was a sight to behold – look at its glory! There were tentacles… and I felt like a proper author with my name in glittery blocks. (Image credit: Leilah Skelton)

I had the huge privilege of speaking to students in Ripon Grammar School, Burton Leonard Primary School, and Bishop Monkton Primary School… (Image credit below: Leilah Skelton)

…and then it was off to York, briefly, where Leilah and I started our long journey to London. I got the chance to see that beautiful city in the bright daylight the following morning as we made our way to Sevenoaks in Kent, where we were the guests of Fleur, Olivia, Nick, Diane and the crew at Sevenoaks Bookshop. What a beautiful place – and what a beautiful town!

Me outside Sevenoaks Bookshop, with their gorgeous window display featuring my books. A massive thanks to the whole team for making me feel so at home! Image credit: Leilah Skelton

We visited the bright and brilliant kids of Sevenoaks Primary School and Cage Green Primary School, where I think I got the best question of the whole tour: ‘Are your hands squishy?’ I was also asked to do a pirate impression, which I hope I managed to pull off adequately…

…and then it was away to Oxford, city of my dreams.

When in Oxford, one simply must pose in front of The Eagle and Child, in order to soak up some of those Tolkien/Lewis vibes… Image credit: Leilah Skelton

We finished the tour in the beautiful surrounds of Blackwell’s Westgate, Oxford, where I was treated like literary royalty – and got to meet some friends old and new, which was a thoroughly overwhelming experience. A massive thanks needs to be said to authors Gabriel Dylan, Struan Murray and Julie Pike, who all came to say hello and share some writing mojo as well as get their books signed – it was such a joy to meet them all. And The Star-Spun Web  was Blackwell’s Children’s Book of the Month for February, so they laid on a fine spread…

Trying not to look too pleased with myself beneath the tree at Blackwell’s Westgate – HUGE thanks to Jack, both Charlies, and all the team (and my sincere apologies again for misnaming one of the Charlies as ‘Chris’!) Image credit: Leilah Skelton

From there it was time to make my way to Heathrow and home – but this Tour will stay with me forever. I’m grateful beyond words to everyone who made it possible – my publisher and publicists, the booksellers who went out of their way to accommodate me, the teachers and librarians who welcomed us with open arms, everyone who came to meet me at my bookshop signings, and most especially the children, whose bright and sparkling enthusiasm filled me to the brim. Thank you all!

Publication Day for The Star-Spun Web!

I started this blog way back in 2012 – almost seven years ago – in the bright and burning hope that one day I might be a published author. It seemed like such an impossible hope, then; I felt like the odds of success were insurmountable.

But I wrote. And I kept writing. I wrote flash fiction and short stories. I entered competitions. I submitted to literary magazines. I got involved with other writers, following their journeys with interest and no small amount of terror, learning and waiting and watching as I went. I blogged about it all, and some of you have been with me right from the first word.

And today I’m writing to you on the publication of my second book.

Front cover of children's book entitled The Star-Spun Web. Text enclosed in a large stylised star; a web lies behind the star. Tangled in the web, in the top right hand corner of image shows a building, top left hand shows two planes with propellers. Bottom right hand shows two running children, bottom left a spider.
Front cover of The Star-Spun Web, art by Sara Mulvanny, designed by Sophie Bransby, published by Stripes Books February 2019.

The Star-Spun Web is released into the world today, my miraculous story which seemed to come from nowhere, emerging from my imagination just when I needed it. Thank you, little book. Writing you has been a surprising and fulfilling adventure; meeting your characters has been a unique joy. I love this book, which layers wartime Dublin on its mirror city, Hurdleford, a breath and a thought and a whole reality away, and which follows the story of brave Tess de Sousa, an orphan who knows there’s more to her – and to her lost, mysterious parents – than she has ever been told. Tess is clever and quick, resourceful and logical, self-sufficient but grateful for the help of her friends when she needs it, and she has a quiet confidence which comes from being loved and accepted by the family who has raised her. She is herself, and she inhabits every corner of herself without apology, and I am so proud of her.

Writing this book allowed me to explore new worlds, create friendships, and explore what it means to be part of a family. It has given me the chance to get to know my character of Thomas, a frightened but desperately courageous boy determined to get to the bottom of his own family mystery. It brought me to Violet, the most lovable tarantula I’ve ever ‘met’, and her counterpart Moose the mouse, who stole my heart. It gave me the freedom to imagine spinning stars, turning worlds, tunnels between realities, and the frightening possibilities such power wields. Writing this book brought me so much joy, and I hope, if you pick it up, that reading it brings that joy to you.

Thank you for all the support you’ve given me and my writing over the past seven years, and thank you for helping me to get here, to a day I dreamed of for so many years and wondered if I’d ever reach. My second book baby skips off into the world today, and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s available in all good bookshops (including Eason’s, Waterstones, Blackwell’s, and Foyle’s, as well as via Hive) and it would make my heart sing to think of you ordering it via your own local bookshop, or perhaps wandering in and finding it on a shelf.

And if you’re wondering whether this book is for you, how’s about this for some advance reviews?

My 10yo read this in two sittings and the overall feedback was: BRILLIANT!” – Laura Danks, review from Goodreads

The Star-spun Web is such an enjoyable book. Very inventive and creative, the characters O’Hart creates almost step off the page. I loved it from first page to last and though I’m afraid of spiders I found myself loving Violet (read it, you’ll know what I mean). The Star-spun Web is a book that cultivates the joy of reading. Can’t recommend it highly enough! ” – Graham Connors, review from Goodreads

I’d love to know what you think of it… won’t you write and tell me?