Rising star of children's literature
Friday 24 August 2007
Siobhan Dowd, campaigner and children's writer: born London 4 February 1960; married Geoffrey Morgan; died Oxford 21 August 2007.
Although Siobhan Dowd had published only two novels, she was already established as one of the most promising children's writers of her generation. A brightly shining star in the reading world, she had seemed destined to go on to even greater achievements.
Born in the suburbs of south London to Irish parents, Siobhan Dowd was the youngest of four girls. Brought up as an Irish Catholic and attending Roman Catholic schools, the sisters spent every summer holiday with their cousins at the family cottage in Aglish, Co Waterford. Because there was no running water or electricity, "we washed in water collected in rain barrels and read by gaslight". Dowd later put this experience to good use in her first novel. There were also equally enjoyable, but more comfortable, visits to the family home in Wicklow Town.
She started writing at the age of seven and completed an unpublished novel two years later. Aged 14, she told her mother that because she no longer believed in transubstantiation she had ceased to be a Roman Catholic. This stubborn regard for always insisting on the truth as she saw it was to remain with her for the rest of her life.
After reading Classics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Dowd joined International PEN as a researcher for its Writers in Prison Committee. From 1990 she spent seven years in New York City as Programme Director for the PEN American Center's Freedom-to-Write Committee. Work here included founding and leading the Rushdie Defense Committee for the United States as well as travelling to Indonesia and Guatemala to investigate what was happening to their dissident writers.
On her return to Britain, she co-founded PEN's Readers and Writers programme, which takes authors to deprived schools and community projects as well as into prisons and young offender's institutions.
By now living in Oxford and married to her librarian husband Geoff Morgan, Dowd served during 2004 as Deputy Commissioner for Children's Rights in Oxfordshire. She had already co-edited This Prison Where I Live: the PEN anthology of imprisoned writers (1996) and The Roads of the Roma: a PEN anthology of gypsy writers (1998).
But she was encouraged to start writing for children when her short story about a young Irish traveller was accepted for Skin Deep (2003), an anthology focusing on racism and aimed at teenage readers. What followed was the astonishing A Swift Pure Cry, written during 2004 and published two years later.
Set in a remote corner of Co Cork in 1984, this superb novel was inspired by two real-life events from that time and place. The first was the sad story of Anne Lovett, aged 15, who died alone and abandoned while trying to give birth to her son in a grotto built in her village in honour of the Virgin Mary. The second was the still-unsolved case of the "Kerry Babies", involving a baby boy found with multiple stab wounds. When another local young mother admitted to having buried her own dead baby nearby she was then accused, against all the evidence, of murdering the baby boy as well.
Dowd's novel melds both stories into one, starting off with the memorably down-beat sentence, "The place brought to mind a sinking ship". This was the village where 15-year- old Michelle ("Shell") Talent, whose mother died the year before, has now to cope with an alcoholic, religiously fanatical father with "a black shrivelled walnut for a heart". There are also two young siblings to look after and no money.
Pregnancy follows when a local rich boy offers the only affection available to her. Shell's baby, delivered in secrecy by her younger brother and sister, only lives for a few minutes. The trio buries the tiny corpse, but when it is later discovered Shell is condemned out of hand both by her church and by her community. Sad, but never dismal, her story is beautifully written and keenly observed by a writer whose native wit always runs alongside a deep sense of compassion.
With the exception of the Irish Examiner, whose reviewer "hated every sentence", this fine novel was universally welcomed. It also helped stimulate an overdue debate in Ireland about the issues it raised, with many contributors no longer taking the traditional Catholic line on the sins of illegitimacy. Receiving the Eilis Dillon Award in Ireland for a new children's author plus the Branford Boase Award in the UK for the most promising novel by a first-time writer of a book for young people, Dowd could now get on with her second story with confidence.
The result was The London Eye Mystery (2007), a good-humoured study of a basically happy family up against a baffling problem when Salim, a visiting cousin, gets lost apparently without trace. Aimed at a slightly younger audience, it is told as if by adolescent Ted, whose normally distracting obsession with detail, brought on by his Asperger's condition, serves him particularly well when it comes to solving the mystery of the disappearing Salim. Witty and cleverly constructed, this novel also delighted reviewers.
Those meeting Siobhan Dowd at a party given by her beloved publisher David Fickling in July this year could never have guessed that this lively and intelligent woman holding court with customary ebullience was in the late stages of breast cancer.
She leaves behind two more completed novels. Bog Child, out next year, describes one long summer in the life of an 18-year-old boy caught up in the Troubles during the 1980s. Solace of the Road, her final novel, which is scheduled to be published in 2009, is about young Holly Hogan and how she flees her foster home in favour of a road-trip adventure through England and her own memories.
Both books are testament to an author who had only recently discovered how she wanted to write, and was doing so quite brilliantly up to the end.
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