Category Archives: Jacqueline Wilson

Yeah, well

I can see clearly now…

I’m not sure I knew quite what ailed me. Or what I wanted.

But I lasted something like two days before my two typing fingers were itching again. Watched an online Society of Authors Afternoon Tea interview with Jacqueline Wilson, where Dawn Finch asked lots of pertinent questions and got many interesting, neither stale nor old, answers from Jacqueline. I couldn’t quite adapt to the ‘watch only, take no notes and do not write about it afterwards’ regime.

If I can do this at my own pace, with no gifted books or events tickets breathing down my neck, I might well be able to share my opinions with you regularly.

‘Oh, goody,’ I hear you say.

Yeah, well, that’s life.

I’ll work something out. I have far too many opinions wanting to get out there, for me to hold them in. What if I burst?

The Primrose Railway Children

Paying hommage to an older author’s book, one that you’ve enjoyed a lot, is nearly always a good idea. Thanks to Bank Holiday television there can’t be a person in this country who hasn’t watched the film version of Edith Nesbit’s book The Railway Children. I’d like to think that this by itself would be enough for children to discover Nesbit and her many books.

However, if not, then surely the fact that Jacqueline Wilson has now written a book inspired by The Railway Children will send young readers looking for more by Edith. It’s a different story, one set in modern times, which probably suits Jacqueline’s fans better.

It took me a while to work out why it’s called The Primrose Railway Children… Jacqueline gave her fictional siblings a vintage railway, once she had discovered the Bluebell Railway in Sussex, and realised that this was how she could write her Railway Children story.

This way her fans can have a traditional Jacqueline Wilson book, but with a hint of history as well. Best of both worlds.

Illustrations by Rachael Dean.

Bookwitch bites #148

The trip to Spain might have been fake – fake Spain with rain, not so much fake trip – but this week Kirkland Ciccone went to Sweden. Only in cyberspace, but it’s hard to travel these days, so it will have to do. I’ve been itching to have a photo published on Boktugg, and when Kirkie ended up on my television screen last Thursday, I decided to send in my picture of the occasion, and they’ve printed not only the photo, but my words about him, including the murderous porridge.

I must think before I press send…

This week gave us the long nominations lists for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals for 2021, and as always, they are good lists. They give pleasure and hope to those on them, and I feel considerable guilt for having read only a few. But those few were Very Good. I’m sure they will make the longlists and maybe the shortlists too. Even if only one – in each category – can win.

Somewhere you can win a bit more easily is when it comes to pay. Equal pay. I had kept a link to something from absolutely ages ago, but ended up never getting to it to comment, so deleted it. Now in The Bokseller I see that the gender pay gap at PRH – Penguin Random House – has widened. That’s what I would call going in the wrong direction. If you really, really want to improve pay equality, you do. More money to the women, and not necessarily less to the men, but not increasing their salaries disproportionately. Pay is something you can determine in an office. No need to wait for pandemics to end or for politicians to grow sensible.

And the same goes for reviews of children’s books. Last year The Bookseller reports only 4.9% of book reviews were for children’s books, and a year later this had managed to slide down to 4.3%. 50% is too much to hope for, I suppose, but maybe a little more than barely 5%? I forget who said this in the last few days, but children’s books matter more, because they shape their readers into the kind of people they will grow up to be. I do my best, but as you well know, that is not a lot, and my viral reading has plummeted.

My local newspaper has launched this year’s charitable collection for Christmas presents for children who might not get any. I am gearing up to give them books again. Especially with the above in mind, but also with that in mind, I fear that plastic toys in primary colours will be more welcome. At least by the adults sorting the gifts. Except I know there are children who don’t actually own any books, and who would be happy to be given one.

And finally, thirty years on, we are looking at the last book by Jacqueline Wilson to be illustrated by Nick Sharratt. Not that we have been wanting this to end, but as they say, the time has come for Nick to concentrate on his own work. Here at Bookwitch Towers we will be forever grateful for the way he has captured Jacqueline’s characters and made so many children want to read her books. I have on occasion wanted to simply sit there and stroke the gorgeous covers, especially that pink one over fifteen years ago. And who can beat Tracy Beaker?

Love Frankie

The long awaited ‘gay novel’ by Jacqueline Wilson is finally here. Over the years Jacky has written about almost everything, keeping track of what her fans need stories about in order to help them in their own lives. And, obviously, to entertain them.

Love Frankie features a 14-year-old girl, Frankie, living with her two sisters and their mum, who has MS and is recently divorced from their dad. So just from a normal point of view, there is much to worry about. And then Frankie finds herself falling in love with Sally, the girl who until that very moment has bullied her and been thoroughly unpleasant to her.

Everyone around Frankie warns her that Sally will be up to no good, but she can’t help the way she feels.

