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Relatively Speaking: We catch up with Sheena and Poppy

By Una Brankin

Sheena Wilkinson is one of the UK and Ireland's most acclaimed writers for young people. Her novel Grounded won the Children's Books Ireland Overall Book of the Year 2013, and her short story, Each Slow Dusk, is included in the newly published anthology The Great War. She lives in rural Co Down, close to her mother Poppy.

Name: Sheena Wilkinson

Age: 45

Occupation: Author

Relationship to Poppy: Daughter

Mummy married John, my stepfather, when I was 12 and I grew up with my sister Rhona (44) and two much-loved dads. Daddy died in 2008, which was awful – he was much too young – but I am lucky enough still to have two parents, and I'm very close to both of them.

Mummy was an English teacher in Further Education, and I grew up in south-east Belfast.

I moved to Castlewellan in 2002, and when mummy and John retired they moved nearby, so we see more of each other now. I remember mummy's long dark hair and how she was younger and prettier than other mums. I remember her coming home from shopping on Tuesdays with the Bunty girls' magazine sticking out of her wicker basket. I could hardly wait for her to get into the house so I could take it away and read The Four Marys.

Mummy left school at 16 but went back into education in her 20s, so my abiding memory is of her studying.

It was very much a reading home; we all loved books. I lived round the corner from Cregagh Library, which, along with Belvoir Forest, was my favourite place as a child. There's no way mummy could have bought me all the books I read, so thank God for the public library; I couldn't have flourished as a reader as much as I did without it. And being a reader is directly what led to being a writer.

Mummy always encouraged my literary ambitions. I do remember, though, that she said she wouldn't read any more of my stories until they were finished; she was fed up investing in my stories and being left high and dry when I lost interest and moved on to something else.

She still reads all my books, though not until they are finished, and she always has an opinion about them.

Like me, she is not usually short of an opinion on anything."

Name: Poppy Kerr

Age: 66

Occupation: Retired teacher

Relationship to Sheena: Mother

I remember Sheena as a very happy child, always singing. She loved reading and writing stories, and performing little plays for the family, often forcing her much-suffering younger sister Rhona to join in. She loved playing schools but was always the teacher, with Rhona and her dolls as the pupils.

As long as she had a book or paper and pens she was happy. From an early age she was always writing little books and comics.

I always knew she would become a wonderful teacher, which she did, and I knew that if she was determined enough to stick at it, she could indeed become a writer.

I'm taller than Sheena and apart from sharing dark hair which is inclined to curl or frizz, we aren't physically alike. However, we are quite similar in our personalities. We are both outgoing and fun-loving, and we both love to be the centre of attention. Sheena's very competitive, which I'm not, though I've loved going to see her get literary awards over the last few years.

We're both intolerant of people who sniff or use bad grammar on TV.

I admire Sheena's happy disposition and her generosity of heart. She's very loyal to her family and friends. But what I admire most is how hard Sheena has worked to get her writing career off the ground. For years she had to combine writing with a full-time teaching career, so it's great to see her be able to write full-time now, which was always her dream.

Sheena is very decisive and I'm a ditherer, so that drives me mad sometimes. I'm a typical Libra while she's a typical Leo. And when I give her some of my cast-off clothes, they look better on her, which really annoys me. She's also very talkative.

Each Slow Dusk is typical of Sheena's historical short stories, but it's quite different from her young adult novels, which are all set in contemporary Belfast. It manages to say a lot about war in a few words, showing the experiences of both men and women, and especially young people, and it's very understated. It seems to capture the period with very well-chosen, evocative details. I remember Sheena getting involved in researching the role played by Methodist College in the First World War, so it was interesting to see it develop into fiction.

In three words I'd describe Sheena as passionate, loving and optimistic.

Bringing her talent to book

Since the publication of the internationally multi-award-winning Taking Flight in 2010, Sheena Wilkinson has established herself as one of the most popular writers for young people in the UK and Ireland.

Her work Each Slow Dusk is included in The Great War: Stories Inspired by Objects from the First World War (Walker Books, 2014), and was inspired by Methodist College school magazines from 1914-1918.

Sheena received a major award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2012. Her forthcoming novel, Still Falling, will be published by Little Island in February 2015

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