BIG TOP, BIG DREAMS
A chance meeting with a professor of circus from Sheffield fired children’s writer Sarah Webb’s imagination and led to her latest novel.
The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street (for eight to 12-year-olds) blends tenement life in 1911 Dublin with circus life. It came about after Sarah learned how Ireland had the second circus in the world thanks to a pioneering English husband-and wife team, the Astleys.
“Instantly I was hooked,” she says, after the circus expert told her about ex-cavalryman Philip Astley and his wife Patty. Regarded as the inventor of the modern circus in 1768, he was an expert equestrian and did stunt riding – but Patty did something even more extraordinary.
“She was a bee charmer – she used to ride around the ring on a white stallion, a beard of bees around her neck and bees on her arms,” Sarah tells host Martina Devlin in the latest City of Books episode. After hearing about Patty’s exploits, “my head just almost burst” she says.
She realised English travelling circuses visited Ireland and tenement children might sometimes go, or at least watch the parade held to drum up audiences. So the two ideas fused.
And she felt that while the tenement story was a dark one for children, the circus element lent it some light.
Sarah includes a house collapse, inspired by a real-life tragedy in the Henrietta Street area in 1913, and deals with the tenements’ chequered history – from magnificent homes for the few to slums for the many.
Sarah’s award-winning books for children include Blazing A Trail: Irish Women Who Changed The World. Her prizes include the Children’s Books Ireland Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Books.
The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street, written by Sarah Webb and illustrated by Rachel Corcoran, is published by The O’Brien Press. More here: https://obrien.ie/the-little-bee-charmer-of-henrietta-street