Often when we are considering publishing a manuscript we send it out to external readers for their opinion. Sometimes we feel that we need a young person’s perspective. Sometimes we want the opinion of a teacher, or bookseller, or librarian. Sometimes a story is about a character with a particular sort of life experience – a traumatic event, or growing up with a disability, or coming from a particular minority or marginalised background, etc – and we’d like the opinion of somebody who has had a similar experience, or who knows something about it. Sometimes we just want the point of view of a great reader who knows a good book when they see one.
That was the thinking when we asked a highly experienced reader to have a look at this brilliant manuscript we’d been sent called The Eternal Return of Clara Hart, by an unknown author called Louise Finch. We knew this book was special, but we needed an opinion from outside the bubble of the Little Island office. The reader in question reads very carefully and very thoroughly and usually sends us actual essays about the books. These essays don’t always state very clearly whether the book is good or not – she isn’t the sort of person who gushes – but they are very thoughtful and perceptive and they demand to be read just as carefully as she has read the manuscript, in order to figure out if it’s really an endorsement or not.
Usually. But not this time. This time she replied:
“I don’t know why you’ve asked me to read this. You know you have to publish it, and it ought to win the Carnegie Medal.”
Well, that was good enough for us. We pushed the big red PUBLISH button. And over a year later, lo and behold: Louise Finch’s The Eternal Return of Clara Hart has become the first-ever Irish-published book to have made the shortlist of the Yoto Carnegie Medal.
The Carnegie Medal, for those who don’t know, is like the Booker Prize for books for young people. It’s probably the most prestigious children’s/teens’ book prize in the world (or the English-speaking world, at any rate). A lot of its prestige comes from the fact it is judged by librarians, people who really know and care about good books. Previous winners include the likes of CS Lewis, Mary Norton, Philippa Pearce, Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett… Big Names. And until now no Irish publisher has ever made the shortlist.
Until a few years ago, we weren’t even eligible. When I wrote to the good people behind the Carnegie to point out that they were missing out on some very excellent books coming out of Ireland, I was pushing an open door. They had already been thinking about it, and they promptly permitted Irish publishers to submit for the award. That year Little Island had the first Irish nomination: The Gone Book by Helena Close. The next year came another: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan. Then a hat-trick: Baby Teeth by Meg Grehan; Things I Know by Helena Close; and Louise Finch’s debut. This last one progressed to the longlist, and then, on St Patrick’s Day no less, it was announced that an Irish publisher had made the shortlist for the first time.
Two other independent presses have books on the writing prize list (there’s also an illustration shortlist, rebranded from the Greenaway Medal a couple of years ago): Firefly Press and Barrington Stoke, both of whom are stablemates of ours at our wonderful UK sales team, Bounce Sales and Marketing. It’s great to see indies make these shortlists (and most of the big children’s publishers are absent from it). We think that, with two full-time and one part-time employees, and one volunteer (our founder, Siobhán Parkinson, still does some editing on a voluntary basis), we might just be the smallest publisher ever to make it this far, whether from Ireland or anywhere else.
Punching above our weight and outcompeting the big guys is what gets us out of bed in the morning, and achievements like this make it all worthwhile. The list of people without whom this wouldn’t be possible is long and includes the wonderful literature team at the Arts Council of Ireland, cover illustrator Holly Pereira and all the other freelancers who worked on this book. But most of all, of course, it’s down to one woman: Louise Finch, an outstanding talent we expect to become a major name in YA writing. Congratulations, Louise, and thank you for giving us the chance to do our best with your book!
Matthew Parkinson-Bennett, 20 March 2023