Let’s talk about the legend that brought us, Tracy “bog off” Beaker and how readers remember her books.
When we talk about Jacqueline Wilson, we’re instantly thrown back to the days in our childhood and teen years where we’d devour her books hungrily. Long after we’d be told to turn off the lights, we’d still be reading, glued to the pages because she found a way to reach into our hearts with written words.
So it’s no wonder she’s sold over 40 million books. Thinking about Jacqueline Wilson is being reminded of Dustbin Baby, poor April who was left as a newborn in a bin, or of Lola Rose, where we see the realities and the fears that come with abuse and cancer. Vicky Angel, where the eponymous Vicky dies and we read about Jade’s grief, feel it as if it’s our own.
So what is it about Jacqueline Wilson that so appeals to younger readers and makes them continue to remember her stories, feeling their impact, long after the book’s end?
To answer the question, we’ll have to dive in and look at the themes in her novels, many of which speak to children and teens from various backgrounds and give others a chance to see life through the lens of someone else.
The Issues Wilson Explores Are True To Life
Her most popular books, the Tracy Beaker series, are about children in foster care. Our main character, Tracy, suffered from neglect and physical abuse, as well as behavioural problems as a result of feeling lonely, unloved and frustrated.
These books, adapted into a TV series, are rather sad to read, as well as humorous. Wilson gives her readers books with funny outlooks, such as through ten-year-old Tracy, with hard-hitting and often difficult themes, in a way that allows them to understand what’s happening in a safe way and to be aware of the dangers of life.
The Illustrated Mum is yet another, of many, books to touch on neglect, bullying, mental illness (Bipolar Disorder). Seen through the eyes of Dolphin, Wilson explores the ways in which having a parent with Bipolar Disorder impacts everyday life; she shows us Marigold (Dolphin’s mum) at her best and at her worst, showing the highs and lows of the mental illness, and everything in the middle. The main cause of Marigold’s unhappiness is her break up with Micky, Star’s (her eldest daughter) father. With hopes of him wanting her back, Marigold clings to his memory, but his return sends her into a downward spiral as he only came back for Star.
What I love about The Illustrated Mum is that it depicts mental health so well, and right at the peak of the story, everything shifts and undertakes a darker light. Wilson gently coaxes out the manic episodes in her writing, showing us the symptoms as they unfold with Marigold’s childlike behaviour and her fixation on Micky.
Later scenes in the book, looking back on them now, are disturbing to read, knowing just how bad things can get. Wilson wrote this in 1999, breaking the taboo on talking about mental health, aimed at a very young audience. She continues to address the struggles existing in our world, the problems everyone — adults and children alike — face.
Wilson carefully deals with the issues of mental health, with sensitivity and the understanding that people are not just their illness, but they are individuals. Similarly to The Illustrated Mum, The Diamond Girls is a book aimed at slightly older readers dealing with themes of sexuality, teen pregnancy and birth, abuse, gangs and post-natal depression. Having read this as a child, I hadn’t picked up on the post-natal depression, but every other theme jumped out at me.
I vividly remember talking about this book to my cousins, who were ten years older than me, and they were horrified at Dixie’s (the main character) mum having different baby dads for all her children and talked about how wrong it was. Even though Sue (the mum) is a fictional character, I remember feeling uncomfortable with this blatant slut-shaming.
Sue did her best for all her girls, irrespective of them having different fathers. Wilson also illustrates very real fears of adulthood — of living in a run-down house with five children in a dangerous neighbourhood. (Dixie and her two older sisters, Rochelle and Jude, come face to face with this very danger at one point.)
The part about The Diamond Girls I most fell in love with is it’s a realistic picture of a family who fights and bickers, but really love each other and will defend each other in any circumstance. We see this happen time and time again as the book goes on.
Out of all her books, My Sister Jodie is the one that made me sob uncontrollably. It deals with themes of friendship, family and bereavement.
