Who was the recent international visitor attracting hundreds of young star-struck fans to her appearances around the country? If you guessed Gwen Stefani or Pink – guess again. Jacqueline Wilson isn’t a singer, but the 61 year old literary sensation has reached pop-star status among the tweenie set. We sent Jo Bailey to find out why.
With her trendy, grey close-cropped hair and eye-popping jewellery, best-selling author Jacqueline Wilson is as distinctive as the cover of one of her much-loved children’s books. She may have just flown in from the UK to promote her new autobiography, Jacky Daydream, but there’s no sign of jetlag as we chat at her Christchurch hotel after a flurry of media interviews and book signings.
If you have a ‘tweenie’ daughter, there’s a good chance at least a few of Jacqueline’s books have graced your bookshelves. In our house they are never just read and discarded – with my 12 year old whizzing through some of her favourite titles up to five or six times.
So just what is it about Jacqueline Wilson’s books that resonate so strongly with her young audience? It is simply that she is so remarkably in touch with the issues surrounding modern families. Jacqueline’s books cover everything from divorce; the sudden death of a best friend and a young girl’s search for her birth mother; to peer pressure and first love. Exploring these gritty themes with her characteristic deft touch has made the books a hit with young readers from all over the world.
When it came to Jacky Daydream, Jacqueline decided to aim the book squarely at the children she writes for each day, weaving a gently amusing tale of the first 11 years of her life as if she were one of her own characters. And just like the characters she creates, Jacqueline’s childhood wasn’t a particularly happy one. While her parents loved her in their own way, their constant fighting and ultimate divorce compelled the young Jacky to escape into an imaginary world with her books and dolls providing further comfort.
Jacqueline says she doesn’t use her own life as inspiration for her fiction, although there are obviously feelings and “other bits and pieces” she draws from. “I was a tiny bit superstitious about writing the book, as I was worried I might use everything up and not have anything useful left to say.” Despite her fears Jacqueline says Jacky Daydream is one of the easiest books she has written. “I quite enjoyed treating the child me as one of my own characters. I think it would be much harder to write an autobiography from my perspective as a 61 year old. I’d be a lot more self conscious.”
While a runaway success with children, the book has proved equally as popular with adult readers, appearing on the Hardback Best Seller Lists for both adults and children in the UK since its release in March.
Jacqueline Wilson was born in Bath in 1945 but spent most of her childhood in Kingston-on-Thames where she still lives. She wrote her first novel when she was nine, and as a teenager started work as a journalist working for a magazine publishing company in Scotland. She has been a full time writer all her adult life, writing over 90 books, with sales of over 25 million books. She was awarded an OBE in 2002 and has won numerous literature awards. Fourteen of her books recently made the list of Britain’s 200 favourite books, and she is the most borrowed author from British libraries.
Yet despite her phenomenal success, Jacqueline still lived in a small terraced house until around three years ago, when her burgeoning book collection (of around 15,000 books) finally pushed her into looking for a bigger house. “It became impossible to cope with all my books, as they were stacked up to the ceiling and spilling off the shelves. I couldn’t find anything, and would have to zig zag around them on the floor. Eventually I realised I would have to move.”
As a child Jacqueline and her grandmother had always admired one particular house in Kingston that had remained her favourite over the years. “I would fantasise about how lovely it would be to live there, only it wasn’t up for sale. So I decided to write a little story about the house and pop it in the owner’s letterbox with a letter and my address, asking them to contact me if they ever wanted to sell.” Incredibly, the very next day Jacqueline received a call from the owner saying: “You’re not going to believe this, we are just about to sell the house.” Jacqueline bought it, converting a bungalow in the back garden (that had been used as a dental surgery) into a library to contain the majority of her precious books. As she chats animatedly about the special bookshelves she had crafted in her living room and study to house her most special books, her delight in life’s simple pleasures is apparent.
Life as a best-selling author is a busy one. A typical day sees her writing a first draft of her latest book for about an hour, before doing some re-writing or editing of other work. She may answer some of the mountain of fan mail she receives, before doing an interview, attending an event, or doing some charity work. She has just finished her two year tenure as Children’s Laureate, an honorary position charged with raising the profile of children’s literature in Britain. “I have to be quite careful to make sure I do squeeze the writing bit in somewhere, but I’m quite easy on myself these days. As long as I produce as little as 500 words a day that’s fine. I wilt at the amount I used to write in my twenties when I was quite poor and struggling to pay the rent and support my daughter.” (She had her daughter at 21 and divorced soon after).
Jacqueline says she has always preferred to write longhand in notebooks that she carries with her wherever she goes. “I’m a bit of a technophobe, although when I’ve written the first draft I will sit at the computer and type it out, editing as I go.”
It was The Story of Tracey Beaker, published in 1991, that first catapulted Jacqueline to literary stardom. “I had written quite a few books before Tracey Beaker, but this was the first one to make an impact. It was also the first book I did with Random House, and the first to feature illustrations by Nick Sharratt.” (It is the quirky, colourful illustrations by Nick Sharratt that render a Jacqueline Wilson book so instantly recognisable.) “I couldn’t imagine doing a book without Nick. We are on the same wavelength and are very good friends.”
With the ideas still flowing, there is plenty for Jacqueline Wilson’s fans to look forward to. “I am planning to cover my teenage years in a sequel to Jacky Daydream, but will have to think carefully about it. Not that I did anything too bad, but like most teenagers I made a few mistakes. It’s a matter of being truthful without encouraging teenage girls to take some of the paths I did. Then there’s the fact my mother lives just down the road from me. Hopefully no one will tell her about it!”
JACQUELINE’S TOP TIPS WHEN WRITING FOR CHILDREN
- Express yourself in your own way and don’t copy what other people have done, but be aware of current trends by reading well known children’s authors
- Remember the whole concept of childhood has changed, so make sure the details in your book reflect the way society is now.
- If your idea is rejected by one publisher, persevere with other. Almost every writer has faced rejection.
- If you are lucky enough to be published, understand the editor will make a few changes. Don’t get upset or be uncompromising. Trust they know what they are doing to improve your book.
- When you get to the end of your story, don’t be tempted to say “I’ve done it.” That’s when the real work starts as you calmly and clinically begin the editing process.
- Writing a book can be the most worrying, exasperating and exciting thing to do. But the rewards are worth it. Happy writing!