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Stories from Africa by Paula Leyden
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1. Welcome in our class, our school and our universe

This warmed my heart today – the plays referred to in the letter are plays the class (a combined 4th and 5th Class) put on, each group taking a different section of the book. They were absolutely brilliant.


Dear Paula,

We FINISHED reading ‘The Sleeping Baobab Tree’ today.  In the words of Leah Anderson (5th Class) we have mixed emotions.  Every school day is going to be different from now on.  Reading ‘The Sleeping Baobab Tree’ was our favourite part of the day (we had a vote and it was unanimous!).  We are sorry that that has come to an end.  We are happy that all of the characters are safe at the end of the book.  We had ANOTHER vote and it was decided that Nokokulu is our favourite character.  We were surprised by how kind she actually is.  Naoise (4th class) thought that it would have been a good idea to include a chapter from THE MAN BEAST’S point of view.  We laughed out loud at lots of things especially things that Fred imagined and things that Nokokulu did.  We were all afraid at different points during the story.  We begged Ms Mackey to read extra chapters every day.  Sometimes she would and sometimes she wouldn’t….GRRRRRRRRR!

Thank you very much for coming to see our plays.  We hope you liked them.  We liked having you here and we liked the Maltesers!  We will always remember the special time we had reading your stories.  We wish that you had another book ready for us to read straight away.  Ms Mackey read us the story of Scabby and we loved it.

You are always welcome in our class, our school and our universe (Chelsea),

Ms Mackey’s 4th/5th Class


Some snakes made by the class when they were reading my first book, The Butterfly Heart

Some snakes made by the class when they were reading my first book, The Butterfly Heart

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2. CBI Awards Shortlist 2014

A delayed post … I had written this a week ago when they were announced but it ended up in drafts!

So, here goes. I was thrilled to hear that my second book, The Sleeping Baobab Tree is on the 2014 shortlist for the CBI Awards.


.. So a big thank you to the judges for considering my book worthy of the honour. I am one of eight authors on the list and here’s what CBI said about it all …

The Book Centre

The Book Centre

Shortlist 2014

Eight Titles will compete for the 24th CBI Book of the Years Awards 2014, the most prestigious awards for children’s books.

The shortlist for the 24th CBI Book of the Year Awards was revealed today, Tuesday March 18th 2014. Each of the eight titles will compete for the high caliber awards, which includes the innovative ‘Children’s Choice Award’ voted for by young readers located across the country. The winners will be announced at a ceremony to be held on May 13th.

The shortlisted titles are:

The Sleeping Baobab Tree by Paula Leyden

Warp The Reluctant Assassin by Eoin Colfer

Heart Shaped by Siobhán Parkinson

Hagwitch by Marie- Louise Fitzpatrick

Too Many Ponies by Sheena Wilkinson

Skulduggery Pleasant Last Stand of Dead Men by Derek Landy

Mysterious Traveller illustrated by P.J. Lynch

The Day the Crayons Quit illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Founded in 1990, The CBI Book of the Year Awards are the leading children’s book awards in Ireland. They are a celebration of excellence in children’s literature and illustration and are open to picture books and novels written in English or Irish by authors and illustrators born or resident in Ireland and published between 1st January and 31st December each year.

Pádraic Whyte, chair of the judging panel that almost 70 titles, said: “The books on this year’s shortlist offer children and young people from a broad age group rich and satisfying reading experiences. Many of the books engage with difficult contemporary or global issues while others are stories of whimsy and fun. This is a wonderfully diverse shortlist that highlights the literary and artistic excellence of current Irish Children’s Literature.”

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3. Hello Nelson. Cool shirt!

Yesterday on World Book Day while I was in Galway in Dubray Books I did a small exercise with one of the groups, they were from Scoil Ida. It was on the subject of Mandela.

I was delighted to hear that they knew so much about him and so obviously admired him. Fair play to the teachers concerned!

I thought I would write down some of the things they wrote, which were things they would like to say to him if he had visited Galway and then paid a surprise visit to their school. Some great conversations would have been had.

So, here goes:

‘Hello Sir, My name is Loretta Ojo. How are you? Were you able to cooperate with life when you were younger? It is very stunning to meet you as you are a true leader of Africa.’

Anon. ‘What was it like to take a stand? You took a stand and you were knocked down but you got back up. The world looks up to you as you achieved your dream. How does that feel?’

‘Was life hard for you when you were young? Was it tough?’

‘Hello Nelson. Cool shirt! I’m Karolina – why did you come all the way here?’

(I gave them this picture of him – hence the cool shirt!)

‘You are an inspiration to our world. You have stood up for yourself and others using peace. You are strong at heart and I’m stunned that I would actually meet the world’s best leader’

‘How did you feel when you were put in jail?’

‘Hello my name is Lucja and I think you are an amazing, inspiring person and a role model. You didn’t deserve to be locked up for  27 years. You deserve all the best things in the world and all the people will forever be in debt to you. I can’t believe I can actually meet you!’

