Best Books for Kids

Traveller Books for Kids

recommended by Richard O'Neill

Parade of the Pipers Richard O'Neill, Michelle Russell, Elijah Vardo (illustrator)

Parade of the Pipers
Richard O'Neill, Michelle Russell, Elijah Vardo (illustrator)

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A storyteller from a nomadic Romani family, Richard O’Neill has been telling stories since he was a child. Here, he talks us through five books he's written for kids. He emphasizes the importance for children of seeing themselves reflected in books, as well as the need for authentic writing about Gypsy and Traveller communities.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

Parade of the Pipers Richard O'Neill, Michelle Russell, Elijah Vardo (illustrator)

Parade of the Pipers
Richard O'Neill, Michelle Russell, Elijah Vardo (illustrator)

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Can you tell me a bit about being a professional storyteller and where you fit in the Romani storytelling tradition?

My family go back in England 500 years. I was one of the last fully nomadic people in my family. My dad was born in a horse-drawn wagon in the 1920s. I was born in the 1960s in a modern caravan. We’d winter up in Newcastle and we would go in a big circular route. We’d go down into County Durham, then to Yorkshire, and we’d end up in Cumbria in June, hopefully in time for Appleby horse fair. Then we’d go back to Northumberland for the winter.

We’re talking about a people who were … I don’t like using the word illiterate, because it almost divides people into those who are clever and those who are not. The people I grew up with were incredibly intelligent, they were so vibrant, the jokes they made up, the stories they told. But we didn’t have any way of capturing our history apart from through the oral tradition. So when we got together the older people would teach us about our history and they would encourage us to share some of our thoughts, feelings, and funny stories. In the first week of June, pretty much every one of our relatives would be at this gathering. At that point you might not have seen somebody for six to nine months. There would be new babies to talk about, the people who had died. Storytelling was a way of catching up with family news, it was like a gigantic newspaper. I loved that, and I loved listening.

The way that Traveller people spoke, it was lyrical. The language was a real mixture; there was a lot of Romani, and there was a bit of English. I just listened, and I learned. I’ve been a storyteller since I was a child. I have worked in the construction industry and in lots of different fields, but about 20 years ago, I got a phone call from an organisation in Manchester who needed a storyteller and asked me to come. I’m always one of those people who will say yes. But then, once I’d agreed … that’s another thing about growing up in my family, if you give your word about something you have to do it, there’s no way out. It was only afterwards I was sitting there thinking, ‘What have I signed up to here? I’ve never done this professionally!’ I went along with some trepidation but it was great. It just went on from there. Once, in the middle of a project in Leeds someone asked, ‘What’s the plan regarding your storytelling?’ It’s just not what we do, generally, in my community, to have a five-year plan or a ten-year plan. You just enjoy what’s happening now and go with it. But then I thought, ‘I like this, I wonder how I can continue to do this.’

Before we talk about your Traveller books for kids, it might be helpful for our readers if you clarify the terms Traveller, Romani, Romanichal, Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller.

It is tricky because, like with any groups, sometimes you’ll have people who don’t agree with the term they’ve been given. We would say that we are Romani people, and people tend to believe that the word Romani comes from the Romani language, with ‘Rom’ meaning man. At first, when we came to England, we either said or people believed we were from Egypt. So we were known as Egyptians, because that was the frame of reference for the skin colour, the language and the clothing, which was very different 500 years ago. Shakespeare had that word, Egyptian, in Othello, but in As You Like It he called us gypsies: “I’ faith, i’ faith, and both in a tune like two gypsies on a horse.” We became known as Gypsy people. When I was growing up, other people would call us the Traveller people. After Irish Traveller people came to England there has been a distinction between Irish Travellers and English Gypsy people.

