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Meet the new children's literature champion who writes in her camper van as she travels around the UK and takes notes for disabled students

Belfast author Kelly McCaughrain has today been named as the new Seamus Heaney Children's Writing Fellow. She tells Linda Stewart how her love for books began and why she and her husband love adventures in their 1967 Volkswagen

Top honour: Kelly McCaughrain, the new Seamus Heaney Writing Fellow, outside Queen’s University
Top honour: Kelly McCaughrain, the new Seamus Heaney Writing Fellow, outside Queen’s University

By Linda Stewart

If Carlsberg did book launches, they'd probably come up with something not so very different from Kelly McCaughrain's launch of Flying Tips for Flightless Birds last year.

Held at the Crescent Arts Centre, it was a "really fun, circus-themed event" featuring the massed talents of the Belfast Ukulele Jam, of which Kelly is a member.

"There are about 60 of us and we get together in the Botanic Inn every Tuesday night to play, and we do gigs and charity events. They actually came and played at my book launch to entertain everyone," Kelly says.

The 41-year-old young adult (YA) author from Belfast says she's obsessed with circuses (fittingly as her first book was set in a circus that is under threat of closure) and recently tried out a circus fitness class with her sister: "Hardest thing I've ever done - much harder than writing the book!"

Kelly has just been named the new Seamus Heaney Children's Writing Fellow, a role created by the Seamus Heaney Centre and the Arts Council NI, and is chuffed to bits as one of her bugbears is the way children's literature is afforded less recognition than adult literature.

"I think it's a wonderful post. For me personally it's a fantastic opportunity," she says.

And she's ideal for the role, which involves two years of promoting and supporting children's reading and writing.

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New role: Kelly McCaughrain (far right) with Myra Zepf, outgoing Seamus Heaney Writing Fellow, Glenn Patterson (far left), director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s and Damian Smyth, head of literature and drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland
New role: Kelly McCaughrain (far right) with Myra Zepf, outgoing Seamus Heaney Writing Fellow, Glenn Patterson (far left), director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s and Damian Smyth, head of literature and drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Flying Tips has already been on several award shortlists, longlists and nomination lists and has won her three Children's Books Ireland Awards, including Book of the Year. It also won the Northern Ireland Book Award and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal.

"I never expected any of that, so it's been really a wonderful surprise," Kelly says.

"The awards have been such a huge encouragement. They're generally run by school library associations and librarians and that's one of the lovely things about writing for kids - there are lots of school libraries eager to celebrate your books and help kids engage with them.

"And the thing about librarians is that they choose their books with the purest motivation. They don't care how fashionable your topic is or if you're a celebrity or if there's a movie coming out - they just want good books for their readers, so it really feels like a big honour to be chosen by them.

"It's also particularly lovely to have been voted for by young readers. The CBI Children's Choice Award is voted for entirely by children so to have won that, that feels like a huge validation."

Brought up in north Belfast and now living in the east of the city, Kelly says she knew she wanted to be a writer since her childhood as a pupil at Carnmoney Primary School and then Ballyclare High School - and that has never really changed.

"I told my parents when I was six that I wanted to be a writer and they told me not to give up the day job," she smiles.

"I was shy about my writing and I never showed it to anybody. I read the sorts of things that everybody read - Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton. When I was a teenager, there wasn't a young adult scene - kids these days are really lucky to have all that. All the YA books that are around these days are fantastic.

"My obsession was Anne of Green Gables. It was dated when I read it, but she wanted to be a writer as well and that probably appealed to me. I always wrote poems and things, but I started writing for teenagers when I was in my late 20s and I was trying to write something for adults - but I became more interested in the point of view of the teenager in the story.

Inspired move: Kelly writing in her Volkswagen camper van
Inspired move: Kelly writing in her Volkswagen camper van

"I have very, very vivid memories of my own teenage years and I'm drawn to that part of my life."

Kelly admits that could be something to do with first dating her now husband, computer programmer Michael Orr (41) at the age of 16.

"We met in primary school when I was six and I used to beat him up. That's what you do when you're kids - beat each other up. He was very tolerant," she laughs.

"But I started dating my husband when I was 16, so all my experiences of romance and falling in love come from high school. So that probably influences my writing.

"In high school we had some friends who started dating, and we ended up together through that."

After school, Kelly was torn between studying English and psychology at university.

"I went to Queen's and did psychology, because I thought it would be more useful for getting a job. But although I really enjoyed psychology, when I finished, I didn't want to be a psychologist, and I went straight out and got a job in a bookshop."

Years later, Kelly was to return to Queen's to study English and Creative Writing, but she had found her spiritual home at the War on Want bookshop at Botanic Avenue, now called Self Help for Africa. She started volunteering in 2002 and still goes in occasionally to volunteer - "I think I'm the longest serving volunteer!"

What attracted her was firstly the books, and secondly the fact that all the volunteers were avid book lovers.

"It's a really nice wee community - they have regular customers and everybody knows everybody else," she says.

"When you live in a city like Belfast, even though it's a very small city, it's still a city and it's very easy to feel anonymous. I like finding these wee pockets of communities. The writing community is a really nice, supportive community in Belfast and the bookshop community is the same."

Meanwhile, Kelly has been working as a note taker at Belfast Met since 2001 - "I go to classes with the disabled students and take their notes for them."

It was her QUB Creative Writing tutor Sinead Morrissey who first gave her the push to become an author, encouraging her to enter her novel for teenagers into The Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction competition, where it was shortlisted.

That helped her to get an agent who then succeeded in selling Flying Tips to publishers Walker Books in a two-book deal.

"It was a really smooth route to publication, compared to some people's experience," Kelly says.

Kelly trying out a circus fitness class
Kelly trying out a circus fitness class

Flying Tips was finally published in March last year, a romantic comedy set in a small town in Northern Ireland.

