Profile picture of children's author, Leona Forde

Leona Forde is a mom of four, an English and History teacher and children’s author from Co. Cork.  Her debut novel, Milly McCarthy is a complete Catastrophe was published by Gill in March 2023.  This highly illustrated middle grade series follows the antics of a young Irish girl Milly,  who is a magnet for mayhem.  Dubbed Ireland’s answer to The Whimpy Kid series, the sequel Milly McCarthy and the Irish Dancing Disaster is out now!

In this episode, we chat about the turning of a story for her daughter into the publication of a successful first book, her inspirations and writing process, the importance of relatable and diverse characters, and her experiences as an author. 

About this podcast

Date:         12/09/2023

Duration:   23:54 mins

Leona's Takeaway Tip:

 “Read because you can’t write unless you read”

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Geraldine Hennessy: Welcome to the Cork Creative Podcast. With this podcast, we hope to promote local creative businesses and people. I am your host, Geraldine Hennessy from Flux Learning, and today I am joined by children’s author, Leona Forde, in one of Mix Coworking’s wonderful pods in Clonakilty.

After dabbling in short stories in the past, teacher and mother of four, Leona, responded to her daughter, Asha’s wish to read about characters which she could relate to.

And so, Millie McCarthy and her great adventures became a reality. After the success of her first book, Leona is about to launch her second book, Millie McCarthy and the Irish Dancing Disaster, with the third in the series already in the pipeline.

So in this episode, we discuss the turning of a story between mother and daughter into the publication of a successful first book, her inspirations and writing process, the importance of relatable and diverse characters, and her experience as an author.

So you’re very welcome to Cork Creative, Leona.

Leona Forde: Well, thanks for having me. Delighted to be here.

Geraldine Hennessy: So Leona, tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be a children’s author.

Leona Forde: Okay, so I’m from Cork, born and bred in Cork, 43 years old, mama of four, two rabbits, secondary school teacher, history and English, and um, I’ve always loved reading, always loved writing.

And then during lockdown, I suppose, you know, we were all looking for something different to do. And the JCT at the time, Junior Cycle for Teachers, offered courses online to teachers. It was called Arts in the Junior Cycle at the time, and say, if you are teaching a certain subject, like you’re teaching music, they will facilitate a workshop with you that you get to work with someone who is in that industry, a musician.

And so I got to do some creative writing courses with poets, with screenwriters, with short story writers. And one of the courses I did was with, um, Patricia Forde, who’s our current laureate na nóg, actually. And even though we’re no relation, both Fordes, it’s funny. Yeah. So I did creative writing for children with her, and there was a group of six girls that were brilliant writers.

We shared little bits of our stories online and critiqued them. And then Patricia said, you know, in Ireland, we’re really lucky. You don’t have to have an agent to approach a publisher. And she said, you should send some of your stuff off. And I was thinking, Oh, I don’t know. But I did, I sent off a picture book initially to Gill.

And after a couple of weeks, they got back to me and they said, we like the picture book ,can we have a meeting. And I had a little Zoom with my editor called Venetia Gosling. And in that she said, are you writing anything else? And I started telling her about this middle grade series that I had written for my daughter Asha.

She’s a really big reader and she was complaining that there was no Irish book set in Ireland with a young girl who goes to a Gaelscoil, they were all male and they’re all set in America and Britain and I thought, she’s right, so I’m going to write it for her. So Venetia said she’d like to read a couple of chapters, so I sent off six chapters and then I got a three book deal from Gill to write the series, Millie McCarthy.

Which was a complete shock to me. Yeah. But absolutely fantastic. So that’s how it all began.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Very good. So the teacher did a course and learned a whole new skill as such.

Leona Forde: Yeah, definitely. Now I had done writing all along, but it was just myself, although I did have one short story published in Australia years ago about the horrors of telemarketing with a thick Cork accent, where I was trying to sell gym membership to people in a town called Wollongabba, which I could not pronounce with my accent at the time.

Geraldine Hennessy: Very good. So you, you had touched into the whole writing world before so.

Leona Forde: Yeah, I always loved writing and I had done arts in UCC and English and history were my two subjects.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Okay. Very good.

And you have two books now written in the Millie McCarthy series. Can you describe your writing process and has your process evolved from the first book to the second book?

Leona Forde: So it all centers around a young girl called Millie and she’s around 10.5. She’s from Cork and because she’s from Cork, she has rebel blood.

So her dad says she’s a little bit crazy and um, she gets into all these mishaps, but she has this heart of gold, she really doesn’t mean to. So a lot of the time it starts me thinking, what would Millie do if she, and fill in the blanks, so if she went horse riding, if she went camping, you know, what would Millie do on a school tour?

