Hilarity, adventure and kindness

Living


Three new children’s books with big hearts and strong Mayo connections

Ciara Moynihan

The rain might be back in torrents, but that certainly does not spell the end of summer reads. And while the grown-ups are curling up with a book on the couch, there are a few new books out that little ones will love too – especially these three, which have strong Mayo connections.
First up is ‘Escape The Rooms’, a delightful children’s book written by actor and comedian Stephen Mangan and illustrated by his sister, Anita Mangan. It is an funny, high-energy, action-packed story and with an important heartwarming message at its core.
Stephen (53), Anita (51) and their younger sibling, Lisa Mangan (50), all live in London and have strong connections with Erris. Their father, James, was from Doohoma and their mother Mary from Tullaghan Duff, Geesala. Several aunts, uncles and cousins still live in the area, in Belmullet, and all three siblings and their families are regular visitors.
Tragically, they lost their mum Mary to colon cancer when she was just 45, and their father James to brain cancer 14 years later when he was 63. In the face of such terrible heartache, the bond between the three siblings could only have become stronger.
Anita has designed and illustrated more than 60 books and was very excited to have the chance to work with her well-known brother. Likewise, Stephen jumped at the chance of a family collaboration, and he has dedicated ‘Escape The Rooms’ to their parents.
“We’re a very close family,” Stephen reveals. “Laughter was very much part of our childhood. Dad was a big joker, and Mum always laughed at all of his jokes, even if she’d heard them before.”
Writing in the Guardian, Hadley Freeman describes ‘Escape the Rooms’ as ‘richly imagined and deeply heartfelt’, adding: “It reminded me a little of The Wizard of Oz, with the children on a quest through different lands to get home.”

‘Friendship and childhood loss’
The action centres around the characters Jack and Cally, who we find are thrown together as both have both suffered a bereavement. They find themselves in a labyrinth of rooms, ‘in a weird and wonderful world’, where they must put their heads together and solve puzzles to find their way back. (A bit like the real-life Éalú Escape Rooms in Westport.)
Stephen said: “I’m a firm believer that comedy is the best vehicle for exploring all the profound human experiences that we go through. I wanted to write something funny and surprising and as exciting and scary as I could, whilst having this underlying theme of friendship and childhood loss.”
Youngest sister Lisa Mangan, a media trainer and copywriter, wasn’t involved in the book, but she inspired the concept that launches character Jack into his adventure. During a bungee jump when she was in her 20s, the organisers yelled ‘Wait!’ just has she was leaning forward to fling herself into the air, hinting that there was something wrong with her harness. Mercifully there wasn’t; they were only teasing her.
Stephen has always found this story hilarious and he weaves it into the book. But in Jack’s case, his bungee doesn’t stop, and he plummets through the Earth and ends up in the escape rooms with a mysterious girl called Cally.
Working on the book together was an extension of Stephen and Anita’s close relationship. Stephen said: “I have always admired Anita’s creative talent. I literally cannot draw a straight line with a ruler! I was completely in awe of her ability to draw what was in my head. When she sent me her illustrations I didn’t have to change a thing, she just got it. It was like magic!”
Anita added: “Stephen, Lisa and I share a silly sense of humour. His descriptions of characters jumped off the page and I didn’t have any trouble interpreting them. That’s the benefit of working with your sibling, you just get each other’s humour. There was no need to explain himself!
“It was a joy to work with Stephen. It has been a long time coming. Our work worlds have never collided before now, but hopefully this is just the beginning of more projects together.”
Lisa is thrilled with her big brother and sister’s project. “Having spent our childhood making up plays for the babysitter, it is great that Stephen and Anita are making up stories for children everywhere now – and their babysitters! I am very proud of them both and love that they are working together,” she says.
All of the characters in the book are larger than life. Jack and Cally face animals dressed in clothes, talking dogs, a tiny man with eyebrows for hair stuck on by spit, poisonous spiders and ferocious lions, amongst other creatures. The three Mangan siblings (known for their toothy smiles) also make an appearance – in a room full of people with big teeth who are literally all smiles.
Reaction to the book has been hugely positive, with copies flying off the shelves since it was published this summer.
“I feel quite overwhelmed really,” Stephen admits. “Writing a book is such a personal thing. As a child I read voraciously. I’d even have a book on my lap at the family dinner table. I wanted to create the kind of book that I loved to read. I have three young sons who have all read it several times now. My youngest is called Jack, so the other two are now expecting me to write books where they are the main character!”


