As children’s author Jacqueline Wilson gets ready to appear at Write on Kew — Kew Gardens’ first literary festival — on 27 September, she tells us how the area, and nearby Kingston, have inspired her and her writing. Words by Kat Hopps
Does Jacqueline Wilson become as excitable as her fans when coming face to face with her literary hero or heroine? It’s something I’m dying to ask the children’s writer as she appears on a star-studded bill of authors this month — including Louis de Bernières, Hanif Kureishi, A.S.Byatt, Bill Bryson, Penelope Lively and David Nicholls — for Kew Gardens’ first-ever literary festival, Write on Kew. ‘I know they have Margaret Atwood coming who I very much admire,’ she says without hesitation. ‘I think I would be quite… overcome is the right word,’ followed by peals of animated giggles. ‘But I don’t think I will be running up and saying “Hi Maggie, how are you?”’ Despite being a prodigious writer of 102 books, selling in excess of 38m copies in the UK alone, Jacqueline remains as much a fangirl at heart as the rest of us.
It’s no real surprise once you start talking to her. The 69-year-old has a down-to-earth, amenable manner and a sweet, musical voice. She chats at length and has a knack for putting you at ease. She also comes across as a person who cares deeply: about her characters and the children for whom she writes.
On Katy, her newest book, which shot straight to no.1 in the children’s hardback sales list on 30 July, she says, ‘it’s a book I tried really hard with. I haven’t yet received the latest batch of emails and letters from children who have actually read it but certainly from looking at a few blogs, it seems to have done well so far, which is very reassuring to me.’
Katy is a modern retelling of What Katy Did and the original Victorian children’s tale, written by Susan Coolidge in 1872, is one of Jacqueline’s childhood favourites. The central character is a young, headstrong tomboy who is forever getting into scrapes. After suffering a terrible accident and becoming an invalid, she has to learn how to cope with her new situation by becoming good and patient. By the end of the book she is able to walk again. Although the author was initially reluctant to touch a classic, she felt it was justified in this case because of the ‘slightly skewed message’ in the book’s moral fabric. ‘For kids who have had terrible accidents and particularly bad spinal injuries where there is really little hope of them walking again, it seems to mean to suggest that if you’re very good and patient, perhaps you will learn to walk again.’
Jacqueline didn’t want to offer her heroine a miracle cure. ‘I want children to identify with Katy and realise that rather than being good and patient all the time, actually you’ve got to be a bit gutsy, a bit determined; you’ve got to stand up for yourself and see that your life isn’t over if you have a terrible accident.’
Her tough subject matter — alcoholism, mental illness and divorce have all featured — and her characters’ resilience in the face of adversity is what her young fans love her for, even if their parents do not. From Tracy Beaker (who lives in a children’s home) to Hetty Feather (a Victorian child abandoned by her birth mother in a foundling hospital) her young female role models are feisty, determined and spirited, although often just as vulnerable.
Perhaps more deeply affected by criticism than she lets on, Jacqueline has tried to effectively rebel against herself at times. ‘I don’t know why… I frequently think, well I’m going to surprise everyone and I’m going to write a really light-hearted fluffy book where everything goes right for this child — and yet as soon as I write it, by about the second chapter, things seem to be sliding away from me,’ she says.
The mum of one (to daughter Emma) seems to instinctively ‘get’ children and receives letters by the bucketful, although she is unable to respond to each one. She tells me that only the day before this interview she read a letter from a child saying how important her book The Suitcase Kid had been for helping her deal with her parents’ divorce.
The subject has featured in Jacqueline’s own life — she is divorced from the father of her child, Emma — and her parents reportedly endured an unsatisfactory marriage. She has said in the past that she did not receive overwhelming support from her parents to become a writer despite finding her vocation young, so she understands how happy-ever-afters are not a childhood norm for everyone.
Jacqueline found her escapism in books as an early child — ‘I led a very bizarrely rich, imaginary life for most of my childhood’ — but found her refuge in more sordid, real-life material than children’s books, which she says were ‘very bland and reassuring. I read a very downmarket women’s magazine, called Women’s Home Companion, which I thought very dramatic — and I also loved the problem pages at the back.’
While these stories provided the escapism, Kingston acted as her cocoon. ‘The Kingston library was a wonderful treasure house for me; certainly during the holidays I bobbed up there practically every other day.’ Her local environment has been a rich source of influence for her over the years. Kew Gardens featured as an excursion in her book Kiss, while in The Butterfly Club, a character becomes interested in butterflies after seeing large numbers of butterflies fluttering together in a controlled environment. Jacqueline said she had been to such an event at Kew ‘and it sort of stuck in my mind, so you can say that Kew has been immensely inspirational.’ She discloses that the fictional setting of King Town, featured in so many of her tales ‘is pretty similar to Kingston’ and the Flower Field shopping centre bears some resemblance to the Bentalls shopping centre, although she remonstrates that she tries to keep the settings as generic as possible.
Kingston has always been her home and she remains as enamoured with its amenities as she is with the bucolic charms of nearby Richmond and Kew. ‘There are times when I think I’d like to live by the seaside,’ she lets on, ‘or one of those little lovely Surrey Villages, but Kingston still has lots of magic places. The Alligator’s Mouth is an excellent bookshop. I love to walk in Home Park up towards Hampton Quarter. I love Richmond Park and walking by the river… I can’t really see myself moving away, not at this stage in my life anyway.’
What she’d really like to do is ‘to revisit the 50s when I was a little girl. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be a little girl but I’d like to walk round Kingston the way it used to be. I used to know every shop there and it’s almost like another modern town has been plonked down on top of the old Kingston that I knew.’
She recounts the days of getting into Kew Gardens for a penny, discovering antique shops at Brady’s Arcade and going to the Kingston Empire, now a Wetherspoons, appearing a little wistful at times. She hopes she will always be able to understand the children she writes for, but if not, ‘you can always go back in the past. I feel I know where I am really with the Victorians or even little 1950s children.’
However, Jacqueline asserts that children today remain the same even in such rapidly changing times. ‘From the letters and emails I get from girls aged between seven and 15, deep down what they really care about is having a best friend — or feeling upset because they haven’t got a best friend — when should they start to go out with boys, feeling worried about their parents say… children are still children.’ Nor is she particularly worried that modern technology is the grim reaper of reading, saying that while quiet time should be set aside for fiction so children develop the knack of concentrating, she has ‘yet to meet a child that doesn’t like to be told a story’.
No doubt, the local children will be turning out in enthralled droves to behold their favourite author reading in the flesh at Write on Kew. She’s thrilled that a literary festival is coming toKew Gardens, one of her favourite places in all the world. ‘It’s absolutely time for a literary festival at Kew,’ she says.
‘I think it will be very successful.’ And will it be nice for it to be close to home? ‘It will be absolutely wonderful that I won’t be up at the crack of dawn to shoot off to Euston, King’s Cross or wherever!’ There underneath lies the cheeky Jacqueline Wilson — the original Hetty, Katy and Tracy of them all.
Katy by Jacqueline Wilson (Penguin), £12.99, is out now. Write on Kew takes place at Kew Gardens from 24 to 28 September. Jacqueline will be appearing on 27 September at 4.30pm. See more at kew.org/writeonkew