“If you don’t see yourself reflected in books, it’s like you don’t exist”

Some people don’t like the word Gypsy. It is a legal term for people like me in the UK. If we look at legal ethnic groups, Irish Travellers are one and English Gypsies are another. I personally don’t mind the word Gypsy. I use it in my work. I also use the word Traveller in my work, because it’s what other people see, and it’s what other people think. I use all of those words in some ways, not necessarily interchangeably. Some people call themselves Romanichal, which again would mean Romani people; some people say they’re Gypsy, and some people would say they’re Travellers. Showmen are travelling people, but they’re travelling for work. So most Showmen, the ones I’ve spoken to, don’t class themselves as an ethnic travelling group like the Irish Travellers or the Scottish Travellers. They would class themselves as economic travellers. The word Romani is the one I use the most but it will be interesting to see in time how that changes. We already have people who say ‘I don’t like the word Gypsy, I prefer the word Romanichal.’ Then you have people who have come into England from Eastern Europe, who are Romani people who would class themselves as Roma.

But then Sinti people might not do that.

Exactly. And what you will often find is that in mainland Europe people are much more tribal in that sense. I was in Berlin for a Holocaust memorial event, and they were saying ‘Roma and Sinti’ people. And then towards France you’ve got the Manouche. There are lots and lots of different groups of people.

Would they all be fine with the term Romani?

Yes, I think most people would. It’s interesting because we have the term Gypsy jazz, which was created in France in the 1930s by Django Reinhardt. With one of my friends, we did a series of performances called Gypsy Jam. So even though he’s Roma, he will often use the word Gypsy as well.

You clearly tell stories for all children, but is it important for you to give Traveller and Roma kids books where they can see themselves?

Absolutely. When I was growing up, I became fascinated by books and by the written word. At four years old I learned a book off by heart. It was a Ladybird book called The Farm, and I impressed all of my relatives. They thought I was a genius because I could ‘read.’ That got me off and running. So before I started school I had taught myself to read, and powered through every book I could pick up.

But there was never anything positive about Gypsy people. I loved Enid Blyton books and getting into the adventure. Then you get to one where there’s a caravan and it’s negative, negative, negative. As a child, you just think ‘Aah, we’re not like that! I’m not like that! Why did you do that?’ Then with my children, when they were at school 30 years ago, there was nothing for them. There’s a university bookshop that put on a display of Gypsy and Roma books recently, they got it ready for International Roma Day on the 8th of April. Imagine that! I couldn’t when I was a child, my children couldn’t, my grandchildren can. That difference is so important.

Whoever you are, whatever group you come from, whatever your gender, it’s so important to see yourself reflected in books. Particularly in school, because if you don’t see yourself reflected in books, it’s like you don’t exist. We’re always learning about someone else apart from me, why am I not reflected in that book? It’s the same with girls who wear headscarves, it’s the same with people who look different for whatever reason. If we don’t see ourselves, it’s almost like we’ve been erased from all of this stuff which we’re told is good for us—which it is, reading is a wonderful thing. But you see how fascinated somebody becomes when it resonates because there’s a connection. If we want children to get involved in anything, we need to make the connection.

Your first Traveller book pick for kids is Polonius the Pit Pony.

Polonius is really interesting to me because it’s from a memory from being five years old. After school, I’d be playing out with lots of cousins, and we just stumbled across this field full of horses. It was like a dream, I’d never seen this many horses in my life. It was almost like seeing a field full of mushrooms, they were popping up everywhere. So we go into this field and the horses don’t run off, don’t do anything, they just stand still. We jump on their backs, and spend the next 15-20 minutes jumping from horse to horse to horse.

I thought it was cool, but what I didn’t realise till afterwards was that they’d been so institutionalised by working down the mines, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to run, they didn’t care that someone sat on their back, they were desensitised to all of that. I was thinking about that one day, and then I started to do a bit of research into pit ponies. I’d known old people with pit ponies who looked after them, and I started to look at what place pit ponies held in certain coal mining communities. These ponies would come up for a two-week holiday or a week’s holiday. Then just the occasional one, which Polonius is, did not want to go back down. And you can just imagine, why that one? Why that one amongst these 30-40 ponies thinks ‘I’m not going back down there, I’m making a bid for freedom?’ Often the owners didn’t want it to go back down, because the pony would be quite dangerous down in the pit once it had tasted freedom.

