I kept Jacqueline Wilson waiting. I wasn’t late, but she was early, waiting patiently for her next interview. What was worse was that Jacqueline clearly knew where I had been, too. “Have you seen Eoin (Colfer)?” she inquired as we made our way to a circle of extremely lime green, comfy armchairs. I admitted I had, and Jacqueline proceeded to be very nice about it, and him.
Jacqueline Wilson was in Gothenburg for the Book Fair, to launch her latest book in translation Vem Älskar Prue (Love Lessons). She’s nowhere near as well known in Sweden as she is at home, but she is quickly gaining ground and attracting a strong fan base of happy readers. In the quality children’s magazine Kamratposten I had come across several readers’ letters and reader reviews of favourite books. They were clamouring for more books and in particular more Tracy Beaker, and they are so lucky because they will get what they want.
With no more than a dozen or so of her books translated as yet, her fans can look forward to many more. Though Jacqueline seems not to get recognised much. After her seminar one afternoon there was a gaggle of girls waiting outside, but for some other writer in the room next door. About the only person I see chasing Jacqueline for signed books is a local librarian, who keeps popping up throughout the day bearing his three daughters’ Wilson books. His last ambush of the day is successful, and his almost Latin enthusiasm for her books is encouraging for Jacqueline’s continued success.
I suspect the main reason the Book Fair’s organisers wanted Jacqueline Wilson was her title as Children’s Laureate. Swedes like things like that as it suggests that there are people out there taking care of children’s rights. For her first seminar Jacqueline was on a panel of specialists discussing issues like censorship in children’s literature. When Palestinian author Sonia Nimr says that in Palestine they don’t have a problem with this as they don’t have enough libraries for censorship to take place, you get a whole new perspective on the luxury worries of Western Europe.
The second Wilson seminar was there to introduce her to the Swedish market. Hence the longish explanation of who Jacqueline Wilson really is and what she writes. It’s refreshing to look at our British bestselling phenomenon from a new angle. The audience showed a lot of interest, and my guess would be that by next time Swedish children will be queuing for hours too.
Having seen what it’s like in Britain I ask her about fame and fans. The South Bank Show last year showed her on the train from Kingston to London, writing her next book. It seems inconceivable that a woman who inspires girls to queue for hours to see her briefly at a book signing, can still sit undisturbed and work on a train. But Jacqueline claims this is still true. She can still go swimming every morning at the local pool, but admits to being less keen to face fans while in a state of undress. But it seems that Jacqueline can get things into perspective by remembering that what for her is one of countless meetings with fans, may be the only time for that fan, so she needs to be as nice as always.
Jacqueline is very aware of her influence on her readers. Meeting them she has realised that they will copy the slightest things from the books. This is why she couldn’t possibly have a happy ending to the pupil-teacher romance in Love Lessons, although her readers wrote in and asked for more detail. In fact, prior to writing this book Jacqueline had said she felt this was a subject where she would not go, but was then challenged to write about this difficult issue.
A positive way to influence her readers came to light in Starring Tracy Beaker, her third book about the wilful Tracy, out last autumn. Jacqueline uses Cam, Tracy’s perhaps soon-to-be foster mother, and her lack of money to show Tracy and the readers that you can have a frugal Christmas that is still a good Christmas. Cam shows Tracy that doing things together can be better than simply spending money. And Tracy’s presents turn out to be used children’s classics from the local charity shop. This Jacqueline says was her attempt to get children to read other books than hers, by recommending some of her own childhood favourites to her fans.
The subject of books about boys and books for boys comes up. Whereas Jacqueline has written a few books about boys, she does seem to have a good number of boy readers. My own son at the age of eleven had read more Wilson books than the girls in his form. Jacqueline pounces as she wants to know if he’s read Melvin Burgess’ controversial book Doing It, which he has, and they discuss the book. I don’t know why this surprises me, but it does.
The more Jacqueline Wilson books I have read, the more I have been struck by how young her mothers are. Not all, but quite a few were teenage mums. I ask her about this, musing over whether the readers realise quite how young the mothers are. Jacqueline takes this as criticism of young mothers, and rises to defend them, saying she was a young mum herself. What I really meant was that a 32-year-old mother of five may seem quite old to a reader twenty years her junior, but for the adult reader it’s clear why she can’t always cope or be mature about things. This is particularly obvious in Diamond Girls, a book apparently inspired by a comment from Ann Widdecombe who disapproved of The Illustrated Mum on the grounds that the two sisters don’t have the same father. Jacqueline sat down and wrote a story about five sisters, each with a different dad.
I ask her about the illustrations in her books. My younger child started “reading’ Tracy Beaker by looking at the pictures for months on end, before graduating to listening to the cassette book and finally to read for herself. She did choose the book, so the question is what was so very attractive to a poor reader. Jacqueline agrees that the illustrations by Nick Sharratt are extremely important to the success of her books. She feels that the pages of a book need breaking up with the use of pictures, and says how lucky she was to team up with Nick. She chuckles as she tells how some fans believe he is her husband.
In her seminar someone asked why there are so few men in the books. Jacqueline agreed that men are often absent in one way or another, but smiled when she mentioned the dad in Candyfloss, who is an altogether lovely man.
Jacqueline’s main characters have many things in common, i.e. they like English and Art, daydream a lot and are good at entertaining other children. Her new book Jacky Daydream, an autobiographical book out this spring, really brings this home and the reader can see how much of herself Jacqueline has put in her stories. The many fan letters she receives have questions about her, and this is an excellent way of answering all those queries.
Her other reason for writing this book was that she wanted to show children of today what it used to be like. There are many whose parents or grandparents haven’t told them about their childhoods, the differences and the similarities with life today. There’s another very topical aspect to this book and that is teaching readers about recycling, mending, making do and even going without. Coming from a member of your own family this will seem very dull, but if it’s Jacqueline Wilson telling you, it will hopefully seem like much more fun.
We’ve talked for far longer than we were meant to, when Jacqueline glances discreetly at her watch. She has a publishers’ party to attend that evening and needs to get ready. Jacqueline poses for a final photo and signs my daughter’s book. But as the interview comes to an end, she relaxes and turns to my accompanying teenagers and starts to chat. Unlike many well meaning adults she really does know how to talk to young people.
My son, true to form, requests a quote on Philip Pullman, and Jacqueline says Pullman is a wonderful writer and she’s a big fan. With that out of the way they proceed to discuss his plans for university, with the emphasis on Cambridge where Jacqueline’s daughter works. And after chatting about school with my daughter, Jacqueline draws her a picture of Tracy Beaker, which is at least as good as Nick Sharratt’s. She’s still not hurrying to get away, but eventually decides she really does need to go.
Jacqueline Wilson’s popularity is hardly surprising if this is how she treats people wherever she goes. It’s exactly the behaviour you’d expect of a Children’s Laureate. They chose well.
Originally published in Armadillo Magazine, Spring 2007
Photos by I Giles