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Meet the Belfast man who has designed stamps, created Europe's biggest mosaic and illustrated bestselling books

Belfast-born award-winning illustrator PJ Lynch, who is the current all-Ireland children's laureate, tells Ivan Little how he is now using Twitter and tablets to help youngsters lose themselves in a book

He's the award-winning artist who has created everything from tiny postage stamps to huge church mosaics, but now PJ Lynch, the latest all-Ireland children's laureate, has admitted he has a hankering to paint murals in his native Belfast.

Not ones depicting the paramilitary hard men with their masks and their rifles, but rather ones reflecting Lynch's self-avowed obsession with history, myths and legends of a much older and different kind.

The 54-year-old illustrator, who now lives in Dublin with his wife and three children, was recently back in Belfast for the first time in his capacity as Laureate na nOg, holding a special drawings workshop, organised by BookTrust NI, with pupils of Lagan College, an integrated seat of learning close to his heart.

His post is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Arts Council of Ireland in Dublin, with other partners. Its aim is to promote creativity among children and to encourage more of them to read books for pleasure.

"My brief is to communicate my enthusiasm for kids' books to as wide an audience as I possibly can. We are calling my laureateship The Big Picture and, as well as my visits to schools, I am using social media to get my message across," Lynch says.

"Modern technology is a major distraction for children but I am sending out video podcasts via computers, smartphones, and iPads which are sometimes seen as the enemies of old-fashioned books."

The multi-channel TV world is obviously something else which is blamed for keeping youngsters away from books and Lynch says: "My own kids think it's hilarious that in my youth there were only two channels on the TV - and in black and white to boot.

"There weren't anything like the same distractions in those days and if you wanted to read a book you got stuck into it.

"But today everyone has a little magic box - the smartphone - in their pockets and it does stuff that even 20 years ago nobody could even have guessed."

Lynch, who is a second cousin of playwright Martin Lynch, concedes that it's a battle to keep children interested in books and he tries to persuade parents and teachers to start the reading habit early and get the youngsters "falling in love with the feel of a real book".

However, he concedes: "There are some children who simply aren't reading books and that's very, very sad. I want them to not only read again but also to make their own books."

In his younger days, Lynch was quick on the draw, so to speak.

From the age of three he was sketching Native Americans in his home in north Belfast where his mother and his siblings still live.

"I was the kid who loved to draw," says Lynch, who spent his youthful summers with his mother's people in Dunloy in Co Antrim.

"That really got me in touch with a different kind of culture," he explains. "There was a lot of storytelling and a rural tradition that was really important to me. I worked really hard and I got in touch with the earth."

Back in Belfast the Troubles were intensifying and he escaped the horrors around him in the city through his artwork.

"It was easy for me to retreat into a fantasy world," says Lynch, and initially at school, it was thought that his drawing skills would make him a prime candidate for an architect's career, but at St Malachy's College two teachers Mr McFadden and Mr Maguire - "I still call them mister" - were major influences on him having other ideas.

"I could have drawn the whole day instead of having to do French and physics and the upshot was that I went to Art College in Belfast where I first really thought about illustration as a possible job," says Lynch, who was happy to get away from the Troubles and move to Brighton in 1981 for the start of a three year stint at the local College of Art.

It was an artistic match made in heaven. For in Brighton one of Lynch's tutors was Raymond Briggs, the man behind the iconic children's picture book The Snowman, which became a hit movie and, along with its famous track Walking In the Air sung by Aled Jones, is now a Christmas classic.

"He made a big impression and a lot of us went on to become illustrators," says Lynch, whose first book A Bag of Moonshine, a collection of English and Welsh folklore tales by Alan Garner, won the prestigious Mother Goose award for the most exciting newcomer to British children's book illustration.

And the award really was a golden egg as it introduced Lynch to a new publisher, Walker Books, with whom he is still associated three decades later.

