Wadell acceptance HCA 2004

Martin Waddell: acceptance speech


Thank you. Thank you all so much.

It is wonderful to receive this award and I am deeply appreciative of the honour that IBBY have bestowed on me.

I am the first Irish writer for children who has been recognised internationally in this way and I cannot let the occasion pass without paying tribute to the members of IBBY Ireland who nominated me for the Award. They, and many others, have worked tirelessly to create a cultural sea-change in the Irish approach to both our own literature for children, and the world of children’s literature in general.

Irish children’s books are now translated and published internationally.

This is something which would not have seemed possible when I set out, in the early 1970s, on the long road which has brought me to Cape Town, and this ceremony.

That this IBBY Congress is the first to be held in on the Continent of Africa also marks a first, and a significant first, in terms of the ideals with which IBBY was founded in the 1950s.

The world of children’s books is, as it should be, a world that recognises no frontiers, a world where the needs of children and the importance of story in meeting those needs are paramount. It is story that I want to talk about today.

I do not have a handy pack of theories about how and why stories should be written, only my own ideas about the way I want my own stories to be. I cannot attempt to speak for other writers about the how and why of their work….only for myself.

I do not, in any case, believe in general rules for writers. We are, each of us, what we are, love us or hate us. However the basic function of the story remains as it has always been …. to try to make sense of the human condition.

This is the given framework within which we all work, but writing is such a personal thing that in the end, the use made of that framework must be left to the individual writer. Serious writing is not about conformity. It is argumentative. It is about the celebration of difference ….. different cultures, different voices, different ideas of the way the world is, and the way it could be.

So …. what is the how and why…. and where, because where is very important to me…. of my own stories, the stories that brought me here today?

I live and work in an Irish seaside town called Newcastle, in Co. Down and nearly all of my stories are the result of things experienced within a few hundred yards of my home at the Rock, overlooking the beach.

I was brought up on the Rock, with the Irish Sea at my doorstep, and the dark granite Mountains of Mourne sweeping down into my back garden.

It’s my place, the where of my life, and my stories.


My own story started at the Rock, and hopefully it will also be the place where that particular story ends …. some day… but not too soon I hope, and not before some more books have been written. Though being the recipient of a lifetime award would seem to suggest otherwise, I’m not finished yet. I still have books to write, knocking indignantly in my head, wanting to escape …. wanting to be written. The knocking is a little less intense than it used to be … but there is more story to come.

I played on the beach in front of the Rock as child.

I played on that same beach with my own three children.

A happy child and, many years later, a stressed but happy father of three small sons …. these two experiences have been at the centre of nearly all my work as a writer.

My stories were informed by those experiences, and shaped while walking and talking to a series of dogs on the four miles of beach in front of my home, sometimes accompanied by a truly extraordinary and eccentric editor, David Lloyd, of Walker Books in London.

The dogs merely listened to my story ideas. David Lloyd inspired me as we walked that windswept beach. Good ….great … editors are few and far between, and often forgotten about on occasions such as this. I was privileged to find one, just when my writing needed it, and I duly honour him.

I must also mention a dedicated woman who had extraordinary influence on my working life, turning my career around at a time when all seemed lost. She is Gina Pollinger, my erstwhile agent and long time friend, a kind of argumentative and aggressive mid-wife to whatever it was she saw in my early work.

Working with Gina and David is the how in the story of my stories …. how they made it from that lonely beach, to travel round the world.

But there was another individual ….. and perhaps his was the most important influence of them all. He was a strange and eccentric man, a sadly little known Irish actor, called Terence Pim, a storyteller of rare brilliance.

I come from a family of actors and writers, and Terence was a family friend who often visited our house …. one of many who told me stories ….. but the best of them, because there was a magic about Terence. He had magnificent eyebrows, and a stage-voice …. and red hair.

Why do I stress the colour of his hair?

Because the red-haired man, in the world of Irish myth and story, is the link between this and the other world, the world of fairie and the imagination …. and Terence lived up to the part.


