It’s not often you get to meet your heroes, but when we got an opportunity to sit down and talk with the iconic children’s author Jacqueline Wilson, we couldn’t pass it up. We talked about her new book, the women that made her, and what books mean the most to her…
The Illustrated Mum. The Story of Tracy Beaker. Lola Rose. The Lottie Project…I could go on, and nostalgically reminisce about more of my favourite childhood books, as I’m sure they’ll register memories in your own mind of growing up with Jacqueline Wilson (sorry, DAME Jacqueline Wilson.) The mind of whom shaped the childhoods of so many of us, created characters that we remember fondly today, and whose novels we will pass down to our own children one day.
We sat down with Jacqueline to ask her about her incredible career, her latest novel ‘Wave Me Goodbye’ which follows the story of a young evacuee in pre-war Britain, and which female writers inspired her whilst she grew up. Get yourself a brew and enjoy.
‘Wave Me Goodbye’ is set in 1939, which must have been an incredible tense and nervous time for children. Is this a period that you’ve always been interested in?
I think because I grew up just after the war, and there were bombsites everywhere and it was very still raw in people’s minds and certainly the generation before me, it definitely was of interest. I knew of people who had been evacuated, some of them loved it and had a whale of a time, but some found it so upsetting and traumatic that they never really spoke about it. One elderly lady that was a family friend said they didn’t have a separate bed for her, so she had to share a bed with an old lady in her 80s. You get such different ideas from the way children reacted, and when you come to think of it, it’s such an extraordinary social experiment that can’t ever be repeated, and it seems such a dilemma in that there was the government issuing these posters with ‘Mother! Send your child to the country!’ and yet nothing would be more traumatic than literally waving goodbye to your child, not even knowing who’s going to be looking after them.
I think basically there was so little thought about child psychology and the emotional effect it would have on the children, and yet most of them managed reasonably well. It was chaotic, and yet, I cannot imagine parents now being so calm about it.
Did you have to do a lot of research to find out the finer details of an evacuees story?
I got out a lot of social history books, because until I started researching it I didn’t realise that the first lot of evacuees were literally sent off two days before war was declared, and I also didn’t realise that mostly children went with their schools. I think it very much depends on your attitude to your teacher, and whether you’ve got heaps of friends or none, on how you’d feel about that. The more I read about it the more extraordinary it seemed, and I hadn’t realised that you could only take one toy, one book, which seemed bizarre. It’s a different way of doing things, but I know a lot of children these days learn about evacuees at school, so it’s really interesting for them to see in more detail.
Despite it being set in 1939, there are lot of parallels that children can draw from it. The idea of loneliness, being away from your parents for the first time, bullying, uncertainty and feeling different. Your audience are growing up in a very different world, with social media and other pressures, reading a book is such an escape, so I wondered if that’s part of the reason why you chose to set it in the past?
Exactly. I think children nowadays really have no idea how the world has changed so quickly, and that particularly this idea of communication it just didn’t happen then. It’s hard for them to get their heads round. In many ways we do tend to protect our children more, and feel that we must make sure they don’t find out about things, we wouldn’t trust them to play by themselves until they’re teenagers these days.
It interests children to see how times are different, and in the book there’s a little bit about the village school which seems so harsh compared to school life now! School was a very different environment then, but again I think children find it exciting! They might also think how would I get on in this situation, would I hate it or would it show more freedom.
A feeling of difference is felt with the protagonist, and I drew a parallel between the character of ‘Jessica’ as she reminded me a lot of ‘India’ in Secrets, the glamorous mum with a bookish daughter. I wondered if you feel that it’s important to show young girls that individuality is OK and you don’t have to be the same as everyone else around you?
Yes. I feel particularity now when everybody is so obsessed with the way they look and certainly older girls it becomes so important to have the exact hair style, dressing a way that gets approval from the cool girls, and I think that my books have always been about kids who are the odd ones out in some way.
I would give anything to make girls feel that sometimes it’s a great thing to be an odd one out, and generally speaking if you can hang on in there by the time you leave home, or go to university, get a job, you’ll find other people who are the same as you!
Moving onto the era of your work that shaped my childhood, I wondered if there were one or two characters from your other novels that hold a special place in your heart?
Dolphin in ‘The Illustrated Mum’ is the one I feel maternal towards. I should imagine she’s a bit grubby around the edges, and she adores Marigold, but being a Mum is also about reassuring your child and making sure they’re clean and have clean clothes. I feel like I’d take Dolphin, foster her for a bit, make a fuss of her!
