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The illustrated world of daughter-and-father team Kathi and John Burke

The idea for Kathi and John’s first book, Irelandopedia, came as a result of a conversation between Kathi and Nicki Howard of Gill Books. Nicki admired Kathi’s style of map illustrations, and so a book of maps of Ireland’s counties was conceived. Now the question of who would provide the text arose. She would need someone to research the 32 counties and identify places of interest, notable personalities, festivals, physical features, legends and unusual facts about each.

The obvious answer to Kathi and Nicki was to utilise John’s knowledge and passion as a teacher. John didn’t hesitate, even though they had never worked with each other professionally before. Kathi (a.k.a. Fatti) is the artist and illustrator: the book is a reflection of her imagination and sense of style. John was the facilitator and researcher. He deferred to Kathi’s judgement, since she was the professional, was closer to the age of the target readership and knew how she wanted it to look.

Their method of working was that Kathi organised a timetable for each county, the average being five days. John usually didn’t need that much time but occasionally had to travel to check whether some museums or attractions were still open or whether some festivals would be held again. When he sent his finalised list, of between 50 and 60 facts, to Kathi, she then selected what she wanted to include and began her work. After a short while John was working two or three counties ahead of Kathi, so that she never had to wait but could press on at her own speed.

Their work on Irelandopedia began in January 2015 and was finished in early June. They found the experience interesting and enjoyable, and challenging at times. Kathi had never worked on a project like this before, having to use a combination of research, editing, illustration and graphic design skills. Time management and organisation had a huge part to play, but it was the passion for the content that made the process exhilarating. Each page, each fact, offered something special to the overall publication. John said that his favourite page was the one he was researching at that moment. There was something fascinating in every county: a local phrase, a small festival, or the county colours displayed at the border. This book has been used in Irish schools, where the children are encouraged to investigate a county and show their findings in a poster display inspired by Irelandopedia—a great illustration of how this style of learning encourages children to take education into their own hands.

Irelandopedia was a great success, winning a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award and two CBI awards, the Judge’s Special Award 2016 and the Eilís Dillon award. In 2016 Kathi and John produced the follow-up volume, Historopedia, focusing on Ireland’s history as opposed to its geography. They worked in a similar way, following Kathi’s carefully crafted timetable. The challenge was to provide the right balance of detailed explanations without being off-putting for children. Among their favourite pages are those about High Kings and Myths and Legends, as well as the beautiful spread on the Vikings featuring a Viking village. Kathi had great fun with Granuaile’s story, while John clearly had great respect for Daniel O’Connell and his legacy. Like its precursor, Historopedia was aimed at a 32-county readership, so every effort was made to tell Ireland’s story with sensitivity while being true to its remarkable history. The work was again finished in early June and the book was published in midOctober, being short-listed for an Irish Book Award and a CBI award.

There was plenty of room in this book for Kathi and John to indulge themselves in some beautiful pages tracing the history of various aspects of Irish life, including literature, music, architecture, entertainment and inventions. Their favourite of these was the spread on Art and Design, which proved to be an exercise in honouring great artists through a specific illustration style. This page really showcases Kathi’s artistic skill and eye for detail.

Kathi is in charge of the visual look of the series, and her personality is reflected in the books, mainly through her humour and interests. Between her love of turns of phrase and food—there are not many people who would think to include a page of delicacies when talking about Ireland—there is a very definite ‘voice’ in the images, to which she hopes Irish children can relate.

Both books have sold well— 100,000 copies so far. The winning recipe, John concludes, is that a book should be visually attractive, full of varied and interesting topics, plenty of humour and some strange stories. Most of all, children love a book that they can open at any page, at any time and enjoy, one that they can pick up again and again and share with their family and friends. Kathi and John have also created activity and quiz books to accompany the series, which all add to the fun of reading and learning: they love to give children any tool they need to make learning easy and enjoyable.

The two quiz books were expertly compiled by Shauna, Kathi’s sister and John’s youngest daughter. They were thrilled to get her involved in the family business. She is a keen participator in table quizzes, as well as an English teacher who encourages her pupils to read widely and retain details and facts, so it made perfect sense that she should turn their work into a game for children.

There was no particular moment when John and his wife Janet realised that Kathi was so talented. She always enjoyed art and literature. Every Christmas and birthday was accompanied by new art materials and books. She spent hours with her sister, Shauna, inventing stories and making up dramas for their dolls. Her parents’ only contribution was to provide the physical space and encouragement.

Now, with their third book, Foclóiropedia (due out in winter 2017), Kathi and John’s focus shifts to the Irish language, exploring all things Gaeilge. They hope that this will encourage children to use the Irish words and phrases in their daily lives, to have fun learning the Irish names of familiar places and objects, and to realise that they can put these words into their conversations with friends and family. Older members of the family may realise that they have not forgotten all the Irish they learned in school.

For Kathi and John, the most wonderful thing about this experience is to see how well Irelandopedia and Historopedia have been received in schools as well as homes. They have been invited to speak with children in primary and secondary schools throughout the country and abroad, discussing Ireland, illustration and the joy of education. They have opened a school library, presented awards, judged creative writing competitions, and spoken at events promoting reading, writing and creativity. All in all, the whole process has been one surprise after another. Kathi and John believe that if one child feels closer to Irish culture, heritage and history from reading their books, then it has all been worth it.

First published in Books Ireland magazine (September/October 2017).