Terence told me stories, setting them in my place, using words and idioms that I understood …. the oral tradition at its best, where universal stories change and transmute, so that they can be understood by their audience … in this case, a small Irish boy encountering Norse myths and Celtic tales for the first time. Terence also made up his own wonderful tales of sense and nonsense. I particularly remember the long running saga of The Three Jolly Sausages … I liked sausages very much, so stories with very active sausage characters were duly provided.

Above all Terence taught me that stories were fun…. and fun is a subject I will return to …. a vital ingredient for all children, but one that is sometimes overlooked, or underestimated.

It is entirely appropriate to this occasion, that today, at the age of sixtythree, I find myself with only one memento of that strange red headed man.

This battered book.

It is a copy of Hans Andersen’s Stories, inscribed on Terence’s personally designed bookplate:


Imagine, if you will, Hans Andersen’s tales being told

………in an Irish accent………

…………………. to a small Irish boy on a wild and windswept Irish beach in front of his home town

………and told as though they had happened on that beach, or in that town.

Translation, oral re-making, call it what you will, but those stories reinforced my feeling of place. They are the root of my conviction that children need the affirmation of their own national identity, their own place, in stories told in the cadence and idiom of their everyday speech.

And now the small boy who was told stories has become the storyteller himself.

I differ from Terence because I don’t tell stories made for just one child, or for Irish children only, or for children with a sausage fixation. I certainly try to write in a way which conveys Irishness, and the feel of the place where my stories are born….

… but I try to make them accessible to children everywhere.

Another how …. how do you set about doing that?

You listen to children a lot… especially to very small children.

I had three of them to cope with, three small boys,

my own sons. I listened to their conversations, and I listened to the small boy on the beach who still lives inside me.

I’m still listening.

The first strand of my writing for children is the picture book text. It is the area where I feel most challenged, and most at home.

It is my belief, born of listening to children, that their fears and needs are what interest them most, and these fears and needs are common to children the world over.

The fear of the dark. The fear of losing your mother. All the fears inherent in the playground question, “Can I play with you?”

The fears and needs of very small children are very real to them, and for me it has never been option to dismiss these fears and needs with the traditional happy ending, unless that happy ending arises naturally from the story. Even the most trivial of picture book texts should be fresh, funny, moving….. and honest.

The essence of this approach is reflected at the heart of my picture book, Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?

Little Bear fears “The Dark All Around us”…. and who does not?

Big Bear’s response is to take Little Bear out to look at the dark, to see the moon and the bright, shiny stars. Little Bear goes to sleep in his arms, and Big Bear carries Little Bear home.

Big Bear does not dismiss the darkness or deny Little Bear’s legitimate fear. Instead, he shows Little Bear the beauty and wonder of the thing he fears.

Big Bear is always, always, always there as the protector .….. but the night is still dark.

It would be dishonest to dismiss the darkness, as though it does not exist, or to start talking about the sun, which is a thing of the day, not the night.

As an aside, one seriously troubled translator of the book sent Big Bear off into a truly educational and worthy listing of the names of the stars, in place of my simple and direct, “I’ve brought you the moon, Little Bear. The bright yellow moon, and all the twinkly stars.”

This travesty of my story demonstrates that good translation should be poetic, not didactic, and makes the important point that writing for children should appeal directly to children’s interests, not the interests of the adults who write for them. I make this mistake almost every time I start a story, and during the course of working on it I change it, as the small boy on the beach takes over.

The small boy in me knows that the twinkle of the stars is the important bit, and has little interest in learning their names …. that stage comes later.

Little Bear’s world is a secure and totally loving one, and the world shown through the window of that book is appropriate to the age and understanding of the very young children who will have it read to them. But the happy ending arises from that secure and loving world …. and there are other colder worlds out there, which you have to visit without Big Bear.

As children grow older they become more aware of the hatred that can exist in the world, the frequent lack of love. As a writer, I feel a need to explore those colder worlds, in the stories for teenagers which form the second strand of my work … second but not secondary. I value all my books.