As an old and wise witch I found myself agreeing with them. We don’t feel that same sex romance is wrong, but we all felt that Sally was wrong for Frankie.

Nevertheless, we see the ups and downs of their relationship. I kept hoping for another love interest for Frankie, while most of her family seemed to hope for happy ever after with the lovely boy next door. So did he.

It’s well done, with nothing too easy, or too difficult, and with Jacky’s normal school type issues with children and teachers and homework, and at home there are the serious concerns about mum’s MS and having to spend weekends with their dad and his new girlfriend. All of it typical of life today for Jacqueline’s fans. You can tell she knows what she’s writing about, which of course has always been the case. And she’s on your side.

The Book of Hopes

It’s always like this. I get tired and want nothing more than to stay at home for ‘quite some time.’ After a while – it could even be after ‘quite some time’ – I have had enough and I begin to want to climb the walls. Or at least to get out and go to some event, somewhere.

Well, I am ready for an event. Now. Before agoraphobia takes over.

I’ll pretend. There’s a book you can read for free. Katherine Rundell has collected lots of writing from a lot of writers, and some illustratings from illustrators. You’ll find them in The Book of Hopes, which you can get here.

There were extracts in the Guardian Review at the weekend. I was particularly taken with Catherine Johnson’s Axolotl poem:

“Care of Exotic Pets: Number 1. The Axolotl at Bedtime.
Never give your axolotl chocolatl in a botl.
Serve it in a tiny eggcup, not too cold and not too hotl.
Make him sip it very slowly, not too much, never a lotl.
After all, he’s just a sleepy, snuggly, bedtime, axolotl.”

And so it goes. More verses online!

‘All’ the big names have contributed something. Whatever you like, it could well be in here somewhere. I’m thinking what a marvellous book launch this would make, if we could all get together. See you there?

Transcribing

So, mid-interview when the person who has agreed to answer your questions says ‘hang on while I Google this, as I am no expert on what you just asked’… Should they politely offer something off the cuff that can later attract foul language on Twitter? So they can be accused of all kinds of shortcomings?

One thing I’ve learned after being the one who asks the questions, is to see more clearly when reading someone else’s interview how what was said might have happened. Often the person who has been interviewed is made to look as though they launched into a monologue on whatever it is, when in actual fact they were asked – or pressed – for their opinion, when it could be something they either don’t want to talk about or don’t know enough about.

Jacqueline Wilson

I have no idea what Jacqueline Wilson knows about transgender issues, but I’d guess it’s average, or above. She’s an intelligent woman, interested in life, and she is extremely polite, and kind and caring. That’s presumably why she talked about transgender children in her interview with the Telegraph (according to The Bookseller). An interview most likely arranged because she has a new book (Dancing the Charleston) out, and not about this topic. Or she’d have read up beforehand.

I’m the first to admit I only know an average amount about transgender issues, and I stay away from unpleasant spats on Twitter if I can. It’s only from hearsay that I know how badly John Boyne was treated recently.

Short of clamping your lips shut – and that would sort of defeat the purpose of an interview – there is no easy way to avoid being misinterpreted when the ‘chat’ is in print. (I’m obviously naïve for emailing my transcribed interview to discover if I’ve got anything dreadfully wrong.)

Having no wish to name Jacqueline’s attackers, I can only say that none of us have to be experts outside our own area, nor should anyone righteously tweet that they have worked for years on this subject, so they know best. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. But others don’t therefore have an obligation to have done the same.

It would be better if these people continued working hard on whatever important thing they feel so strongly about, and then stand back to consider whether others must be accused of ignorance. And if you need to bring it up, perhaps don’t swear?

In the children’s books world there are countless lovely and kind people. Jacqueline Wilson is one of the kindest and politest. (I also suspect she has the ‘right’ opinions about the things that matter in life. But I’ve not felt I could ask her. Her reaction to Ann Widdecombe’s comments on siblings with different fathers, was to write Diamond Girls, about siblings with different fathers.)

(Photo by Helen Giles)

Whoever had, has been given more

Until some years ago I admit I often felt grumpy when seeing among the books most sold during the year, the names of Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson. I recognised their greatness and that being ‘names’ and very popular, it made sense that adults bought lots of their books for little readers.

I just wanted there to be a few more children’s authors on the lists. Usually there was someone, but not many.

But at least they were there, alongside Jacky and Julia.

Now I feel grumpy beyond belief when having a quick look at the 2018 list of the 100 bestselling books of the year.

Yes, I am glad that children’s books make up a third of that top list. Although I have to take the Guardian’s word for that, since I was unable to identify all 33. And that’s so wrong. As the Bookwitch, even if I haven’t read them, I ought to know who’s who.

