Tell any child of nine and upwards that you are going to interview Jacqueline Wilson and your credibility rating goes <!–break–> sky high. Through her books she has touched the lives of hundreds and thousands of children who know her characters and something of her through her tireless round of school visits. ‘Look out for her books,’ my niece who had recently met her at a school visit advised me. ‘She has so many that she has to hoover round them.’ I thought I knew about piles of books but promised to take note of Jackie’s anyway. And they are quite something. They take up literally half the living room floor space and include hard and paperback copies of the same title. ‘I just can’t resist books,’ she says. ‘Even if I’ve got the hardback I’ll buy the paperback to read on the train.’
Since she also writes on trains it is hard to see how Jacqueline will ever get through the books she buys but it fits with her total absorption in books and writing. Though delighted by her success and happy to enjoy the ego trips of author tours and to buy more rings and books – her two indulgences – she has never written for that purpose. ‘Even if I didn’t get published, I’d still write. My writing matters to me more than anything, except my daughter. I’m doing what I want to do and, of course, it’s lovely now to see my name on the bestseller lists.’
Knowing Ruby, Garnet, Tracy Beaker and most recently Lottie so well, I could not help thinking that one of them would open the door when I rang Jackie’s bell. And there is something about Jacqueline that is very like her ‘girls’. It is partly physical because she is small and neat and vigorous, rather like a child, and it is partly because she talks with the same humorous and sharply direct voice as they do.
Not that Jackie only writes about girls or is only enjoyed by girls. In fact, she has even had a marriage proposal from an 11-year-old boy reader but, as she says, 95% of those queuing at signing sessions are girls, even though she has not thought of them as the specific readers. ‘When I write, I’m not thinking about the child reading the book but I think of the child in the book, and that’s mostly a girl. While I’m writing about them I become their character even though they’re usually 10-year-olds.’
Perhaps that is not so surprising since the very first story that Jacqueline remembers writing was when she was about nine. ‘It was very much based on Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street which I had just been reading. It had a girl of 10 who wanted to be an actress and a brainy girl with glasses. Even then I had the types of children that I have now.’
And the 10-year-old girl was, of course, Jackie herself. ‘I was an only child from a not very happy home. My parents didn’t get on particularly well. My father was a civil servant and my mother went out to work so I was left by myself a great deal – which I loved. I read a lot, I wrote and I played imaginary games. I made paper dolls to talk to and to do things with. Of course, I didn’t tell the other children I played with any of that.’
Jackie has exceptional recall of her childhood. She talks about the big emotions as well as the tiny details as if they were recent and certainly as if they are important. ‘I wasn’t unhappy but I was certainly lonely. I wanted someone to talk to about books and writing but, though I had nice friends, no one was interested in that kind of thing. It’s perhaps because I didn’t have special friends that I think friendship is so important and that I want to write about it.’
While her own life offered little scope for friendship she found her ideal companion outside home. ‘The biggest influence on my life was a child actress called Mandy Miller. I had a complete crush on her. She was always the child of divorced parents or she had a weird father. She became a sort of imaginary friend. When I was about 10 I was taken to an event in Battersea Park that she was appearing in and I had my picture taken with her. I was struck dumb, but I’ve got the photo of her with her arm around my shoulder.’ She uses that memory now as roles are reversed and children asked to be photographed with her and tries to make them feel more at ease than she did.
Despite the crush on Mandy Miller and a love of going to the cinema, Jackie always wanted to be a writer and was an eager reader. ‘I liked all the obvious books like the Noel Streatfeild’s, the Katy books, Little Women , The Secret Garden and The Little Princess . I then moved on to adult books about children through authors like Catherine Cookson. I remember reading Lolita and being astonished by the writing and by Lolita who seemed a totally convincing girl. Of course, I knew my parents would have had a fit if they’d known that I was reading Lolita so I put the Catherine Cookson cover on it. Really, it should have been the other way around. They should have minded me reading Catherine Cookson,’ she says, rather wistful about her parents’ lack of good sense and good taste.
