Hard at Play by Debbie Thomas

Hard at Play by Debbie Thomas

AuthorLittle Island Time

One of the best things about writing for children is writing with children, helping them to unlock their own creativity using words as the key. And it doesn’t have to be English words. Over the last couple of months I’ve been running creative writing workshops with Ukrainian children, some of whom who speak no English; with Syrian children who speak very little, and with children who’d rather do anything but write. There have also been author visits for Children’s Book Festival, in which we explore themes from Chameleon Dad, and creative writing workshops at Crumlin Hospital. Throw in the Dublin Book Festival and a lovely chat with writers Sinéad O’Hart and Susan Cahill on the Storyshaped podcast, and it’s been a vibrant, varied ride. And unifying it all is that wonderful moment …



Some people call it flow, others the zone but I like whoosh: that point in a workshop or author visit when everyone comes together, focused on one question or image or hilarious thought. The surroundings fade and individuals merge into one big whoosh of wonder. Egos dissolve and eyes look up to a sum bigger than the parts. So whether it’s designing welcome mats, discussing Chameleon Dad or dreaming on the page at Crumlin Hospital, it’s been a whooshy autumn. 



In this project, funded by Clare Libraries during September and October, I ran writing workshops as part of a team of five creative facilitators. Along with a drama teacher, a songwriter, a podcaster and a puppeteer, I worked with groups from five primary schools around County Clare. Moving from group to group over five weeks, we explored the theme of welcome using our different art practices. The project began with a desire to welcome Ukrainian children, many of whom have joined schools in County Clare over the last six months. It soon grew into a celebration of all the participants’ cultures, from Polish to French, Brazilian to Spanish and of course Irish. This lifted the project from a one-way ‘charity drive’ by Irish children for Ukrainians, into a multicultural jamboree.

It was in at the deep end … how do you run a school writing workshop with Ukrainian children who speak no, or little, English, and who write in Cyrillic script? Some serious gulping as I wondered how on earth every child could write something to share with a mostly Irish audience at the final showcase in glór Arts Centre in Ennis.

The answer lay on the doorstep … welcome mats! With the help of an interpreter, the children worked in groups, decorating large sheets with Ukrainian, Russian, English and Irish words on the theme of welcome. There were universal hugs обійми and cups of tea чашки чаю and specifically Ukrainian welcome offerings such as pelmeni пельмені (dumplings) and bread dipped in salt. The resulting mats were a party on the page for languages, cultures and creativity. As confidence grew, we moved on to creative writing exercises that inspired some remarkable poems from the children’s limited English.

 Welcome Mat design
Welcome Mat

Welcome Poem

Welcome Poem

Welcome poem translation



Another autumn project has focused on visual storytelling with Syrian families. Supported and funded by Meath Libraries, illustrator Tatyana Feeney and I worked with children and their parents to tell stories through pictures. We used the Silent Books as inspiration. This set of wordless picture books from around the world was chosen by members of IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People).

The children ‘read’ the picture books and then told the stories to each other, building oral skills. We then helped them create their own stories through pictures, with the help of their (often shyer) parents. As in World of Welcome, the focus on fun, teamwork and art. The literacy skills grew almost by stealth. 



This October tour by children’s authors is always a brilliant opportunity to encourage reading, promote children’s books and have fun with creative writing. And with the festival capering back into post-pandemic schools and libraries this year, it’s been a joy to leave screens behind and visit in person. In Cork, Clare, Carlow, Galway and Dublin, 4th to 6th classes have explored themes from Chameleon Dad, joining heroine Connie on her journey to find her true family. Along the way, we’ve gone virtual fossil hunting and designed dinosaurs, from the large-nosed Conkosaurus to the well-read Thesaurus rex.

And there’s more Design-a-saurus fun on the way, with school and family events this weekend at the Dublin Book Festival, and at the National Library on December 10th.

Children's Book Festival
Children's Book Festival


As writer in residence at Our Lady’s Hospital School in Crumlin, it’s a huge privilege to run weekly writing workshops with children who are well enough to attend. Through fun writing exercises they invent worlds and explore their hopes and dreams. Over the last few years they’ve produced two books. In My Handbook of Heroes they reinvented themselves as superheroes and wrote about their real-life heroes. In Nation Creation they dreamed up their ideal countries, complete with laws, national costumes, holidays and foods. And this October, children have been realising their hopes and dreams on paper. One girl described performing life-saving surgery as a cardiothoracic surgeon then walking out of the operating theatre into the hugs and tears of joy of the patient’s family.



This fascinating podcast invites children’s writers to share the stories that have shaped them and that influence the stories they write. It’s wonderful to get to know writers in this way – I’ve been listening in the car on the way to Children’s Book Festival and have loved hearing the choices of Olivia Hope, E.R. Murray, Sam Thompson and others. And it’s been equally fun to participate, joining Sinéad and Susan to discuss our favourite and formative stories. Their brilliant questions and insights set us whooshing from the start. Listen to the episode.


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