DBF Interviews: Sarah Webb and Graham CorcoranPublished 07/11/2019
We interviewed author Sarah Webb and illustrator Graham Corcoran, the people behind Dare to Dream: Irish People Who Took on the World (and Won!), ahead of Sarah’s Interactive Family History Event, which is part of this year’s Children’s Programme. Read on to find out more about their research, the challenges in putting the book together and their favourite inclusion!
And you can also catch Sarah Webb speaking in our Writing for Children and Young Adults panel, alongside other book and publishing experts!
My first question is about the research behind the illustrations. What sources did you find to help you capture the people’s likeness?
I mainly used Google Image Search to find as many photographs of the subjects as I could. When I was sketching the subjects for the artwork in the book I would then try to find a balance between the realism of the the likeness of the subject, while still making the artwork fit my illustration style, and also making each subject appear appealing and interesting to the books young audience. Using an online resource like Google Image Search is invaluable when you create artwork digitally, as I use two monitors while working, I can draw on one monitor, while having my research right there on the second monitor. Some people were easier to find reference for than others, there was a wealth of photo reference for people like Bob Geldof, John Hume, Cora Staunton etc, but for some of the earlier subjects in history such as Albert Cashier, Agnes Mary Clerke and George Boole, I had to interpret their likeness a little more, as any photo portraits of them that exist are few and far between.
The detail in the background of the illustrations is wonderful. How did you decide what elements of the person to include and leave out?
Thank you! I mainly approached each illustration as a portrait of each person, so the subject would always be the focus of the image. With that in mind I created the backgrounds to compliment and frame each person. I wanted to give the impression of the backgrounds having many layers, that overlap with elements from the persons history. This is most evident in the illustrations of people like Patrick Pearse, Bob Geldof and Rosie Hackett. I also wanted to try and include elements of a persons history that may not have been so widely known as what they are most famous for, so for example with Patrick Pearse I wanted to include St. Enda’s School and its peaceful grounds, as well as his students dressed in their Celtic costumes, which contrasts with the dark imagery of the GPO burning during the Easter Rising. Likewise with Roger Casement, he is primarily known for his part in the Easter Rising in 1916, but I wanted to highlight in the background of his portrait his very important work as a human rights activist in the early 20th century.
Who did you have the most fun illustrating and who presented the biggest challenge?
I think the most fun to illustrate was Cynthia Longfield, or Madam Dragonfly as she was also know. Cynthia was an expert on dragonflies, and her studies took her around the world to the most exotic locales during the 1920’s. Every photo of her that I saw, she was wearing the uniform of an early 20th century adventurer, with a classic pith helmet, a specimen jar tied to her belt and a huge butterfly net in her hands! She always had a big smile on her face too, so she looked like she was having a lot of fun! I wanted to show that fun adventurous spirit in the illustration, so I depicted her on a Pacific island, with lots of bright colours, pinks and purples, to really give the impression that she was somewhere far from Ireland.
The biggest challenge to illustrate, but also one of the most interesting to illustrate was Roger Casement. His experiences and work was of a very serious subject matter, both of his role in the Easter Rising and his humanitarian work. I included in the illustration images of the rubber plantation slaves of Peru. Roger Casement brought their plight to the attention of the world. He also highlighted to the world the human rights abuses of the rubber plantation slaves in the Belgian Congo, so I included imagery of the dark jungles and the river Congo. Along with depicting Casement in the German U-Boat he traveled back to Ireland in 1916, there is a lot of heavy subject matter in that portrait, but I think it was successful, and it is one of my favourite illustrations in the book.
What would you hope children take away from this book?
I hope they take away inspiration, after reading about all of these amazing people from Ireland who when they put their mind to it, were able to change the world for the better. I hope they see that even though Ireland is a small place, we can have a big impact for good in the world, and I hope it will inspire them to follow their dreams in the future.
My first question is about the research behind the book. How did you decide which Irish trailblazers to include and how did you find out about their lives? Were you aware of many of them already or were many new to you?
While researching Blazing a Trail: Irish Women Who Changed the World, I came across many other remarkable Irish women such as Mary Elmes, the aid worker and humanitarian who saved over four hundred Jewish children during World War II and Gretta Cousins, the suffragette and civil rights campaigner who spent most of her adult life in India. I did not have room to include them in the book but their stories stayed with me.
Michael O’Brien from The O’Brien Press asked would I be interested in writing a sister book to Blazing a Trail and I jumped at the chance. I chose Irish dreamers as the theme of Dare to Dream as our country was built by dreamers – people like Patrick Pearse and Countess Markievicz who fought hard for a independent, free and equal Ireland.
I wanted to represent people from all walks of life: sportspeople, activists, scientists, adventurers, writers and even rock stars. People children and young people would connect with and be inspired by.
I read my way through dozens of biographies, history books, reference books and also talked to experts in their fields such as Dr Abigail Ruth Freeman from Science Foundation Ireland who gave me information on some modern Irish scientists.
I set some guidelines for the book – the people had to have achieved something great or important and also had to help others along the way. And they had to be people that would interest and inspire children.
An equal balance of women and men was also important to me. Going forwards I’d like to see all history books for children (and grown-ups!) trying to achieve this. Children need all kinds of role models!
One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Dare to Dream was the organising of the text – the biography and then at the bottom three facts about people who assisted them, or about similar people. What inspired you to organise the information this way?
This format, with three linked facts at the bottom of the page is also used in Blazing a Trail. We wanted to make sure the page wasn’t too ‘texty’ for young readers. It’s a way of adding in extra information about other people who were achieving great things at the time.
Do you have a favourite person in the book, or someone that surprised you the most?
Good question – this tends to change depending on the day! I was blown away by Gretta Cousins and she was someone I would have loved to meet! She was a real powerhouse – imprisoned in three different countries for fighting for civil rights – women’s rights and the right for India to be independent. In prison in India (she was also in prison in Ireland and England for her suffragette work – she set up the Irish Women’s Franchise League with the Sheehy-Skeffingtons) for supporting Gandhi, she taught the other prisoners civics and singing and set up a prison garden. After her release, she started working for prison reform too.
I also took a great liking to Maude Delap who devoted her life to studying jellyfish. She was the first person to rear them in captivity and discovered their life cycle – which as a huge animal lover I find fascinating. And to Jack Kyle who after a outstanding rugby career, devoted the rest of his life to saving lives in Africa. His daughter wrote a wonderful biography about him in which she says: ”If decency were measured in stars then, to me, Dad is a galaxy.’
Finally Professor Susan McKenna-Lawlor’s story fascinated me. After being awarded a doctorate in space (she is officially a Space Doctor!), she set up her own company called Space Technology Ireland Limited and helped develop an instrument for the Mars Express mission to monitor the solar wind and to collect information about the mystery of water on Mars. Talk about a mind blowing career!
Who would you most like to read the book and what would you like them to take away from it?
I’d like everyone to read it but I think children between the age of six and twelve are most likely to enjoy it. I’d like them to learn about the remarkable achievements of Irish people and be inspired to dare to dream big too!