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Children's Author, Dame Jacqueline Wilson

PUBLISHED: 23:17 28 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:11 20 February 2013

Dame Jacqueline Wilson

Dame Jacqueline Wilson

Divorce, abuse, death and bullying... Not obvious themes for 10-year-olds. But Dame Jacqueline Wilson has not only tackled challenging issues in her award-winning children's novels; she's sold more than 25 million copies and won world-wide acclaim...

Divorce, abuse, death and bullying... Not obvious themes for 10-year-olds. But Dame Jacqueline Wilson has not only tackled challenging issues in her award-winning children's novels; she's sold more than 25 million copies and won world-wide acclaim to boot. Katie Jarvis went to meet her, and to talk about her latest book, Hetty Feather, a story with a difference.

There are certain things in life that seem, to put it bluntly, crackers. What about the idea that all authors going into schools need to be vetted to ensure they're not paedophiles? Even famous authors. Doesn't matter if you're JK Rowling, Philip Pullman or, indeed, Dame Jacqueline Wilson reading to a packed hall lined with every teacher a school possesses... Still got to be checked out.

What children would make of this, heaven only knows.

Dame Jacqueline knows exactly what she thinks of it all. Ridiculous.

"We are so wary of things," she sighs. "For instance, when I do a book signing nowadays, children want to have a photo of me on their mobile phone. But when a little girl of nine tries to cosy up, I always have to say, 'Can I put my arm around you?' She wants my arm around her, and I'm like a granny figure to her; but because we've become such bizarre people, you have to kind of ask permission."

Law, suspicion and bureaucracy at their worst. They seem all the more pointlessly absurd when you meet her in person. In theory, Dame Jacqueline could quite feasibly be scary or unapproachable. A former Children's Laureate, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2008; her 'awards' section on Wikipedia is longer than the entirety of some people's entries; she's sold more than 25 million books... But she is so gentle: the embodiment of 'approachable'. She speaks quietly, reasonably and even (not boringly but rhythmically) lullingly at times. When she relates certain episodes in her life, I want to put down my pen, throw away my notebook and just listen.

And doubly or triply (I've lost count of the layers) absurd are these 'paedophile' rules when you consider she knows more about children than a whole library-ful of legislators.

For Dame Jacqueline is renowned for tackling gritty contemporary issues head-on throughout her 100-or-so books (even she has lost count). There's Treasure in Secrets, abused by her violent stepfather; Andy in The Suitcase Kid, devastated by her parents' divorce; Jade's Vicky Angel is so grief-stricken by the death of her best friend, she even briefly considers suicide; and, of course, most famous of all, meet Tracy Beaker, a 10-year-old girl with 'behavioural problems' who lives in a care home.

You certainly couldn't accuse Jacqueline Wilson of being unrealistic or out of touch.

Today, we're meeting in the somewhat sterile surroundings of the BBC Audiobooks studios (though, for some reason, it's full of the kindest of people) where Dame Jacqueline is recording a version of her about-to-be-published novel, Hetty Feather.

Ideally, it would have been nice to have interviewed her in her Kingston home which seems to offer a glimpse into her very soul. It is - as far as I can see from photographs and TV shoots - festooned with dolls, rocking horses and other 'nursery' ephemera. Not childish in any sense; more a celebration of the importance of things that children love. Tools that help fashion us into worthwhile adults.

But there are consolations. For the studios are based in beautiful Bath, where she'll be taking part in the Festival of Children's Literature later this month. And, more personally, this is the city in which she was born, at the end of the Second World War. ("Wonderful for bookshops; I love the costume museum and the American Museum; I haven't actually experienced the Roman baths now they're completely rejigged... I see I'm talking myself into a week's holiday here!")

She not only writes '21st century', she looks it, too: lacy black leggings, a pretty swirly tunic that could be straight out of Top Shop (but is undoubtedly posher), an attractive crop haircut, and lots of trademark 'fun' jewellery. Now in her mid-60s, she looks far from an old-fashioned granny figure. Indeed, she's not a granny. Her daughter, Emma, of whom she is justifiably proud, is a Cambridge academic.

Nor is she considering any form of retirement. She's as busy as ever with her writing; and this latest book is far from a slim tome.

Hetty Feather revisits some familiar themes: abandonment, foster families, life in an institution, and the sheer situation-defying resilience of young children. But there is a big difference. For the first time ever, Dame Jacqueline has set a book in the distant past: Hetty is a 19th century waif, left by her anonymous mother at London's Foundling Hospital.

As it happens, the hospital really did exist. Founded in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram, some 27,000 children passed through its doors during its 200-year-history. Today, next to its original Brunswick Square site, the Foundling Museum exists to tell their stories; and as part of that mission, the museum appointed Dame Jacqueline to a special Coram fellowship in 2007.

"I asked what their wish list would be for things for me to do, and they said - slightly jokingly - we'd love you to write a book about the Foundling Hospital."

She was reluctant at first, not least because Jamila Gavin had written the widely-acclaimed Coram Boy, on a similar theme. But things changed last summer when Dame Jacqueline fell ill and was diagnosed with heart failure, a condition that's now being successfully managed.

"I'd taken into hospital with me a book about the Foundling Hospital, just to read up on things, and I started thinking about what it must have been like to be stuck in there - all the good things about it and all the bad things. Before I knew where I was, I had this little girl, Hetty Feather, who sprang into my head with her distinctive name. I had lots of free time to recline on a sofa, like a Victorian invalid, to do research and develop a story; and I cannot truthfully remember enjoying writing a book as much as I did this one."

