World Book Day 2016: Jacqueline Wilson On The Secret Behind The Success Of Her Kids’ Books
Jacqueline Wilson has made a name for herself writing unique children’s stories that challenge the stereotypes of a traditional family.
From ‘Tracey Beaker’ to ‘Vicky’s Angel’, Wilson said addressing sensitive issues in a realistic manner is exactly what she set out to do, having felt the books she read as a child seemed to avoid them completely.
“I loved my books as a child but I do remember feeling like the children weren’t real enough,” she told The Huffington Post UK.
“I was in a respectable working class family living in a council flat and I was perfectly aware that these backgrounds in the books weren’t my background.”
Jacqueline Wilson was determined to challenge the stereotypes of children’s books
Wilson’s journey to becoming an award-winning author with more than 100 published books started when she was a child.
The mother-of-one, who was born in Bath but spent most of her childhood in Kingston-on-Thames, wrote her first “novel” when she was nine, filling up countless Woolworths exercise books.
Yet it was years before this, when she couldn’t even read, that she first fell in love with words on a page.
“My very first books were bought for me by my well-meaning parents and neither of the first two books were at all promising for a toddler to get interested in,” she recalled.
“One book was of nursery rhymes, but the colour palates were very dark, and the other one bizarrely was a child’s history book with pictures.
“By the time I was two I had also been bought a book called ‘Pookie’ about a little white rabbit with wings – there was no great literature, but I loved them.
“I loved being read to – I know I did because my mum said before I could even read I would look at books and make up my own stories mumbling to myself.”
By the age of six, Wilson had joined the library and was reading as much as she could.
But growing up in the 1950s there was a different attitude to reading, with teachers telling Wilson she should “go out and play in the fresh air” rather than sitting inside delving into her favourite books.
“If something is forbidden, it becomes even more attractive,” she added.
Reading and writing followed Wilson through her teenage years and at the age of 19, she submitted her first children’s book to a publisher.
To her regret, it was rejected, but the now-published author said the letter she received was very encouraging, although she didn’t see that at the time.
“I see now that actually they sent a very nice letter, carefully explaining why,” she said.
“I didn’t realise this was promising and that you’d normally just get an automated rejection note and that would be that.
“But at the time I thought well if I’m no good writing for kids, which is what I want, I’ll try writing for adults.”
Jacqueline Wilson began by writing adult crime novels involving children
Shortly after, Wilson reluctantly set her sights on writing her first adult novel, which was about the kidnapping of two young girls and was written from a child’s point of view.
“I didn’t want to do it in the slightest,” she added. “Yet I did like to be published so I wrote about five of these – but they were all about kids or teenagers.”
By this time, Wilson said, times had changed and the books available for children and teenagers were becoming more diverse, with first-person narrations and creative storylines.
With the confidence of having already published books behind her, Wilson decided to have another go and pitch a children’s book to her publisher.
This time, it was a success.
Becoming a children’s author meant Wilson was able to tackle the long-standing issues she felt kids’ booked failed to address – divorce, working class, death and adoption.
“I certainly wanted to write this way all along,” she explained. “There’s a pompous passage in a diary I kept when I was 13 or 14 doing a critique of an Enid Blyton book saying ‘they’re not part of the real world’ and ‘her teenagers aren’t interested in makeup and boys’ and ‘parents don’t quarrel in her books’.
“I was able to write the sort of things that reflected life around me or the things I was interested in. I do think other books were avoiding these issues and it was something I had to write about.”
Wilson, who has not only received an OBE for her Services to Literacy in Schools, but was also appointed a Children’s Laureate in 2005, set about publishing her first few books for kids, but they weren’t as widely read as she’d hoped.
She visited schools and learned her stories had gone down well with children who loved reading, but for those kids who weren’t into books they found them heavy going.
So Wilson tried again, with a different approach.
“I still wanted to write about serious subjects and still cared passionately about the way I wrote, but I simplified things just a little,” she said.
“This was when ‘The Story of Tracey Beaker’ really look off and I finally discovered exactly the way I wanted to write in a way hopefully nearly all children would respond to.
“I played around with things and used world play; I made the characters go off into imaginary worlds of their own; I used bigger print and lots of illustrations – it meant a reluctant reader wouldn’t be confronted with just plain text all the time.
