Sheena Wilkinson writers Young Adult, but she doesn't do pink, soppy, girly or undead in her latest novel
Set in contemporary Belfast the Young Adult novel Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson is a YA pony book with a difference. It isn’t pink, it isn’t soppy and the main character is a bolshie little spide from Belfast.
‘I like things that are slightly unexpected and that challenge stereotypes. I know from my involvement with horses that there are lots and lots of boys who love horses, it just isn’t cool to admit it,’ says Wilkinson. ‘In Taking Flight I took that a step further and wrote about a boy who’s never even thought about horses. In fact, the only riding Declan ever did was joyriding.‘
Taking Flight starts with Declan breaking another boy’s nose. It’s not senseless, the other boy insulted his mother, but no-one wants to hear it. Declan is bad blood, a trouble-maker, and everyone knows it. Even Declan. Then he is sent to live with his aunt and his posh cousin Vicky, who has a horse called Flight.
‘Declan finds himself powerfully drawn to the animals and what they represent; the power and the speed,’ Wilkinson says, running a hand through her short, dark hair. ‘More than that, it awakens in him a sense of responsibility he never had before.’
But while all Declan wants is to spend time with the horses; the last thing Vicky wants is for her unwelcome cousin to get anywhere near her precious show-jumper.
Taking Flight is 42 year old Wilkinson’s first novel. An English teacher at Methodist College Belfast, she admits that until recently she has always been better at starting things than finishing them. It was a Arvon course in writing YA novels that encouraged her to change her ways. One of the tutors on the course, Lee Weatherly, really liked what she was doing. His support and mentorship encouraged her to finish Taking Flight and an Arts Council Funded critical feedback programme with the Creative Writers Network helped her polish the manuscript.
‘I was doing the final revisions on Taking Flight when I started the MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s,’ Wilkinson says. ‘I sent it out to the usual agents and got the usual rejections. Then Faith O’Grady, a literary agent in Dublin, contacted me to say she loved the sample chapters.’
O’Grady loved the full manuscript and sold it to Little Island, Dublin publisher New Island’s newly minted YA imprint. Publication seems to have cured Wilkinson of her streak of not finishing things. She has written two more novels and is just waiting for a publisher.
‘I don’t want to talk about them too much. I haven’t got a contract for them yet,’ Wilkinson demurs, squirming in the chair. It isn’t like her to less than
forthcoming. She enjoys getting out of her office to do PR and says she’s happy to do anything to publicise Taking Flight. Within reason. ‘They aren’t a sequel to Taking Flight. It’s funny but I don’t think there’s a single animal in either of them. Maybe I got the whole pony story thing out of my system with Taking Flight?’
The new books might not be about horses but they are Young Adult and, like Taking Flight, based in Belfast. Wilkinson jokes that she wishes she could write urban fantasy about angels. ‘My writing is very contemporary, very into realism,’ she shrugs, almost apologetically. ‘That’s what I like.’
To read as well as write. Wilkinson cites Tabitha Sezuma and Sarah Dessen as two modern writers she admires. She also has a weakness for some of her childhood classics, pony stories and school books such as the Mallory Towers and Chalet School books. ‘They are great comfort reading. And now that I’m writing
in the genre I don’t have to feel guilty about reading them. Apart from the amount of money I spend!’
If Taking Flight is Wilkinson’s version of a – non-soppy, non-pink, non-girly – pony story, maybe the next two books will be updated school stories. Belfast boarding schools and midnight fry-ups?
One thing you can be sure of, Wilkinson doesn’t ‘do vampires’.