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Untitled Document

SIOBHAN DOWD 1960 – 2007

CILIP Carnegie Medal Winning Children’s Writer & Human Rights Campaigner

Beginnings & Education
Siobhan Dowd was born in London to an Irish mother and English father, a nurse and doctor respectively. She was the youngest of their four daughters and was brought up in South London attending a Catholic grammar school. Siobhan won a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford where she secured a degree in Classics and after several years working returned to study as a postgraduate completing her MA in gender and ethnic studies with distinction at the University of Greenwich, London.

Irish at heart, Siobhan identified strongly with all things Celtic and spent long holidays at her parents’ cottage at Aglish in County Waterford, and then at another family residence in Wicklow Town. She was well known for her Celtic spontaneity, erupting into song or dance whenever the opportunity arose.

The Campaigner
After a short spell in publishing, Siobhan readily took on the role of researcher to the Writers in Prison committee for PEN (the writers’ rights organisation) in 1984. She proved herself an extraordinarily committed and efficient worker, increasing the professionalism of campaigns on behalf of imprisoned writers and becoming a well informed and articulate critic of repressive regimes. Whilst at PEN she edited ‘The Prison Where I Live’, an important collection of writings by authors and journalists imprisoned for their work. In her introduction she wrote: In these pages the reader will find men and women of great resourcefulness, stretched to the limit of their endurance, but still able to display virtues such as good humour, dignity and philosophical detachment.

She went on to become the Programme Director of American PEN’s Freedom to Write Committee in New York. During her seven years in the US she founded the Salman Rushdie defence committee and travelled to Indonesia and Guatemala to investigate local human rights conditions for writers. She continued to produce many professional reports and articles and managed to fit in some short story writing.

On her return to the UK she co-founded English PEN’s Readers & Writers Programme, taking authors into schools in socially deprived areas, prisons, young offenders’ institutes and community projects.

Siobhan had great empathy with marginalised peoples particularly Irish travellers and the Roma which led her to co-edit an anthology of Romany prose and poetry. When undertaking her MA in gender and ethnic studies she focused on how Roma relate to their community’s narratives and stereotypes.

In 2004, her increased interest in children rights saw her appointed Deputy Commissioner for children’s rights in Oxfordshire where she worked with local authorities to ensure statutory services affecting children conformed to UN protocols.

The Writer
In spite of a lifelong love of literature and her evident ability to articulate herself in writing whether professionally, in her studies or through short stories, it wasn’t until 2003 that Siobhan began her first novel. It was the story of a young boy with Asperger’s syndrome who solves a mystery. She was half way through it when Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’, a story on a similar theme, was published to critical acclaim. Siobhan put aside what was later to become ‘The London Eye Mystery’ and continued with other projects.

In 2006 her fictional debut ‘A Swift Pure Cry’ was published, bringing her instant critical recognition along with several awards: the Eilis Dillon award in Ireland for a first children’s book and the Branford Boase Award. It was also shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize and the CILIP Carnegie Medal. ‘The London Eye Mystery’ was eventually published in 2007 winning the NASEN & TES Special Educational Needs Children’s Book Award and the Bisto Award in Ireland. In May 2007, Waterstone’s named her as one of their ‘25 authors of the future’.

Although her CILIP Carnegie Medal-winning novel ‘Bog Child’ was in fact the last book she wrote, it was published in 2008, before ‘Solace of the Road’ which appeared in 2009. Both titles received outstanding reviews and in May 2009 ‘Bog Child’ brought Siobhan the Bisto Award for the second time.

Siobhan Dowd’s second marriage was to Geoff Morgan, a librarian and musician, who recalled that she had always intended to settle down to write, “She felt she needed to experience life first in order to write to the standard that she aspired to. What she hadn’t expected, when she finally got round to writing, was that she would have so little time left.” It was shortly after her marriage to Morgan in 2004 that she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Her friend, fellow writer and former CILIP Carnegie Medal winner Meg Rosoff observes, “I’m certain she knew she wasn’t going to live a long time, and that must have played a part in the urgency she felt, writing as if her life depended on it.”

Meg Rosoff says of ‘Bog Child,’ “Dowd appears incapable of a jarring phrase or a lazy metaphor. Her sentences sing, each note resonates with an urgent humanity of the sort that cannot be faked. ‘Bog Child’ sparkles with optimism and a deep passion for living.”

Siobhan Dowd: The Legacy
In August 2007 Siobhan Dowd lost her four year battle with cancer leaving two books to be published posthumously.

Rachel Billington who set up PEN’s Readers & Writers Programme with Siobhan describes her as, “An exceptional woman: wise, clever, original, keen to laugh, strong-minded, modest, efficient and loving.”

Two years on as she wins the CILIP Carnegie Medal, her editor and publisher David Fickling celebrates her life and work, talking of her, “Effortlessly, classy writing and the sheer musicality of her work; her ability to shine a torch, illuminating the darkest sides of humanity; her innate sensitivity to back voice that required so little editing and her extraordinary and unprecedented capacity to produce, not one, not two but four successive novels each of outstanding quality.”

Fickling also talks of Siobhan Dowd’s sense of fun and rich Irish humour. He reflects too on her altruism and life affirming capacity - a characteristic that comes out strongly in all her writing.

The Siobhan Dowd Trust
It was this same altruism and belief in life that led Siobhan to think of others even in the last few weeks of her life when she set up the Siobhan Dowd Trust. The Trust receives all her book royalties and will help disadvantaged children improve their skills and enjoyment of reading by offering financial support to young readers in economically deprived areas. David Fickling, who is one of the Trustees talks of Siobhan’s fundamental belief that: “if a child can read, they can think, and if a child can think they are free.”

- ends -

25 June 2009