Writing for older children who are discovering themselves and their place in the adult world …….what do I believe is important?

It is important to affirm the older child’s sense of his or her personal and national identity ….

…………..but it is equally important that children learn of differences, of other cultures, other peoples, other voices, the unknown….

A lot of my stories are about people who feel uncomfortable in their own communities…. as so many children must…… because they find they cannot accept the received opinions and the agreed judgements of those around them.

The fear and demonisation of the stranger brings with it attacks on those who think differently from the tribe, the community, the particular religious sect to which the child may belong. In most situations there is no simple right or wrong, and yet, when the drum of our own particular nationality or section of society beats, the message is very clear.

You are either with us, or against us.

This is a blood soaked simplicity.

As a writer I feel it is my duty to affirm the right to reasoned dissent, to encourage children to think problems through for themselves, before taking sides or refusing to take sides.

In Irish life, this “with us or against us” problem is mainly reflected in the Protestant/ Catholic conflict, and in the ancient relationship of Ireland to England, but in essence it mirrors all other conflicts in the world. In Northern Ireland it is particularly acute, because often the strangers are our neighbours, the people next door.

I set my political books in contemporary Ireland, because that is the world I know, but I believe that the situations I address are as relevant to young people elsewhere, as they are to the children of Ireland. Ireland is also a world where I know how little I know, which averts the great danger for a writer of fiction: the temptation to reach partially-cooked conclusions based on half knowledge.

I want to encourage older children to think for themselves, to listen to the voice of dissent …. the voice of the stranger…. not necessarily to accept what the stranger says, but to try to evaluate it, to measure one voice against another and reach their own conclusions.

And this brings me another problem.

The problem is that I have listened to the different voices,

in my own country, and in other countries. What I hear often leaves me close to despair …. and I have no right to offer children despair, the absence of hope.

When writing for adults who have their own experience of the world to fall back on, it is totally legitimate to offer misery and despair, if that is how you see the world, but I believe that this cannot be the case when writing for teenagers. Young adults are not fully formed people. Stories present them with a model of an adult world they are still coming to terms with.

If they find total despair and misery, as so many do, they must find it for themselves. Thus, for instance, the subject of suicide has no place in my books. It is simply not a plot option, because the act of suicide is the negation of hope.

For me, finding hope in a situation is a given. The problem is how to find hope in apparently hopeless situations, without distorting what I believe to be the truth.

At the heart of my three most openly political books on the Northern Ireland conflict, Starry Night, Frankie’s Story and Beat of the Drum lie the awful drum beats of two totally conflicting national aspirations, set against the often drab lives of the participants in the conflict, Protestant and Catholic alike.

They are alike, alike as peas in a pod, and I have tried to show this likeness in the portrayal of characters who find themselves caught in a fight that is not of their own making, and which mars their lives.

The central character of Starry Night, Kathleen, comes to question all she has believed and proclaimed. In Frankie’s Story and The Beat of the Drum the protagonists, Frankie and Brian, have already learned the lesson that so troubles Kathleen, and have to cope with the consequences of their own refusal to take sides. Each rejects the traditional attitude of their own communities ….

….. they suffer for their bravery, but they survive and in that lies the hope. As Brian says at the conclusion of the Beat of the Drum: “If I go, and all the people who think like me go, what’ll happen to the people who are left?”

Brian stays. Frankie is forced to leave… but both show care for the others in their communities, whilst rejecting much of what those others stand for.


Perhaps this idea of hope-within-the-community is best exemplified in my novel Tango’s Baby …. not an obviously political story …. a story which at least one critic, whose views I respect, intimated should never have been written, because of the bleak world it offers children.

Tango is a huge, ambling, seventeen year old, hopeless at school, unable to hold down a job, a drifting, hapless and vaguely dishonest teenager who has only one thing going for him …. a huge capacity for love. He loves the very young girl, Crystal, on whom he fathers a child, a child that he loves with a deep and desperate love.

