Photograph portrait of Jacqueline Wilson inside an illustrated picture frame. To the right of the picture frame are illustrations of pencils, painbrushes, a pencil sharpener with shavings, paint palettes and an eraser. These are on a purple backgroud.

Interview with Jacqueline Wilson

‘I loved books even before I could read.’ Read on for insights on the Tracy Beaker books and Jacqueline Wilson’s own childhood memories of books and pictures.

Your books portray a wide variety of families, friendships and backgrounds – children in care, children who don’t have very much money, children who have complex relationships with their parents and peers. How did you come up with the idea for The Story of Tracy Beaker?

I was flipping through a local newspaper one day when I came across a full page article about children in care and their need to be fostered. There were photographs of real children with almost too honest descriptions of their character and behaviour – and I couldn't help wondering what it must feel like to be ‘advertised’ in this way. It was fine for the babies and toddlers, but it might be embarrassing for a child of school age, especially if any of their peers at school saw the article.

I decided to write a story about an imaginary child in this situation. I wanted her to be fierce and determined – and Tracy Beaker lived up to my expectations! I think she's the most popular of all my characters, probably because she's so spirited and naughty.

What do your readers tell you about how it feels to see their lives represented?

It's tremendously touching. I've had wonderful letters and emails from children who have been through the care system – or perhaps their parents are going through a divorce, or they've just lost their best friend. They feel comforted to know they're not alone and that it's not their fault. And sometimes children from the most loving and secure backgrounds write to say they can now see what it must feel like to be in such a sad or worrying situation.

What would you say to children who worry about being outsiders or ‘a little bit different’?

I always say that nearly every interesting creative or successful adult I've ever met has said that they always felt an odd one out as a child. Perhaps we all feel we're odd ones out, but some people are skilled at putting on a brave confident act.

You are brilliant at capturing childhood emotions. How do you achieve this?

I can remember my own childhood vividly and how I felt about things.

Starring Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Nick Sharratt: rough illustrations, unfinished artwork and printed book

Drafts of Starring Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Nick Sharratt. There are numbered images showing Tracy in costume as Fagin and imaging taking a bow in front of an audience.

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Usage terms Illustrations copyright © Nick Sharratt. Text © Jacqueline Wilson. Printed book extract from STARRING TRACY BEAKER by Jacqueline Wilson published by Doubleday. Reproduced by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

What are your most vivid childhood memories of books and pictures?

I loved books even before I could read. I only had a couple of picture books but I turned the pages again and again quite happily, and when I couldn't persuade my mum or dad to read to me I made up my own stories to the pictures.

The first book I raced through when I learnt to read was one of the Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton. I desperately wanted to be Silky the Pixie and skip about prettily, with Moonface as my special friend. Then when I was about seven I read all the Noel Streatfeild books I could find, and then girly classics like Little Women and What Katy Did and A Little Princess. I liked The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett too, because it was about working-class children like me. I carefully coloured in all Eve Garnett's illustrations, spending hours hunched over the pages, making up fresh adventures for the Ruggles family.

I went to the library every week – I sometimes went every day during the summer holidays.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild: pencil illustrations by Ruth Gervis

An illustration for the Frontispiece of Ballet Shoes. The pencil illustration shows a ballerina en pointe wearing a fairy costume in front of a carriage being pulled by a horse. There are mice and pumkpins by her feet.

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How do your characters and the worlds they live in differ from those depicted in the books you read as a child?

Most children's books in the 1950s and 60s were very middle class, with children living with kind reliable mummies and daddies in a big house with a lovely garden to play in. I loved reading about this world, but remember thinking that my own life wasn't a bit like that. I longed for much grittier stories even then.

Did you write stories when you were a child?

I wrote hundreds of different stories in Woolworth's notebooks. Sadly my mother threw most of them away! By the time I was in my mid-teens I'd written two full-length novels, but I knew they weren't good enough to publish.

I started earning my living as a writer when I was 17, as a junior magazine novelist. My first book was published when I was 23 or so – I can't quite remember. I know that now I've written 111 – and hope to carry on!

Can you tell us about your writing process? Do you make mistakes, experiment or make radical changes to early drafts?

I write first thing in the morning – it seems much easier then, when I'm barely awake. I hunch up in bed in my pyjamas with my laptop and write for a good hour. It's great if I can manage a thousand words. I won't let myself get out of bed until I've managed at least 500. That's just the first draft.

When I've finished the whole novel I go over it very carefully, like a teacher marking homework. I don't generally make any radical changes, but I often rewrite whole pages or change a character slightly.

I wish I could spend each day just writing my novels, but I have to tackle lots of emails and respond to interviews and do all kinds of articles and quotes too. I've generally written about 5000 words by the end of the day.

The Story of Tracy Beaker is packed with references to writing, from Tracy’s ‘autobiography’ and Cam’s stories to the letters they write to each other. Are you fascinated by stories within stories?

I think nearly all my books have references to writing – and reading too. I always use the first person, so that it seems as if the child themselves is telling their story. Both Tracy and Hetty Feather are keeping journals. The twins Ruby and Garnet write about their lives alternately in an old account book. I love reading diaries myself, whether it's the devastatingly sad non-fiction Diary of Anne Frank or the delightful novel I Capture the Castle.

If a witch cast a spell to make the British Library disappear, which single book would you rescue?

I'd save the manuscript of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. It's probably my favourite novel. I especially love the early chapters when Jane is a little girl. I've peered at Charlotte's copperplate handwriting when I've visited the British Library and marvelled that such a dramatic emotional story could be written so neatly.

What advice would you give today’s young storytellers?

I always suggest young storytellers read a great deal, to enrich their imagination and increase their vocabulary. I like to encourage children to write for fun, not planning everything out the way they have to at school. It's always worthwhile diary writing so you develop a regular writing habit!

 

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