And then I just let my mind wander. Other things then is talking to my own children and they tell me about what they’re doing in school, or some funny joke someone said, or I’ll read other children’s books and I’ll spark ideas from that. Um, I’m a bit of a planner. I like to know what the major mishap in the book is going to be, how I’m going to start the story, how I’m going to finish it.

And from then I just write in scenes, so a little scene will come into my head almost like a video is playing in my head. And I’ll write that down and then I work out from there and flesh it out. Things that I’ve learned along the way, things that have changed, I’m not so harsh on myself with the first copy anymore.

Before I would have written and thought, this isn’t good enough, I’ll scrap it and start again. Whereas now I think once you get that first copy down and finished, that’s where you start polishing up your work and that’s where you start adding your sparkle and going, Oh, actually, I need to add this and then that.

Because in the Millie books, I do a sprinkling of Irish throughout the books, there’s a couple of focail as Gaeilge. Because my own children go to a Gael Scoil, they love reading, but they do not like reading in Irish. And even though there’s some fantastic books out there in, in Ireland at the moment in Irish, some, you know, amazing people, Patrice Forde writes in Irish.

Futa Fata are a publishing house that do great Irish books. They just didn’t want to, but they will read it if there’s little bits of Irish in it. So I wanted that. And, and as well, even though there’s Irish in it, you don’t have to speak Irish to understand it because one of the other characters will then translate or they let you know what the other characters are saying. So it’s inclusive too.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. So I suppose it’s like, I do that myself when I’m at home. I throw on the odd Irish words, you know, to the kids and they’re like, what is she saying? But it’s a nice way to kind of bring it in a little bit.

Leona Forde:

Yeah. Yeah. And I think it’s really important for kids to see their culture. I mean, a lot of kids actually, what I find at the moment, and Asha pointed this out to me, they’re reading books that are set in America, set in England, about the, you know, cultures. And that’s great, but sometimes I feel it’s important that they see their own culture in the book and they see their own life reflected back at them.

And actually there’s this thing that I’m involved in at the moment. It’s called Discover Irish Kids book. And it’s recommending Irish authors, Irish illustrators, Irish books for kids so that they can see themselves in, you know, in their pages and they can read about stories set in in their country or in their town, which is really important as well.

Geraldine Hennessy: Well, I suppose, like, I love to read a book, you know, when it’s kind of, when it touches on areas around where you, you live yourself, you know, just brings in that kind of, you know, little bit more interest in it, I feel. So you’re doing that with your own books as well.

Leona Forde: What was so nice was when I was meeting little readers for the first time, they would come up to me and they’d be like, “guess where I went on school tour?”

“I don’t know. Where did you go?” “We went to Fota Wildlife Park in your book.”  Oh my gosh. Which was lovely. They would say things like, I have a teacher called Emer because they’re saying an Irish name in the book. And I thought that was really important for me. And I think it has resonated with lots of people.

And I’ve had parents say,  “Oh, I was laughing so hard when the teacher said, you know, Bí ciúin or sigh síos, it brought my childhood back to me being in the school”. That was lovely to hear as well.

Geraldine Hennessy: Great. Yeah. So it’s working well, so.

Leona Forde: Yes, it is.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. And does being a parent yourself help with the ideas and characters, and do your kids help your writing process. You mentioned there that they kind of give you a little ideas and stuff from their days in school and stuff.

Leona Forde: Yeah, they do. Definitely. I think the best thing about, um, having four kids is that I have four critics and editors living in my house with me. So oftentimes if I write a scene, I’ll call them in and I’ll say, what’d you think of that?

And they’d be like, “hmmm” and I said, okay, that’s probably not a keeper. Or like in book number two, I had to joke because the dad character loves dad’s jokes. And I thought it was a really good joke. And then the editor came back and she was like, I’m not sure will kids get that joke. It was a play on words.

So I said, give me two minutes. I’m going to ask my own kids. And I called three of them in and asked them and they were like, no, that is not funny. And I rang her back and I was like, yeah, you’re right. The kids did not get that joke at all. So I changed it to something else, but. That’s the biggest, um, help is them telling me what works and what doesn’t, or they’ll say things like, kids would never say that, you know, you need to change that vocabulary.

Yeah, we’d never use that word. Get with it, Ma.

Geraldine Hennessy: And kids have no filter, like they probably will always be your harshest critics, which is good too, though. It makes your books even better.