‘Hello I’m Ania. Did you choose to free the people? Do you think that someone else could have done it? Why did the white people treat the black people so badly?’

‘Hello my name is Aoife Campbell. I’m very happy to meet you. I think you are the most brave, kind and clever person in the world. You have done great work for your country. You are an inspiration to me. Thank you for meeting me, you are my hero.’

‘Hi, are you having a good day? You look very nice today.’

‘What is your favourite season?’

‘Hi, you are a really good person, kind and gentle and by the way, can I have your autograph? It was nice to meet you.’

‘How are you so brave and confident? Wow! You are my inspiration, how do you stand up for yourself? I can’t believe I got to meet you.’

‘This is such an honour. I think you are so amazing. Were you not scared?’

‘Hi. I’m so glad to meet you. You are so caring and generous. I wish I and other people could be like you.’

‘Hello. How do you think life should be? Why did you want to be President and was it easy?’

Nelson: Hello and how are you?  Me: My name is Shauna.  Nelson: Well, nice to meet you. Me: When you were in school what did you learn?’

‘Wow! OMG! How much time do I have? You’re so cool. How are you so brave?’

‘I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you. My name is Emily, I’m eleven years old and I love art and reading.’

‘What is it like to be you? Do you love what you do?Why did you come here? Thank you for listening to me, you are a brave man.’

‘Did you get any food or drink in jail?’

‘Hello Nelson Mandela. My name is Evelyn Byrne. I think everything you said was correct and that everyone should have equal rights and not to judge others and we must live life to the fullest. Your words have changed the world and have made people think about things that were wrong.’

‘You gave light when the rest of the world was dark, you gave faith when the rest of the world gave up, you gave peace when the rest of the world was at war.’

‘Hello my name is Grainne and you are my hero.’

‘Hello my name is Divine and it is an honour to meet you. I wrote you a poem but sorry I didn’t finish it.’

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4. Crawling with ghosts

This post  could not, in all honesty, be called a written post. No writing needed. What follows is a series of pictures drawn by Ms Mackey’s 4th and 5th Class in St. John’s Kilkenny. They have done such great work on both The Butterfly Heart and The Sleeping Baobab Tree that I wanted to post some of it on here. These pictures are based on lines that they liked from the The Sleeping Baobab Tree.

Brilliant work! Lovely class! Great teacher!

Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0001 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0002 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0003 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0004 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0005 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0006 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0007 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0008 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0009 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0010 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0011 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0012 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0013 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0014 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0015 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0016 Ms Mackeys 4th and 5th 2014_0017

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5. The Squonk, (in)humanity and luck

I do not usually write personal posts, but a question put to me yesterday by one of my daughters made me think about this. So, here we go.

She asked me, ‘How do you manage to stay cheerful when you look at what is happening in the world?’ A good question. Not sure I have a full and proper answer to it but I will try.

I remember at age twenty sitting in a friends basement sobbing my heart out at the state of the world, asking the question ‘why do we say ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ when in fact it is us, humans, who are cruel, thoughtless, prejudiced, greedy, violent, murderous, bullying, brutal, selfish ….. so to be all these things is not inhuman, it is human… we should call it man’s humanity to man?’

Maybe that is so, but in answer to my daughter’s question..

I remain cheerful because that is not the sum of who or what we are.

I remain cheerful because, amazingly, I am an optimist..

I remain cheerful because that is my make up, I feel blessed that my chemistry allows me to feel so!

I remain cheerful because I believe that we can do better.

I remain cheerful because I am able to focus on the small things – sometimes to look upon the whole world in all its misery still overwhelms me, so I focus in and look closely.

I remain cheerful because when I do that I am able to find beauty, kindness, laughter, love and unselfishness alongside all the sadness and madness.

I remain cheerful because I am lucky enough to be part of an extended loving family.

I remain cheerful because despite the multitude of faults in humanity I still find us interesting.

I remain cheerful because when I realised, way back then, that I could not on my own change the world (ah, youth!) I also realised that I could change bits and pieces of it. That small things can make a difference. It is true.

So,  I remain cheerful because in my life, where it has been possible, I have worked to change things that seemed to me to be wrong. Small things, sometimes slightly bigger things. But never enough, absolutely never enough. Alongside this I have also just lived my life, and have been lucky enough to do so – lucky enough to love, to rear my children, to listen to music, to write, to teach, to work, to just live. To do all the things that are denied to so many.

As I write this I know that right now there are people in situations that will prevent them from ever being cheerful; there are people being killed; raped; tortured; starved; abused; bullied. There are animals being slaughtered, confined, tortured, abused and bullied. It is an unequal and unfair world. And yes it still overwhelms me every time I look out on it – but now instead of sobbing I suppose I think, what can I do?

So, having written all that I am no longer sure why I remain cheerful – there are many who believe that those who do are merely blind to the horror. Maybe that is so. But maybe it is also just luck. In my case lucky in where I was born, who I was born to and the composition of my brain. I reckon it’s that – pure luck.

