Dame Jacqueline Wilson, award-winning author of bestselling children’s stories including The Story of Tracy Beaker, The Suitcase Kid, The Illustrated Mum and over a hundred other books, joins us at Storyhouse as part of WayWord festival this October. She tells us about the joy of discovering books and why libraries hold a special place in her heart.
While the past two years have been a challenging time for many, for Dame Jacqueline Wilson they have proved particularly productive.
The prolific author and former Children’s Laureate is used to writing two new books a year. But since the first lockdown she has found herself completing three, writing as usual while “propped up in bed early in the morning with my laptop, wearing my pyjamas”.
She is bringing her latest creation, Project Fairy, to Storyhouse this autumn as part of the WayWord Festival.
But anyone expecting what Jacqueline calls “a twinkle-toed, gauzy-winged fairy type of book” will be in for a surprise.
In Project Fairy we meet Mab who lives with her brother Robin and their fairy-obsessed mum who has decorated their “rather grotty council flat” with fairy ornaments, furniture and fairy lights.
Jacqueline explains: “Mab cringes at the whole fairy thing and is particularly upset when mum gives her a fairy dressing up dress for her birthday.
“But on the other hand, she’s worried about her mum who was really quite ill after her dad walked out. So, she goes along with it and gets teased a lot.”
Everything changes when Mab is given an old Victorian book on fairies and discovers one of the last remaining magical creatures – a bindweed fairy with quite an attitude – pressed between its pages.
And through her interaction with the fairy, Mab learns to stand up for herself.
“I found it great fun to write,” the author says. “And I felt it was time to have a bit of fun in my stories. Because so many kids have been really upset and worried about the whole Covid thing, so I thought, let’s lighten things up just a little bit.”
Of course, books can form a powerful tool in broaching difficult or complex subjects and helping to let children know they are not alone, and although while Jacqueline has certainly never shied away from that in her novels, she says she is very careful about how she approaches sensitive issues.
It means while she might have had the odd complaint “from an adult” about a particular incident or theme in a book, she doesn’t ever recall receiving one from a child.
And millions of children certainly love the irresistible cast of characters who have sprung from her fertile imagination.
They owe much to her own passion for reading which was fostered as a small child in her local library at Kingston upon Thames – even if many of the stories she devoured didn’t resonate with her own family background.
“I loved reading,” she recalls, “and I didn’t have many books at all myself. In fact, when I left home at 17, I still only owned one shelf of books. But I practically lived in the library.”
She adds: “In my time, I’ve been delighted to open many libraries and I can’t think of anything more worthwhile.”
During a recent visit to a newly refurbished school library, Jacqueline was touched by the sight of a little boy “deep in a book and wanting help with reading it.
“When he was asked ‘does your mum read to you?’ he said: ‘oh no, mum doesn’t read, but I like to read’.
“And I thought, that’s what libraries are for. If for whatever reason parents don’t like to read or find it boring or whatever, that doesn’t matter, children are still being introduced to the joy of books.”
Conversely, she smiles at the memory of a long train journey where, deeply engrossed in a book herself, she became aware of a mother reading to her two daughters in the seat behind.
She says: “I thought ‘I know this story. Oh, my goodness, this is one of mine!’ I didn’t know what to do. I thought ‘I can’t turn round and say are you enjoying that? I actually wrote it.’ It might look as if I was completely barking mad!
“That’s what I like though, the idea of a parent reading a book to children and them enjoying it. That makes everything worthwhile.”
With 112 novels to her name, Jacqueline should of course know what makes a successful children’s book.
Empathising with young people is important, as is understanding the generation you are writing for.
Unlike the long preamble of books she read in the 1950s, she says children today want to be grabbed from the start, while she also uses dialogue to reveal what makes her characters tick.
Whatever the style or subject matter however, for Jacqueline it boils down to one simple thing.
“I just want children to enjoy a book and be interested in it and then when they’ve finished have that happy sigh, thinking ‘oh yes, I liked that’.”
Dame Jacqueline Wilson brings Project Fairy to Storyhouse on Saturday, 29 October.