But Crystal is a survivor, and while loving Tango initally, she turns away from him when she realises that he cannot provide for her, or her baby, and will never be able to do so.

In the end, she takes Tango’s Baby from him.


Why did I choose to tell that story at all? Why not write about something simpler, more comfortable?

Because the storyteller in me wanted to tell that story, that’s why.


I had come across a teenage father who went home each night from the building site where he worked, washed himself, shaved what there was to shave, put on his aftershave and a clean shirt, and went off to visit his girlfriend and cuddle his baby. At the time the couple were not allowed to marry, and I doubt if they ever did.

I felt that this was something I should tackle …. something that mattered to young adults, just as the fear of the dark matters to very small children. I felt that the love a boy can feel for his own child was simply being dismissed in the stories of the girls who were left with the babies. There was no stories for teenage boys who felt that way, nothing they could find in fiction which would meet their own experience.

It was not possible for Tango’s story to have a happy ending. It would have been artificial and dishonest and young readers had to understand for themselves how hopeless his self- created dilemma was.

But I had to find a way to introduce the possibility of hope in Tango’s situation. In the end I used the minor characters to show positive actions to set against all the negatives in the story. These minor characters are, without exception, social misfits … the books says a lot about their condition …. yet they all take their turn in trying to mend the terrible and self inflicted wounds caused by Tango’s own behaviour.

In my books for older children I have tried to show that love always exists somewhere, that there are always people who will respond to a cry for help, however inadequate and inarticulate the response may be, and however high the odds may be stacked against them.

The message is about common humanity, the binding together of people that comes from simply living with each other, listening to each other …. trying to understand the strange world of the stranger. Whether children accept that model of the world is something they have to make their own minds up about.

That all sounds very serious … I feel very serious about it … but I take equally seriously a third strand in my writing …. the need to create books for children which are happy, and mad cap and full of fun.

Big idea…. fun.

I write lots of happy books: detective books, football books, vampire books, some of them enormously silly, many for younger children or those who have difficulty reading at all.

These books are fun …. and fun is very important to children. If we forget that we are going to lose the child. Reading will become a chore. A child who enjoys a fun book will return for more …. and he or she is hooked as once I was hooked by the sheer silliness of Three Jolly Sausages. We should treasure and promote fun if we want to turn children toward story.

A sense of fun should lurk in all writing for children,

either in the content itself, or, in books for older children, in the voice of the narrator. Words should be fresh, funny, bright,

and ideas should bounce off the page.

If this sounds like a lexicon for beginners, I say it because fun is a quality which is easily ignored by adults who don’t find life funny at all and who know what is good for children.

I’m proud that I have written stories that challenge teenagers to think for themselves and I’m equally proud that my bears and ducks and owls are on bookshelves right round the world. The pig who decides to swim because it’s a very hot day, the hedgehog who organises a noisy musical band … children can recognise themselves in those characters.

I am also proud of the many seemingly inconsequential books I have written, some as educational texts, many of which embrace the absurd, the fanciful or the plain silly. These little sparky books matter to me, and I hope, to the children who read them.

I will end as I began.

Thank you.

Thank you IBBY Ireland for nominating me, and for all the work you have done for children’s literature.

Thank you David Lloyd, for my Owls, and Bears and Ducks and swimming Pigs.

Thank you Gina Pollinger for persuading me that what I wanted to do could be done, in the way I wanted to do it.

Thank you Terence Pim.

Thank you to my wife Rosaleen and my children.

Thank you all in IBBY for the way you help children everywhere to explore stories brought to them from all over the world, and hopefully to hear and evaluate for themselves the voices of the strangers.

Last, but definitely not least, a special thank you to Hans Andersen ….. for this book…. and the very personal memories it holds for me.


Receiving the Hans Christian Andersen award today is one of the loveliest things that has happened in my writing life.

Thank you all so much.

Martin Waddell

5 September 2004, Cape Town