It’s 1996 - two years before I become a published author. I’m trying to write a series of animal poems. They’re not particularly brilliant. I go for a ride on my bike. I find myself singing a little tune.
There’s a quiet gentle tiger,
in the woods below the hill…
I jump off the bike. Climb over a gate into a field. Write it down. A poem spills out, like a dream.
In time, I get an agent. Things start to happen. But not with the animal poems, which have become a picture book idea called ‘Cards from Uncle Joe’. Each poem is a postcard / birthday card / Christmas card from Joe to his niece, with a little toy animal attached. It's a nice concept, but never really clicks.
It’s 2003. I’m having lunch with Simon and Schuster. I read my editor some scripts. They’re not quite working. I pull out my Dancing Tiger poem. I get to the end, and there's silence. And then I notice the tears, pouring down her face. We’re in business.
They take on a top American husband and wife team, Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, to illustrate it. It’s quite, quite beautiful.
The Dancing Tiger sells to Viking Penguin in the US, to Australia, Korea, Japan, Spain… Hits shortlists in Ireland, Scotland and America… It gets amazing reviews. People read things into it I’d never even thought of.
I’m invited to the Nestle Children’s Book Award. It wins Silver. Would’ve won Gold if some hotshot kid from Belfast (with a penguin in tow) hadn’t appeared on the scene, all of a sudden…
The Dancing Tiger becomes a firm favourite. I bring a big cuddly one with me to all my readings. It’s the final thing I read, to settle everyone down. Because it's a lullaby, really. A lullaby to love, and family, and imagination, and the power of story. Or so they tell me.
A child comes out and dances with the tiger.
We skipped in spring through bluebells,
in summer circled slow.
We high-kicked in the autumn leaves
and waltzed in winter snow…
Then, in 2010, the emails start arriving. ‘I want / need / must have this book, but can’t find it anywhere.’ That’s when I realise it’s out of print. That I’ve only two copies left. I’m bereft.
The emails keep coming, from all round the world. I reply that I’m as sorry as they are, but the publisher has no plans to reprint. It’s on Kindle, but…
I start forwarding them to Simon and Schuster. One a month, sometimes one a week. I tell my editor that I know books go out of print – that's the business we're in – but this one… this one is special. The way people feel about it is special.
Eventually, to my astonishment, they give in. ‘I've good news for you, Malachy,' they tell me. 'We’re doing a small reprint.’
It's September 2013, and my tiger is back from the long dark night. It’s only a thousand copies, but it means the world to me.
He was lost but now he's found and, for another wee while at least, we’re dancing again.
Never give up on your dreams!
You can hear me reading it, on World Book Day a few years ago, to a group of children in the offices of the Guardian newspaper, on http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/culturevulture/archives/wbd3.mp3