“After that, things really started taking off.”
One of Wilson’s most popular characters from her books is Hetty from ‘Hetty Feather’.
Released in 2009, the book tells the story of a young girl who is abandoned by her mother at the Foundling Hospital as a baby – London’s first home for babies whose mothers were unable to care for them. It follows Feather’s story as she lives in a foster home before returning to the hospital as a five-year-old. In 2015, CBBC created a TV series based on the book.
“This is my favourite book,” Wilson explained. “I love the Victorians and was always interested in Victorian literature, but somehow felt drawn to writing more contemporary fiction.
“Hetty became one of the most popular of all my books and children wanted to find out more about her and what would happen next – the Victorians were very much the subject children studied in Year 6 so I think it helped a little that they knew about that time in history.”
Citing other books that have been popular, Wilson said her ‘Girls In Love’ series, which follows three teenage girls through puberty, boyfriends and school, is one that always crops up.
Some of Jacqueline Wilson’s most popular books include ‘The Story of Tracey Beaker’ and ‘Girls In Love’
Wilson feels all parents should instil a passion and a love of literacy in their children from an early age.
She believes parents should read the simplest of picture books to babies from when they are six months old and can sit on someone’s lap.
“Make it their special fun time and if a child has become so used to books being a source of pleasure, they will still enjoy books as they grow up,” she added.
Wilson gave birth to her only daughter, Emma, in 1967 and said it was to her delight that her daughter loved to read too.
But as a child, Emma steered away from the sorts of books her mum wrote. She didn’t care for conflict or what Wilson describes as the “sad and dire” things that happen to the children in her books before they get their happy ending.
So instead, Wilson decided to find the types of stories her daughter did like reading – something she says all parents should be doing.
“I would occasionally write her own stories where little girls had pink party dresses and went out on special outings with friends and had sleepovers and did what they wanted,” she explained.
“It was just a fantasy thing – utterly impossible for publication – but it kept Emma very happy indeed.
“She did always make me promise that I would never ever put her in a book or anything she’d done – so I promised I wouldn’t.
“I dedicated books to her but that was it.”
Wilson advises parents to read books out loud to their children that they’re unable to read themselves yet.
While five-year-old children would still be reading books slowly themselves, intellectually they’re ready for much longer and more complex stories.
“Emma would read books suitable for five- to seven-year-olds, but then I would read to her some of my favourite classics and she showed a big passion for these, too,” Wilson said.
“If you come to a phrase that seems strange to them you can explain what’s happening – we used to love doing this together.
“For parents worried about their children using iPads and technology too much, there needs to be a balance.
“It just startles me now seeing children constantly using technology over books. I was on a train just recently and there was a child, not even two, and the mum gave her her own iPad.
“Partly I’m marvelled because I’m a technophobe and admire modern toddlers, but I also think they are being indoctrinated and missing out on all sorts of things. But I’m not sure, perhaps that just reflects my age!”
Jacqueline Wilson said parents should continue to read aloud to their children
Wilson is still writing books for kids, her latest being ‘The Butterfly Club’, ‘Katy’ and ‘Little Stars’ in 2015.
The author said it’s through talking to children of the same ages her books are aimed at – around ages seven to 10 – that she can still find out “what makes them tick”.
However, she said she wouldn’t feel comfortable writing books for teenagers.
“I would feel slightly at a loss writing for current 15-year-olds because there’s not much to write,” she explained.
“If kids are just on whatever social media is current at the moment and fussing about getting their eyebrows done – I mean I’m talking generalisations here – but I just don’t feel quite as at home in that world as I used to.
“It’s more of a challenge.”
When asked what she wants children to take away from her books, Wilson said it’s all about enjoyment and developing empathy.
“I want them to have found entertainment but also, if it makes them a little bit more thoughtful about what it would be like if you are different from your peers in any way or if you had a disability that would be marvellous.
“I hope it makes the secure child with everything going for them have that thought about ‘Oh how would I manage?’ and if a child themselves is going through a difficult time, I hope it would be reassuring and make them feel as if they’re not alone.
“I want my books to be reassuring for people.”
To find out more about Jacqueline Wilson’s books, characters and latest releases, visit www.jacquelinewilson.co.uk.