Siobhan Dowd

Rising star of children's literature


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She started writing at the age of seven and completed an unpublished novel two years later.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.

Nicholas Tucker

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game