UKYA Extravaganza: Sheena Wilkinson

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I’m absolutely thrilled to be part of the blog tour leading up to the second UKYA conference on the 10th October in Nottingham. The first one looked such good fun and the second one promises to be too.

I’m also particularly pleased that I get to welcome the Irish writer Sheena Wilkinson to the blog. Sheena has written five novels for young adults and won an array of awards, including two CBI awards for her debut Taking Flight and another two for the follow-up Grounded making her the only author to have won the Children’s Choice award twice. She has two novels out this year, Still Falling and Name After Name.

Name After Name is set in Belfast in 1916. We see events through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Helen who watches her family tear itself apart over ideas around Home Rule and fighting for the British in the war. Helen’s father’s side of the family are Protestant and her mother’s side are Catholic.

She didn’t know – or care – much about Home Rule, and being Irish or British. She just knew she hated people talking about it. She had always quite liked having the excuse that she could see both sides because of Mama and Papa being from different religions. But maybe that was just laziness? Maybe she ought to be able to make up her mind?

 With one cousin from her dad’s side, Sandy, already on the front line and another from her mum’s side, Michael, keen to join up, Helen gets to hear more about WW1 and the disagreements within her own family. And then the Easter Rising happens and Michael’s in the thick of it.

Still Falling tells the story of sixth formers Esther and Luke. On the first day of term, Luke has an epileptic fit in their tutor room. Esther’s the only one who knows what to do.

‘Shut up. Give him space,’ I order. My voice comes out clear and strong like I expect everyone to obey and they do, even Baxter. Even Jasmine and Cassie, huddled together, their eyes nearly popping out of their mascaraed sockets. I pull the chair well away from Luke and shove my cardigan under his head to cushion it. Blood blurs his cheek, from the desk I suppose. I yank at the tight knot of his tie, open his collar. His head flails, froth blooming from his mouth, his arms and legs spasming in a mad jerking dance.

Slowly a relationship develops between the two of them, much to the surprise and dismay of the popular girls in the form and Esther’s dad. Esther’s dad is a teacher and the head of pastoral care at the school which means he’s aware of Luke’s background. Luke’s in foster care. His mum’s dead, his previous foster carer’s nowhere to be seen and he’s come from a rough school. He can’t be good for Esther, can he? When he’s accused of a sexual assault at a party, it seems as though Esther’s dad might be right.

I enjoyed both of these books. Wilkinson excels at conjuring characters’ voices, making them and their stories engaging to read. Her plots have a pace and timing which keep you turning the pages desperate to know what happens next. I have to confess to a soft spot for Still Falling though. The good girl/boy from the wrong side of town story gets me every time (see Robert Swindell’s Daz 4 Zoe which I used to love teaching) but this was heightened by Luke’s epilepsy which was utterly believable and brought a different dimension to the story.

I asked Sheena a few questions about the books and writing for young adults in general.

What made you want to write books for a predominantly teenage audience?

It was less a conscious decision than the way it worked out. The stories and characters that came into my mind tended to be young adults. It’s a great age group to write about because everything you feel then is so fervent. And to be honest I remember my own adolescence very clearly indeed, though I don’t think I was very like any of the characters I’ve written about. I hope to keep writing for this age group, but I’d like to see the UK market get behind a greater range of books, subjects and authors. It can be frustrating to go into bookshops and see mainly US YA, when there’s such a wealth of talent in the UK.

Name After Name and Still Falling are powerful books, how do you decide which themes and issues to write about?

I’m glad you found them powerful! I don’t decide on ‘an issue’ as such: for me it always begins with a character and I suppose some kind of difficult situation. In Still Falling, for example, I wanted to write about someone being accused of a sexual attack, and I wanted the reader – and the character himself – to have doubts about whether or not he’s guilty. From that, it was mostly a matter of working backwards to see what led up to the accusation, and that’s how I got to know the character of Luke.

Similarly, with Esther, I didn’t decide I wanted to write about body image and self-esteem, but when I started thinking about the kind of girl Luke might get involved with, I realised that these were some of the anxieties which affected her. I realise I have written about suicide in both Grounded and Still Falling, and that was a conscious thing. Not in the sense of it being an issue, but in the sense that the stories involve people being driven to the absolute edge of their tolerance.

What sort of research do you do?

Heaps! For Still Falling, I did a huge amount of research into epilepsy – I was very conscious that I’d set myself the task of describing a seizure and its aftermath from the inside, as well as what it might feel like to live with that condition, without having personal experience. Obviously I used books, websites, etc., but there comes a time when you have to stop researching and write. I’ve been pleased with the response to the portrayal of epilepsy, including from readers with the condition.

Name Upon Name was different because of being historical – it’s set in 1916; but it’s the same principle. It matters hugely to me to get the details right, but that’s only the start of it. Getting the tone right is much harder, and just as important. Luckily I’m pretty steeped in that period, as I’ve written a lot about it over the years.

Is there anything you think is off-limits for Young Adult novels?

Not really, as long as it’s done with a sense of responsibility. I mean, I’ve written about alcoholism, drugs, pregnancy, suicide and sexual abuse; but I’ve always approached those issues, if you want to call them that, very thoughtfully. For example, there’s a completed suicide in Grounded, and I spent a day with a suicide charity to help me deal with it thoughtfully. And it’s important for difficult issues to be dealt with in the relatively safe space of a book. I mean, researching suicide for Grounded, I came across some horrific stuff online. Readers are going to come across that too, quite apart from what they actually deal with in real life. I was sexually assaulted on a bus when I was fifteen, and even though I was a confident young feminist in some ways, I internalised guilt and self-blame about it for years. I’d have welcomed reading about that kind of situation in a YA novel.

There’s been some debate in the media recently as to whether adults should be embarrassed about reading YA literature, where do you stand on this?

It annoys me that some sections of the media seem to think it’s second-rate. There are many wonderfully-written YA novels, and plenty of badly-written ‘adult’ ones. (And vice versa!) I don’t like the assumption that because something is for younger readers it might be in some way inferior – but that’s nothing new. Girls’ fiction, in particular has a long history of being disparaged. This is what my PhD was about!

My blog focuses on female writers; which female Young Adult writers did you grow up reading?

There wasn’t a huge amount of YA when I was growing up, compared to now when there are so many great writers that I couldn’t begin to start naming them. I read a lot of school stories, well into my teens, and loved the way they foregrounded female experience and especially female friendship. In contrast, some of the YA around in the 80s was very focused on just finding a boyfriend, or issue-driven at the expense of the writing. But one writer I loved, and still love, and always go back to, is K. M. Peyton. She’s had an amazing career, writing for all age groups. Linda Newbery is another writer who was just starting to write when I was in my late teens – like K.M. Peyton, her books are beautifully written and very varied with the same kind of timeless quality that Peyton has. And hooray, she’s still writing wonderful books

A huge thank you to Sheena Wilkinson for the interview. If you want to find out more about her and her books (and I really hope you do), she has a Facebook page and is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can see everyone else involved in the UKYA Extravaganza below, along with details about the event and which writers and blogs are taking part in the blog tour so you can read all of the posts.

UKYAX October Poster FINALUKYAX October Blog Tour Banner FINAL

Thanks to Little Island for the review copies of the novels.

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