Leona Forde: Yeah. And then I like to, especially when we’re driving in the car, I’ll say, right, lads, I’m writing this at the moment and Millie’s going here, but I’m not really sure what to do with it. And they’ll come up, because kids have such a brilliant imagination, you know, we limit ourselves so much. And they’re like, well, she could say that. And I’m like, Oh, I actually never thought of that. That’s a great idea. Now I’ll have to tone it down.

Yeah, she couldn’t jump at all off a building. Not allowed to write that in a book. But she might do something a little less dangerous. Yeah. Yeah. So they’re really good at giving me ideas. Yeah.

Geraldine Hennessy: They must be really excited so when your books actually launch, do they, and they’re like, “We came up with that idea”.

You know?

Leona Forde: Yeah. Or even like naming the cat. You know, there’s a character, Millie’s family has a cat and I think Isaac, the seven year old came up with Catzilla. And he loves the fact that he has that in the book, you know, that he named that character. And just last week we were in Douglas Village Shopping Centre and I’m having my second launch there on Saturday, the 16th of September.

We’re coming down the escalator to do the regular shopping inside Tesco’s and my little girl Indie starts shouting, Millie McCarthy! Millie McCarthy! And I was wondering why she was saying it, because you know, she’s four, she starting ranting. But there was this huge poster of the book at the end of the escalator, which was fantastic because they were all excited.

It’s all those people walking around going, why is that woman jumping around with the kids in front of a poster? But it’s lovely for them.

Geraldine Hennessy: I hope you got a selfie.

Leona Forde: I did, of course.

Geraldine Hennessy: Very good. Very good.

 And how do you create memorable characters that children can relate to?

Leona Forde: Being an English teacher is, is a lovely little help because I teach people about creating characters.

And one of the things I always say to them is we have to have a feeling about a character. You either have to really dislike the character or really like the character, or your feelings about that character has to change because of something they do, something they say, or something someone else says about them.

So, one of the characters that a lot of kids come back to me about and talk to me about is Big Bow Rebecca. Okay, yeah. You know, and they, they came up and they’re like, Oh, I love Big Bow Rebecca. I love the fact that she’s so dramatic and she blocks the whiteboard with her big bow and that she gets in everyone’s way.

And I think it’s kind of like one of the things I try to do is I listen and I see the type of people that are in everyone’s class, you know, you have that dramatic girl and you have the boy in the corner who’s a little shy and you have the guy who’s really into books. And even though it sounds a little stereotypical at times, there is that kid.

And I think the main character, Millie as well, people have come up to me and said, Oh, we’ve a Millie in our house. I’ve a Millie in my class. You know, my sister is Millie. And there’s actually lots of Millie McCarthys. The name alone, I’ve met about five or six of them in Ireland, which is very funny. But yeah, I think it’s about a character who is going to be fun, a character who, you know, has a good heart always, and then someone that they can kind of relate to, you know, I know someone a bit like that.

Geraldine Hennessy: I suppose being relatable is quite important. It’s a huge thing for kids, yeah. And when, you touched there on the name, I think the name is brilliant, like, you know. And even the way that it’s McCarthy, it’s such a, you know, Cork name. Like, I think it’s fantastic. Yeah. It’s really relatable and I love that.

Leona Forde: Oh, thank you.

Geraldine Hennessy: I can’t wait until my kids start reading it.

Okay. And what message do you hope your stories convey to young readers?

Leona Forde: I think it’s important, we’re always trying to teach our kids little things. And when we would do, when I was writing book one, one of my children was doing the green schools flag in their class.

She was, you know, talking a lot about the environment and how, you know, oh, there’s terrible things happening in the world and climate change and, you know, it’s really scary. But their teacher was telling them, if you do one thing and you’re helping, then you’re making a difference. So that was the big idea for book one.

I wanted Millie’s readers to know that like…Millie and her class plant a little bee meadow. And even though it’s only a mini meadow, it’s making a huge difference because they’re doing something so they feel like they’ve made change. In book number two, then the Irish dancing disaster, Millie goes Irish dancing and at first it’s really, really hard and she can’t get the steps and she’s like, oh, this is too difficult, but she’s resilient and she realises that, well, if you want to be good at anything, you have to practise.

I think that was a lesson then for book number two that I wanted children to realise you’re not going to be good at everything straight away. Things are hard and to get better about stuff you have to practise. Millie doesn’t give up and she gets better at the end. Now, of course, Millie’complete mayhem by the end of the book, but she is resilient at the start and she does become a good dancer.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Okay. Okay. And do you think that will Millie grow? Like, have you, do you see a lot of books now in the in the future for her?  

