Famous for tackling gritty subject matter, as well as being the namesake behind the UK’s iconic Jackie magazine, Dame Jacqueline Wilson is a force to be reckoned with in the world of children’s literature. To date, she’s published more than 100 books and has sold 25 million copies of her work in a staggering 34 languages. Time Out Kids caught up with her at home in the UK in the midst of a domestic crisis.
The first thing Dame Jacqueline does when we begin our scheduled interview is apologise profusely for being half-an-hour late. A water tank has burst in her private library of over 10,000 books. ‘It’s dreadful, but thankfully most of the books are undamaged,’ she says breathlessly, while giving instructions to the emergency plumber still hovering in the background. ‘The flooring, the shelves, oh – the whole lot will have to be ripped up and replaced. It’s a dreadful mess. So, all thoughts of our interview flew out of my head. I am so sorry.’
Despite creating characters that are now household names in the homes of families all over the world, Dame Jacqueline is clearly modest to the core. She quickly dismisses the idea that she was any kind of child prodigy – even though she wrote her first novel when she was nine years old. ‘Novel is too strong a word,’ she insists. ‘It was actually about 20 pages long, and it was a little family story. I still have it too – although I don’t read it to anyone. I don’t think I was an infant phenomenon at all – but you can see from the subject matter where my interests lay.’
The story in question was about a large family with lots of naughty children, and is, she believes, entirely reflective of her life-long passion for producing children’s literature. Originally a journalist for the publishing house that created Jackie, Dame Jacqueline had her first book published in the mid 1970s. ‘It was called Ricky’s Birthday – and it wasn’t the kind of book you’d see on sale in bookshops,’ she explains. ‘It was a little educational book aimed at helping children learn to read. I was so proud of it as I’d always dreamed of being published author.’
Later, she moved into adult fiction and wrote crime novels – the first of which was called Hide and Seek. ‘That moment, when I saw my first proper novel in the window of a London bookshop, was amazing,’
she laughs. But despite the heady success, she admits she was never entirely comfortable with creating commercial adult fiction. ‘Although I started off with crime novels, I always knew I wanted to write for children. And there were always child characters in all the crime novels I wrote. It was as if I was trying to write a about children using the adult formula.’
Since then, despite several tempting offers from publishers to write more books for grown-ups, she has stuck resolutely to children’s fiction, creating much loved characters such as the troubled Tracy Beaker, the foundling Hetty Feather – and many others in between. But the road to success hasn’t always been easy, and Dame Jacqueline has been criticised over the subjects she tackles in her books, some of which explore divorce, death, kids in care and even the taboo of confused sexuality.
‘I find a lot of children have found themselves in similar circumstances and are comforted that they’re not alone,’ she says, when asked about her critics. ‘Happily, most children lead very ordinary, happy, humdrum lives and have the right number of parents and a reasonably happy household. But I think it helps them imagine what it’s like to be in a difficult circumstance – and they work out how they would cope. Children
nowadays are more aware. We don’t keep secrets from them as much as we used to, and they really have developed a taste for contemporary modern life problems.’ She adds, ‘I think as long as you deal with things in a reasonably responsible way, there’s no harm in that.’
Judging by her popularity, she appears to be right – but creating at least two books a year, as she has done for the past 35 years, has its challenges. ‘There was a time where I thought I’d never run out of ideas – but I have to admit that the past five years haven’t been easy,’ she laughs, ‘I carry a little notebook around with me and jot down any ideas that pop into my head as soon as they appear, so I don’t forget them.’ Her inspiration also comes from many things – although she never bases any of her characters on real life people. ‘I think that can be tricky – so all my characters are entirely make-believe.’
And while the process of writing can be tough, Dame Jacqueline lives for it. ‘I wake up in the morning, and I go and sit on my chaise lounge – which is my absolute favourite piece of furniture. And I snuggle up with a blanket, a cup of tea and the cat for company, and write for an hour or more. After that, my day usually goes a bit crazy. I belong to lots of committees and there are re-writes to do and appointments to go to. But as long as I get in that early hour of writing, I really feel as though I’ve achieved something.’
But it’s her army of young fans that give her the greatest pleasure, and she happily admits to still experiencing those ‘pinch me’ moments. ‘Oh I have them frequently,’ she laughs. ‘And I’m lucky enough in Britain that when I go to an event, there are lots of people queuing up outside, and when I arrive, there’s all this excited shouting and “there she is – there she is!” It’s just the most incredible, heart warming feeling –
I never really get used to that.’
She adds, ‘It’s also lovely because I care about reading so much. And the fact that children can be switched on by reading, the fact that they’d rather read something I’ve written than sit at their computers and watch television – now that is amazing!’