It has allowed me to realise that there was no point in dissolving into a puddle of tears like the Squonk (who, in American folklore, evaded capture by dissolving himself in a pool of tears) – or spend my life apologising for being lucky. Instead I suppose I have thought that I might try to put my luck to good use, look out  onto the world with my eyes wide open and see what is to be done … and then try to do little bits of that … tiny, miniscule, microscopic  bits …  Hard to do as I wear a thin skin,  and the torment and suffering of the world  breaks through it very easily.

Having said all that …

The Squonk

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6. Is it alright to do wrong, to do right?

Spent the morning with Orla Mackey’s 4th and 5th Split class (or should that be combined class?) It was a treat.

I was greeted with a beautiful rendition of Siyahamba – word perfect they were .. it sounded beautiful. I have videoed part of it and will upload. My camera ran out of space so it stops quite abruptly!

They then had a bag of curiosity containing all their questions and we went through those. Very thought provoking questions, some of which I am still thinking about. For example, ‘is it alright to do wrong to do right?’ A hard one. We discussed it in the light of the struggle against Apartheid. When Madiba died Ms Mackey and her class spent the entire day talking about him, his work, his history and they have done lovely work on the subject. That’s teaching and learning that is lovely to witness.

After that the 4th Class were pitted against the 5th Class in an epic battle. There were a series of pictures held up and they had to identify the connection between each picture and the book (they have started with The Butterfly Heart and are moving onto The Sleeping Baobab Tree next). It was a draw – and the plans were to finish the competition before going home to see whether a winner could be found. I would not have got all the answers … their knowledge was brilliant!

Finally, each member of the class had brought with them an item that related in some way to the book – this included Djembe drums, melted candles (from a description of HIV/AIDS in the book) a little house made of cardboard that resembled Winifred’s house and included a mulberry tree for Winifred as she had expressed a wish for a tree, a beer tankard, a snake (stuffed.. not real), a diary, a rosary, a branch of a tree, a twin sister (!)  and many more. Hugely inventive!

So, all in all a great visit – a mega thank you to Ms Mackey and to everyone in her class. I loved the time I spent with you!

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7. Lubuto Libraries

“When I come to the library I feel like I am coming to a place that is safe, important, no disturbance, no noise, no bullying, no fights…I am a member here.” – Boy at Fountain of Hope, age 11

Fountain of Hope, Lusaka

Fountain of Hope, Lusaka

I have over the past while been in touch with Jane Meyers, the founder of Lubuto Libraries in Zambia, and just wanted to share a little of the work they have been doing there. Much more can be found on their website here and I am not going to repeat it.

I do however want to highlight a couple of the things they do in the hope that readers of this blog will be inspired to go and find out more.

Firstly The Lubuto Collections. A website that has two sections –  a ‘Learn to Read’ section in the various language groups present in Zambia, and a collection of Zambian stories – again in many different languages, including English. All available online! How brilliant is that? Stories rescued from obscurity, from out of print booklets – and brought back for adults and children alike.

Also, Lubuto Libraries has a particular focus on street children, children without opportunity. The libraries create a space where these children can read, be read to, take part in drama and performing arts and use laptops to learn.  These libraries do not just take random book donations, they gear the libraries towards the needs to the children and donations are accepted accordingly. They are, above all, thoughtful libraries! I cannot do it justice in a short blog post – suffice to say it’s a great project – do yourself a favour and take a wander around their website – it is extremely informative. I am delighted that  my own books have found a home in the libraries there.

Here below is Mulenga Kapwepwe, Chairperson of the National Arts Council of Zambia and a Lubuto Library Project Adviser, on the subject of bringing back Zambia’s literature.

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8. Madiba

I, along with millions of other people, learnt last night of the death of Nelson Rolihlala Mandela.  And yes, he was 95 years old and he was very ill so it was not unexpected. But that doesn’t matter. He may have been 95 years old, he may have been very ill but he was still himself. And mightily beloved. It is the thing about death, the bald, awful knowledge that that person no longer lives; that we can no longer talk to them, that we cannot hear them. In the case of Madiba there is his family who now know this – a huge extended family, many of whom shared his home. There is his wife, Graca Machel, who has herself lived through such tragedy but also lived a life full and strong. Their loss is inconceivable. For many others not just in South Africa but all over the world, his loss is felt deeply.

Speaking for myself I do not mourn him for his role in the process of reconciliation in South Africa, I do not mourn him for his lack of bitterness, I do not mourn him for his statesmanship. I mourn him for who he was. And I know it is hard to separate the man from the politician, the man from the revolutionary and I am not trying to do that. But it was in his inner life that he was so special. He was a person who loved life. He was a good man. A clever man. A thoughtful man and a kind man. No one was beneath him, and I cannot think of any political leader who matches him in this. And this was not humility, it was a genuine interest in other human beings. He was curious and caring. And funny, really funny. He was not, however, as Saki Macozoma so aptly said tonight, a teddy bear. Madiba had a core of steel and an authority about him that would be remembered by those who crossed him and those who were lead by him. He knew his own mind. With his death we have lost that. Over the past years we have also lost many of the generation who grew up with him: Oliver Tambo, a gentle soul and a fierce revolutionary, Walter Sisulu, softly spoken, highly principled and Govan Mbeki. People like Phyllis Naidoo, people for whom the struggle for justice and for an end to Apartheid was their life. That generation moved to a different tempo and their beliefs shaped the way they lived and shaped the way that South Africa was born. I feel lucky to have been a part of that.