Like many of Wilson’s characters, I grew up in a council estate, in a somewhat rough area where the crime stats are pretty high. Where I never watched TV, I lost myself in the sea of books, empathising with Floss’ troubles with friendship and a new brother in Candyfloss, lamenting the loss of the rabbit and feeling disgust at Beauty’s dad, relating to her struggles in school in Cookie.
Seeing Yourself in a Book Is Everything
As kids, bordering on puberty, and even when going through it, we experience so many changes. We deal with divorce, bullying, depression, self-esteem and body image issues. So for Wilson to use her power to write about these, it creates a sense of relief, knowing you’re not alone. During difficult times, it’s easy to feel trapped and lost, and to have something, a book, to fall back to, as a way to escape and be heard, means everything.
From year 9 onwards, I began to develop signs of disordered eating. It was during my teens when I read Wilson’s Girls series (Girls in Love, Girls Under Pressure, Girls Out Late and Girls in Tears), finding myself relating to Ellie and her struggles, as well as everything she and her friends, Magda and Nadine went through.
This series touches on grooming, the dangers of the internet, tackles sex, bullying, body image issues, and dating. The lessons Wilson leaves us with are ones we’ll remember forever. Twitter user, MissKlos, says,
“As Jacqueline Wilson is trending, I just thought I would share my opinion. When I was younger, I would read these books over and over again. I still remember the messages and stories that opened up a whole new world for me. One of empathy, understanding and love.”
Beneath the Tweet, they list out a selection of Wilson’s books, amplifying the message they got from the stories. Other comments show their support and outpouring of love for Jacqueline Wilson, commentating on the impact of her books on their lives. One Tweet, from whittal_x, reads
“For me it was Lily Alone that had the most impact. Having also had a crush on my teacher I related to Lily and I felt much less ashamed of it because of her. Jacqueline also made me realise how good I had it in life. She’s a legend and I love her.”
Wilson’s books, beautiful as they are, cover difficult themes we as adults can relate to, as well as looking at childhood trauma, though watered down. Her stories may not necessarily have the typical ‘happy ending’ we usually expect from books aimed at children and teens, but there is always a message of hope. Danielle Skippins, MissSkippins, Tweets:
“I love love loved Jacqueline Wilson books. They really do cover so many topics that’s are hard to talk about with children. Great entrance into discussion but also showing children they aren’t the only ones.”
Criticisms of Wilson
Similarly to My Sister Jodie, Love Lessons has themes of family, friendship, bullying and our main character, Prue, having a crush on her Art teacher, Rax. I’m pretty sure most of us have had crushes on at least one teacher, so to read about it in a book was relatable, but the dangers of Love Lessons lie in the fact Prue acted on her feelings. I also found this one to be rather unrealistic — the teacher was able to remain at the school, whereas Prue left. Though, quite frankly, considering the difficult time she’d had at the school, was a good idea.
The fact that the teacher was able to keep his job, even with Prue being asked to leave (a major issue), is horrific and vile, in addition to his admitting he fantasises about her. Bare in mind, she’s 14. What I found extremely disturbing was how Rax was able to stay off the sex-offenders list — how did the English teacher, nor the school’s headteacher, not report him?
I understand the need to appeal to younger reader’s fantasies, but it creates a toxic romanticism of crushing on teachers and making it okay to act on it. When A) it’s illegal, B) unethical and C) plain pedophilic.
Many parents also criticise Wilson for the adult nature of her works, stating they are too realistic and hard-hitting for children to read. But despite these concerns, Wilson remains as the pinnacle in children’s literature, being a household name and a welcomed memory for adults who’d read her books as children.
Jacqueline Wilson is revered for excellently exploring sensitive themes in ways that make many children feel understood, or able to understand what others go through.
She offers up a different perspective, a true testament to the words ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’, in a hundred or so pages, or less. From grief, love, heartbreak and the bitter aspects of being a family, Wilson shows us the realities of so many lives and continues to change the ones who read them. And for that, she has my respect.
Please note, this was initially published on January 11, 2021 at Medium.com