Leona Forde: Yeah, so the third one is written, but I can’t give too much away. Third one is written already and submitted and everything. And then I have a couple of ideas for books coming down the line.

I think I’d like to leave her at the age she is because I love that age where it’s just before, you know, everything changes. They’re excited by everything. There’s lots of fun in the class, you know, and I love playing with the idea that Millie might use a word that she doesn’t really understand and the adults reading out the book to the child will get the joke.

Yeah. Or they’ll get muinteoir Eimear’s subtle eye roll or the rivalry between muinteoir Eimear and the principal. And I like that there’s that part of the book for an adult to enjoy as well. So I’d like to leave her at that age. But yeah, Millie definitely, she’s loads of adventures in front of her.

Geraldine Hennessy: Oh, that’s great.Great. Okay.

And how important is diversity and representation in children’s literature and how do you ensure that your stories reflect this?

Leona Forde: I think it’s huge. One of the things I was very conscious of when I was creating all the other characters that filled Millie’s class is I wanted there to be diversity and I wanted it to reflect modern Ireland.

So there is a girl in her class who’s in a wheelchair and she features in book 3- she saves, I can’t give things away, but she helps and it’s because she’s in a wheelchair, she’s able to help and there is a family in the books, it’s very subtle, you mightn’t even notice it, but one of the characters, she has two mums and that’s important for me because one of our friends, they’re a same sex couple and it’s very normal for my kids to go, “they’re their mums”, you know, so I wanted that to be part of it and I think Ireland is just becoming a far more of a diverse place.

People don’t see differences I think that’s important for it to be in a book, but not to be in the child’s face. Yeah, exactly. When you’re pushing it. More subtle. Yeah. A lot of them, when they’re that young, don’t see the difference.

Geraldine Hennessy: And I think that’s kind of, it’s a good point that you make, because I think we, as adults, and we grew up in a certain time where there may be, not have been as much diversity in our society.

We’re like, Oh my God, like there’s so many different nationalities now, which is fantastic. But, and we think that this might be an issue for our kids, but they don’t know any different. This is just, and it’s becomes norm for them, which is great.

Leona Forde: Yes. Yeah. So I think it’s really, really important for them to be in it.

For them to see different cultures, the traveller culture, for them to see different sexualities, different races, religions. But I don’t think it needs to be pushed in their face because for kids, they just accept it as it is. Okay. And I think that’s why it’s so lovely.

Geraldine Hennessy: Do you think there’s enough of books like that?

Leona Forde:

I think definitely becoming more frequent. The books that I’ve been reading lately, I see, you know, a lot of diversity in it, you know. I read a really good book recently enough, it was “For Your Heart” by Maeve. And the main character in that has autism. My little girl read it afterwards and she was saying, “Oh, cause I knew what autism was, but I didn’t fully understand it”.

But the book made me realize that, you know, oh, this is how it must feel for someone who has autism. And I, I never came across that before because…And I think books are such a magical way to approach an issue with a child that you’re not really sure how to approach it, but for them, they can experience it in a safe place.

And so she read this story about this young girl who has a difficult time accepting her diagnosis,fantastic book, it’s called “Fair Heart is Not a Puzzle”. The title just came to me. And Asha was able to experience what it must be like for a child who gets a diagnosis and doesn’t really want that diagnosis or doesn’t accept it, and how other people in the class coped with it as well.

It was fantastic.

Geraldine Hennessy: Because sometimes labels can be a little bit scary. Yeah. And once they experience it, you know, and understand it in a more gentle way, I think it’s, it’s better. Yeah.

Leona Forde: And actually, I had the pleasure of meeting David King and his little boy, Adam. Oh, yes. Yeah. During the summer, we were at the Bantry Festival together, and my little girl, Lindy, she’s just four, straight away asked, Why is he in a wheelchair?

Yeah. What is wrong with his legs? And it was a way of explaining it to her. Um, he’s got this beautiful book called Sir Adam. She reads that at night time and then she stops and she goes, he’s, he’s in the wheelchair because his legs get tired, but he can walk too. And she understands it now. You know, she’ll, she’ll point to other people in the wheelchair and say, he’s in a wheelchair like Adam.

It’s become a thing that it’s fine. She knows someone now. Yeah, yeah, exactly. Which I think is really important. Okay.

Geraldine Hennessy: And as a relatively new author, how has your experience been with working with the publishing company?

Leona Forde: Absolutely amazing. From day one, they were just so supportive. Because I really was completely new to this.

