Dame Jacqueline Wilson: Interview with children’s author ahead of Liverpool talk
Multi award-winning author Dame Jacqueline Wilson has written more than 106 books and created some of Britain’s most popular children’s characters during her illustrious career.
The former Children’s Laureate is about to hold a talk at Liverpool’s St George’s Hall ahead of the launch of her upcoming book ‘Wave Me Goodbye’, and Your Move caught up with the writer to discuss her latest novel, the inspiration behind her ideas and her future projects.
Interview by Mark Langshaw
Liverpool is among a select few places you’re visiting ahead of the launch of your new book. Why did you choose the city?
Partly because I haven’t given a talk there for a while and also because ‘Wave Me Goodbye’ is about children being evacuated during World War II.
I would imagine quite a few kids from Liverpool were evacuated to a place of safety in the countryside during the conflict, and the book might resonate with children in Liverpool who may have great grandparents who were evacuated themselves.
What is it about this topic that interests you?
It was a one-off for evacuation to happen to British children and it was such a strange social experiment, taking kids away from everything they knew and expecting them to play happily in the countryside and get used to foster parents. Some kids had a good time and returned unscathed, while others had nightmares for years.
I remember hearing the writer Claire Rayner speaking on the radio about her experience of evacuation and she said how terrible it was and how unhappy she was. We didn’t know a lot about child psychology back then and what kind of damage was being done to some of these youngsters.
Having said that, my book isn’t full of gloom and despair. The kids in the story get homesick but they have a lot of fun and interesting adventures too. I wanted it to be a good story for children, one they can enjoy.
You’re known for tackling heavy subject matter, from divorce to mental illness. How important is it that children are made aware of these issues?
Certainly with things like divorce it’s important. When I was a kid you had to whisper the word because it was seen as so shameful, and yet these days the conventional family unit is becoming almost a rarity now.
I like to write about all kinds of children, including those in difficult circumstances, but I also like my books to be quite light-hearted in parts and have happy, yet realistic endings.
I do think children these days are more exposed to adult issues, with television and the internet ushering them far too rapidly into the modern world.
Has the way you write altered over the years to reflect these changes in society?
I think I write in the same way I always have. I try to write in a comforting way that is easy to understand. If a child is going through something difficult it’s like a hand being held up and saying ‘it’s okay, I know what it feels like’.
If a child has a lovely, happy and secure family, I’m telling them ‘this is what life can be like for some children but they can get through it and have a happy life too’. Life has changed around me but I still approach things in much the same way.
Is it difficult to get children reading these days, with so many other forms of entertainment for books to compete with?
The key is getting to them very young. It’s better to sit with a young infant and browse through a basic picturebook together rather than giving them a tablet device to dab at.
This encourages them to embrace the warmth, fun and humour of looking at books. I’ve not yet met a very small child who doesn’t like being read to – even if they are particularly fidgety you can occupy them with Lego or something while they listen.
Children exposed to these experiences are likely to pick up a reading habit. Of course they’re going to want to play electronic games as well, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a bit frightening that some youngsters think staring at a screen is the only natural way to communicate.
A new series of the ‘Hetty Feather’ TV show is in the works at CBBC. How much input did you have in that?
I always get heavily involved in the production even though I don’t write the scripts. They consult with me on story development and send me the screenplays.
I like the way the ‘Hetty Feather’ show is going – it veers away from the books but I’m happy about that as long as they get the tone and emotion right. I’m glad it has been so successful because they’ve tried so hard to capture the essence of my stories.
“I try to write in a comforting way that is easy to understand. If a child is going through something difficult it’s like a hand being held up and saying ‘it’s okay, I know what it feels like’.”
Is this always your stance on adaptations of your work?
It’s important for me to know the people who are adapting my work and familiarise myself with their previous projects. I will never say ‘take my work and do whatever you want with it’ but I understand that television and film is a different medium altogether.
Whatever happens on the screen, the book remains the same so hopefully you can have the two different experiences and they can complement each other.
Being realistic, having anything on television is a wonderful advert for your book, so I’d be completely mad to say ‘no, I don’t want this to happen’.
Hetty has been wonderfully successful and in the past things like ‘Tracy Beaker’ have been massive for me, so that’s absolutely great.
Speaking of Tracy Beaker, are we likely to hear more from her in the future?
This summer it’s the 15th anniversary of the ‘Tracy Beaker’ television programme and I think CBBC is planning a celebration with lots of reruns and things. I’ve heard rumours that [lead actress] Dani Harmer herself will be involved, which would be splendid.
I sometimes toy with the idea of what Tracy would be like now. I think she’d be a mother herself by now and it’s quite a funny and interesting concept to imagine what it would be like to be Tracy Beaker’s daughter.
Would she be a quiet, well-behaved child who shrinks when her mother makes a scene somewhere? Who knows? It’s fun to think about because Tracy isn’t the sort of character who fades away; she stays hanging around, wanting to have more attention paid to her.
Are you working on any other new projects at the moment?
I’m just putting the finishing touches to another book about Hetty Feather called ‘Hetty Feather’s Christmas’. It will be coming out this Christmas and will explore the Victorian Christmas.
I’ve wangled things so she’s back in the Foundling Hospital – she’s only about 12 at the time this story takes place – and she is taken out for the day to experience a real Victorian Christmas.
Being Hetty, there are a lot of ups and downs along the way. It’s been fun getting back into that character.
An Afternoon with Jacqueline Wilson takes place at St George’s Hall’s Concert Room on 21 May.