"It's about a pair of twins who are a flying trapeze act, and they're trying to save their family circus from closing. And while all that is going on, they are trying to survive being the freaks at school," Kelly explains.

"One of the lovely things about writing for kids is that they contact you with loads of questions about the backstory to the character. There's a granny in the story and I had someone emailing me to ask if she has a pension!"

She's also had a lot of welcome feedback from teenagers who are pleased that the book includes a young LGBT character.

Kelly is now working on her second book for Walker Books, but is tight-lipped about the subject matter.

"It's different, but it will be for the same age group," she says.

"I sometimes think I don't even know what the book is about until it's finished. It's set in a school - I like a school setting. It lets you bring together people who are very different and forces them to interact in a confined space. There's probably no other time in your life when you're confined in a space like that.

"You make your lifelong friends and your worst enemies, so the possibilities for fiction, I think, are endless."

Another item on the wish list is to write a book featuring a camper van - a big part of Kelly's life is her beloved camper van Gerda.

"Gerda is a 1967 Volkswagen in pretty original condition. We bought her in England about six years ago but she was brought over from America so she's left hand drive, which makes for an interesting driving experience," she says.

"I named her Gerda after the kickass female heroine in my favourite fairy story, The Snow Queen. I always loved that she goes off traveling alone and rescues the boy.

"They're not that expensive to buy, compared to modern campers, but you have to budget a bit for maintenance. They have quite simple engines so my husband does a lot of the repairs himself.

"We drove all the way back from Connemara a couple of years ago and only discovered when we got home that the steering column was about to fall off, which made the trip much more exciting in retrospect!" The furthest they have ever travelled with Gerda is France, she says.

"Gerda is more tortoise than hare, so it takes a bit of time to get anywhere. She'll do 60mph but it feels cruel to make her," she says.

"I spent a week taking her across England by myself and my husband met me in Dover so we could take her across to France.

"We were feeling very adventurous for having gotten so far and then, at the very first campsite we stopped at in Amiens, we ended up parked next to a guy from the Castlereagh Road, which was a bit of an anti-climax."

Kelly continues: "I'd love to take her to Scandinavia or Italy but we might have to take some time off work to get that far. I'm a keen gardener so we mostly take her around England and Wales visiting National Trust gardens, which is my idea of heaven.

"Michael built some shelves for her which are supposed to be for food but they happen to be just the right size to store paperbacks, which is handy!

"I usually bring my laptop on holiday so I can write, and I blog about our adventures, mostly so my mother can keep track of where we are.

"I can't remember the last time I went on holiday without a laptop actually. That's probably not healthy."

Kelly says she's delighted to be taking on the Seamus Heaney Writing Fellowship, especially as it gives her so much freedom to develop her own interests.

"I think it makes sense, because children's writing is so important - it's such a formative thing. We know that children who read become more empathetic adults, with a great ability to express themselves, they have more emotional resilience and higher earning power," she says.

"But children's books get less media coverage, they get fewer reviews, they get less shelf space, less money and less respect.

"It annoys me that people dismiss children's literature as more trivial and less worthy.

"It's more important because we include it in our lives when we are at our most impressionable. It shapes individuals and individuals shape society. It's just as important as adult literature.

"My own area of interest is in working with teenagers - I've been mentoring teenage writers at Fighting Words Belfast. I've been doing that for three years and it's so rewarding, and it's especially valuable as children get older and their school time becomes increasingly exam-focused and there are fewer opportunities to be creative."

One of the things she wants to do with the fellowship is go into schools to encourage teenagers to write and to help them set up writing groups of their own.

"I'd like there to be online elements that any school can access and use," Kelly says.

"I would like to see creativity as something that is valued just as much as exam results and I'd like to focus the fellowship on encouraging creativity in young people."

Kelly McCaughrain’s top young adult book choices

Five recently published favourites:

● No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

I'd love this even if it didn't feature a camper van! I love all her books actually, she writes the most endearing characters and heart-warming novels.

● Noah Can't Even by Simon James Green

I laughed out loud the whole way through this one.

● Tin by Padraig Kenny

Mechanical children on an adventure to find out what it really means to be human. Need I say more?

● The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay

This is a completely charming and heartbreaking story of the First World War.

● Mud by Emily Thomas

This funny, sad, incredible story is based on the author's childhood living on a houseboat with her enormous step-family.

Five favourite classics:

● Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

I was completely obsessed with these as a kid. Anne wanted to be a writer so that was probably a factor.

● Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson

I discovered the Moomin books as an adult and I think they're stunning. This one just breaks me every time I read it.

● Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Shelley wrote this when she was 18 and I've always considered it a teen-read because I read it when I was a teenager and was blown away by it.

● Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl is one of the best characters I've ever read. I defy you to not fall for him.

● Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

Don't. I will cry.

Five favourites by local writers (I think there's loads of great stuff for children and teens coming out of NI at the moment):

● Street Song by Sheena Wilkinson (right)

I was totally hooked by this story of what happens after the ordinary teenager wins a TV talent show.

● The Unknowns by Shirley-Anne McMillan

Urban teen anarchists roaming Belfast and breaking the law to help the downtrodden - absolutely loved this unusual, beautiful novel.

● Who Do You Think You Are? by Pauline Burgess

This is a really tender portrait of a Polish family living in Belfast with a shy main character you can't help but root for.

● Noinin by Myra Zepf

The premise of this Irish verse novel is dark and thrilling - a teen is lured into danger by an online relationship and disappears. Really wish I spoke Irish so I could read this one! Might be a good time to start learning...

● Death & Co by DJ McCune

This trilogy about a boy born into a family of grim reapers is fun and exciting with a hugely relatable main character.

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