Martin Waddell

Linen Hall Library exhibition celebrates acclaimed children's author. Click Play Video to hear Waddell's recollections of a life in prose

Martin Waddell - Storyteller, a wonderful new exhibition at the Linen Hall Library, celebrates the work of one of Northern Ireland's best-loved authors using paintings, original cover illustrations, poems, photographs and other materials previously donated to the Linen Hall Library, and from the author's own personal archives.

Otley, Waddell's first published work, was met with immediate critical and popular acclaim when it hit the shelves in 1966. A 'chronicle of the tribulations of Britain's Strictly Unclassifiable Amateur, part-time, semi-skilled, unlicensed secret agent', the book was made into a film in 1969, starring Tom Courtenay and Romy Schneider, bringing the writer to international attention.

Having made the transition from adult to teenage and children's fiction, Waddell has since enjoyed immense success, producing an astonishing 220 titles and selling in excess of 20,000,000 units worldwide. His picture books have sold more than 18 million copies, with 1992's Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? and Farmer Duck winning the Smarties Book Prize.

Fittingly, in 2004, Waddell was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, ‘the highest international award that can be bestowed on a children’s writer.' In accepting the award, Waddell told the audience, ‘I want to encourage older children to think for themselves, to listen to the voice of dissent.’

Born in Belfast in 1941, just before the blitz, Waddell decamped along with his family to Newcastle, County Down, taking up residence in the shadow of the Mourne Mountains. The County Down landscape would have a large and enduring influence on Waddell's work. Published in 1996, The Big Sea takes place against the distinct Mourne backdrop. 

As a child, Waddell was read to 'by people who knew how to read stories'. Great aunt Helen Waddell (1889-1965) wrote extensively on religion, while great uncle Sam (1878-1967) wrote plays under the name Rutherford Mayne. Works by both authors are still in print.

In 1972, when residing in Donaghadee, Waddell was caught up in an explosion at St Comgall’s Church when a 20lb bomb detonated in the 127-year-old building. Although not seriously injured, in the aftermath the author was unable to write. It would take a lengthy six years before he would construct another story. 'Suddenly,' he says, 'in 1978 the ability came back.'

The 'Troubles Trilogy', published under the name Catherine Sefton (in rememberance of Waddell's mother) would become one of Waddell's greatest successes. 

Starry Night
, Frankie's Story and The Beat of the Drum are individual stories united by a common theme. Actress Celia Keenan described the trilogy as 'a truly serious attempt to depict the Northern Ireland Troubles for children in a way that did not oversimplify or stereotype the issues or the people.’

By the late 1990s, working with Walker Books, Waddell had published five Little Bear stories. A publishing phenomenon, the eventual box-set came packaged with a Martin Waddell - Master Storyteller DVD. 

Waddell resides to this day in the town where he grew up, working from an old stone barn beside his home in the harbour area of Newcastle. 'I never write anywhere else,' he says. 'This is where I belong.'

The current Linen Hall Library retrospective exhibition follows Waddell's first, in 1970, when the author had six novels, one play and 19 short stories in publication. The exhibition celebrates Waddell’s storytelling, featuring final publications, original manuscripts and illustrations.

In addition to materials already donated to the Linen Hall Library, other items from the author’s personal archives are included to give a comprehensive and illuminating overview of the development of one on Northern Ireland's most cherished talents.  

Read a Q&A with the author himself.

The Martin Waddell retrospective exhibition taks place at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, until April 26.