It’s a very sweet story, with a message of determination and courage.

What is wonderful about that book is the feedback I get from people reading it as a bedtime story for children. One parent emailed saying her daughter is a timid girl, she’s seven but quite nervous around a lot of things. This girl had really connected with Polonius and that had given her some confidence. We all feel intimidated or insignificant sometimes. And Polonius does, but then he shows he’s got real talent and real skill. We can all do that. Every child has got something, we just need to give them the opportunity to put that out. It’s a beautiful thing when something comes along for somebody, and they think, ‘This is the moment, I’m 100% going to go for this.’ We all need the opportunity to shake off that outer skin that people have been seeing.

Next up of your children’s Traveller books is The Lost Homework.

It’s really important that we stop disconnecting everything. In the Romani community that I grew up in, we understood that the trees, the grass, the animals… everything is connected. But very often in settled society, it’s much more linear, it’s compartmentalised. I find that very often we do that with school: this is school, this is home. We get a lot of people now, brilliant educators who say we need to connect more with parents, we need to connect more with communities. My grandson, who is ten, one day when something wasn’t working on my laptop, said, ‘I can fix that for you, Grandad,’ and within ten seconds he fixed it. He had learned to do that at school.

The Lost Homework is a kind of coming together of all those things to show that what you learn at home can be valuable in school, and the things that you learn in school can be valuable at home. School and home are much more interconnected now than when I was a kid, and I think that’s a good thing. There are hurdles to overcome with that, but I think in the future we will have much more integration, school will be more community-based. And it will be much healthier, physically and mentally, for everybody involved.

You also do lumberjunking workshops. Can you tell me about that?

I’ve always been a recycler, because that’s where my family comes from. I’ve always been somebody who looks in skips and takes stuff out to fix this and repurpose that. Wooden pallets can be a huge thing, because we use so many of them and they often get dumped. There’ll be certain children in schools—maybe they’re at risk of exclusion, maybe they’ve been excluded and come back—who could do with something practical to get focused on. I say this as somebody with ADHD: it is good to be able to focus yourself physically sometimes, because it helps you mentally as well. I just put those two together. I thought maybe I can make use of the pallets, and turn this into an actual project for schools. So now we have this thing called lumberjunking: making things out of wood. I don’t have the time properly to devote to it at the moment, but maybe next year.

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I would love to see more and more teachers learning the skills and doing it with their kids once a week. The dream would be to have the whole interior of a school made from wood that has been recycled. We talk about forest schools a lot, and I think they’re a good start. But for me, it would be really good if it was more integrated into school, if we were using forest schools to do stuff that would really help us down the line. Being aware of the environment is one thing, but we need to be actually doing stuff about it. And lumberjunking is so much fun! For me, it’s something that I grew up with, and it’s fantastic to be taking it back into schools and doing it with all different kids. I think the future is really exciting for schools, we’ll hopefully get back down to the sheer joy of that transfer of knowledge from adults to children, but also the joy of life from children back to adults. Children are the best people on the planet. They’re joyful, and that’s what I tried to capture in The Lost Homework.

Let’s talk about The Can Caravan. This one also features recycling and sustainability, as well as engineering.

As a kid, I used to see people making the old-fashioned horse-drawn wagons. As I got older, using some of my woodworking skills, I would repair caravans for people. One of my brothers is a genius at refurbishing modern caravans, so we were always aware of the aluminium on the outside and the framework on the inside. One day, I was looking at a cola can and I thought, actually, that bow top is very similar to the old-fashioned wagon. Just like with bender tents, the reason why it’s curved is that the wind would go over easier, the rain would come off quicker. That’s where the idea for The Can Caravan came from.

