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Dame Jacqueline Wilson has sold over 30 million books worldwide, with many titles having been translated into over 30 languages. Her novels, known for their ‘chatty, familiar style,’ (Parker, 2006: 5) deal with the gritty realism of modern childhood, tackling challenging issues such as divorce, death and mental illness. Wilson writes within a diverse age range, her books ranging from The Dinosaur’s Packed Lunch (1995) for the younger reader, right through to books containing more mature themes such as the highly acclaimed Girls (1997- 2002) series. The allure of her writing lies in her innate ability to empathise with the child, displayed through the integration of mature themes with the juxtaposition of stark realism and humour.
Her novels are told through the eyes of the child, by means of first person narration, a notion which she believes brings the writer closer to the main character by utilising a more approachable, direct way of writing (Wilson in Gamble and Yates, 2008: 53). In this way she is able to speak to children by seamlessly blending universal emotions: love, loss, anger and upset, with the intrinsic knowledge that we are all unique and share very different sets of circumstances.
Wilson’s own education was turbulent; early family life dictated that she moved schools several times and she often found that ‘fitting in was hard’ (Parker, 2003: 8), a sentiment which is often reflected in many of her characters. From an early age however, she found a passion for writing and was encouraged by her favourite teacher to use her imagination and ‘make believe’ (Parker, 2006: 8). This amounted to her filling countless exercise books, and creating her first novel at the age of nine which she entitled Maggotts. She enjoyed reading, notably What Katy Did (1872) and Little Women (1868), and particularly enjoyed the works of Enid Blyton. The latter is accredited with having significantly influenced Wilson’s desire to be a children’s author, although she was aware that Blyton’s novels were about children from a different background to hers, (O’Kelly, 2010) as she often felt that her books ‘dealt with all sorts of happy, cosy families, wondering “How would you feel if you were not part of this sort of family?” (BBC, 2003). This motivated Jacqueline to write novels from the perspective of those not represented in popular fiction, in her desire to exemplify what life is really like.
Initially Wilson had little success in her quest for publication and struggled to break into the world of children’s literature. She wrote a series of adult crime novels in the late 1980s but it was not until some forty books later that she made the transition into children’s literature with her breakthrough book Tracy Beaker (1991) which received critical acclaim. It was later shortlisted for the Smarties Prize and in 2002 was adapted into a TV-series. Growing popularity for the character deemed her ‘indisputably the biggest children’s child-in-care icon since Oliver Twist,’ (The Guardian, 2005), resulting in Wilson creating a series based on the character, breaking from her convention of stand-alone books. The TV-series continued, and was nominated for five Children’s BAFTA Awards, deservedly winning the Royal Television Award in 2004. Many of Wilson’s other novels have been adapted for television and film; in 2004 The Illustrated Mum (1999) was shown as a four-part mini-series, with Girls in Love (1997) running as a popular series from 2003-5. Between 2005-7, Jacqueline Wilson was awarded the position of Children’s Laureate identifying her as a prolific, mainstream children’s author.
A common theme within many stories is the idea that a hero/heroine must face a series of ordeals or threats from an apparent monster. The Illustrated Mum (1999) contains undertones of this in that Marigold, quite against her will, has become an obstacle in her children’s life. At varying points in the story Marigold goes AWOL frightening her two children. She may not have the green scales of the monsters found in fairy tales, yet Wilson is able to articulate a much deeper and more everyday fear. Quite aside from the fantastical world, the ‘monsters’ found within her novels are often figures within the protagonist’s own family and the battles they must overcome are those to be fought with love and compassion, not with sword and dagger. Throughout the novel Marigold continues to unnerve her children by staying out late and drinking excessively; this culminates in a particularly graphic scene where she covers herself in white paint in an attempt to start over. The novel leaves the reader with as many questions as it answers, leaving readers without any easy closure, as in reality Marigold’s recovery would be a slow process rather than an unrealistic ‘happy ever after’. Similarly, young readers often ask why Andy’s parents did not get back together at the end of The Suitcase Kid (1993). Once more, Wilson shows a need to be honest with children and to not give them false expectations. She does, however, stress that she aims for a ‘happy (ish) ending’ suggesting that: “I don’t always have what I’d call a conventional happy ending, but I always try to end with a message of hope” (Williamson, 2009). This vision of hope is crucial to allow a sense of reality to remain, whilst understanding the needs of her impressionable young readers.
Another prominent theme featured within Wilson’s narratives is a personal conflict which must be overcome in order to achieve resolution. In Double Act (1995) there are several conflicts integrated within the narrative. The first issue is the conflict between Ruby and Garnet and their dad’s new girlfriend Rose. We realise that the characters are unaccepting of Rose’s position in their dad’s life, as they perceive her to be trying to take their mum’s place, signified in the line: “No-one can ever be like a mother to us. NO-ONE. NO-ONE AT ALL. ESPECIALLY NOT STUPID FRIZZY DIZZY ROSE” (p. 23). Here we discern the twins’ clear disdain for Rose through both their use of the insults ‘frizzy’ and ‘dizzy’ and the way in which they rhyme the words, making them similar to a taunt you would hear in the playground. Wilson captures the voice of the child and the reader can almost hear the children screaming their dislike: capitalisation shows that the twins are shouting. This issue is then subtly resolved as it is surpassed by a more important conflict between Ruby and Garnet as the story progresses. Garnet’s acceptance to boarding school causes the twins to strive to develop independent identities. This change in direction enlightens the reader to the underlying conflict and the theme of identity, which serves as a secondary layer, adds depth to the novel.