But the real game-changer for Lynch was the publishers' decision to ask him to illustrate a book, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by American writer Susan Wojciechowski. The book has sold over two million copies and the story has been turned into a movie, a musical and a play.

To date Lynch has illustrated over 20 publications including modern editions of classics like Dickens' A Christmas Carol and The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen.

He admits that his books take a long time and hard work to complete. Rush jobs they are not and part of that is due to the extensive research that he undertakes into all the stories that he illustrates.

It was only a short time ago that he actually wrote his first book after 30 years of bringing other people's stories to life.

"I never thought my writing would be good enough but when I was reading about the history of the Mayflower which brought the Pilgrim Fathers to America I was intrigued by the story of John Howland who fell off the ship, but was rescued," he says.

It's estimated that in the US today there are 10 million descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers. Presidents Franklin D Roosevelt and George Bush Snr and Jnr came from that stock and Donald Trump has been invited to England in three years' time to join in the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower's sailing.

Lynch's newest book, which has a storyline written by RTE presenter Ryan Tubridy, also has a Presidential theme as it follows JFK's visit to Wexford in June 1963.

"That was right up my street," he says.

"And I also did another book about Abraham Lincoln that really opened my eyes to his family's story before his assassination. It was fascinating," adds Lynch, who has produced posters for Opera Ireland and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin as well as a range of stamps for An Post, the Irish postal service.

But at the other end of the scale, he has also completed one of the biggest mosaics of its kind in Europe at the Basilica at the Marian shrine in Knock in Co Mayo.

The imposing mosaic which depicts the Apparition at Knock in 1879 is five storeys high, measuring 14m by 14m, and was designed by Lynch and completed by 16 skilled artisans in Italy before it was inlaid last year on the wall behind the sanctuary close to where John Paul II celebrated Mass during his Papal visit in 1979.

He recalls: "I worked on a smaller scale version of the mosaic for over a year and I had to roll it up in a sewage pipe and take it across to northern Italy to the mosaicists who were lovely people."

Lynch says it was a humbling experience to watch the unveiling, especially as the experts' opinion is that a mosaic can last for anything up to 10,000 years.

In 2006 he completed two large Gulliver's Travels murals for a new County Library in Cavan and he is also having discussions about him and groups of children painting big murals on walls in Belfast and Dublin, but agreement is still a long way off.

The bloodthirsty images in the Belfast murals never appealed to him, but he says he has long admired the artistry of the muralists and he has welcomed the recent trends to paint sporting and cultural heroes on gable ends rather than the men of violence.

Like them or loathe them, Lynch says the murals are a unique part of the Northern Irish tradition, but as he travels the world as part of his laureateship he makes a point of concentrating on the achievements of writers and illustrators from his own backyard.

"I take great pride that Northern Ireland has produced some of the greatest contributors to children's books ever - CS Lewis, Martin Waddell, Sam McBratney, Anita Jeram and the biggest name of today, Oliver Jeffers, plus plenty of other up-and-coming stars."

The Troubles haven't featured in Lynch's work. "I think that would be a tricky subject for an illustrator of kids' books and I would find it difficult to address. But I wouldn't rule it out. The Troubles were a big important part of my childhood."

Lynch's visit to Lagan College wasn't his first as an artist. Twenty years ago he was there to present the college with £1,000 worth of books, part of his reward for winning the Kate Greenaway award for children's illustration.

"I picked out the college because I loved the idea of integrated education and coming back two decades later it has been tremendous to meet all these kids who don't care about each other's religions. They just get on great," says Lynch, who admitted the college was unrecognisable from his last trip when it was housed in a pre-fabricated building.

The library where Lynch interacted with the children on his latest visit is now an ultra-modern space with banks of computers and work stations which sit side by side with easy chairs.

But while most things had moved on apace, he was pleased to see that some of the books that he donated to Lagan College 20 years ago were still on the shelves. A little more dog-eared perhaps but still avidly read nonetheless.

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