Everyone longs for a friend – someone who can be counted on and trusted – and none more so than children approaching puberty or experiencing adolescence. A major theme of the hugely popular novels of Jacqueline Wilson is the nature of friendship. But what function does such friendship serve for young readers? School counsellor and psychotherapist Meg Errington explores.
A few weeks ago, I took Izzy, my nine-year-old niece, to the Polka theatre in Wimbledon, South London. We are great fans of this wonderful theatre she and I, and we have seen consistently brilliant productions there. This time we were going to see a play of Jacqueline Wilson’s novel Bad Girls. The auditorium looked like a convention of nine-year-old girls; I spotted few boys in the audience. The play was superb. Izzy and I thought it was even better than Double Act, another adaptation of a Jacqueline Wilson novel about twins which we went to see last year. As a psychotherapist and a school counsellor of fifteen years, I found myself once again admiring how well Jacqueline Wilson understands the major concerns and anxieties of girls of this age group. What contributed particularly to this play’s success was that all the characters were played by adults, like in Dennis Potter’s play Blue Remembered Hills, and as a result, both the cruelty and the vulnerability of children were highlighted most dramatically.
Friendship and its opposite
All Wilson’s books explore the tensions between friendship and its opposite, falling out and the pain of being left out, common themes heard by school counsellors. Bad Girls tackles the dilemma facing the chronically bullied child. Poor Mandy White, as pure and innocent as her surname, the child of older, overprotective parents, has rabbits on her school cardigan, on her bedroom curtains and on her duvet cover. The girls at her school cannot forgive her for her innocence and her vulnerability (something they cannot bear to recognise in themselves) and they tease her so cruelly that one day she runs into traffic, not caring what she does to herself. Mandy’s salvation comes about through her friendship with Tanya, a bigger, older girl who lives in Mandy’s street but who lives with a foster family. Tanya envies Mandy’s safe and loving home life despite its restrictions. Mandy admires Tanya’s wildness and lack of fear of authority. Both girls complement each other and each has qualities which compensate for what the other lacks, a familiar and recurring motif in Wilson’s books. In Best Friends, an uncomfortable book in some ways since the two friends Gemma and Alice have almost lover-like feelings for each other, Gemma is a hopeless grubby tomboy, while Alice is a perfect girly girl with blonde hair and blue eyes and neat handwriting. Again this sense of attraction of opposites is played out, each admiring what the other lacks. Alice defies her mother and stays loyal to her friend, refusing to take on her mother’s snobbish values.
Mandy and Alice’s transformation into Bad Girls, who defy their mother and go into business for themselves, is of course an important developmental achievement. The adolescent developmental task is to psychologically disengage from the family and simultaneously engage in the wider context of society. According to Peter Blos, the classical Freudian psychoanalyst who specialised in adolescent development, it is inevitable that the young adolescent turns away from the mother and turns to the peer group for what he calls ‘contact supplies’:
‘Contemporaries ease the way to membership of the new generation within which the adolescent has to establish his social, personal and sexual identity as an adult… The group permits identifications as role tryouts without demanding any permanent commitment. It also allows for interactional experimentation as a severance action from childhood dependencies other than as a prelude to any new and lasting personal and intimate relationship.’
Most writers about adolescent relationships refer to ‘peer groups’ rather than friends or friendships but my feeling is that friendships for this age group serve the same function of enabling a separation from the parents and the immersion of what Blos calls ‘role tryouts’, essential for the formation of a new, entering-into-adult identity. Thus Lola Rose, the tragic child of a brutal father who beats her mother, befriends Harbeet, the daughter of a close, loving, Asian family and experiences vicariously aspects of such a very different family life from her own. But Wilson has sympathy too for the overprotected child who lives a dull and conventional life and Owly Oliver in The Illustrated Mum enjoys and admires Dolphin’s chaotic but vivid home life with her mother who was married to a rock star and is covered in tattoos. His mother suffers from migraines, won’t leave the house and expects him home straight from school. Oliver needs Dolphin for her unconventionality as much as Dolphin needs Oliver for his intelligence and consistency, something sadly lacking in her life with her troubled manic depressive mother.
Experimentation with gender identity
An interesting theme in Wilson’s books is the way oddball girls (often naughty ones) befriend oddball boys (often goody goody wimpy ones). This too is part of age appropriate experimentation with gender identity, what the psychoanalysts would see as bisexual conflict, conflict over feminine and masculine identification. In Best Friends, Gemma, who has a very critical mother, refuses to wear dresses and gives away her precious doll to her lifelong friend Alice. Her rejection of femininity is a disguised rejection of her mother. Alice is her receptacle for femininity. It is as though Gemma uses her as a repository until she is ready to take on feminine qualities in her own way. When Alice moves away, Gemma is inconsolable as though she has lost part of herself. In true Wilson fashion, Gemma finds herself and acquires more feminine characteristics from a new male friend, Biscuit, who loves cooking and, coming from a less critical family than Gemma, can more easily experiment with being like his mother and allow bisexual gender roles and tastes to emerge.
This recurring theme in Wilson’s books of her characters, often reluctantly, choosing a friend very different from themselves, a definite ‘other’, is part of the process of making friends and distinguishes healthy development. Bullies do not recognise otherness, usually because it is too painful to recognise qualities they appear to despise in themselves. The bully does not have empathy for others. But the child who befriends another can recognise the other as a distinct person with purposes and intentions of her own. The characters we love best in Wilson’s books consider other people’s feelings and show a true potential for empathy. The outstanding character in this respect is Tracy Beaker. Tracy lives in a children’s home and longs to be adopted and loved despite her neediness and her problems. She has a reputation for being difficult. Yet, a newcomer to the home, another good boy called Peter, becomes Tracy’s adoring slave when she catches him in the night trying to hide his wet sheets. Tracy has a shameful secret – she too wets the bed – and she helps Peter deal practically with clean sheets and this catastrophe to his dignity and self respect. And it is Tracy who understands and sympathises with her enemy Justine’s pain when her father fails to turn up for a visit. Interestingly, it is Tracy who wants to be a writer. The qualities which make a good writer – qualities of experimenting with roles, of empathy and of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, are just those which make for good friendships. Perhaps that is why Jacqueline Wilson writes so extensively about friendship and why nine-year-old girls look to her for understanding in such large numbers.
*The Adolescent Passage, Peter Blos, New York Press, p160.
I would like to dedicate this piece to my niece Isobel Sanders who first introduced me to Tracy Beaker. ME
Meg Errington is a psychotherapist in private practice and a counsellor in a London comprehensive school.
(published by Random House Children’s Books)
Bad Girls, 0 440 86356 2, £4.99 pbk
Double Act, 0 440 86334 1, £4.99 pbk
Best Friends, 0 385 60606 0, £10.99 hbk
Lola Rose, 0 385 60184 0, £10.99 hbk, 0 552 54712 3, £5.99 pbk
The Illustrated Mum, 0 440 86368 6, £4.99 pbk
The Story of Tracy Beaker, 0 440 86279 5, £4.99 pbk