For me, it’s important as well that we show women and girls as strong characters in books. In the Traveller community that I was brought up in, the women would go out and earn money by selling stuff door to door, they would help to make things and help to fix things. I grew up with women who could do all of that. People might think from TV and other media, that the Traveller community is very patriarchal. Absolutely not in my case. My mam and dad worked together as a real partnership, I wanted to reflect that.

With my lumberjunking workshops, it’s amazing how many girls get empowered. They surprise themselves with the aptitude they have for woodwork, it is just amazing. Sometimes we have girls who have never picked up a power tool. I call them ‘empower tools’ now, because once they pick them up they just love the power of what they can create with them. I’ve even had girls say, ‘I’m going to be an architect when I get older, now I know what I want to do.’ So the main character, Janie, is very focused, like a lot of girls that I meet in schools.

It is a very positive book about teamwork, inclusivity and community spirit.

Absolutely. As Travellers, sometimes we’re seen as people who are here today, gone tomorrow, who don’t make community connections. But even when we were travelling around most of the year, we still were part of a community when we were there, and we had friends. I wanted to show that with Janie.

The next book that you have chosen to talk about is The Show Must Go On, which is probably aimed at children age 6-7 years old who are starting to read independently.

I wrote this book with Michelle Russell, who is from a Showman family. She is a storyteller and a retired teacher. Mitch Miller, the illustrator, I think will end up being quite a famous artist, he’s very well known already. He does these giant dialectograms; he created that word. We were very lucky to get him as the illustrator because he lives on a Showman’s site. It’s important when you’re doing a book about a community that it is actually authentic. There are minutiae in the language, the particular way they do things, all sorts of different cultural mores.

The Show Must Go On is about a Showman’s site, or a yard, as they will often call them. Developers want to gentrify it, but the older man who owns it does not want this to happen. It doesn’t matter how much money, it’s his home, it’s the family’s home. The protagonist is a girl called Mary Ann who starts a campaign, and all the neighbours and everybody come together to make sure the redevelopment doesn’t happen.

For me, the way that we gentrify our cities is a really important thing. When I was a young child, we didn’t lay claim to any land. Even though we had lived in certain stopping places—which were presumed to be common land—for 500 years, we never tried to claim them. But then the building boom of the 1960s happened, bigger roads, houses, shops, hospitals, numerous housing estates were built, and we had all of that common land taken away. It even happens to people who do own properties. A lot of local authorities use compulsory purchase, particularly in cities in areas that become popular. Somebody says, ‘We’ve got bigger plans, better plans for this than your plan, which is just to live here as you’ve done for the last thirty years.’ I want our children to think that we don’t have to be pushed around, we don’t have to go along with this because they call it progress. Usually what it comes down to is money in someone else’s pocket. I want people to challenge that. It’s about showing people how we can use education for good, and to protect our families.

Your last book pick is a novel for 8-12 year olds, A Different Kind of Freedom. It is part of Scholastic’s Voices series, which highlights the power of books to shape our sense of history.

They contacted me and asked me who I wanted to write about. I’m not a person who really has heroes, in the sense that my heroes will be everyday people. I was surrounded by inspirational people growing up, I am surrounded by inspirational people now. Celebrity heroes is not my thing.

But there are two people that really resonated with me. One of them is a soldier called John Jack Cunningham, born in a wagon, who went on to get a Victoria Cross for bravery in the First World War. And there’s the first Romani professional footballer, born in 1869, called Rab Howell. I was fascinated by him.

Football was not, back in the 1970s, a Romani game. I would wander up to a caravan site with a football under my arm, and people would look at me like I was an alien. Nobody wanted to play. My dad, God love him, would stand there and let me take shots at him, but he had no interest in it. I went to lots of different schools, and I found that football was a quick way of getting on with people. And I was good at it. As an adult, I have been lucky enough to work with professional footballers on the training side, on the motivational side.

