Dame Jacqueline Wilson is a national treasure. With over 100 titles under her belt, including three autobiographies and the hugely successful Tracy Beaker series, her contribution to children's literature is undeniable.
Dame Jacqueline is the most borrowed children's author in libraries across the UK over the past 20 years - at the last count, her books have been borrowed over a staggering 24 million times.
Like that wasn't enough, she is also a Chancellor at The University of Roehampton and teaches modules in the Children's Literature and Creative Writing MA courses.
Having been brought up in a council flat in Kingston, she still lives in the area, though now it's in a detached Victorian house that contains more than 15,000 books.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Dame Jacqueline ahead of the publication of her new book, Butterfly Beach, which was written specially for World Book Day 2017. It is one of 10 £1 World Book Day books which can be purchased with a World Book Day £1 book token, distributed to children for free via their schools and nurseries.
However, Talking Books subscribers can get one of 9 out of the 10 books for free as braille, audio or giant print. Find out more information about how you can get your book on the World Book Day website.
RNIB: Where do you get inspiration for your characters? They are very female centric and often deal with very serious issues – do you base them on people you know, or issues that you think are important to women and young girls?
Jacqueline Wilson: When I was a child, the children’s book world was quite bland. It was not realistic – all of these adventure stories, with children rounding up a gang of jewellery thieves. I though, life is not like that. I didn’t come from a posh background – we lived in a flat and had no money. I didn’t mind that the children in the books had no money worries – their parents never quarrelled, they went to good schools and had nice picnics. But I thought, if I was lucky enough to be published one day, I would want to represent other kinds of children. Children who were different were always outsiders – I wanted to change that. I’ve written about a girl in a wheelchair and orphans in Victorian times. I wanted to show children who don’t have the full compliments of mummy and daddy, who don’t get picked first for sports – they are more interesting.
RNIB: Should children with a disability, like blind or partially sighted children, be better represented in children’s literature?
JW: Usually, whenever children with some kind of disability are represented, they always serve as some sort of moral focal point – always saintly. But blind children can be just as naughty!
RNIB: Similarly, do you think publishers should be doing more to make books accessible to everyone, particularly those who are print-disabled?
JW: Publishers are becoming more aware and encourage their authors to have greater diversity in the books, and the necessity to make books accessible. As a society, we are becoming more aware, but there is still a way to go.
RNIB: You’ve been quite heavily involved with World Book Day – you have a book coming out with them this year. World Book Day is all about encouraging children to read. Presumably, that is an important message to you - to get children reading for pleasure?
JW: Yes. Of course children like electronic games and they can be great fun, but they don’t introduce an emotional content – no warmth or tenderness. There’s just a lot of killing going on. A little bit of these games is not too harmful, but it is only when you read that you truly become immersed in another world. Children get a feeling of empathy when they read a book – you can see inside the narrator’s head, understand their world, take it all in properly.
RNIB: Have you had much involvement with how Tracy Beaker has been portrayed in the TV series?
JW: Initially I was more involved, but as it’s been going on for such a long time, I trust the people who run it. They send me the scripts and I glance at them to check there is nothing I have an issue with, but I actually feel pleased and proud of the series. It is quite good at showing children who are different in some way – there was a girl with Cerebral Palsy and a boy with Asperger's. It’s never been an issue with why they’re there or how they’re treated by the others – they are the same as the other children, they just have some difficulties. It shows viewers that some children just have to get through life with more difficulty, but it doesn’t make them ‘other’. It’s done a service to children in this way.
RNIB: At this point Jacqueline asked me if blind and partially sighted children go to mainstream schools, or special schools. I told her some go to mainstream schools, and some don’t, and that often it’s the parents who insist one way or the other. To this she said:
JW: Sometimes mainstream schools can be wonderful at providing assistance, but some school children can pick on children who are different. These issues need to be addressed. If you show these children in a book or TV series, it would make kids think twice. In one of the early series of Tracy Beaker, there was a girl called Lily, who had Cerebral Palsy. Being in Tracy Beaker made all the difference to her. I visited the set once and her mother told me that she used to be picked on in school. She looked quite lovely, but she was slower than the other children and looked a little different. But after the other children saw her on Tracy Beaker, they were really impressed. They asked if she could get them Danny’s autograph and said they liked the episode she was in. It improved her confidence a lot. But that is not to do with me – it is the producers of the show who made these decisions.