‘Heartwarming’
While often much (and quite unfairly) maligned by many adults, seagulls have been inspiring children’s books for many a year. The most famous is probably the 1970 classic ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’, written by American author Richard Bach – a timeless fable enjoyed by countless older kids and teens the world over.
Others include ‘Seagulls Soar’, by April Pulley Sayre; ‘Gary the Seagull’, by Christian Johnston; ‘The Story of a Seagull and the Cat who Taught Her to Fly’, by Luis Sepúlveda; ‘Stella and the Seagull’, by Georgina Stevens, and the popular Gully the Seagull series, by Cornish author Jon Cleave.
Now we have another fine addition to that list – ‘The Seagull’, by retired teacher Claire O’Malley, who hails from The Neale. Beautifully illustrated by Denis Finan, it is Claire’s third children’s book, her previous titles being ‘Sam’s Baking Adventures’ and ‘Blitzen’s Best Christmas’.
‘The Seagull’ is the enchanting tale of Nuala, a girl who changes places with a seagull for the day. “One day,” the blurb tells us, “Nuala noticed a seagull standing very still on the wall. She broke off a piece of her lunch and gave it to him. ‘Thank you,’ said the seagull, and flew over the trees. ‘You’re welcome,’ said Nuala, returning to her skipping. Then the strangeness struck her….”
Tuam man Patrick Donnellan was at the launch of the book last month at the Corn Market in Ballinrobe by local novelist and playwright Mick Donnellan, and he tells The Mayo News that it went down a treat.
“Mick captured the attention of the crowds when he described children as ‘the most intelligent audience’,” says Patrick. “Claire’s grandniece Ruth O’Malley was in attendance on the day and delightfully read an extract from the book, truly keeping everyone engaged … The story is heartwarming, creative, and full of excitement. Nuala and The Seagull are sure to seize the attention of any child lucky enough to get their hands on it.”
The book (€10)  is available from Rare and Rent Books, Cong (rareandrecent.com), Martin Murphy’s, Ballinrobe; Smyth’s, Claremorris; McLoguhlins’ Books, Westport; The Bookshop (Seamus Duffy’s), Westport; Caffrey’s Gallery, Ballina; Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Galway; Newsround, Cos Roscommon and Longford; and The Bookshop, Co Waterford.

‘Self-compassion and kindness’
Another children’s book worth a mention is ‘My Gratitude and Mindfulness Journal’, by Kiltimagh teacher and mindfulness practitioner Louise Coughter Cryan. While geared towards primary-school children, and not exactly a ‘summer read’ for children, it has a big heart and a really important purpose.
The journal encourages children to practice gratitude and to reflect on their emotions and feelings and know that all feelings are okay, explains Louise, who says that in as little as ten minutes a day, journalling helps to protect a child’s mental and physical health and overall wellbeing.
“It is also packed full of engaging and fun mindful activities, positive affirmations, inspiring quotes, poems, and activities which encourage self-compassion and kindness, building self-esteem and much more,” she tells The Mayo News. “Children will learn coping strategies and techniques to help address some of the ways that they may be affected by emotions, such as anger, worry or anxiety.”
‘My Gratitude and Mindfulness Journal’ is available from the author at contactlouisecryan@gmail.com, and from www.mayobooks.ie; www.schoolbooksireland.ie; Castle Book Shop, Castlebar; The Book Shop, Westport; Smyth’s Newsagents, Claremorris; Easons Castlebar; and Vintage Plaza, Kiltimagh.

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CREATIVE SIBLINGS
Stephen Mangan with his sisters, Lisa (left) and Anita (right). His book ‘Escape The Rooms’ joins two other children’s books on the new-release shelves: ‘The Seagull’, by Claire O’Malley, and ‘My Gratitude and Mindfulness Journal’, by Louise Coughter Cryan. Pic: Marie Mangan