In President Zuma’s announcement of Mandela’s death he said ‘ we saw in him what we seek in ourselves.’  and that is so true. I am so sad he is no longer with us, I wish he could have had many more years in freedom. I wish I could turn the clocks back. But we can’t – and so I am glad he is at least now free from pain and sadness. And I hope that in some way his death leads to a renewal of vows amongst South Africans – a renewal of the things we do look for in ourselves: kindness, fairness, hope, generosity, honesty and integrity.

Below is a recording of Another Country, a Mango Groove song written at a time when South Africa was on the verge of becoming a democracy. A dark time when many lost their lives.

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9. When she was bad, she was horrid

Saw an interesting comment by Michael Connelly, writer of the Harry Bosch series. On being asked about his Irish roots, he replied:

“ Yeah, I have complete Irish roots, and I went to Catholic schools and all of that ….But, you know, I don’t consider myself an Irish crime writer or an American crime writer, I consider myself a storyteller. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that if a character is interesting to the reader, it doesn’t really matter where that character is or where the writer is. That kind of story crosses all oceans and all boundaries.” 

It gets to the nub of writing – it is what we should all be, just story tellers with good characters. Characters that readers are interested in and who they care about. The genre is secondary – it is why good crime fiction does so well (in my view) it is because the stories are so good. Your attention is held. And you have characters in them that you care about (even more so in series where you have a central recurring character – think Jo Nesbo and Harry Hole.)

I am reminding myself here as much as others – I have a tendency to wander off from the story. Sometimes this is good as it leads the story to new places – other times it is just bad (like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead .. when she was good she was very very good, when she was bad she was horrid!). Note – I am not suggesting here that when I am good I am very very good … it just brought the nursery rhyme into my head. The ‘horrid’ still stands.

Wandering off in the middle of a story can lose you your reader – which is why I try to keep my reader in my head. They change shape depending on what I am writing – but sometimes they are a very specific person. I read aloud a piece I have written and wonder what they would think of it. It is not to say that I do not write for myself, I do, but that is not enough – I write so others can read – and if I don’t think about them I do them a disservice.

Anyway that came into my mind as I was talking to a lovely writers group during the week and it made me, once again, think about writing. The why, the what and the wherefore.

PS It is also about the words and how they are strung together – the last line of this little poem bears that out. Apart from rhyming with forehead, the use of the word horrid is just so perfect!


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10. One Book Project – Kilkenny City Vocational and Grennan College

Really looking forward to working with the students at Grennan College in Thomastown and Kilkenny City Vocational School on a One Book Project with The Sleeping Baobab Tree.

I will be working with the English Teachers and students as they do what will hopefully be lots of fun, cross curricular projects around the ideas thrown up by the book.

Last year I spent many satisfying hours working with a Second Year group in Kilkenny VEC on creative writing and was impressed with the work being done at the school – and especially impressed with the work done by the students in my group.

As I understand it a One Book Project allows students to view a work of fiction through the various prisms of their subjects – already I can visualise possibilities in Biology, Geography, English, History, Art, CSPE, music perhaps and Maths … I hope so. Should be lots of fun and I am looking forward to my part in it all.

Here’s a picture of a Baobab tree, apropos of nothing other than the book’s title and it is my favourite tree.. and the wide blue sky.

Baobab 3

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11. Elmore Leonard

So, Elmore Leonard died today. He lived a good life, long and full. I, for one, spent many hours contentedly reading his books –  his ear for snappy dialogue is second to none. Great writer.

Elmore Leonard

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12. Don’t talk about writing. WRITE!

Previously I wrote a post on the how to books of writing in which I focussed on Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing.

Today it’s Ray Bradbury.

Mainly because I am trying to give myself his advice: ‘Don’t talk about writing. WRITE!’

I need that advice because when I get an initial idea I talk about it, as it develops I talk about it and then I talk some more. By the time I’ve finished the book has almost been written (in my head) and I am (almost) bored by it.

So, from here on, I will take his advice as my Rule Number 1.

Perhaps Rule Number 2 should be: Read intensely. Write every day. Then see what happens. Most writers who do that have very pleasant careers. (courtesy Ray Bradbury as well)

It is easy to let the rest of your life get in the way – and mostly there is no reason why it shouldn’t as long as there is always a space in your day, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, to fit in some writing. It is not impossible.

I will leave Rule Number 3 for the meantime – I reckon these tow are enough to be getting along with and I need to get to them instead of writing this post!