“Now is the right time”

When you are passionate about something and you haven’t got anybody from your community who has a connection to it, you have a bit of a mountain to climb to find somewhere to play. If it’s actually against your culture, then you’ve got another hurdle to overcome. That’s what I wanted to show in the book with the main character, Lijah. He’s brilliant at football, but his family don’t want him to play. First of all, it’s ‘let him play, he’s just a kid, he’ll grow out of it.’ But when he doesn’t grow out of it, it becomes a problem. And he has a dilemma: do you follow what your family says—do you respect your dad and all those things, which you should do—or do you follow this passion? I think everybody can identify with that, child or adult, when there’s something that you get passionate about and people don’t want you to do it, but you can’t see anything wrong in it and it just drives you forwards. And I wanted to make a connection to Rab Howell as well.

The picture books you have written for younger kids are very comforting and joyful. With this novel, there’s a bit more friction and experience of prejudice and bullying.

Yes, I didn’t want to sanitise that. I wanted to show it. I also wanted to show that the dad is not a bad man. He’s scared of what’s coming, and he’s trying to keep his life together. I wanted children to understand that adults often take the wrong decisions, maybe, but for what they think are the best reasons. Lijah’s dad isn’t perfect, but he doesn’t want this family to be split up and he can see it happening. I think a lot of people feel that from ethnic minority groups.

Are there any Traveller books for kids by other writers that you want to recommend?

At this point, we really need to have authentic books. We’re at that stage of the community where we have the people who can do it. Wee Bessie by David Pullar is great. That’s about his grandma so it is very authentic. Very often what is still happening—and it needs to stop, in my opinion—is that people use the iconography of Traveller, Romani, Gypsy. They’ll put a wagon on the front of a book, which has got nothing to do necessarily with the story, not realising that every one of those wagons was unique to a family, it very often told a story. How they were painted, and what was painted on them, actually represented that family. Some of them were burnt—it depended on the family—but often they were handed down. They are part of our culture, they are quite important to us.

I read that there is a project to bring your stories to an animation film.

That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I love animation, because it’s a great way of telling stories. I’m just starting work on the script for that. When you’ve got a producer on board and an amazing team who worked on the My Little Pony film, I’m thinking this is going to be good.

Is there anything else you want to say about writing Traveller books for kids?

I think these books, my books and Michelle’s books, will end up being translated into Welsh, and probably, down the line, into Spanish, wherever there are large groups of Romani people. That, for me, is one of the best things about writing: it has paved the way and created a really good path now for the next generation. I like doing what I’m doing, I’m so pleased with what’s happening now. What I would love to be able to do as I get older and older is sit there and say, ‘ah, there’s a new book come out from this Irish Traveller girl, there’s a new book come out from this Irish Traveller lad, there’s a new book coming out from this Romani person.’ And if one of them says, ‘I was inspired to write this because of Richard O’Neill,’ then I’ll frame that and put it on the wall. That’s what it’s about for me. It won’t be me that gets the awards, it won’t be me that writes the bestsellers, it will be the next generation. And I will be over the moon when that happens.

It’s an amazing feeling, after all these years, to have these books in shops, to have these books out there, to be talking to people like you about these books. People say, ‘Do you not wish it had happened when you were younger?’ Absolutely not. The time is now, so we enjoy it now. We don’t look back for things like that or have any regret about ‘imagine if I had done this.’ In my community, my family, and in my philosophy, time is a circle. The past, the present and the future are all together at the same time. Now is the right time.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

April 7, 2023

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Richard O'Neill

Richard O'Neill

Richard O’Neill is a storyteller, author and playwright who grew up in a nomadic Romani family in northern England. He has worked professionally with young people since 1997 in schools, libraries, youth clubs and prisons, and has been awarded National Literacy Hero status. He has also won awards for his work in community leadership, and does workshops and training for educators and other professionals.

Richard O'Neill

Richard O'Neill

Richard O’Neill is a storyteller, author and playwright who grew up in a nomadic Romani family in northern England. He has worked professionally with young people since 1997 in schools, libraries, youth clubs and prisons, and has been awarded National Literacy Hero status. He has also won awards for his work in community leadership, and does workshops and training for educators and other professionals.