How varied is a book reviewer’s life. On a Saturday I attended the launch of Linda Newbery’s new novel The Key to Flambards. The launch was held in the magnificent setting of Copped Hall in Epping. Despite the dedicated efforts of volunteers, this eighteenth century building still strikes one as in need of refurbishment. The event was a huge success, with many leading figures of the world of children’s literature attending. The following Monday saw Jacqueline Wilson launching My Mum Tracy Beaker in the altogether more lavish ambience of the Marylebone Hotel – the second of two events to treasure in one’s memory. Newbery and Wilson are both experts at making guests welcome.
Those attending the event were confronted on arrival by a double sensation. First there was the welcome from Wilson herself. Despite her massive success as a writer and the public honours paid to her, she remains as genuinely outgoing and approachable as she ever was, a wonderful example of human warmth. She has a gift for making everyone feel they have a special reason for being at the event. The second sensation was the cake. It was a wedding-style confection with statues of Tracy and her daughter Jess mounted on the icing top. The buzz of rapt conversation in the room gave audible evidence of the interest that gripped everyone attending.
Dame Jacqueline spoke. Foreseeing that her schedule would become hectic with book launch meetings, she had arranged a holiday in Venice to prepare her for the round. Her daughter, who is by the way a Cambridge professor, had intended to be present at this launch but had been unavoidably detained by the beauty of the Piazza San Marco.
Tracy made her first public appearance in 1991. Now in her thirties, she presented herself to her author as a likely parent. Once this idea of Tracy as a mother had taken hold, Wilson said that Beaker mother and child took her by the hand and led her step by step through the narrative. What kind of mother would Tracy make? That was a question every reader would ask. ‘Responsible but anarchic’ is Wilson’s answer.
Wilson also paid tribute, with support from her publisher, to her illustrator Nick Sharratt. Nick has been her accomplished collaborator for many years and brings her words to visual life with unfailing zest. He also has spectacular taste in shirts. In a wry aside Wilson noted that Nick sometimes works for other authors, as well as on books of his own. When Wilson goes into schools where there is not a strong reading culture, she revealed that always uses Tracy as her icebreaker. Pupils in such schools often show an affinity with the rebellious streak in Tracy’s character. The Beaker books and television shows draw these children into the world of books in a way that other narratives might struggle to match.
Wilson was of course asked what she is currently working on. The answer is a story set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, a story involving flappers. The book is as yet untitled.
The end of the formal proceedings led to another period of intense conversation among those attending. Tracy Beaker, this time with the support of her daughter, has caused another stir.