New book was a family affair

March 21st, 2023 7:05 AM

By Emma Connolly

Leona Forde in Bandon library with her daughter Asha, who inspired her newly-published first book Millie McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe. The second book in the series is at the editing stage, and the mum-of-four is exploring ideas for book number three. (Photo: Andy Gibson)

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When a 12-year-old girl couldn’t relate to any of the characters in the books she was reading, her mum decided to do something about it: create a new one! And now she’s celebrating a three-book deal

A BANDON teacher is celebrating a three-book deal and she says it’s all thanks to her daughter. 

Leona Forde’s debut children’s novel Milly McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe has just hit shelves and is going down a treat with young readers. 

It’s an entirely Cork-centric book about Milly, a 10-year-old from the rebel county who creates an accidental trail of chaos wherever she goes.

Leona, who is originally from Ballyphehane but has lived in Bandon for the past 15 years, has always loved books, reading and writing,  but it was mainly just for herself. 

‘I remember myself and my husband backpacked in Australia years ago and at one point I was working doing online tele-marketing sales in a place called Woolloongabba, which I couldn’t even pronounce at the time, with my thick Cork accent trying to sell gym memberships to Australians.  

‘I was the worst sales person ever, and I wrote this short story called Death of a Salesman and it was published in a backpacking magazine and that’s when I got the “bug”,’ said Leona.

As a busy mum-of-four (two boys and two girls  aged 12, 10, 7 and 3) who teaches English and history full-time in Kinsale Community School, Leona says she didn’t have time to focus on her writing again until lockdown.  She did a course, as part of a series called ‘arts in the junior cycle’, where participants were asked to write about what made them love their subjects. 

‘We were paired with people who wrote for a living. I was in a group paired with Irish writer Patricia Forde – no relation – who gave great advice. We’d have Zoom meetings, share advice, give feedback that sort of thing.

‘ I did a few more courses after that and started writing short stories, and poetry as well.

‘I had also done a picture book for toddlers and it was actually Patricia who suggested I send some of my work off,’ said Leona. 

Having completed the course in January 2022, she submitted her kid’s book to Gill Books that February. 

‘It was based on that, that Gill got back to me. They said they really liked it, asked for a meeting and asked if I was working on anything else. At the time I was working on a book for my 12-year-old daughter Asha. She was devouring books at a rate I couldn’t keep up with, things like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the Tom Gates series, all the young reader titles. 

‘But she’d come to me and ask me what a diaper was, or if when she goes to middle school will she be eating Tater Tots in the cafeteria!

‘I’d have to say that first of all we don’t have middle school, or Tater Tots, but maybe potato wedges which are similar. She’d ask as well why the main characters were always boys, and American, because it wasn’t like her life at all. And I thought she was right. There was nothing for Irish kids, who did Irish things.’ And so Milly McCarthy was ‘born,’ –  a typical Cork kid who goes to a gaelscoil and does typically Irish things. 

‘Gill asked me for a few chapters, and I remember being in the middle of correcting pre-exams at the time, and I sent them off. Then they asked for a few more, and I was frantically writing and correcting at the same time!’

Leona didn’t hear anything for a few weeks, and figured that was that. Not quite.

‘They rang back and offered me a three-book deal based on the six chapters on two different stories about Milly I had sent in – all because of Asha who was looking for a story where she could see herself,’ said Leona. 

She already has the second book in the series written, Milly McCarthy and the Irish Dancing Disaster, which is at the editing stage, and is exploring ideas for book number three. It’s been a family affair all the way, says Leona. 

‘If we’re going anywhere in the car, Asha will ask what’s Milly up to, and we’ll bounce ideas off each other, go through different scenarios, the more hilarious the better. Asha is into art, and some of her illustrations were used as templates for the characters of Muinteoir Emer and another character, so there’s lots of Asha in the book. 

‘Now I find I read out paragraphs to her to get her reaction – she’s my most important critic!

‘My son Rian is involved too. We sit down and wonder what would Milly do if this or that happened, and it takes off from there. It’s almost like she’s become a real person, a fifth child!’ said Leona.

As a parent and teacher she says reading is so important for kids.  ‘As a teacher you can see straight away if a kid is a reader. They have a way better understanding of vocabulary, they’re able to express themselves more, and seem to have a better sense of empathy for other people.’

Leona writes at night when her kids are in bed. ‘I take the laptop out around 9.30pm, It’s not hard when I love doing it, and I’ll always find time for it. This is an absolute dream come true for me.’

• Milly McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe, by Leona Forde, illustrated by Karen Forde, €9.99 (Gill Books) in shops now.

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