It is a wonderful tale, packed with authentic detail, and - regular readers will be pleased to hear - a typically sparky heroine. Hetty, as was the norm in those days, is placed with a loving foster family for the first five years of her life, before being forcibly returned - to her utter despair - to the Foundling Hospital where she was originally abandoned. Her hair is shorn, her toys taken away, and she's separated from her beloved foster brother.

Was Dame Jacqueline shocked by the treatment of Victorian children?

"It's so difficult to judge an institution from our point of view. Just only a few years before I was born, children were being sent away to strangers while they were evacuated, and no one really thought anything about how they would fare.

"I think a lot of people to do with the Foundling Hospital thought they were doing their very best for the children. They felt these were children of shame, born with a huge disadvantage in life, which seems outrageous to us; yet it was a given in those times."

This is far from a bleak book; there's a great deal of kindness there. But it is, nevertheless, hard to see how tender-hearted beings from any age would consider this a reasonable way to deal with abandoned children. "I did read several rather affecting accounts from actual 'foundlings' who said they didn't remember any kind of affection, any sense of being individuals, as they were brought up. I thought how devastating that would be. And then there's this whole idea of taking the babies and having them fostered, which gave them a really good start in life. To lose a mother once is traumatic enough; but to lose a second mother must have been so dreadful."

As she speaks, it strikes you further how very clever her books are; for although she reviews them from an adult perspective, there's no sense of that in her writing. Her 'voice' - normally in the first person - is authentically that of a young child: no irony, prescience or condescension.

Where exactly that came from is hard to say - and clearly something she doesn't analyse. But she experienced a somewhat lonely childhood herself, an only child of mismatched parents who frequently argued, as related in the first part of her autobiography, Jacky Daydream. Her parents met in Bath's Pump Room during the war when her mother, Biddy, was in the Admiralty and her father was a draughtsman, designing submarines. They married three months later ("My mum rather meanly said there were hardly any decent men around anyway," she says, with a wry laugh"), and a few months after that, Jacqueline herself was on the way.

A series of furnished rooms, where babies were not welcome, propelled the young couple back to Biddy parents' house in Kingston, where Jacqueline spent a lot of time with her grandmother, Hilda Ellen, whose story she relates with passion in her autobiography. Indeed it doesn't take a professional psychologist to see how her grandmother's own difficult childhood might have sown seeds in her granddaughter's literary mind. Hilda Ellen had been passed from pillar to post after her mother died, only to be called back to live with her father and new stepmother when they needed a 'nursemaid' for a new baby. Her chance to escape arrived when she won a scholarship to an elite girls' high school; but her hopes were heartbreakingly dashed when her father found her birth certificate. They discovered she was a year older than they'd thought - 11 - and too old to take up her new school place.

There are undoubtedly elements of Hilda Ellen's story that crop up in Dame Jacqueline's work. But the most interesting resolution to this sad tale lies closer to home: Jacqueline now lives in Kingston in the very house her grandmother used to longingly admire whenever the two of them walked past. It's as if, somehow, she's created a happy ending to this story, too.

Certainly, for millions of children, her books don't put things right; but they do help them through difficult times. And she has the letters that say so. "The ones I feel most touched by are those that say, 'I don't feel alone any more because it happened to so and so in a book, and I feel like she could be my friend'.

"I think also for very secure much-loved children, it's sometimes interesting for them to make that imaginative leap and think: How would I cope if my mum stayed out all night? Or I had a nasty stepdad? It's a kind of emotional adventure and I think most children are interested in different lives and ways of looking at things."

Her own life is pretty content, too. The little girl of Jacky Daydream, who so often felt unimportant and ignored, would be amazed - as is the grown-up Jacqueline at times. "It's so strange," she says, "because although I know perfectly well that I've been successful - and that if there were a crowd of children, they would recognise who I am - it still comes as a surprise.

"I've moved classes, too, which is not something most people do. I actually think it's a huge benefit to be born one type of person, in one type of class, and then slowly, very slowly, change everything. What I particularly like is the way everything started changing for me in my 40s and 50s, times for most women when you suddenly start to become invisible and you feel edged out of practically everything. The older I've got, the nicer things have happened."

She's three quarters of the way through her next book, though she doesn't like to talk about the subject until it's finished. But you can be sure it will tackle another of life's rugged realities.

"I know this sounds ludicrous but I never really think that I'm going to write anything controversial - and then I get sucked into the story.

"I try to explain to people that if I'm writing as, say, a modern 10-year-old, longing to wear high heels and make-up, it doesn't mean that I, as an aging woman, think that 10-year-olds should wear high heels and make-up. I'm actually very old-fashioned in my views, but I find it easy to absorb what the average 10-year-old might be thinking and then express myself in that way.

"I'm not saying this is the way it should be. I'm saying: Actually, this is the way it is."

Dame Jacqueline Wilson will be appearing on Saturday, September 19 at Bath Festival of Children's Literature. For more details on the festival, which runs from September 18-27, ring the box office on 01225 463362 or log onto www.

Hetty Feather by Jacqueline Wilson is published by Doubleday in hardback on October 8, price 12.99; the Audiobook will be released at the same time.


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