Education was not something Jackie cared about much at the time and at 16 she left school and did a shorthand and typing course. She was looking for a junior secretary job when she saw a D.C. Thomson advertisement for a teenage writer. ‘Well, I was a teenager and I wanted to write, so I wrote off to them and got offered a job in Dundee. I thought I was gaining my freedom from home but in fact I was put to live in a Church of Scotland hostel so there was no freedom at all!’
But, the journalistic experience was a tremendous training and discipline and Jackie stayed for two years until she got married at 19 and she and her husband came back south. Her daughter Emma was born when she was 21 and Jacqueline kept her writing going by writing jokey articles about being a mother and ‘tacky anonymous stories’. She wrote her first children’s book which she sent to J.M. Dent. ‘They turned it down with a lovely letter but, at the time, I didn’t realise that it was an encouraging letter so I just stopped writing for children. It had three very realistic children in it, quite like the children I write about now, but they went on a fantasy adventure and that was probably the mistake.’
Instead, Jackie turned her hand to crime novels – still writing about children. ‘In the first, two children were kidnapped. Because I was married to a police officer people thought that I knew about that world. Actually, I don’t like crime novels.’
Not liking crime novels was quite enough to make Jackie not want to go on writing them. But not to stop writing. She has always written and writes all the time. She writes straight into a little notebook which she has with her at all times so that on trains, in queues or wherever she is she can get on with the writing. The first draft is full of crossings out – mostly of names which do not sound right – and it is that that becomes the final book, though there is some tidying up and rewriting at the typing up stage.
Abandoning crime novels, Jackie turned to what to she really did like which was children’s books. Throughout Emma’s childhood, Jackie had read what was around to her, ‘so I was always very on the button about them. Emma was into fairy stories and Victorian novels. But I loved the socially real stuff – Honor Arundel, Mary Kaye Harris and the teenage novels from Sweden like Mia which were imported at that time. All the girls in them seemed so real.’
It was these and the burgeoning US market for the teenage novel with authors such as Judy Blume, Paul Zindel, Betsy Byars and M.E. Kerr writing directly and often in the first person, that inspired Jackie to write for children. ‘I felt that it was the kind of thing that I could do so I sat down to write my first teenage book. It’s called Nobody’s Perfect and it’s about a girl who wants to be a writer. It took eighteen months to get it published because it was turned down several times. It was very hard but I just kept hoping that something would happen. At last the Oxford University Press said yes. It was wonderful. I was thrilled to bits and from that moment I felt that I belonged.’
Seven or eight teenage novels for OUP followed, all of which were well received but it was when David Fickling suggested that Jacqueline try a book for 10-year-olds that she began to find the style and voice for which she is now so well known.
Not that she hit the nail of the head straight away. Her first, How to Survive Summer Camp sunk without trace but then Glubbslyme was brought by Transworld in paperback. Jackie persuaded them that her next book should be a heavily illustrated book because at that age she had loved books like Ballet Shoes and The Family from One End Street which were as memorable for the illustrations as the story. She wanted to do a book about a child in a home who wanted to be adopted and so Tracy Beaker was born. In fact, the story line was easy but Jackie had great difficulty thinking of a name. ‘I’d got Tracy but I couldn’t think of a surname. It was in the bath washing my hair and rinsing the shampoo off with a beaker when suddenly, it came to me. Beaker. That was the name.’ There is even a discreet picture by Nick Sharratt of Jackie in the bath at the moment of inspiration.
For it is Nick Sharratt who was found to illustrate The Story of Tracy Beaker and whose illustrations have become the perfect partner for Jackie’s words. Both have an apparent simplicity which is instantly attractive to readers of all abilities. Jackie realised early on that her readers were not the kind of girls who would be reading Lolita , as she had, and she wanted to grab their attention and hold it. ‘I saw that it would be possible to put over a book that was satisfying for me in terms of its depth and which could still have lots of word play but, it could also use a first person narrative and be colloquial and so attract a wide range of readers.’
