Pony tale celebrates the north's new arrivals

Pony antics, children's parties and Northern Ireland's growing intercultural community comes under focus in a new children's book by Co Down author Pauline Burgess. Jenny Lee finds out more.

Author Pauline Burgess and her daughter Emma with four-legged friends
Author Pauline Burgess and her daughter Emma with four-legged friends

NORTHERN Ireland's changing population is reflected in a new children's novel by Co Down writer Pauline Burgess. Pony Party is the third book in her Pony Friends Forever series about the adventures in a local riding school.

The tale features a young Polish boy, Oskar, as one of the protagonists. He is finding it hard to fit in and trying to make friends with the other children and with his pony Tonto, the naughtiest in the stables. And more than anything, Oskar wants to celebrate his birthday at the Pony Palace.

Pauline used her personal experience as an English teacher at St Malachy's High School in Castlewellan, as research for her book. "About a third of the pupils I teach are eastern European and I've tried to learn bits of Polish, Lithuanian and Slovakian. It makes the lessons more eclectic," she says.

"I recognise a lot of kids coming into our education system face cultural and language obstacles. We need to reach out and make them integrated and celebrate their cultures and show an interest in where they have come from. The more children see and learn, the more they are open-minded and ready for the outside world.

"I'm a real fan of integration and I send my own daughter to an integrated school. Diversity may not in the fabric of Northern Ireland society but I represent in my book a new and changing society. Tonto the horse notices that Oskar speaks differently and he isn't receiving his usual commands. A relationship develops between them and the other children. It's truly reflective"

It was Pauline's daughter Emma's Saturday morning riding lessons at Lessans Riding Stables, outside Saintfield, which inspired her Pony Friends Forever books. Watching from the sidelines, Pauline was quick to notice the various personality traits of the horses at the stables and a bedtime story for her daughter soon evolved into a new fiction series for children, aged five to 11.

"I've been delighted by the response to the first two books. I've done readings in lots of primary schools and what the children love is the fact it is the horses telling the story," says Pauline, who has just finished the fourth book in the series.

While all the ponies that feature in her books are real and live at Lessans, the characters of the children and adults are all fictional. In Pony Party readers meet the popular Daisy, "old hippy" Gizmo and Tonto, who would rather eat grass than do what he's told.

After almost 40 years in business as a successful riding school, Lessans has now diversified to become a dedicated livery yard, training and competition venue. Eight-year-old Emma still rides at Lessans, where many of the horses featured in Pauline's book still reside, while she continues her pony schooling at nearby Lusk Riding School on Saturday mornings.

Although a light-hearted series and pony-based, each Pony Friends Forever book also deals with key themes that children might experience in their lives as they grow up, including dyslexia, family break-ups and illness.

Pauline has also recently completed Knock Back, a new novel for 11 to 14-year-olds, which is once again set in Northern Ireland. It is set in a fictional residential home for teenagers by Strangford Lough. "It's about the troubles in their life and the journey they now take," she explains.

:: Pony Party by Pauline Burgess is published by Blackstaff Press.