Pauline Burgess is a school teacher and author, which she says has ‘fed her writing and passion for children’s literature. Having taught many reluctant readers over the years she truely believes in promoting the idea of reading for enjoyment. Pauline recently received the ACES Award (Artist Career Enhancement Scheme) from the Arts Council NI for her writing and her writing for children in particular. She is also the mother of one pony mad daughter.
Pony Party, the 3rd book in Paulines childrens series Pony Friends Forever is published on the 14th May 2015. We chatted to Pauline about the new book and what inspires her to write.
“The Pony Palace is the best riding school ever, but new boy Oskar is finding it hard to fit in.
He’s trying his best to make friends with Hannah and Claire and to learn how to ride It doesn’t help that his pony, Tonto, is the naughtiest in the stables– and Gizmo and Daisy aren’t behaving either…”
Tell us a little more about the new book.
Pony Party is the third in the Pony Friends Forever series, published by Blackstaff Press. The books were inspired by my daughters riding experiences at Lessans Riding Stables between Carryduff and Saintfield. She started to ride there when she was 5 years old. And it isn’t just about the riding, it’s about the fun and friendship and food, that we experience and enjoy there every week. I really liked the diversity of the place. We became friends with people from all types of social, religious and cultural backgrounds.
It really became integral to our lives, every Saturday – our visit to Lessans Riding Stables.
As I mentioned, Pony Party is the third in the series. Each book features three real, living, breathing, ponies from Lessans Riding Stables and three different child characters.
The latest one – Pony Party – features Oskar, Claire and Hannah who ride Tonto, Gizmo and Daisy. Oskar comes from Poland and he is trying to overcome the language and cultural barriers. And hopefully he gets there – I’m not going to give too much away .
I am very proud of the book as it features my daughter on the front cover.
Pony Party – Number three!
You mentioned that the ponies are based on real horses, but where do you get your inspiration for the storylines?
This particular series was inspired by real life events. I have been writing for over 12 years and I have written a lot of short stories in that time for children and adults, but this was my first book contract, and it is interesting that, when I finally received a yes from a publisher, it was based on my real life experiences with my family. They always say you should write about what you know, and obviously that is true.
But generally in writing, it is all the experiences that I encounter in life through my teaching day, my home and family day, through lots of different experiences. You see little bits of personalities and storylines and you merge them together. They are never based on any one individual person or event. But I am conscious of storylines everywhere – in the media, all around me while I am shopping in Belfast, the children I teach in school – of course I haven’t written about any of them. Pony Party, as I mentioned was inspired by a place which became a place of real social importance to us.
There is a little café there, called the Nose Bag Café and we would all come together after the ride and put the world to rights. Again, as I said earlier, lots of different backgrounds. North, South, East, and West Belfast – nobody cares and that is one of the wonderful things about it.
This may be the first children’s book from Northern Ireland to acknowledge the growing intercultural make-up of the region – how important to do think it is that Northern Irish authors start to acknowledge this changing dynamic?
It is vital, absolutely vital! As a teacher, as well as a writer, I am very conscious that children need to read books which are meaningful to them, something which resonates with them, but also teaches them about the wider environment.
I grew up at a time when you didn’t really get to meet children from other backgrounds, so it is vitally important these days that we show that Northern Irish society is very much a mixed and rich society.
I have been teaching for 22 years and I have had the pleasure of teaching students from Poland, Lithuania, the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia and Rathlin Island. I think it is wonderful that we are building a society where children are learning from each other culturally, learning a little bit about each other’s language.
My daughter attends an integrated school and her friends have a rich variety of different ethnic, social and religious backgrounds which I never experienced as a child.
That is what Northern Ireland should be. That is what Northern Ireland is and we need to reflect that in our books and in every walk of life!
What is the greatest joy you have received from writing the Pony Friends Forever series?
I have done a lot of readings with the books and have been out to lots of schools and events. One day I was in Easons in Belfast and there was a Primary School there from Inner Belfast with an eclectic mix of Travelling children, Romanian children among others and they were the most attentive and engaged audience I have come across in the time I have been promoting the Pony Friends Forever series.
One little girl who was in P.3 came to me and asked me ‘Are your pupils proud of you?’ and I said I wasn’t sure. And she said, ‘If you were my teacher I would be very proud of you’ and she shook my hand and said it was a pleasure to meet me. I was really, really touch by that. A little girl in P.3, with such an adult mind, and yet hadn’t been exposed to a great deal of literature in her life. That day I felt the children and I were really engaged through a love of stories. We talked a lot about the oral traditions, fairy-tale stories as many of them hadn’t read so many books – but stories are stories.
I felt very touched by Katie’s honesty and integrity and hopefully I will go and visit the school very soon.
If you could spend a day with any of your characters who would it be?
Barney, possibly. Barney is bold, or is he? I think he’s just misunderstood. He likes to do his own thing, he’s got his own mind. He’s not prepared to be bossed about by people or horses he doesn’t respect. He listens to Kate, the owner of the riding stables, though. He will listen to her, to the voice of reason.
He likes to do things differently and I admire him for that.
What did you enjoy reading when you were 8 or 9?
I loved reading as a child. It’s hard to remember specifically at that age, but I think that is when I really loved Nina Bawden’s books, particularly ‘Carrie’s War.’ The ‘Little House’ stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder or books like ‘The Railway Children.’ I suppose in a way they were all books that celebrated diversity – to an extent. The children always seemed to reach out to someone who was marginalised or on the periphery of society. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but stories about that seemed to appeal to me. Stories where children run free, enjoy life and gain a perspective on the wider world at the same time.
What is your favourite book as an adult?
Again, that is hard, but ‘Small Island,’ by Andrea Levy would definitely be up there. I have loved the book since it came out but I actually do also teach it as an A Level text. It is a book about the wind rush and it tells the story of Jamaican immigration to Britain after the Second World War.
It tells the story of four different main characters and how they adapt to their new lives. It tells the story through four different narrators which I really like, maybe this indirectly inspired me to use different three different narrative voices in my Pony Friends Forever books
Small Island is a book I think everyone should read. The name is metaphorical and also literal. It is about how we have to accept change and how society is forever evolving and changing.
What one word would you give to anyone starting out – trying to get published and why?
Patience – and persistence, can I give them two? As I said I have been writing for 12 or 13 years, but it also took 12 years to get a book contract. You have got to keep writing and sending your stuff out there and one day hopefully you will get a yes. We are very lucky to have a company like Blackstaff Press that nurtures new and local writers from this part of the world and tries to get them out there, so I am very thankful to them and gives them a chance.
But basically, just keep reading, keep writing, keep trying.
I am writing scripts for an educational company at the minute, the idea behind it is that children learn through aural experiences. It is a really fun and exciting thing to do because we are teaching them skills in literacy, numeracy and all areas of the curriculum but through creative writing.
The students wear headphones, they listen to the scripts and become a participant narrator and is actively involved in the action so that is very exciting.
I am also working on a new children’s book for a younger audience. As Booktrust N.I. would say, books are more than books; they are a doorway. So I like the idea of writing books for very young children, providing them with a doorway to explore the wider world. It is a picture book in essence but we will have to see where it goes!
Pauline will be launching Pony Party, with Blackstaff Press at Easons in Donegall Place, Belfast, on Saturday 16th May at 12.30pm. Be sure to pop along to pick up your copy and to enjoy sweets, badges and many more treats!