Mary Murphy's new children's book celebrates the uniqueness of creation

Jenny Lee chats to Irish children's author Mary Murphy about her latest book for young readers which explores how all living creatures have a special place in this world

Detail from Only a Tree Knows How to Be a Tree by Mary Murphy

WITH the coronavirus pandemic affecting people in every continent, never before has the world seemed so united.

Dublin writer Mary Murphy’s beautiful picture book, Only a Tree Knows How to Be a Tree, highlights to young children that we all have our own unique place in this planet and a responsibility to it, and to each other.

"Every person has their own thoughts in their head and their own feelings in their heart. Every single person is different. And only they know how to be them,” writes Murphy.

The inspiration for Murphy’s latest book came when she was out walking her dogs, Honey and Alfie, in the Galway countryside, where she previously lived for 17 years.

“I don’t necessarily start with a concept or thought, but with this one it happened by chance during a walk with my dogs," she says. “There was this wonky little tree leaning over a wall and I noticed the individuality off it and I said to myself ‘only that tree could be that tree’.

“A tree has leaves that turn sunshine into tree food. Amazing. I then immediately looked down and saw the individuality of my dogs, with their own personalities and the book developed from there. Birds, fish and people all have their own unique place in our world.”

Murphy writes and illustrates the book, bringing the wonders of the world right down to child level with colourful, bold and simple, yet detailed drawings.

Although many of her board and picture books are written for pre-schoolers, Murphy says Only a Tree, which contains more words, is aimed at the slightly older four-to-six-year-old age group.

“I love the idea of the visual carrying a message and feeling that is not verbalised. It can access something powerful for children that adults don’t necessarily see.”

Murphy transports readers from oceans to space and from the jungle to the play park.

“It's actually one of the first books in which I've drawn with children,” she admits. “I normally have animals in my picture books.”

Although having no children herself, the proud aunty reminds little ones that we are all unique and can helps parent open up discussions with children about the world and their place in it.

Her illustrations include a child in a wheelchair and a close-up drawing of a girl doing a handstand, wearing a hearing aid and she hopes the book also resonates to those children with hidden disabilities.

“The book champions the idea of honouring the specialness of every single thing in the universe, including yourself,” says Murphy, whose work has been somewhat curtailed by the coronavirus.

“I had just started doing more workshops outside of my books and my main area is with marginalised families, including migrant families who are awaiting status,” explains Murphy, who also had to cancel a poetry pop-up event with Libraries NI this spring.

She is delighted that many also see Only a Tree as being an ecological book which highlights the beauty of Earth.

Murphy studied Illustration and Design in Dublin before freelancing as an illustrator. She has always written for pleasure, and soon began developing ideas for children’s books following the antics of characters she had already visualised.

Her first book, I Like it When… was published in 1997. Since then she has written and illustrated over 45 books and her love of picture books ­– both as a writer and reader – has never waned.

“I still love looking at picture books,” adds Murphy, who says they can be “bring a real comfort in the lives of individuals and families, particularly during the current uncertainty”.

And her advice to budding picture book writers?

“It's about writing and developing your passion. Don’t get too hooked on one of your ideas but keep developing other ideas to get used to developing ideas.

“And don’t get hooked on nostalgia. I loved Peter Rabbit, but I didn’t spend my life writing stories about little bunny rabbits stealing carrots,” adds Murphy, whose favourite picture book makers today include Jon Klassen, Yasmeen Ismail and Beatrice Alemagna.

:: Only a Tree Knows How to Be a Tree by Mary Murphy is published by Otter-Barry Books and is available now.

:: Visit Mary's website for news and activities, including colouring-in pages from her many books.

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