Interviewing Milly McCarthy authors. Irish Examiner


In many ways, ten and a half-year-old Milly McCarthy is just a typical school girl from Cork. She likes playing caomgie, entering Irish dancing competitions, and visiting Fota WildLife Park with her classmates. Milly starts out every day with the best intentions, but then chaos ensues, and things seem to go wrong for her wherever she goes! Milly's dad says it's probably because of her fiery red hair and her ‘rebel blood’!


Cork-born children’s author Leona Forde is an English teacher at Kinsale Community School who, back in 2020, was inspired by her eldest daughter Asha to write her first book, Milly McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe, because Asha wanted ‘a Wimpy Kid-style story that was relatable and based in Ireland’.
Her first novel saw Milly McCarthy win a climate action competition and suffer a series of mini-catastrophes along the way. The sequel, Milly McCarthy and The Irish Dancing Disaster, follows Milly’s hilarious attempts to win a medal for Irish dancing. Of course the dancing lessons don't go according to plan, and when she’s asked to take the place of the star dancer at short notice, there's only one way for things to go: disastrously!


Karen Harte is the other part of the creative team behind the books. She’s a designer, illustrator, and comic creator hailing from Dublin who has produced her own comic strips and mini-graphic novels for years. Milly McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe was her first children’s book.
We chat with them about their winning creative collaboration, how Milly McCarthy’s endearing character resonates across continents and generations, and how the books put Cork firmly on the map.

Leona's writing journey saw her undertake various courses, including one run by Patricia Forde, the current Laureate na nÓg. On the course, Leona wrote about an interaction between Milly and another character, Big Bow Rebecca. “It was Milly who stood out as a clear favourite," Leona told us. “I was trying to create a character that was recognisable to a young person living in Ireland. Milly goes to Gaelscoil, she plays camogie, and she goes on a school tour to Fota Wildlife Park, where lots of Cork school kids visit every year. I wanted children to read about a character that reflected their own world back at them. Someone who was fun and outgoing and would give them a giggle". Milly’s family is definitely inspired by her own children, Asha 13, Rían 10, Isaac 7, and Indy 4. "Sometimes, if I am trying to think through a plot, I’ll ask the kids, ‘What do you think Milly would do if...'? They are truly my best critics, and they are quick to tell me if a scene isn’t up to scratch.”
The collaboration between Leona and Karen, while feeling remarkably organic, was facilitated by publisher Venetia Gosling at Gill Books. They first met in person on the launch night of Milly McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe, in March 2023. “We’re kind of a manufactured pop band like the Spice Girls,” Karen jokes. “Myself and Leona just clicked right away, and I love working with her, doing the book events and workshops together. It’s also both of our first times in the publishing world, so we’re figuring it out and enjoying the new experiences together.”
Understanding how Milly McCarthy appeals to both younger and older readers, Leona explains, “All readers, no matter what age, like a character they can relate to, and I think this is the appeal that Milly McCarthy has. Whether you see a bit of yourself in her or a sibling or friend, everyone knows a Milly, someone with a heart of gold who is unfortunately also a magnet for mayhem. But that’s what makes her so much fun. I have a lot of parents who comment that they enjoy the books too, the interactions between Milly's mam and dad, or a scene with Muinteoir Emer that brings them right back to their own school days. This was a conscious decision. I love reading to my own children, and when the book is something we can both enjoy and giggle at, it makes it even more special.”
Karen adds “Leona’s storylines and humour make the appeal very broad and enjoyable for a wide range of children’s ages and as a parent, enjoyable if you are doing the bedtime reading.I think combining the imagery with the text helps it resonate with younger audiences that may be more comfortable with picture books and haven’t quite transitioned to middle grade books. I also think that slightly older kids that are confident readers enjoy the humour and relate to Milly and her shenanigans -  but also they can enjoy the illustrations and try to replicate them. One of the loveliest things to come out of this project has been seeing the young readers’ interpretations of my illustrations and the characters and recreating them. It’s such a lovely thing to see as I would copy illustrations from famous picture books and comics as a child to practice drawing – hoping one day my drawings would be in a real book”
The books steer from more traditional full-colour illustrations in favour of black and white ‘doodle style'. “A lot of books and comics I loved when I was younger were illustrated in black and white; my earliest memories of falling in love with comics were my granddad’s cutouts of Garfield and Hagar the Horrible from the newspaper". Karen tells us. “Sequential artwork is a great way to get across the story and mood instantly, and I think it’s really helpful for new readers as they can see the story unfolding and not be as intimidated by pages of text without images. A lot of my personal work is black-line art, and I enjoy the simple, clean style. Also, the black and white doodle style means it's a ready-made colouring book”! 
Along with a comedic element, the books also convey important life lessons and values noted by legions of young readers. One such fan, 9-year-old Bernadette, said she was particularly happy that “Milly didn’t give up on her Irish dancing, and it was really awe-inspiring how she fell down but got back up again ”.
“I agree with Bernadette,” Leona says. “I think not giving up when things are a bit tough is a good lesson for everyone. In the first book, Milly McCarthy is a Complete Catastrophe, Milly’s class takes part in a competition about climate change. I think one of the things I wanted readers to recognise is that no matter how small an action is, it can make a difference in the world. Milly’s class plants a wildflower meadow, and even though it's just a mini meadow, it doesn’t matter; every small positive action can have a big impact on our world.”
“I think we both want to get across that Milly is learning and figuring things out as she goes along,” Karen adds. “Not being afraid to get things wrong, because mistakes just mean you’re learning and trying. I loved my primary school days, and getting to illustrate Milly’s experiences and the funny incidents in the books reminds me of how important those early school days are for our development and our personalities. I felt more like myself in primary school than I did when I went to secondary; teenage hormones are rough".
Bernadette, who lives in Dubai and has mixed Irish heritage, says she especially liked “the part where the shoe went flying into the judge's face". Clearly, basing the story in Cork and having more than a splattering of Gaelic through the books doesn’t put young international readers off. “International audiences like to know what life is like for a child living in Ireland, so having an Irish setting is a benefit,” Leona tells us. "Irish people have emigrated all over the world; the first book proved very popular, not just here but as a gift to second-generation Irish. I've had people send it to grandkids and cousins living in the UK, America, Australia, Germany, and Canada. It's a way of keeping that connection”.

Our young fan Bernadette also wanted to know if there might be a book reading with a drawing class in Dubai soon? Leona nods enthusiastically. “I fully believe that if Milly put her mind to it, she could achieve anything, so who knows? Now if Karen agrees to it, I think a trip to Dubai sounds like a great idea, as Milly always says, 'Sure, what could possibly go wrong' ”!

Available HERE

Sara Colohan
Writer & Researcher