A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
This week, Nikki Sheehan’s new novel Swan Boy is flapping and pirouetting onto bookshop shelves! I’ve been lucky enough to read it early — it’s a truly magical story, and is already getting lots of love from readers. I interviewed Nikki to find out more…
When Johnny moves house and starts a new school he has to deal with a bully who can’t leave him alone. But help comes from an unexpected and surprising source and Johnny’s growing power soon puts him in a very special place.
A chance encounter with a swan sparks a series of events that result in Johnny playing the lead in a school ballet. His teacher wants him to live the role, and when feathers start sprouting on his chest, Johnny begins to understand his true potential. But will he be strong or brave enough to beat his bullies, take care of his brother, support his mother and find a place for himself among all the chaos that is prevailing in his life.
Hi Nikki! Can you start by telling us a little about Swan Boy?
It’s the story of Johnny whose world is rocked when his dad dies suddenly and he has to move away from all his friends to a tower block in North London. At his new school he is bullied, but much to his own surprise, Johnny finds salvation through ballet and swans. As you do.
Swan Boy‘s hugely imaginative; I loved the combination of fantasy elements with a very true-to-life story. What inspired you to write it?
I was inspired by my own kids, but I was also thinking of myself as a 13 year old. Stepping into the life (and body) of an adult can be very scary, particularly if the past has been confusing. But of course (unless you’re Judy Garland) it’s inevitable, so the more support and role models you have, the easier it is. For Johnny this comes in the form of a middle aged female dance teacher who shows him that he is strong, and a swan which teaches him to break arms (that was a joke – no arms were broken in the making of this book.)
Swan Boy has lots of stand-out scenes. Do you have a favourite?
Always the swan scenes. Particularly the one when Johnny finds a swan in the lift at his block of flats. Instead of running away, he steps inside which marks the beginning of him opening up to the changes about to happen. And, of course, I do love a certain scene where he finds something rather astonishing on his chest…
Johnny develops a special affinity with swans. If you could be any other living thing, what would you be?
Could I have two? I’d be a dolphin and a horse because it looks like a lot of fun when they play, plus I’m a coward and they have very few natural predators.
I loved the role dance played in Johnny’s character arc. Do you think it’s important for young people to have a creative outlet?
Yes, yes, and yes again! it’s hugely important, and not just for young people! There is so much pressure in all of our lives, and the chance to ‘play’ in a creative way is essential, whether it’s through dancing, drawing, inventing new tricks on a skateboard, making Youtube videos or dying your hair a different colour, it’s all a chance to find out who you are, and it’s all great.
Johnny suffers at the hands of bullies, through no fault of his own. Swan Boy explores the various facets of bullying sensitively and cleverly, even showing us a glimpse from the bully’s point of view. What message do you hope young people will take away from the book?
I was so glad that I wrote a scene from the bully’s point of view. Although it wasn’t essential for the plot, seeing Liam at home, and with his friends, helped me to understand him better and then write him more convincingly. But I also wanted to show that sometimes people get stuck in roles, and that bullies are struggling too. Bullies aren’t some ‘other’ type of kid, there are always reasons for it. Also they read books too, so while I didn’t write it for the Liams in particular, it would be good if they recognised themselves in the book. I also hope that anyone suffering from bullying will be helped to understand that it’s nothing they’ve done, and that, in the nicest possible way, it’s not all about them!
The relationship between Johnny and his little brother, Mojo, was one of my favourite parts of the book. Did you have a plan for how their relationship would develop, or did it evolve as you wrote?
Me too! The scenes where Johnny and his brother are alone together were very easy to write, and it was one of those experiences as a writer where you feel like you’re just looking on and taking notes. But yes, it was essential that Johnny was able to gradually help Mojo as well as himself, so, unusually for me, there was actually a bit of plotting in there!
It’s been completely different. Partly this is because I’m now with a different publisher and they all seem to do things slightly differently. But it’s also because I’m more prepared this time. I think I’ve been more proactive, but I’m also more aware that success in this industry is unpredictable and often quite random, so it probably doesn’t matter what I do and I should probably just chill out!
What’s next for you?
I have a two book deal with Rock The Boat, so I’m just finishing my first draft of a book due out a year today, which is about a boy and dog and a messy divorce. But it won’t be called Dog Boy. I hope.
Finally, how will you be celebrating Swan Boy hitting shop shelves?
I’ll be having a launch party at my local indie bookshop. I live in Brighton where you can’t throw a stick without hitting a children’s writer, and, as there’s free Prosecco, I’m expecting all my friends to turn up. They’re so supportive.
Thanks for a great chat, Nikki, and have a fantastic book birthday!
Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist and went to a convent school in Cambridge where she was taught by real nuns in habits. Her writing was first published when she was seven and her teacher sent a poem she had written into a magazine. She always knew she wanted to be a writer, but, for some reason she can’t remember she did a degree in linguistics followed by psychology. Nikki’s first job was subtitling the Simpsons. She then retrained as a journalist and wrote features about child psychology for parenting magazines and the national press. She is married and lives in Brighton with her husband, three children, two dogs and a cat.
Kendra is a YA author represented by Lutyens & Rubinstein Literary Agency. Glimpse, her debut novel, was inspired by Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’. It was published in 2014 by Constable & Robinson. Kendra also runs a chocolate company. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found taste-testing chocolate, reading YA, or trying to steal other people’s cats.