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13. Writing yourself

I am assuming it is true for all authors, but know that this is true for me: a lot of me has gone into every piece of writing I’ve done. I am not sure how it could be otherwise.

I tried once, as an exercise, to see if I could write something in a genre and style unlike my own – just to see if I could do it. I could, with difficulty, but the result was highly unsatisfactory and when the laptop courteously enquired as to whether I wanted to save it I said no.

Both The Butterfly Heart and The Sleeping Baobab Tree tread on ground familiar to me as a child growing up in Zambia. Writing them has freshened up warm and rich memories and brought them back into the forefront of my mind. I am grateful for that. The other pieces of writing I have been working on are a novella set on Death Row in South Africa prior to the abolition of the death penalty and a full length novel set in South Africa again in the late eighties. Both of these delve into more recent memories of mine and writing them enabled me address the memories and find a place for them.

With the as yet unpublished  full length novel,  called Turn Left at the Camel Thorn Tree, the story allowed me to look at the question of belonging (it’s alternate name being Who Here Belongs) and a sense of place. Having lived in many places and never truly been of those places, it is a question that intrigues me.   And I use the word intrigue advisedly, as it does not distress me – just interests me. I feel privileged to have lived in all of the places, including here in Ireland.

With the novella, called No Shoelaces,  the issue is simpler. The novella attempts to take readers into the belly of a place manned by people whose only function is to keep people alive until it is time to kill them. Scheduled date and time. Luckily the place in question now houses a Death Row museum in South Africa. But not so in many other parts of the world. America springs to mind. As does Pakistan which recently ended a five year moratorium and announced plans to execute the 400 prisoners who the government says are under sentence of death. Other groups put the number as high as 8,000. A popular move in Pakistan, something no doubt that Nawaz Sharif is well aware of, but in my view a huge step backwards for the country.

In talking about ‘writing yourself’ I am not for a moment talking autobiography – it is just that the adage ‘write what you know’ holds true for me. It is quite simply just easier. And more real. I for one am going to stick to it.

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14. Every Four Seconds

I was struck yesterday by a news item about a UN report that states that the number of refugees in the world is now at a twenty year high – with a person leaving their home to seek refuge and safety every four seconds. Every four seconds. That is the state of our world. Syria alone now accounts for 1.6 million refugees. And world wide 46 percent of refugees are under eighteen – essentially children by our own definition.

So last year approximately 2 million children left their homes, sometimes with parents, sometimes without, to find a safer place to live. Children born into war, prejudice and starvation. These two million joined the seven million who are already out there.

Contrary to the image portrayed by some sectors of the media the majority of these refugees are being supported and looked after by the developing world – 86 percent of all refugees are in the care of the developing world.

And a statistic that took me by surprise, one in four of all refugees is from Afghanistan – and has been for the past 32 years. For 32 years there has been a steady stream of people fleeing Afghanistan in search of safety. A country that the US has spent $636,000,000,000 being at war with (and this number increases every second – see Cost of War website for the figures)

Today is World Refugee Day – the UN has a page detailing how people can help refugees and you can find it here.  Small things can make a difference.

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15. June 16th, Mbuyisa Makhubu and the children.

As part of my writing life I visit a lot of schools and libraries – many of the children I meet are aged eleven, twelve and thirteen. An age at which children should be children with all the freedom that entails.

In Soweto in 1976, and in the rest of the country in the years beyond that, children were out on the streets facing grown men in uniform. Men armed with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Children who were often the same age as the children in fifth and sixth Class that I now visit. Hundreds of schoolchildren, who left home that morning in their school uniforms, said goodbye to their parents, perhaps to their siblings and their grandparents and walked to their deaths. The next time their parents would see them would be in Baragwanath hospital or in the morgue.

Brave brave children who took on a system that was set up to humiliate them from birth. A system that ensured they would have no future. A system that had decided they should learn their subjects in Afrikaans in order for them to understand the ‘baas’ (boss, for those not from SA) when he gave them orders. A system that had declared they would be granted access to an education that would prepare them for a life as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’.

In June 1976 they took on that system and many of them died for it. The spark that started it was the issue of learning certain key subjects in Afrikaans (introduced in 1974) and this affected both teachers and pupils. The protest started off peacefully, around 15,000 students marched towards Orlando Stadium in Soweto – but police were waiting for them.  It is best remembered by those who were there,and Independent Lens interviewed some of them in this short film . It is worth watching this if only to see the how young some of these little ones were who were taking on what was a very powerful state.

Soweto 1976 Independent Lens PBS

The picture, shown in the film,  that has come to represent June 16th is of Hector Pieterson being carried in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector’s sister at his side. Hector was dying. he was thirteen years old. He, along with Hastings Ndlovu, was one of those shot and killed in that initial volley of fire.  

Mbuyisa’s face that haunts me in this picture. It haunts me because of what became of him. 