The style of Tracy Beaker has certainly attracted a lot of readers. Jackie’s sales figures are staggering. Over 1 million copies of her books have been sold, putting her well up with the best of the adult best sellers. She is always on the best seller list and has won all the awards which are chosen by children. She is in constant demand in schools and is mobbed at signing sessions with queues of children whose lives have been touched by her books. ‘ Tracy Beaker was the first of my books that I found in W.H. Smith and it marked the beginning of my visits to schools. It is rather wonderful to feel the pleasure that I’ve given to children and it’s a delight to read the letters they send. Mostly they’re from chirpy kids but sometimes I get a letter from a child in a terrible situation and I feel that I’ve helped. That’s a privilege.’
Not that Jacqueline sits down to write with a mission to fulfil. ‘For the most part I want to write a good book. However you define that. Good for me and good for the readers, is what I think. Occasionally it’s what happens to children that fuels what I write. I’m not good about charity but sometimes I think my writing can help.’
The Suitcase Kid came out of that kind of thinking. ‘I got annoyed that people were talking about divorce saying that the kids didn’t mind. But I knew kids who were finding it difficult to cope. So I thought, OK let’s try to write this from a child’s point of view so that it seems like the end of the world. It is, but you come through it. I definitely didn’t give it a happy ending.’ Jackie gets heated talking about children being expected to cope. She feels that the burden being put on them is often too great and too little understood.
Her own understanding of children is both accurate and sympathetic. ‘When I go into schools and talk about the teasing in Bad Girls and how good girls are at it, I get the children’s attention immediately. They know exactly what I’m talking about. Similarly, when I talk about Mandy and Tanya and the shoplifting, it’s perfectly plain that most of the kids are entirely familiar with the situation. But I also wanted to show what happens when you get caught. It’s horrible.’
Jackie never preaches nor does she have falsely happy endings. Her readers trust her for her honest portrayal of their lives – with a bit of imagination thrown in. Her characters live on the page for her readers and, for Jackie, they live with her. ‘I’m writing a sequel to Tracy Beaker at the moment. She’s never really gone away. She’s easy to write about because, although this sounds fey, she has such a strong personality she almost takes over.’ Jackie has a particularly soft spot, too, for Ruby and Garnet of Double Act which is the book she gets the most letters about.
Fortunately for her readers, Jackie cannot stop writing so there is no likelihood of drying up. She starts her day with a 7am swim and then settles down to a morning’s writing, usually at the kitchen table where she feels most comfortable. She writes fast, producing around 1,000 words an hour but, even so, it takes about six months for her to finish a novel. School visits, replying to children’s letters, browsing in Waterstone’s (just in case there is a bit of living room floor that needs covering!) and her line dancing class fit in around her greatest pleasure – filling her notebook. ‘Nothing is more pleasurable to me than seeing a child’s eyes shining when they have enjoyed one of my books. It’s just lovely.’
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s books editor of The Guardian .
The majority of Jacqueline Wilson’s many books are published by Transworld with illustrations by Nick Sharratt, but she is also published by Oxford, Puffin, Collins and Egmont. Listed below are titles referred to in the article as well as those shortly to be published.
Double Act , Yearling, 0 440 86334 1, £3.99 pbk
The Story of Tracy Beaker , Yearling, 0 440 86279 5, £3.99 pbk
The Lottie Project , Yearling, 0 440 86366 X, £3.99 pbk
Glubbslyme , Yearling, 0 440 86231 0, £3.99 pbk
The Suitcase Kid , Yearling, 0 440 86311 2, £3.99 pbk
Bad Girls , Yearling, 0 440 86356 2, £3.99 pbk
Monster Eyeballs , Egmont ‘Blue Banana’, 0 7497 2814 0, £3.99 pbk (April 1999)
The Illustrated Mum , Doubleday, 0 385 40888 9, £10.99 hbk (May 1999)
How to Survive Summer Camp , ill. Sue Heap, Oxford, 0 19 275019 4, £3.99 pbk (June 1999)