Dame Jacqueline Wilson on why children will always want stories 

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Photo by James Jordan

Dame Jacqueline Wilson’s fans span multiple generations and continue to do so. From Tracy Beaker to Girls in Love, Wilson’s books have touched thousands of children, and adults, with her ground-breaking tales of unconventional lives.

With two new books to add to her incredible catalogue of literature, Wilson is not slowing down, and refuses to do so. So it was an honour to be able to grab a few moments with the wonderful author and discuss her career as well as her upcoming event at the Southbank Centre for the Imagine Children’s Festival this February.

With a peaceful dog nuzzled in Wilson’s arms, Features Editor Flora Neighbour spoke to the novelist on her influences, the next generation of readers and how no subject is off-limits.

Congratulations on headlining the Imagine Children’s Festival at the Southbank Centre. Could you tell us a little bit about what we can expect?

“I’m thrilled to be joined by my new illustrator, Rachel Dean, so it’ll be a sort of double act on stage. I imagine I will be introducing Rachel as well as talking about myself as a child and journey into writing.

“I will be talking about my latest paperback, The Runaway Girl, which is set in Victorian London. This book was illustrated by my former, and lovely, illustrator Nick Sharratt, which you will remember. But also about my newest book, The Primrose Railway Children, where Rachel will also discuss how she illustrated this one. She has some wonderful slides to show people.

“I will also be opening the floor up for questions, so everyone gets an opportunity to ask me anything. It should be a jammed-packed event and I know we’re both looking forward to it. I can’t wait to meet people in person, rather than on Zoom!”

How did you get into writing children’s literature?

“I was always interested in children’s books and I knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of six. I trained as a magazine journalist at 17-years-old – in the days when you could leap in and start working. It was around this time that I had written my first novel for adults; however, it was turned down by the publishers. That being said, I wasn’t put off. I took the criticism well and felt like I had one toe in the door.

“It wasn’t until I had my daughter and was in the land of children’s books again that I knew I really wanted to write for the younger generation. It wasn’t all plain sailing though, and it took a long time before anybody had even heard of me. I remember being introduced to somebody at a party at the start of my career. After telling them my name and disclosing what I did, they asked excitedly ‘What name do you write under?’. I was tempted to say ‘Enid Blyton’.”

When did you feel like you had made it as a writer?

“It was certainly when The Story of Tracy Beaker came out, which was followed by the very popular television series. It was at this point, I started to become better known in the industry. It was wonderful to see my career take off. I’ve been hanging on in there ever since.”

You’ve written more than 100 children’s books since then. What keeps you inspired to write and do you think your writing has changed over the years?

“I hope it has gotten a bit better, but I think my style is still the same as I’m still interested in the same sort of things as I was 50 years ago.

“I feel more confident in my ability and know more about what I’m doing nowadays, but I still have the same doubts and worries about each book. I never sit back on my laurels. I always want each book to be different and as original as possible, but still appeal to children. Expectations have changed in the children’s book world, so I do have to keep one eye on that too, but still write the books that give me a sense of satisfaction.

“I do feel so lucky to have had a career that has lasted so long. My family is always on at me to put my feet up, but I don’t think I could ever think of stopping – it’s part of my life.”

Do you think the new generation of children reading your books differs from the last?

“Today’s children tend to whizz through a book and I have seen that I can’t have a first chapter where I’m slowly meandering and slowly describing the characters. You have to get on with it. What’s more, you’re competing with so many other things today, like video games and computers. That being said, there are many children today who are keen to read and, in whatever form, children will always want stories.

“I think more and more children’s books are exciting and inclusive. When I was a child growing up, there were many wonderful books, but very few about poor families or children who were odd ones out. Today, we have a whole wide variety of books, which cover these topics so are more in-tuned to the subjects than before.”

Do you have a favourite character from your books?

“I’m very fond of Tracey Beaker as she’s helped my career. I’m also very fond of the Victorian character Hetty Feather as I love writing about that era in particular. I’ll always have a soft spot for all of my characters, and continue to do so.

“Phoebe, who is the main character in my latest book The Primrose Railway Children, is very dear to my heart. She’s not the favourite of her family and has a tough relationship with her mum. There are no bad people in the story, but none of the relationships seem to blend. I certainly seem to specialise in misunderstood children.”

It’s lovely that you continue to find connections with your characters as you write them. Is that the best part of writing fiction?

“That is certainly the best bit about being a writer. You’re writing a book and each time you’re living in that imaginary world. I mostly write in the first person, so I often feel like I’m becoming that child. It’s a total delight.”

Is there a subject or a character that you haven’t written about yet, that you would ideally like to touch upon?

“I don’t know. I don’t tend to say that I won’t write about anything or anyone because experience shows me that, when I say I won’t, a seed is planted and I decide to write about it. I have no plans, however, to write about the sort of child that has everything; a child who’s really bright or incredibly popular, or has a wonderful family. I don’t think life is really like that for any children.”

Growing up, who were your favourite authors?

“I loved Noel Streatfeild, because her characters seemed so realistic. I particularly liked her book ‘Ballet Shoes’, because I always wished that I could’ve gone to stage school and learnt ballet. Even though my real ambition was always to be a writer, I just adored that book.

“I also loved Edith Nesbit’s books. They did seem a little old-fashioned to me but I really adored her books. She used to be given a single bangle every time she published a book, which is where I got the idea to start wearing silver bangles every time I had a book published, too. I’ve calmed down a bit now – I don’t jingle and jangle as much as I used to. Even so, I still have a lot of jewellery on and it was partly down to Edith.”

Congratulations on your Damehood. Would you say this is a career highlight?

“I was very proud to be made a Dame and pleased that my work with children and literature was recognised. However, a greater highlight is when a child stops me and tells me that they used to find reading boring but read one of my novels and it has changed my mind.

“I always want to reach children who love reading, but it is even better if you can show kids who don’t like it so much that you can always find a book that speaks to you.”

Do you have tips for parents or caregivers who are struggling to get their children into reading?

“Reading aloud to small children is a wonderful way to get them into reading early. I think reading to your child is almost as important as giving them a decent meal. I know there are incredibly busy parents out there, but I do think that, even if it’s for five or ten minutes a day, it’s worthwhile.

“If young people see adults reading a book with enjoyment, it is a huge positive. But, I would never force a child to read as most children will, undoubtedly, do the opposite.”

To book tickets to this year’s Imagine Children’s Festival, visit southbankcentre.co.uk

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