Are there are of your books that you feel changed how you saw yourself as a writer or shaped the future books that you wrote?
I think there was a turning point when I wrote ‘Hetty Feather’, because up until then, although I’d flirted with the Victorian age in ‘The Lottie Project’ it was still a part of a very contemporary book. I have always been interested in Victorians and occasionally thought about doing it, but somewhere thought ‘No, I can do contemporary, don’t push it.’ But, it was the original director of the Foundling Museum who suggested that I might like to write a book about a Foundling child. It very rarely happens that people suggest I do something and even more rarely do I think ‘That’s a good idea!’ and then I discovered that I loved to do this and it was interesting.
Also it is such a joy to write about Victorians or kids in the second world war, because I don’t have to strain to catch up with the current trendy social media that all kids are into, or struggle with so many different things. I always feel as you get older you can’t strain too hard to know absolutely everything, so although I do want to write contemporary books, I feel relaxed about writing about the past. Particularly when you go back to 1939, yes there are still some celebrities who were evacuated and have spoken vividly about their experiences, but if you go a little further back nobody knows! You know the facts, but it’s just more interesting in a way, and I can imagine it exactly how I want to.
Talking about your books with my friends who are all now in their twenties, everyone has their book that they refer to as their favourites, and revising them when you’re older really highlights the themes throughout them all. Topics such as mental health, divorce, do you think it’s important for children in today’s world to be taught about these subjects from such a young age?
I probably do, but that’s not why I set out to write about them. As a child I was very aware that the books I was reading in the 1950’s didn’t reflect my life or a lot of the children I knew. They were every bland and traditional. If you did have urban children in these books from a more impoverished environment, they were always comic characters, and I do remember thinking ” I wish that things were more realistic’.
So, my very first book that was published was in a series called ‘Nippers’, which a wonderful woman in education called Leila Burke had initiated with Macmillan, as she felt that children from working class backgrounds didn’t have as much recognition in the learning to read books with all the lovely suburban houses, big houses etc. So they commissioned these stories that reflected their world, with titles such as ‘Fish and Chips for Supper’, ‘Who’s Coming in the Van With me?’ I discovered these books in the local library when I was taking my toddler there, and I thought I’d love to write one of these, and wonderfully for me the first one I sent she took a shine to and said she’d publish! Right from the start I always had an idea that this was the sort of book that I wanted to write.
Which women would you say have inspired you throughout your life and continue to do so?
E. Nesbitt inspired me, as a child because I liked the chatty way she wrote, and that in the Treasure Seekers Oswald says he can’t stand books that start and you don’t know who the characters are, and you have to plough through chapters before you find out where you’re going, and I recognized immediately ‘Yes! I like books to be simple and chatty’.When I was still a child I read her biography and she sounded like the most interesting woman, and she wore lots of silver jewellery, I find interesting that I was probably an adult when a second biography came out and apparently she’d been quite a girl!Affairs all over the place, and gamely bringing up her husband’s mistresses two children as her own. She could be hot tempered and not always fair, but she’s one of the most interesting and hard working women in literature, so she was an influence on me.
And in another way, though I’m not a huge fan of her books, I read Enid Blyton’s autobiography when i was 8/9 and I found it exciting,g because she wrote about imaginary games, friends, and I had done that sort of thing myself as a child and didn’t know anybody else ever did! Then when I got older, I started with the Bronte’s, reading about all four of the sisters, so basically it’s been female writers!
What advice would you give to young girls and young women who are inspired to write?
Try to have faith in yourself, because it is easy to feel you aren’t good enough, and to get cast down if you get rejected. I would say listen to criticism, see if you can change your work around, but just so try to keep on going. I know you want to express yourself, you want things to be original, and something you can take pride in, but also keep an eye on what’s current, and unless you are an incredible genius you are probably not going to get something that is way against publishing trends. However, there are two people who rubbished that theory, because JK Rowling got a book published saying it’s about magic in a boarding school, in an age where publishers were saying no more magic, no more boarding schools. So sometimes it helps just to have faith in yourself and go for it.
What book would you choose to read forever and why?
I have chosen Catherine Mansfield collected stories, I have chosen Jane Eyre, but I think possibly now I might go for something like Great Expectations, which I have read 3 times but it has so much into it, I can’t help myself but want to read it again and again.
You can buy Jacqueline Wilson’s new book ‘Wave Me Goodbye’ from Waterstones now.
By Louisa Davies.