Best-selling children’s author Jacqueline Wilson talks to Graham Young about university, Enid Blyton and Facebook.
There’s a rare sense of excitement about meeting someone like Jacqueline Wilson.
In February, the former Children’s Laureate was named the most popular library book author of the last decade.
It’s no mean achievement that 64-year-old Jacqueline has become the leading 21st century echo of a modern generation now dealing so openly with “issues” from divorce to illness and abuse.
A bestselling author with critical awards to match, the exact nature of the power Jacqueline wields, from writing nationally treasured books such as Double Act, Girls in Love, Vicky Angel and The Story of Tracy Beaker, cannot be quantified like the number of eggs in a dozen.
But, in this age of austerity when many parents will now be fretting about whether or not they can afford to send their children to university, it seems pertinent to begin our conversation with a Shakespearean phrase.
To degree, or not to degree, that is the question...
Signing multiple copies of her brightly coloured books in a sparse, upstairs stockroom at WH Smith in Birmingham’s High Street, the sparkling-eyed Jacqueline pauses briefly for thought.
Brought up in a council house in Kingston-on-Thames, she never went to university.
But does it really matter? She has still become the ultimate high achiever with a Cambridge-educated daughter, Emma, now Professor of French Literature and the Visual Arts at the same university.
“I have always regretted the fact that I didn’t have the chance to go to university and I think it would have been splendid,” says Jacqueline.
“For years I did wonder about trying to go as a mature student.
“I do think nowadays, particularly when there’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll get a job at the end of doing a degree, to saddle our young people with such huge amounts of money to pay off is very difficult.
“I don’t know what the answer is.
“But certainly for the universities they’re having immense cuts so that’s difficult, too.”
Another pressing issue for parents is the success of internet sites like Facebook which are advancing “her” children towards the adult world more quickly than ever before.
“I am of the generation that thinks it’s weird, in that why not actually see your friends rather than send messages to them?” says Jacqueline. “My publishers made sure that I have a Facebook page. And I think I’ve got a lot of Facebook ‘friends’. But it’s not something I would personally join in with.
“For young people it’s clearly very important, but I do think they need to be very much clued up as to what you can post and what you can’t and you have to protect yourself.
“There have been false Jacqueline Wilson Facebook pages where somebody pretending to be me has sent, in the most irritatingly illiterate words, little messages to ‘fans’.
“Yet some people thought they were genuine, so this is the trouble. If you can’t see a face speaking words and it’s just messages you have no idea whether they’re genuine or not.”
Jacqueline’s latest book, The Longest Whale Song, is about how a girl’s life changes when her mother falls into a coma after having another baby.
That means Ella has to live with Jack, her hopeless stepfather and cope with her tiny newborn brother, as well as worrying about Mum.
The only thing that’s going right is her school project. So can a whale song reach Mum, wherever she is, and bring her back to Ella and baby Samson?
This particular book is aimed at readers aged nine to 11, but Jacqueline’s wider audience ranges from five to seven through to 12-plus, depending on the book. Is there a Facebook problem here, too?
Jacqueline says she sits on the fence when it comes to publishers wanting to use age banding to point out who should be reading which of her stories and when.
“I can see the pros and I can see the cons in that children develop at different ages. What I try to do with my books is that if there are any titles clearly aimed at teenagers, we might have ‘For older readers’ on them and we’ll also to try to present them in a way that shows they’re more for teenagers.
“People also develop the other way round. There are lots of 13 or 14-year-olds who aren’t confident readers and who are very comfortable with reading some of my books possibly aimed at younger children. And yet they don’t really want seven to nine-year-olds on the cover.
One of the interesting aspects about Jacqueline’s work is that she still seems to be going from strength to strength in her 60s.
Look at her CV chronologically in terms of her scores of publications and she’s as prolific as ever.
But when was the last time people like Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney wrote a decent song that became a hit? Why do pop stars fizzle out by comparison?
“Touching wood, I haven’t run out of steam yet,” she enthuses.
“I don’t have to leap across a stage – but then I suppose I do, because I do give lots of talks!
“Hopefully, writing is one of those rare things where you can literally keep going into your dotage if you want to.”
Even Jacqueline admits she can’t achieve success entirely on her own and she is fulsome in her praise of her collaborative illustrator, Nick Sharratt.
“I like to feel that apart from his own picture books the majority of the work he does is for me,” she says. “If you see my books from right at the back of the shop they stand out.”
While she’s on her signing tours, Jacqueline admits it’s difficult to keep her own reading going.
“You think you have got ages but you’re forever jumping out and doing things – or waiting to do things – and there’s never an opportunity to get your head stuck in a good book.
“But I do still read quite a lot and I belong to a book club and often there are books people want me to comment on, workwise.
“I never go to bed without a book.
“Nowadays on tour, sometimes I fall asleep reading them.”
The much maligned Enid Blyton was one of the authors who played a key part in the young Jacqueline’s life.
“I did read a lot of her books,” she says. “I can’t say they were absolute favourites of mine but, like many people, Enid Blyton taught me to read fluently.
“When you started to read one of her books it was just like sinking into cosy pyjamas. You just read your way through them and there weren’t going to be any challenges.
“She’s not a great literary stylist, but she got children reading.”
The official Jacqueline Wilson website is at: www.jacquelinewilson.co.uk