Our Wee Place

Could there be a more enchanting land to inspire a child’s imagination than Northern Ireland? Imagine playing in an ancient castle atop towering cliffs, feeling the spray of vast plunging waterfalls, boating through atmospheric caves, treading scary rope bridges, following endless giant steps into the sea…

Who doesn’t remember those magical adventures around our spectacular landscape with mum and dad, or recreating them with your own children?  

How much fun would it be if your children could see those adventures, beautifully illustrated, in a book about their own, special place?

Now they can. ‘Our Wee Place’ follows the adventures of a little girl, Emily, and her Granda across Northern Ireland. Commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) as part of the ‘Our Story in the Making’ programme, the recently published book is being offered to every child who started P1 in 2021 as well as being placed in Sure Start centres and libraries across Northern Ireland.

The NIO chose children’s writer Sophie Kirtley and children’s book illustrator Ellan Rankin to write and illustrate this delightful book. Both are from Northern Ireland, and they infuse the story of Emily and Granda with their own recollections of happy childhood trips.

For Sophie, the Ulster Museum, and particularly the ancient Egyptian mummy, loom large in her memory. Ellan loves the area around her Whiteabbey home on Belfast Lough, and the beautiful Glens of Antrim, including the waterfalls of Glenariff, which she includes in the book.

The fact that both have lived away - Sophie, a prize-winning poet and author, now lives in England - allows them to appreciate home even more.

‘Our Wee Place’ tells the story of little Emily, who has recently fallen out with her best friend Zak. To cheer her up, her beloved Granda decides to take her on an adventure around Northern Ireland, starting in Belfast where Emily rides the “Big Fish’ by the Lagan River. Then it’s out to the waterfalls of Glenariff in the Glens of Antrim and ancient Dunluce Castle. At the Giant’s Causeway, Granda tells Emily of the childhood adventures he had there with his sister Rosie.

It was important to Sophie and Ellan that the locations were seen through the eyes of a child.

“We chose places we know children love”, Sophie says. “Children don’t notice what we do, they see things in a different way. They’re thinking ‘what can we play there?’ or about how huge the Big Fish is. But at the same time there’s the juxtaposition of Granda in the story and his nostalgic trip back in time. Those two ideas playing against each other was a lovely thing for me.”

Both writer and illustrator have captured the essence of Northern Irish life, not least in the humour and language that is so unique here.

“There is so much humour in the book, much of it visual,” Sophie says. “What Ellan did with Granda’s car number plate, for instance, really cracks me up. The language is hugely important to me. I’m really proud I’ve held on to my accent even though I’ve lived away from Northern Ireland since I was 18, and I wanted the book to sit well in our voice.”

For Ellan, it was essential to visually convey as many aspects of local culture as possible.

“I tried to get in as many little details as I could, things that perhaps people won’t notice on the first read. The kind of things I observe around me, watching families out with the dog, and the way children play and interact here."

"The brief also made it clear that the story must be inclusive and joyful, something that can be enjoyed by everyone here, and that was very important to us too.”

What do they hope children here will take away from the book?

“A feeling of identity and belonging,” Sophie says, “A a sense that our place is special. That there is a magic in our language and landscape. Most children’s books are not about here. I never saw words from my dialect in books when I was growing up. We want children to see themselves in the book.”

Sophie & Ellan

So, how did they get into their current professions? Sophie spent 15 years as an English teacher in secondary schools. “I loved it,” she says, “I was writing all the time, mainly poetry. As I had young children, it fitted in with my life, I was writing poems in little corners of the day. But I was writing for grown-ups, not children.”

Sophie’s serendipitous moment came when she was writing a book based on legendary giant, Fionn McCool. “I realised this isn’t for grown-ups at all, it’s for children, so I rethought what I was doing. I felt it was now or never, so I stopped working as a teacher and enrolled in a Masters course in writing for young people at Bath Spa University.”

Writing for children proved to be an inspired decision. Soon, her first book, ‘The Wild Way Home’ was underway, telling the story of two children whose adventures take place during the Stone Age in a forest based on Mount Sandel in Sophie’s native Coleraine, the oldest Mesolithic settlement in Ireland. Her second book, ‘The Way to Impossible Island’, also published by Bloomsbury, is set on a fictionalised version of Rathlin Island.

Ellan vividly recalls her own epiphany. “I was always into arts and knew I would do something arty but didn’t know what. Then at High School, one of our teachers read out a picture book called ‘I Want My Hat Back’ by Jon Klassen and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I ended up doing illustration at university where one of the projects was making a children’s book.”

 Ellan went on to complete a Masters in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. “It was a brilliant but intense course, learning to make pictures and words work together. It was through the course that I met my agent and publisher.” The multi-award-winning illustrator and author hasn’t stopped since. Her latest book, ‘The Elephant, the Zoo and World War Two’, which is set in Belfast, will be published by Hachette in 2023.