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Literacy Learnings
Léargais Litearthachta


Illustrator name: Shona Shirley McDonald
Title of shortlisted book: Cluasa Capaill ar an Rí

1. What was your earliest memory of reading/being read to?
Mum read to us a lot, and I have a specific memory of her reading to my younger brother Ruairidh, (The Orchard Book of Greek Myths, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean & Emma Chichester Clark), I was reading myself at this point but I sneaked through to listen as well. The first book I remember reading myself was about a rabbit, (Run Rabbit Run by Helen Piers) it had photos rather than illustrations, but I was fascinated and exhilarated to be able to read the story, all on my own!

2. When did you first begin to illustrate for an audience?
I studied animation, specialising in stop-motion animation, so my first foray into illustration was when I illustrated two Scottish Gaelic comics for West Highland Animation, a tiny studio located in a remote glen. One of the stories was based on an ancient Chukchi shamanic tale (Cuir Stad air an Stoirm Shneachta) and the other a solar creation myth of the Nivkh people (An Smutag Ghaisgeil). Leslie MacKenzie who ran West Highland Animation rewrote these two stories in Scottish Gaelic. Overall it was a tricky process, but I learned a great deal.

3. What book inspired you most as a young illustrator? Why?
Our house was full of books, and we regularly went to the library. I realise how lucky I was, now many libraries have been closed where I grew up. So it’s impossible to pick one book, but I'll mention some favourites. They all have equally excellent visual and written storytelling, some with humour, some with beauty, and all a bit weird.
Tales of Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan.
The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey.
Wonderful Life by Helen Ward.
The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone, by Timothy Basil Ering.
Biscuit Bear by Mini Grey.
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip illustrated by Lane Smith and written by George Saunders.
East of the Sun and West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer (actually this one is from childhood but I still love it).

4. What is the best thing about illustrating for a contemporary audience?
As our society has become more liberal, so too can be the content of our books, in Ireland anyway. Also it seems to me that people are very much looking for books in Irish so that’s excellent.

5. What is the most challenging thing about illustrating for a contemporary audience?
There are many challenging things about being an illustrator now, but they’re not to do with the audience.

6. What inspired you to illustrate Cluasa Capaill ar an Rí?
I find folk tales and myths fascinating, as they say something about who we were, and we can retell them to say who we are now. I love their magical realism, and the way the natural world tends to take a central role. I appreciated the overall theme, to accept yourself, be honest and to share your problems, because when you bottle them up they can take on monstrous proportions. I also wanted to illustrate it because it's important to me to make excellent quality books in Irish, and I was glad to work with writer Bridget Bhreathnach and publisher Futa Fata.

7. What have you learned from the process of illustrating this book?
I did a lot of research into Bronze and Iron Age Ireland and Celtic Europe, in order to bring in some relevant patterns, clothing and jewellery designs, to help root it in place. There are so many beautiful artefacts it seems a shame not to take inspiration from them, and mix it with imagination of course. I also learned about the process of asking people to model for the characters. Though really, much of this is also did for the previous book, An Féileacán agus an Rí, (Máire Zepf & Futa Fata). With this book I was mostly utilising the previous learning and so I had a bit more fun with it.

8. What advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator?
I would say some terribly clichéd things but which may be true: follow your heart, trust your gut, make the kind of work you love, it’s the only thing that will make it worthwhile.
Join the IGI and AOI, illustrators can learn from and support each other, at times I have found this help and support invaluable.

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