Many of the techniques which Wilson employs to indicate this journey of identity focus on illustrations and prose used as symbolic of the characters’ states of mind. The dual narrative in Double Act indicates the battle for individuality as Ruby, the dominant twin, is seen to narrate the majority of the story, whilst Garnet is left mere asides. When the twins are separated by Garnet’s acceptance to boarding school the script of the two characters becomes very different. Garnet is left in control of the main narrative as Ruby rejects it, instead seeking to develop her own identity by telling her story in an exercise book. Here there is a clear visual separation of the twins as Ruby has stepped outside the narration and has created a new format for the story. The reader is clearly able to distinguish a parting of ways as it is made both textually and visually explicit.
Wilson’s novels not only provide an exciting narrative, but also contain a moral truth or message, offering insight into difficult themes such as separation, loss and identity. Unlike traditional didactic literature, where adults assume a role of authority, parents are portrayed as imperfect and it is often left to a sibling or young protagonist to assume the adult role, for example in Lily Alone (2011) and The Illustrated Mum (1999) where children are required to ‘grow up’ alone. Wilson also successfully presents the effects of divorce: not only the frightening rows and the loss of a parent, but the day-to-day reality of accepting new parents and sharing a room.
Wilson’s novels mirror the challenges that children face on a day-to-day basis and she often deals with this through humour to ensure that her young readers do not become saturated with despair. An example of this is Tracy Beaker, (1991) in which Tracy conjures ridiculous exaggerations and tales about her mum, amusing the audience, although the story itself focuses on the trials and tribulations of a child in care. Furthermore, in The Bed and Breakfast Star (1994), protagonist Elsa is seen as a practical joker, interspersing the narrative with witty lines, though the story itself focuses on the issues faced by a family caught in the welfare system.
The development of character within Wilson’s novels is crucial as it is here that children recognise themselves ‘through the language and thoughts of the characters’ (Strehle,1999: 214). Narration is carried out by the child protagonist, a stance children can instantly relate to. The story is told not from the viewpoint of an adult but from the voice of a child, sometimes presenting the story as less of a novel and more of a conversation with a friend. This is evident in such examples as Best Friends (2008), when Gemma introduces her brother to the reader by saying “there’s my other brother Jack, but he’s nowhere near as much fun as Callum” (p.11). Wilson uses simple language yet does not use belittling over-simplification. This allows her novels wider-scope, as the text is accessible to a wide range of readers. The choice of language is particularly engaging as it echoes the spoken word; this almost banishes the presence of a narrator, as the prose becomes less of a story to be told and more of a shared experience. Images are conjured through the child narrator, as we see the world through their eyes, forging a bond between character and reader.
A sense of character is further achieved through the direct thoughts and feelings expressed by the protagonists, for example when Andy (The Suitcase Kid, 1993) shares her thoughts on her parents’ divorce: “There were all these arguments about who would get custody…I thought they were talking about custard at first…my mum got mad and my dad got mad and I got mad too. I felt I was being split up” (p. 8). Here we see Andy’s gentle naivety in her confusion of the difficult term ‘custody’ with the more familiar ‘custard’; this expression of confusion captures the turmoil that children face and it is this proficiency which makes the characters accessible to the younger reader.
A predominant character in Wilson’s novels is the young, troubled female protagonist. Wilson comments: ‘I nearly always write about girls, simply because I find it easier’ (Cliffhanger, 1995: prologue). Writing from the feminine perspective no doubt comes naturally, but also allows Wilson to draw parallels with her predominantly female fan-base. Books such as Cliffhanger, however, follow a male protagonist who is shown to have many of the problems of his female counterparts. Wilson presents a shy, anxious boy who hates outdoor games and is often teased for not being able to catch. As a child Jacqueline famously hated sport because she could not catch or hit a ball (Parker, 2003: 14).
Wilson’s novels offer a subversive presentation of the family centred on domestic issues and disjointed relationships. Her themes and ideas make her a popular author of realistic children’s literature and she is praised by her readers for her empathetic insight into the life of a child and for her proficiency to juxtapose the stark realism of modern life with the childlike humour and wit necessary to make it palatable. Her books are chatty and colloquial, offering children not just a lesson but also a friend
BBC (2003) Jacqueline Wilson talks books with Annie, 9. [online] Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/uk/newsid_29450… [Accessed 04 April 2013]
Booker, C. (2004) Seven Basic Plots; why we tell stories. London: Continuum.
Gamble, N. and Yates, S. (2008) Exploring Children’s Literature, 2nd Edition, London: Sage Publications Ltd.
The Guardian (2005) The books of life The Guardian 23 March 2005 [online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2005/mar/23/book… childrensservices [Accessed 01 April 2013]
O’Kelly, L. (2010) Jacqueline Wilson: ‘I just try to reflect what life can be like’ The Guardian 17 October 2010 [online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/17/ jacqueline-wilson-happiness-blyton [Accessed 01 April 2013]
Parker, V. (2003) All about…Jacqueline Wilson. Oxford: Heinemann.
Parker, V. (2006) Writers Uncovered: Jacqueline Wilson. Oxford: Heinemann.
Strehle, E. (1999) Social Issues: Connecting Children to Their World, Children’s Literature in Education, 30(3), 213-220.
Williamson, C. (2009) Jacqueline Wilson: I’m afraid of replying to children’s letters The
Telegraph 27 September 2009 [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/6235183/Jacqueline-Wilson-Im-afraid-of-replying-to-childrens-letters.html [Accessed 02 April 2013]
Wilson, J. (1991) Tracy Beaker. London: Corgi Yearling Books. Wilson, J. (1993) The Suitcase Kid. London: Corgi Yearling Books. Wilson, J. (1995) Cliffhanger. London: Corgi Yearling Books.
Wilson, J. (2000) The Illustrated Mum. London: Corgi Yearling Books. Wilson, J. (2006) Double Act. London: Corgi Yearling Books.
Wilson, J. (2008) Best Friends. London: Corgi Yearling Books.
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