A third of the third – i.e. 11 of the bestselling titles – belong to the well known comedian David Walliams. This is wrong in so many ways. Jeff Kinney is there, but I can allow that. Three Harry Potters, thank goodness, one Julia Donaldson, one Kes Gray. Also one Michael Bond and Wonder by R J Palacio, both of which will be movie-related.

And some more celebrity-penned books, not all of which I actually recognise, despite people’s fame.

It seems both wrong, and unkind, to leave 2018 in a bit of an angry mood, but this is not right. Children deserve better. The world is full of really good books. I hope many of them found their way into children’s hands anyway, despite the big names hogging everyone’s attention.

Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading

I want to be Lucy Mangan. We are so alike in many ways, but I haven’t read all the books she has, nor can I write like she does. I want to [be able to] write like Lucy Mangan!

I don’t expect that will happen.

I also want to know what her house/library/bookshelves look like. I can’t conceive how you can keep that many books – in a findable way – in a normal house. Assuming she lives in a normal house.

Lucy Mangan, Bookworm

After reading Lucy’s Bookworm, I now love her parents, too. I especially feel I’ve got to know Mrs Mangan better – and that’s without the letter to the Guardian stating that the Mangans were happy to have their daughter adopted by some other Guardian letter writer.

A friend of mine often mentions the fear induced in millions of people by the four minute warning so ‘popular’ in the 1980s. I’d almost forgotten about it, and never really worried all that much. Little Lucy was extremely concerned, but was reassured by her mother, who clearly knew what the child needed to hear. Basically, it would be in the news, so they would be prepared. They’d not send her to school if the end seemed imminent, and they would all die together at home. Problem solved.

Bookworm is about what one bookworm has read – so far – in her life of loving children’s books. She is not repentant (I must try harder), and will keep reading what she wants, as well as keep not doing all those ghastly things other people like, if she doesn’t want to. That’s my kind of bookworm!

This reading memoir is full of the same books we have all read, or decided not to read, as well as some real secret gems I’d never heard of and will need to look for. Lucy rereads books regularly, but doesn’t mention how she finds the time for all this.

It’s been such a relief to discover that she dislikes some of the same books I’d never consider reading, and even more of a relief to understand how acceptable, and necessary this is. Lucy even has the right opinions on clothes. Very useful to know there are sensible women in this world.

I had to read Bookworm slowly. I needed to savour what I could sense wouldn’t last forever. Although one can obviously reread Bookworm, just as one can other books. (Where to find the extra time, though?)

Growing up a generation – not to mention a North Sea – apart, we didn’t always read the same books. But by now we sort of meet in the here and now, and Lucy ends her book by listing a number of today’s must-read authors, and her judgement is almost completely spot on and correct.

So to summarise; I can read the same books. I can probably not store as many in my house. But I will never be able to write as well. (And I rather mind that.)

(According to Lucy, she loves her young son more than she loves books. Bookworm was given to me – after some hinting – by Daughter, whom I happen to love more than books too.)

A Scottish Jamboree for books and reading

It’s not every birthday a couple of former children’s laureates come my way. In fact, I’d have to say yesterday was a first. To celebrate twenty years of the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tours, they and Scottish Book Trust gathered a few of the many authors and illustrators they have carted round Scotland for two decades, entertaining school children and making a difference.

Chris Riddell, Cressida Cowell, Jacqueline Wilson, Pamela Butchart, Lorenzo and Robin Etherington

2000 children descended on the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow for a couple of hours of fun with some of the best. As they began to arrive, the invited authors came out onto the front steps, in the famous Scottish sunshine, to pose for the gathered photographers, and where would you be without the fun and crazy Etherington Brothers?

The former laureates were Jacqueline Wilson and Chris Riddell, and they were joined by dragon trainer Cressida Cowell and Scottish star Pamela Butchart. In front, complaining they’d never get up from their semi-kneeling positions, were Scottish Friendly’s Calum Bennie and Scottish Book Trust’s Marc Lambert.

Scottish Friendly bag

I was pleased to see two of my favourite publicists, Naomi and Rebecca, and a brief conversation about exams took place. Time goes so fast! I was also trying to pass a message on a piece of paper to Pamela Butchart, without her thinking I was a crazy, random Witch. Luckily she had a handbag-holder person with her.

Now, it takes time to seat 2000 children, even when they are so well behaved and the operation going really smoothly. To keep them happy once they’d got in Chris Riddell sat on stage doodling away, using his instant machine thing that displays the drawings on a large screen. There was applause whenever they approved of Chris’s work, and none more so than when he went a little political towards the end, with the 45th President seemingly having problems with gas while playing golf, and our PM and her shoes stuffed upside down in a dustbin.

Chris Riddell

After an introduction from host Sian Bevan, Chris told the children not to draw on the walls at home – like he did, aged three – and how his mother cut his discarded pieces of paper into ever smaller pieces. ‘Get a sketchbook! he told us. He suggested his new book Doodle-a-Day, explained how his hairy daughter turned into the Ottoline books, and read a beautiful piece by Katherine Rundell on libraries.