A year after this photo was taken – an iconic photo by now – Mbuyisa went into exile. He has never returned. No one knows what has happened to him. Stories have been told of him in Nigeria, of him becoming unwell, of him dying – but to date his family do not know what became of him. His mother appeared before the Truth Commission – and her plea at the end of it was:

All of us are going to die but I do want to know how my child died and when did my child die. And I’ve come here because this is my last hope, that maybe the Commission could help me find out what happened to my child.

She died in 2004 never knowing what had happened to her son.

Mbuyisa Makhubu

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16. Gowran National School

Went today to visit 4th Class at Gowran National School here in Kilkenny. They are officially (well, as far as I know!) the first class in the country to have read The Sleeping Baobab Tree. Was a lovely visit, lots of very interesting questions on the book – and they read The Butterfly Heart just before this, so lots of comparative questions. All good!

Thank you to their teacher, Emer O’Keeffe, who organised the visit. As music came up in conversation I was also delighted to hear that she had heard my brother’s band, Mango Groove, on a visit to South Africa – so for her, I have added in a video of one of their songs.

Here is the class

Gowran National School

And here is Mango Groove


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17. Make Me Care – Clues to a great story

SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is a great organisation. There is a chapter of it here in Ireland and similar ones all over the world. It was founded in LA in 1971 by a group of children’s writers and has gone from strength to strength since then.

One of its services to writers is a magazine they bring out every two months, the SCBWI Bulletin – and without fail it is jam packed full of useful information, opinion pieces and reviews. It is an invaluable resource.

This month one of the articles is entitled TED Talks that May Change the Way You Work, Think and Live. For those who don;t know TED go and take a look - http://www.ted.com/ It’s tagline is: Riveting talks by remarkable people – free to the world! And so it is.

One of the talks mentioned in the SCBWI article is by Andrew Stanton – The Clues to a Great Story. Definitely worth a look. He makes many valuable points in his talk but one of them stands out. To quote – ‘When you’re telling a story, make me care. Please. Emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically. Make me care.’

How true is that? Of any story in any genre any format and for any age. Perfectly true.

Anyway, will not transcribe the whole talk but worth a look and a listen. Lots to be learned.

Many other links recommended to TED talks in the article – including those on the Power of Introverts, Ken Robinson on Education, Jill Taylor on accessing the creative, bliss filled part of our brain and Elizabeth Gilbert on Your Elusive Creative Genius. .

And all for free!

An SCBWI illustrator Elena Ospina

An SCBWI illustrator Elena Ospina

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18. Gobblefunked

A lovely review just in of The Butterfly Heart courtesy of the crew at Gobblefunked (great name!) in Australia.  Have put the review in below but you can find it on thier website at gobblefunked. Go and take a look, lots of reviews!


Zambia is the butterfly in the heart of Africa, and like a butterfly it is beautiful but fragile.

Within reading the first few pages of Paula Leyden’s debut novel The Butterfly Heart (2011), it is not difficult to imagine you are sitting beneath a baobab tree on a warm Zambian evening. Leyden effortlessly describes the sights, sounds and smells of Zambia and contrasts their beauty against the phenomenon of child brides.

Bul-Boo and her twin sister Madillo could not be any more different if they tried. They squabble about anything and everything, sometimes not talking for days. But when their school friend Winifred becomes withdrawn and unlike her usual bubbly self in class, they unite to get to the bottom of it. It seems young Winifred has a dark secret. One that will change her life forever. She is to be married off to her cruel uncle’s friend. A man old enough to be her grandfather and thirsty enough to drink all the beer in town. Time is running out and it is up to Bul-Boo, Madillo and their neighbour, Fred, to save their friend before she loses her childhood, innocence and future.

After much contemplation, the school friends decide to ask the local snake man, Ifwafwa, for help. A mysterious old storyteller, Ifwafwa is a very wise man who knows evil and how it can quickly erode a young person’s life. He is very fond of Winifred and knows that he must act to save her from the forced marriage awaiting her. He sees the sadness and pain in her mother’s eyes, a woman who is a shadow of her former self after the death of her husband and the violence she endures daily. He wants to help give her and young Winifred a voice. Bul-Boo knows of Ifwafwa’s power but also of the sluggish nature of his decision making. Impatient as ever, she is getting restless but she must learn to trust in a higher power and in the wise old man.

Ifwafwa. Yes, that’s what they call me. The Puff Adder. Slow and heavy, but fast to strike.

Winner of the 2012 Eilis Dillion Award, this book is a wonderful introduction to Zambian culture and human rights issues. Leyden was born in Kenya and spent her childhood in Zambia, something which is evident in her lyrical writing and vivid imagery. She is respectful of the traditions of this beautiful country but is well aware of the many problems facing it today and the effect these problems will have on future generations. Steeped in history and witchcraft, this book is a wonderful debut novel and leaves readers wanting more. Thankfully, Leyden’s second book, The Sleeping Baobab Tree was released in May 2013 and it revisits the school friends on their next adventure.