I didn’t know what a book launch was. I didn’t know about the editing process. I didn’t know about illustrators and they’ve just been so fantastic. So I’ve worked with this illustrator called Karen Harte, she’s from Dublin. She’s absolutely amazing. And one of the things people always find surprising is we never spoke to each other until the day of the book launch of book number one is when we finally met each other for the first time.

But it’s a thing that, you know, the publisher said, this is completely normal. This is how we work it. We work with you. We come back with the illustrations and then we go back to Karen with the ideas and she comes with her ideas and this is how we sort it out. They’ve been absolutely amazing, Gill. Yeah, they’re really, really good to work

Geraldine Hennessy:

So is the publisher like the middle ground? Like you don’t say, oh I want this specific thing, say in terms of the illustration. They basically ask the illustrator to come up with the ideas themselves, is it?

Leona Forde: It’s kind of a bit of both. They might say, are there certain parts of the book that you think would be good to be illustrated?

And then Venetia, the illustrator, or the editor, she will say, I’ve put in illustration suggestions for Karen. You can add some if you want or take it away. And then Karen herself will say, oh, look, I came up with an idea for this. I think it’ll work well. So it’s a combination of all of it together. It really is a team effort.

And then there’s Charlie Lawlor, who designs the covers of the book as well. And that’s fantastic. You get a say in everything, but everyone’s working as a team together.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay, it’s not just the author and the publisher, there’s a whole team behind it.

Leona Forde: God no, I can do it all.

Geraldine Hennessy: Um, would you like to go into other types of writing, like say adult fiction or?

Leona Forde:

I would, but it’s a little bugbear with people who write for children because everyone always asks you, when are you going to write a proper book? Writing for children is probably harder because they’re really honest critics and they will tell you straight away if they didn’t like your book or they will suggest what you should be writing.

But yeah, I do write in different genres. I wrote a couple of short stories. I’ve written a little bit for YA, which is young adults, which I think is a brilliant area. I’d love to, you know, develop more in that area. Haven’t written anything for adults yet, but I think. You know, I think if you can write, you can write.

Exactly. But I love writing for children because it’s so much fun and you have so much freedom. Yeah, exactly.

Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Watch this space. You never know. Exactly. And what’s the most challenging aspect of being an author?

Leona Forde: I think it is the fear that you won’t be able to come up with more ideas because you just finished a book and then you’re like, Oh my God, you know, it takes it out of you and you’re so proud of it.

And then you’re like, right, blank page, let’s go again. And you’re like, what if I can’t think of anything? But I think the brain is such an amazing thing. And anytime I get stuck, what I do is I read. I read other stories, I read adult fiction, I read non fiction, I read graphic novels, I read picture books, I read everything because all of a sudden, someone else’s idea will spark an idea in you.

And when you look back on the history of literature, I always point this out to kids in class. Romeo and Juliet was, was based on a poem called The Rose. The Lion King is based off Hamlet. We all take ideas and then we just make them our own and develop them. So I’m like going, listen, there’s no infinite number of ideas.

You can just take someone else’s idea and just make it sparkle and make it into another story.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Very good. Very good. And what is the most rewarding part of writing for children?

Leona Forde: It’s definitely getting to meet the readers at libraries, or in their schools, or at book launches, and they come up to you and they tell you what they think of the book, or when you get a little message online, which has happened loads of times, saying, My child didn’t really like reading, and they picked up your book, and they read it in two nights, and it’s just that lovely feeling that, something I created made someone else happy.

Like, you can’t have that. It’s addictive. That’s why we write more and more books. You want to hear that again and again. I liked your story. It made me happy. It made me want to read more books.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. And what advice do you have for aspiring children’s authors?

Leona Forde: I would say number one, join Children’s Books Ireland, which is a fantastic organization.

I joined them and I went to the first ever conference thinking I was, you know, a complete newbie and outsider. They made me feel so welcome. You get so much support. And then I would say just read because you can’t write unless you read. Um, and I would say, don’t be afraid your first draft will be terrible because my first drafts are always terrible.

You know, you really have to polish them up afterwards and it is in the editing and the rewriting that they get better. You know, and I think one of the biggest things that stop people from writing is the fear that you may fail or the fear that you might write something and no one else will like it.

But it doesn’t matter because if you don’t write it, you’ve failed already. So just write.

Geraldine Hennessy: I suppose the key there is it’s the first draft.

Leona Forde: Just get that out onto the page.

Geraldine Hennessy: Very good. So with that great bit of advice, I think we’ll leave it there. So thank you so much, Leona, for joining us on the Cork Creative Podcast.

If you’d like to learn more about Leona and her books, you can find links to her website and social media on