The author Jacqueline Wilson crafts children's books that contain characters dealing with some of the darker aspects of modern life - and her latest best-seller, Little Darlings, is no exception.
Jacqueline Wilson on being young
Jacqueline Wilson is a busy woman. She shows no sign of slowing down despite, at 64, reaching the age when most might consider retirement. More than 25 million copies of her books have been sold in the UK alone, where she is one of the top five best-selling authors of the past decade. Her books, aimed primarily at girls aged seven to 12, have been adapted for television, stage and radio and been translated into 34 languages. Tracy Beaker, probably Wilson's best-known character, is about to appear in her sixth series on CBBC.
Her latest book, Little Darlings, released last week, has gone straight to the top of the children's hardback best-sellers. Currently on a tour to promote it, Wilson took time out of her schedule to attend the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, where I caught up with her. Wilson's books famously feature children dealing with the challenges of modern life such as divorce, bullying, foster care and domestic violence. However, Wilson explains, she doesn't approach every book with a checklist of issues to write about. "When I was a little girl, I used to make up lots of imaginary friends and now it's still that way. Each time I want to write a book, I think about a child first. Sometimes I deliberately tell myself: 'Come on, we're going to have a happy child and a really sensible, warm, loving family,' but it never works out that way. Generally they've got some kind of problem, but it's as I think more about the child that it develops."
Little Darlings tells the tale of two girls from opposite sides of the tracks. On one side is Sunset, who lives a life of luxury with her ex-rock star father and glamorous ex-model mother. On the other side is Destiny, who lives with her single working mother on the edge of a rundown housing estate. Her mother constantly tells her she is really the daughter of an ageing rock star. The girls meet and discover they have more in common than meets the eye.
Wilson says that she wrote the book in part because celebrities are intriguing to young girls, but also to lay bare some truths. "Many children very much want to grow up rich and famous," says Wilson. "I'm trying to interest children by showing them what it's like to have a dad who's an ageing rock star with pots of money, but I am also showing them that maybe, even though on the surface it all looks glamorous and glossy and wonderful, it's not actually any different from any other slightly dysfunctional family life. Destiny is leading a seemingly impoverished life with her single mum, and yet actually there's a lot more warmth going on between them in their family than there is for Sunset, the rock star's child."
Wilson is keen to point out that the characters are not based on any celebrities in particular and she is not "having a pop at celebrities or their children", but, having noticed that more celebrities seemed to be having families, she found the idea of a family living in the glare of the media rather fascinating. "It's like a modern fairy tale, the lives some of the children lead, and yet, also, they are children." She adds: "It seems strange to be in the limelight right from when you are little and that if you go out anywhere, to an amusement park, you might well be photographed with your mum and dad, and they will probably have very much an idea of the image that the family is making. So it won't just be a spontaneous 'right let's all go out and have fun somewhere', which must be very strange."
Wilson is certainly thorough in her research and, in an attempt to keep up with the zeitgeist, started watching programmes such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent. "They are a part of modern culture and are really big family shows. However, I have to admit I got hooked," Wilson confesses. "Once you are sucked in and have your favourites, oh my goodness me, I'm voting along like the next person!"
However, she believes that such shows can contain useful lessons for children, particularly if they are fixated on becoming "rich and famous" - by demystifying the path to fame. "It is a good lesson for children," says Wilson, "that they learn just how much hard work you have to put into something. It shows all the processes of what modern fame is all about." Wilson's books are unusual in that the parents take a central role in the stories. This, as she explains, reflects the reality for children today whose parents play an increasingly active role in their lives. "When I was young, I walked to school by myself from the age of about seven and you played during the summer holidays with your other school friends. Nowadays in Britain, this doesn't happen at all and parents are very much involved in out-of-school activities, taking their children to Brownies, ballet or judo." This is not always a positive, says Wilson. "Also, we don't tend to keep things from children any more, and sadly a lot of children, certainly in Britain, have to go through the trauma of Mum and Dad splitting up, then joining new families. So it's a very different world for them now."