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19. Beat the Author

Yesterday I spent some time with two Fifth classes at St. John’s School here in Kilkenny. A treat it was. For the first hour I was with Orla Mackey’s class (she of the Wondrous Teaching Notes fame!) . They have finished the book and as part of my visit Orla had organised a Beat The Author Quiz. Essentially it was Me vs. the world – being tested on my own book!

Under normal circumstances you would be forgiven for thinking that this was a slam dunk – who would know their book better than the author? Well, I’ll you who – Ms. Mackey’s Fifth Class. I scarcely had time to even think about ringing my bell, let alone answering the very hard questions,  before someone in the class had the answer. We ended up in a draw but only because some very kind students took pity on me and joined my team.

The children had lots of questions and also read out for me some of their work – which ranged from eulogies for various characters (literally brought a tear to my eye) to an oral history of Ifwawa to poems, an alphabet, a last will and testament – endless things and every one of them wonderfully done.

As a finale Gary, who was the winner of the ‘Talk for as long as you can about Butterfly Heart’ competition (a pause of four seconds and you were out!) stood up and spoke about the book. Two minutes and fifty one seconds later he stopped. He was brilliant! I heard later that he he performed this for another teacher and FIFTEEN minutes later he was still talking. A remarkable feat, well done Gary! I also got to hear about Merrylegs, a wonderful little pony who belongs to Tony – Merrylegs is lucky to have such a knowledgeable and careful owner.

So, thank you Ms. Mackey’s Fifth Class – I loved the time I spent with you and am sure one day I will be back.

I will write about Mr. Roche’s class again when they have finished the book as I promised them I would come back into to talk to them. What surprised me though was that even though they are only half way through the book they had lots of very interesting and thoughtful questions for me – they really made me think. So I am looking forward to a return trip where I can take some photos of their  work and chat to them some more.

Ms Mackey's Fifth Class 2013

Ms Mackey’s Fifth Class 2013

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20. St. John’s and The Butterfly Heart

As mentioned in the last post I spent a while last week in St. John’s School, Kilkenny. Below you will find some examples of the work Ms. Mackey’s class has been doing on The Butterfly Heart.

One of the groups did an Alphabet Book – they used every letter of the alphabet in words relevant to the book. I cannot scan the whole thing in so have just put in two pages to give you an idea. That group was Patrick, Katie, Lenka, Tony and Liam. The other groups have their names on the pages.

Thank you again, all of you, for the effort you have put into reading and understanding the book. I hope one day some of you might get a chance to visit Zambia and see it for yourself.

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21. The Wondrous Kilkenny Bookshops

What is not love about the Kilkenny bookshops? Stonehouse Books, The Book Centre and Dubray books all with beautiful window displays of The Sleeping Baobab Tree! How privileged am I, as an author, to be living in a city like this? And not just bookshops – but bookshops staffed by dedicated and passionate booksellers. Couldn’t ask for more.

In brilliant company in Dubray Books, Kilkenny

In brilliant company in Dubray Books, Kilkenny

And a fearsome lion at work in The Book Centre

And a fearsome lion at work in The Book Centre

Sunny Stonehouse Books

Sunny Stonehouse Books

Dubrays in Market Cross centre

Dubrays in Market Cross centre

The Book Centre

The Book Centre

Stonehouse Books, Kieran Street (launch venue)

Stonehouse Books, Kieran Street (launch venue)


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22. The Sleeping Baobab launched

Only getting round to putting up a few pictures of this now. Was a lovely launch – great crowd and they all seemed merry! Lots of family there, plus members of my writing group Gemma Hussey and Jean Flitcroft, plus members of my young writers group from the Kilkenny Vocational School, a spectacular cake made by Nicky Read of Nicky’s Cakes and all taking place at the wonderful Stonehouse Books. A big thank you to Liz, Tara and Claire for all the work, and to Palmyra Restaurant for the delicious food. Best hummus I’ve tasted. Also great to see Dubray Books well represented at the launch with their children’s book club, and The Book Centre as well! As I have said many times we are blessed with our booksellers. Conor Hackett, the Walker Rep in Ireland was down from Dublin – thanks Conor for making the trip and for being part of such a wonderful publisher.

I was lucky to have Tom my partner there – author of Old Friends,  and all our children – Amy, Christie, Kate, Aisling and Maurice, as well as my parents and a great representation of the O’Neill clan. Christie, as you will see from the pics, did the reading – far better than I could have done. Greatly appreciated. And Gemma spoke as well before I mumbled my thanks! So, a big thank you to everyone who was there – and to the two visitors to Kilkenny who wandered in from the street wondering what the hubbub was about and then bought a copy of the book! An unusual memory of a visit to Ireland, the launch of a book set in Zambia.


Christie 2Jean Gemma and PaulaKilkenny Vocationalkate IzzyLaunch 1

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23. First Review in of The Sleeping Baobab Tree

The indefatigable Mary Esther Judy over at Fallen Star Stories (and Dubray Books Galway) has just written (on a public holiday – dedication beyond compare) a beautiful review of The Sleeping Baobab Tree.