RNIB: Does how Tracy is portrayed fit with your vision of her as an adult?
JW: That’s difficult to know. It’s good that I wrote at least the first two books before the TV series started, so that I could establish a good sense of the fictional Tracy in my mind. Over the years the story has developed in different directions, but I was happy to see Tracy return as a young adult. I couldn’t keep the children looking 12 years old forever. I have worked with looked after children myself and having Tracy work with these children as well is a great way to keep the story going..
RNIB: Who are your favourites out of the modern authors writing for children and young adults today?
JW: Katherine Rundell – she writes original and imaginative adventure stories, usually set in the past or in strange places – like the rooftops of Paris. She’s very interesting.
That said, with my age, I prefer to read older books, like the Secret Garden, Little women and What Katy Did. These books are so iconic. They may reflect a different world, but they are timeless.
RNIB: You are a self confessed technophobe. Do you feel that presents a challenge when writing about modern teenagers?
JW: I am not anti social media, it is great and exciting and it is a different way for people to communicate. Yet it is quite hard for young people – they can’t seem to have a meal without taking a picture of it and posting it online. It’s such a waste of time. I don’t understand why it’s important to have lots of followers and have them like what you posted. Why not go out and communicate with real people? I might be showing my age here.
I was at a hotel yesterday and three little boys came to the table and refused to communicate with their grandfather – they just had their faces stuck to their phones. It’s such a shame. I did wonder why their mum and dad didn’t tell them to put the phones away, but I guess some families think it’s a great thing, as it keeps children quiet. It feels like a losing battle sometimes.
I’m glad that when I was growing up children could get lost in the world of books. Video games can be amusing for the first couple of times, but they get repetitive after a while. Books provide much more enriching content.
RNIB: Finally, what would your advice be to blind and partially sighted children who dream of being authors?
JW: These days we are quite fortunate that you can get voice recognition computers, although they are quite expensive. I don’t know how easy it is to touch type on a computer, I know it would be difficult for me, but there are means to be able to write, even if you are completely blind. If you can’t see, it often means you’ve learned to be more perceptive – to tune in to people’s voices and gage the atmosphere, in a way sighted children can’t. A blind child would have a better idea of how people think. It also makes you more determined to prove yourself and succeed. Description would be difficult, but you could have a more interesting way of how things look – instead of saying it was a lovely sunny day, you could say you walked out and felt the sun on your skin and how it made you feel. Make readers relate to things in a different way.
There have been blind authors, like Milton – they were geniuses in their own way. It would not be easier, but it is not a huge handicap to would-be writers.
We need to make more books accessible to blind and partially sighted children, but there is enough variety in books now that children can be introduced to stories from a young age. Even picture books can be used to feel the rise and texture of the material. Here’s hoping more children decide they want to become authors!
Read Jacqueline Wilson's Books:
Butterfly Beach was written specially for World Book Day 2017.
Selma can't wait to go on holiday with her best friend forever, Tina. But a holiday with Tina means a holiday with her triplet sisters, too and it's not long before Selma feels like the odd one out. Can their shared love of butterflies bring Selma and Tina together again?
It's 1953, the year Elizabeth is to be crowned Queen of England. Elsie Kettle can't wait to go to London to see the celebrations on Coronation Day. Elsie lives with her Nan - her mum works as a showgirl, so she's not around very often. Spirited and imaginative, but often lonely, Elsie longs for a best friend. Luckily, she and Nan are very close; Elsie just wishes she was allowed a cat to keep her company sometimes. Then tragedy strikes. Nan and Elsie both fall ill with tuberculosis, and Elsie finds herself whisked away to the children's ward of the hospital. Confined to bed for months on end, Elsie finds it very hard to adapt to the hospital's strict regime. But she invents astonishing ways of entertaining the other children on the ward, and for the first time finds herself surrounded by true friends - including Queenie, the hospital's majestic white cat.
Everybody knows Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson's best-loved character. But what do they know about Jacqueline herself? In this fascinating book, discover how Jacky played with paper dolls, like April in 'Dustbin Baby'; how she dealt with an unpredictable father, like Prue in 'Love Lessons'; how she sat entrance exams, like Ruby in 'Double Act'. But, most of all, how Jacky loved reading and writing stories. Losing herself in a new world was the best possible way she could think of spending her time.