Erika McGann and Gerry Daly | 'We’re actually interacting rather than working separately'

Erika McGann and Gerry Daly | 'We’re actually interacting rather than working separately'

It's been a busy couple of years for author-illustrator duo Erika McGann and Gerry Daly. Since the publication of their first joint title, Where Are You, Puffling?, in February 2019, they have gone on to publish another picture book together (Wee Donkey’s Treasure Hunt, released last September), as well as solo projects (all with Dublin-based publisher The O’Brien Press). Finn’s First Song, the first picture book Daly has both written and illustrated, came out in June, while McGann’s middle-grade novel, Tabitha Plimtock and the Edge of the World, featuring illustrations from Philip Cullen, hit shelves last week. These will be followed in October by another Puffling adventure, Puffling and the Egg.

Where Are You, Puffling? started life over a decade ago, when Daly’s uncle Sean visited the island of Skellig Michael. The steep rugged rock, which is found in the Atlantic off the Iveragh peninsula of County Kerry, is well-known in Ireland as the former site of an Augustinian monastery as well as being home to a large population of birds and, more recently, a filming location for Star Wars films. During his trip, Sean saw puffins interacting with rabbits and thought that the island could be a good setting for a story for his grandsons, which he asked Daly to illustrate.

Sadly, within a few months Sean passed away, but Daly was determined to finish the story, printing out copies for family members, who encouraged him to share it more widely. After researching potential publishers, he approached The O’Brien Press. The team there “really enjoyed the illustrations, but they said that the story needed a good bit of work, because there was too much text”, and it put Daly in touch with writer Erika McGann.

An initial meeting led to excited brainstorming between the two. McGann says putting the book together was “really fun”. When she has worked with illustrators in the past, she has not been in touch with them directly but “the way Ger and I work is different and it’s lovely, because we’re actually interacting rather than working separately”. When she came on board, she introduced the book’s central character, Puffling. The book sees the baby puffin go in search of adventure, prompting her parents to try to find her, talking to a host of Skellig Michael’s animal inhabitants along the way. Only one human character appears in the book: a boatman Daly created in tribute to his uncle (the book is also dedicated to Sean’s grandsons).

Cast out
As McGann’s planned trip to the island was cancelled owing to the pandemic, her research into the wildlife on Skellig Michael was primarily conducted through books. Despite this, she was still able to get a sense of “how special the place is, how cut off and peaceful and serene it is”. For Daly, who has been there, it was important to get across “the beautiful landscapes” of the island; as such, he used double-page illustrations throughout to allow for big compositions. He says: “It’s such a beautiful place, with all that cragginess and the big waves and the really rough terrain. I wanted to convey that energy of the place as best I could, so the illustration style is quite loose. I like traditional techniques—loose paint and oil pastel with watercolour on top—so I get surprising results, and [the method] helps to convey the rough rock and the moss. I know that a lot of young kids won’t have ever seen the island itself, so it was important to convey what it’s like to be there and make it look exciting.” 

Following its publication, Where Are You, Puffling? was included in Ireland’s World Book Day 2020 promotion and the National Trust’s WBD celebration across several of its sites. Rights to the book have also been sold in Canada, China and Japan. Both Daly and McGann have been shocked by how popular the book has been. She says: “The international interest was really unexpected, because we thought, ‘It’s Skellig Michael, this is so Irish’. We honestly thought this was a very niche little book, and the interest just exploded. I think it was that connection with nature and all those animals that kids really respond to... and Puffling being as cute as she is, as well.” A colouring book version of the title was released in May, and a board book is coming early next year.

Sequel Puffling and the Egg will be published on 11th October. In it, Puffling finds a lost egg on Skellig Michael and sets off to return it to its nest, meeting lots of new friends along the way. McGann jokes: “I think it’s probably more realistic than our first one, in that it’s a very windy Skellig.” As such, Daly had to make Puffling look even more fluffy in this book. They were also able to include some new animal characters that did not make it into the original story, including a storm petrel and an ocean sunfish.

Reflecting on the market for Ireland-originated picture books more generally, McGann says: “I think it’s relatively new that we’ve got quite a lot of Irish picture books. Ireland’s had a tough time getting into the picture book market because of the competition from bigger markets and bigger publishers. The cost of producing picture books is so high in comparison to novels and older books, so it was a lot to risk. Maybe things are a little more affordable now, and [Irish publishers] have taken a risk where they might not have before—and it has paid off.” She adds: “[Book buyers] love specifically Irish books that have Irish folklore and Irish stories. It’s really picking up.” The pair recommend a number picture books by their O’Brien Press stablemates, including Una Woods’ Have You Seen the Dublin Vampire?, Jennifer Farley’s Scout’s Best Day Ever and The Pooka Party by Shona Shirley Macdonald.

The next steps
When I ask if there are plans to create any more Puffling stories, both admit they are keen to, if the readership is there, but have not considered what the character might do next. McGann says: “I definitely haven’t thought about moving off Skellig; it’s so beautiful there and the books are so inherently Skellig Michael books. Puffling is really sweet and kind, but she’s also a bit cheeky and I think there’s plenty she could do on the island all by herself. We wouldn’t run out of ideas.” The author intends to visit the island herself soon. “I’m dying to go. It sounds like such an adventure, and I think seeing it online is nothing compared to actually being there.”

In the shorter team, both Daly and McGann are looking forward to returning to in-person events with children. Though they both took part in online events during the pandemic, McGann says: “For younger books, it’s all about getting the kids in there and calling out bits of the story. When they’re not there, you feel a little bit lost. I think it’s really important for that age group that we get back into doing real events and meeting kids in person.” Daly adds: “When you read Where Are You, Puffling? out loud with a large group, it is so much fun because they all want to join in. They’re enjoying the book so much that it becomes very much their own, and they’re within the story. I’m really looking forward to doing live events with kids and bringing the new book and seeing how they react.”