Thank you Mary Esther – I am so pleased it spoke to you in this way!

Mary Esther

Author: Paula Leyden
ISBN: 9781406327939
Walker Books
Sister Leonisa is always telling her students grim and gruesome stories. One day, she tells them all about Ng’ombe Ilede… the place of the sleeping cow; the place of death. As Bul-boo and Madillo arrive home filled with her horror stories, next-door neighbour Fred (himself always full of tales of woe) informs them he is to go to that very spot with his fearsome witch great-granny, Nokokulu. Also, that night they learn that patients from their mothers’ AIDS clinic are mysteriously vanishing; one of the vanished just happens to be Freds’ wonderful Aunt Kiki. Is all of this a strange coincidence or fate? With Bul-boo and Madillo stowing away in the boot of the car, Nokokulu drives a doom-laden Fred out into the Zambian wilds for an encounter with mystery and magic the three will never forget. At the sleeping baobab tree, anything could happen.
It is such a joy to return to the lives of Bul-boo and her twin Madillo in the butterfly heart of Africa. Leyden’s descriptive text gives full texture to the place, the people and the beliefs of Zambia with a strength that allows the reader to believe they are there. While Bul-boo and Madillo again provide a sense of the duality of human nature; the pragmatic meeting the superstitious; this story primarily belongs to Fred, who struggles with his inbuilt sense of impending disaster at every turn. The relationship between the three friends provides a strong, yet easy dialogue with the aspects of loyalty, mystery, common sense and confusion that make up their emerging world-view. Add to this the frightening and yet stabilising character of Nokokulu, a symbol of roots and tradition as strong as the ancient Sleeping Baobab Tree, and we have an impressive dialogue with a social structure in conflict with itself; which of the old way to keep and which to throw away; how to move fully into the contemporary world and remain who we truly are; a quality that allows the story to easily relate wherever the reader may live.
It may seem that these are heavy, burdensome concepts for young readers to take on, but not at all. The story is not weighed down by messages or agendas. It is adventurous, mysterious and humourous. The friendships are tangible. The characters are identifiable and become easily lodged in the readers’ hearts and memories. The situations in which the friends find themselves are believable and are depicted from a child’s-eye view that never speaks down to the reader, but leads them through a wondrous and heart-felt journey.  As with Leyden’s first book; ‘The Sleeping Baobab Tree’ is simply beautiful, and an absolute joy; a rare and wonderful gift.
(Note: There are teaching notes available for both of Paula Leyden’s books, making them ideal novels for class use.)


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24. Book Titles

The title of a book is so important – and not many people have titles as consistently good as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (in my humble opinion) – and I suppose that is linked to the fact that not many people write as well as he does (again … in my humble opinion..)

Think of these:

Love in the time of Cholera

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World

No-one writes to the Colonel

Memories of my Melancholy Whores.

The General in his Labyrinth


Other titles I like, from other authors

Up in Honey’s Room – Elmore Leonard

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

Of Mice and Men – Steinbeck

And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street – Dr Seuss

Death is a lonely business – Ray Bradbury

Dandelion Wine – Ray Bradbury

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

Looking for Transwonderland – Noo Saro Wiwa

Looking for Transwonderland

OK I’ll stop now … but it is a hard thing getting a title right, and it does matter!

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25. Writing and David Bowie

Watched a brilliant documentary the other evening on David Bowie entitled Five Years. What was consistently striking about it was his dedication to his craft and the fact that he constantly evolved and changed what he was doing. Musically he never stood still – as evidenced by the extraordinary variety in his music throughout his life right up to his recent release The Next Day.

David Bowie Five Years

David Bowie Five Years

Like him or hate him there is a lot to admire about him and a lot to be reminded about as writers.

Number one is discipline. The discipline to sit down and write, to research, to promote, to learn more  about the craft – but above all to write.  To use the time that you have (and this varies for everyone, it can be snatched moments between work, children, daily life or it can be unfettered time) in the best way. It is a mega cliché but time passes and once it has gone it has gone – so you owe it to yourself as a writer to use it well.

Number two is to make sure that with each project you take on you extend your abilities, move yourself on – go forward. This is no different than in any type of work or occupation if you are lucky enough to be working in an area that allows for this – take yourself to the next level. Make it better. Stretch your brain. Never be satisfied. In writing we can do this as it is self directed, it is up to us as writers to manage what we do and how we do it.

Number three is cooperation – and this is different for musicians than for writers. The evolution of a song is very different to the evolution of a novel. Writing is a solitary occupation – but it does not have to be lonely. Being part of a writers group is one way of cooperating – or getting the corners rubbed off you! Sharing your writing with a partner, your children, writing friends, illustrators is another. This is not for everyone. I know of writers who work till its done and then let it out into the light. I am not like that – I like feedback, I think it improves my writing.

And Number Four is I suppose be true to yourself. To do this you have to know yourself, but when you do be true to who your are. Because it shows.

Now I just have to go and remind myself to listen to my own advice – far easier to give advice than to follow it.

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