More often than not, the adults in Wilson's books are portrayed as fallible, disappointing people who don't always make the right decision, leading some parents to criticise her for undermining parental authority. While acknowledging this concern, Wilson comments: "Hopefully Mummy and Daddy generally do [know best], but my books are written from the point of view of the child and sometimes mothers and fathers let them down a bit. I want, basically, to show that even if your parent is human and making mistakes or whatever, they still, in their own way, love you, and you love them back and yet you have somehow to find coping mechanisms to get through."
Wilson is measured, though, about how much social realism she reflects in her books. "I try to write them in as accessible a style as I can and as comforting a way," she explains. "I try and open the world up to children, but I also try to be protective. I would never have a book with gratuitous violence or anything too explicit." The morning is Wilson's preferred time to write, lying out on her chaise longue, leaving her afternoons free for revisions and her other multifarious roles. From 2005 to 2007, she was the UK's Children's Laureate, appointed by a panel drawn from the world of books and literature to celebrate outstanding achievement in their field. In 2008, she became the first children's author to be made a dame.
Wilson is also the president of the Book Trade Benevolent Society, and a year ago she was invited to be the visiting Professor of Children's Literature at Roehampton University in the UK, a role she describes as "delightful". She teaches classes to master's students in children's literature and creative writing. She writes a monthly diary for her fun and interactive website, and last month saw the launch of her magazine for young girls, The Official Jacqueline Wilson Mag - published by DC Thomson, the company that gave her her first break in journalism when she was a teenager. (There has been some interest in making her books Vicky Angel and Lola Rose into films. Meanwhile, Hetty Feather may be adapted for the stage, and The Suitcase Kid is currently in development for television.)
Her collection of chunky silver rings is legendary. A prolific writer, with a back catalogue of nearly 100 books with about two new titles penned a year, she once explained she bought a ring for every book she published. When we met, I noted that she was only wearing three. "I love rings, I think they are a most exciting thing to wear, but, because it's hot in Dubai, I am being restrained. At home, I quite frequently have a ring on every finger," she explains.
Those avid fans who have already devoured Little Darlings need not worry, because Wilson has just finished her next book, The 22 Hour Love Song, which will be out in October. "It's about a child whose mum is in a coma after having a baby, and the child has to cope just with her stepfather, who is actually a lovely stepfather but she resents him. It's about whether her mum will get better, whether the child will bond with her stepfather, how they will get on with the new baby," she says. The child in the book is also passionately interested in whales and the book's title derives from the longest recorded time a humpback whale has been heard singing.
Wilson's latest work is typical of her writing - a combination of sad and sensitive issues told with humour and imagination. This mix is sometimes controversial, but, as she explains: "This is the world that many children experience, and I am trying to reflect that."
Read lots of books that are currently popular, rather than looking back nostalgically to books you read when you were young. Remember that publishing tastes change (don't try and do any Harry Potter-type books - there's only one Harry Potter - or vampire books - we've done that). Publishers look for something new but that will fit in with what we are currently interested in. Reading is important for children as it enriches their imagination. Even if your children love your bedtime stories, take it with a pinch of salt. Anything that prolongs going to sleep they will like and obviously if you are their mum, dad, granny, auntie, etc, they will like it simply because it is you reading. Do your research. There are specific ways of doing it. For example, most picture books are 32 pages. If you have a book that you feel is perfect and it is 47 pages, unless it is a work of shining genius it won't get published. Read lots, look in libraries, see what is out there. Keep a diary, because this gets you into the habit of writing. So many adults say "I love to write", but never put pen to paper. Particularly for children this is a great idea (and it's fun to look back over them when you are older)! Little Darlings is available in hardback at Magrudy's for Dh55. For more information about the author, visit www.jacquelinewilson.co.uk .