When it was Jacqueline Wilson’s turn she told us about being small and lonely in Dundee many years ago, and how her years ‘in the linen cupboard’ were some of the best. There were midnight feasts, apparently. Tracy Beaker narrowly avoided being Tracy Facecloth, which is just as well, now that there will be a new Tracy Beaker book. Jacqueline’s historical writing got a mention, as did the ‘new’ Tay Rail Bridge, and her recent book about WWII evacuees.

Jacqueline Wilson

At this point I discovered I was hungry. I’d been so interested in what was being said that I’d forgotten to eat. And speaking of needs, I thought the stealthy trailing out to the toilets and back in again was well orchestrated. As done by the children, I mean.

Cressida Cowell seems to have come up with her dragons from the shape of the hill on the Scottish desert island her father always took his family to every summer. Besides, they had no television. She wanted the children to understand that the ability to write books does not come from how good your handwriting is, but it’s your ideas that matter. So despite having bad handwriting, Cressida’s books are turning into ever more films.

Cressida Cowell

Dundee teacher-turned-author Pamela Butchart makes up everything. She briefly showed us all her books, which are mostly about schools. She even got the headteachers who were present to bark like dogs. Pamela introduced us to a ‘real alien’ who turned out to be a normal human baby. Hers. Apparently she ‘sometimes speaks too much’ and she finished by inviting a member of the audience up on stage to investigate making fiction with the help of magic crisps. Salt and vinegar.

Pamela Butchart

To finish we had the Etherington Brothers, Lorenzo and Robin. They caused much loudness to happen. It’s all about stuff. Something is. Having the ‘wrong prop’ is important, whether it’s ‘never take a tomato to the beach,’ or having a sock parachute. It’s about having choice, and choosing the wrong thing. And then they turned round, posing for the camera, with the whole audience behind them, waving to the children who were watching this online at school.

Lorenzo and Robin Etherington

All six special guests returned to the stage to wave, before – presumably – being revived with food and drink prior to facing 2000 signatures. Again, this was very well organised, and everyone took turns and it was never too crowded. Or at least I think it wasn’t, since I left while they were peacefully signing away.

I hope they are not still there now.

Stories for empathy and a better world

I had been looking forward to the event with Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai on Saturday. I’d never met Miriam before, but she was everything I had expected, and Bali was Bali as usual. Empathy is important and it promised to be an interesting discussion.

Bali Rai and Miriam Halahmy

We were all asked for examples of empathic children’s books that had made a difference to us. I can see the point of asking the audience, but it split my attention a bit too much. Miriam is a big fan of Morris Gleitzman and talked about his Blabbermouth, and Bali suggested Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow. President Obama’s talk about the ’empathy deficit’ was mentioned.

Miriam read from The Emergency Zoo, and explained how she loses herself in the book when she writes. She is her characters.

Bali then read from The Harder They Fall, apologising for some ‘rude’ words. When he started writing about a female character, it took him some time to understand that girls are ‘just’ people. He talked about how many poor teenagers never even consider going to university. Sometimes because they are the main carer for someone in their family, and they can’t contemplate getting into debt.

On getting started Miriam reckoned the most important thing she did as a child was to read. After that it was being a teacher, doing a writing course, and reading and meeting people like Morris Gleitzman and Jacqueline Wilson. The best thing about writing is losing yourself in the writing.

Roald Dahl was a hero of Bali’s, and he liked reading about Vikings and volcanoes. Later on Sue Townsend played a big part influencing him. Bali described his hard-working colleague Alan Gibbons, who travels and writes and campaigns tirelessly for good causes. The best thing about being a writer seems to be ‘vomiting [words] on a page.’

Can you understand the world if you read escapism? Miriam believes in a real place and a real boy or girl. Bali feels that in The Lord of the Rings the whole world is escapism, and he listed Andy Stanton for sheer bounciness, had nothing [positive] to say about David Walliams, and it seems the archetypal white man comedian comes from Stockport. He praised the way Jacqueline Wilson writes about hard work and ordinary children. And there’s Siobhan Dowd and Patrick Ness.

Someone in the audience had problems seeing how fantasy could be empathic, but discovered Miriam and Bali disagreed. To make children understand empathy we don’t need it on the curriculum, and there is no right age. According to Miriam you can’t suddenly ‘do empathy today,’ but you need to embed it more deeply. For Bali it’s economical politics in this dog eat dog world. And you should be allowed to have fun at school, because how else do you get to write about fish zombies?

As with letting school-children have enough time for fun, I’d have liked more time for the two authors at Saturday’s event.

Miranda McKearney, Anna Bassi, Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai