Mention Jacqueline Wilson to your average British twenty-something, and they will be able to talk at length about her books. The story of April, abandoned in a dustbin as a baby. Elsa, who lives in a bed-and-breakfast with her family or Dolphin and her eccentrically tattooed mum. One of the best known children’s writers in the UK, Wilson was the most-borrowed author from British libraries for four years in the mid-noughties, and has sold over 40 million books to date. In 2018, Wilson reprised her most iconic character, Tracy Beaker, in a sequel to the 1991 bestseller The Story of Tracy Beaker that features the former foster kid as a single mum. Last month, she announced another followup, in which Tracy considers fostering a child herself.
Nearly 30 years after Tracy Beaker first bog off-ed her way into our lives, Wilson’s books remain resolutely popular with young people. What exactly is it about them that we find so appealing?
For Kelly Hurst, Wilson’s editor at Penguin Random House, part of the draw of Wilson’s writing is in its ability to tackle difficult subject matter, from bullying and divorce to cancer and grief. “Jacqueline’s books, as well as being compulsively page-turning and often very funny, allow readers to explore difficult and sad themes in a safe way,” she says.
This is certainly something I relate to. Growing up with a stable home life, my childhood could not have been more different to that of Wilson’s characters. Although I read the likes of Enid Blyton, her tales of children from middle-class families going on jolly adventures soon became tiresome – there are only so many times that you can read about little Frederick or Sally finding a dear pixie in the woods near grandfather’s cottage. I craved something grittier, something more true-to-life. Wilson offered this, opening my eyes to a world beyond my fairly sheltered upbringing. I empathised with the tween friendship troubles of Candyfloss, mourned Jodie along with her sister Pearl in My Sister Jodie, and had an insight into what everyday life was like as a Victorian child in The Lottie Project.
This desire to read stories about real social issues is shared by many other childhood Jacqueline Wilson fans. “I remember reading Lola Rose for the first time,” Lottie Catrin tells me, “and there’s a whole description of a young mother giving birth. While it’s not explicit, it’s certainly not in other children’s books. I read it five times over because I couldn’t believe it.”
Wilson has a knack for combining typical problems that all children face with more serious issues surrounding illness and health, life and death. We could see ourselves in the characters, even if we didn’t face exactly the same difficulties.
“Children often go through the consequences of a divorce, bullying, living in care or depression but are unable to express it or work out what it is,” says Rosie Chalk, who began reading Wilson’s books after watching the CBBC television adaptation of The Story of Tracy Beaker. “The books get through to children really well on a level that they can understand. It’s great for a child to not feel alone during hard times; there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s just through reading a book.”
This is echoed by Hurst, who describes Wilson’s storylines and characters as universally recognisable. “The joys and problems of tween friendships, worries about school, playing imaginary games with your siblings, choosing who to invite to your birthday party – every child can find something relatable,” she says.
Dr Lucy Pearson, head of the Children’s Literature Unit at Newcastle University, and editor of Jacqueline Wilson: A New Casebook agrees: “Wilson has a genuine connection with the perspectives of young readers. Her ability to create a world which is realistic without ever feeling ‘on trend’.”
Wilson’s work undoubtedly strikes a chord due to its realistic subject matter, but when do stories of other people’s struggles become voyeurism? The so-called ‘misery-lit’ genre had its own wave of popularity in the mid-to-late noughties, as adult readers lapped up real-life accounts of abuse in their droves. Of course, Wilson’s books – barring her autobiographies – are fictional, but they cover similar ground to childhood trauma memoirs, albeit heavily sanitised. In Vicky Angel, the eponymous Vicky dies, leaving her best friend Jade to pick up the pieces. The Illustrated Mum sees Dolphin’s mother end up in hospital due to bipolar disorder.
Earlier this year, Wilson was criticised for comments made in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, in which she said that she was “worried” about transgender children undergoing surgery, belying a dangerous misunderstanding of the way in which gender reassignment procedure works. Trans people are among the most isolated groups in Britain. For an author who has sold millions of books starring characters on the margins of society – domestic abuse victims, abandoned children – this could be viewed as a worrying lack of empathy.
The main criticism levelled at Wilson, however, is that the adult topics of her books are not suitable for younger readers. There are a host of threads on parenting websites discussing the content of her books, and some have gone so far as to ban their children from reading them, with Love Lessons, in which a 14-year-old girl kisses her teacher, a particular focus. But she remains something of a British Judy Blume, refusing to shy away from subjects that parents may not approve of. “Wilson has carefully built a particular kind of brand since Tracy Beaker,” says Pearson. “Key to the success is the combination of frankness and optimism.”
It’s certainly true that her books aren’t all doom and gloom. Yes, there’s seldom a “happily ever after” but there’s always some sort of resolution. Tracy Beaker doesn’t end up with the Hollywood lifestyle that she dreams of, but instead a loving foster mother in the slightly unfashionable Cam. Marigold might remain in hospital, but her children Star and Dolphin stay together in foster care. “I think children like that Jacqueline doesn’t necessarily give them a clear-cut happy ending, although there is always hope in her books,” comments Hurst.
Justice Stent, now 20, met Wilson at a book signing when she was a child. She remembers the author to be warm and engaging – much like the characters in her books who, despite what critics say, have undoubtedly provided comfort to countless kids struggling with difficult home lives.
“I had a bit of a tough time growing up and I felt that reading Jacqueline Wilson books gave me an understanding that there are people out there who went through similar times,” Stent says. “The stories were never too far-fetched, which was good as I’ve never been one to enjoy fantasy.”
Wilson captured our imagination, and she continues to do so for younger generations. Covering loss, love and the sharper edges of family life in children’s fiction is never simple, but we’re all richer for her work.