‘I wanted to be No 1. But a certain JK Rowling came along’: Jacqueline Wilson on rivalry, censorship – and love | Jacqueline Wilson

The intimidating entrance door may belong to a gothic fort. I half-expect it to be opened by an enormous butler referred to as Lurch with a forbidding: “You rang?” As an alternative Jaqueline Wilson, aged 77 and slight as a pipe cleaner, solutions with a smile heat sufficient to warmth her large house. She leads us into the lounge, and earlier than we all know it there are drinks, doughnuts and chocolate biscuits in entrance of us. I’m right here with my youthful daughter, Maya. There was no method Maya was lacking this. She is one in every of many younger individuals whose lives have been reworked by Wilson. Maya was a late reader. Then she found Wilson’s novels about youngsters struggling to seek out their place on the planet and was hooked.

That was within the early 00s, across the time Wilson printed Sleepovers, one in every of her hottest novels. Twenty-two years on, she’s lastly written a follow-up, The Greatest Sleepover Within the World.

Wilson had thought-about Sleepovers one in every of her minor works – it’s a brief ebook for readers aged seven and over. However the extra she requested followers which of her books have been their favourites, the extra she realised how common it was. Wilson has written effectively over 100 books, bought about 40m copies within the UK alone, been translated into 34 languages and was for years essentially the most borrowed writer from British libraries. Sleepovers is one in every of her 5 finest bestselling books, and she or he believes there are two causes. First, so many youngsters love sleepovers. And second, it’s about one thing on the coronary heart of younger (and older) lives – friendship and friendship betrayed.

“Youngsters not having a finest good friend or shedding their finest good friend is a very severe factor,” she says. “Dad and mom usually take the perspective: ‘Don’t fear – you’ll get in one other group quickly,’ however the agony of going across the playground by your self is terrible. I additionally needed to indicate you’re not alone if that occurs to you. There’s nothing incorrect with you – it’s simply the best way life works out.”

‘How many books do we own? I would say 15,000’ … Wilson at home in rural Sussex.
‘What number of books will we personal? I’d say 15,000’ … Wilson at house in rural Sussex. {Photograph}: Jon Santa Cruz/The Guardian

It’s why Wilson’s books resonate with so many younger individuals, particularly ladies – she understands how they really feel; how robust it may be to develop up. Early on, her books have been dismissed as being about and for outsiders. What Wilson understood from the off is that numerous us consider ourselves as outsiders.

A lot has modified for the reason that largely analogue days of Sleepovers. Not simply by way of know-how, however attitudes. Within the first ebook, Lily, the non-verbal, wheelchair-using sister of the narrator Daisy, is basically passive. Within the new ebook, Lily is the hero – sassy, communicative (she communicates utilizing the signal language Makaton) with a super-cool disabled finest good friend. The women are the identical age, however the setting is bang updated. Now when the snotty bully Chloe is determined to indicate off in entrance of her peer group, she does so by boasting {that a} TikTok influencer will likely be coming to her sleepover. It seems the writer has sturdy views on TikTok, and the digital world typically.

Wilson’s life has additionally modified dramatically since Sleepovers was printed. She has been awarded an OBE, been made a dame, has served as youngsters’s laureate, suffered coronary heart failure and had a kidney substitute. Again in 2001, she had lately separated from her husband of 30 years and was single. For the previous 21 years she has been in a relationship along with her civil associate, Trish, who’s right here as we speak. Seven years in the past, they upped sticks and moved from Kingston upon Thames in south-west London to the Sussex countryside.

Wilson in 2004.
Wilson in 2004. {Photograph}: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

“Loads of pals thought I’d hate it and would need to come again instantly,” Wilson says. “What’s so pretty now could be that we’ve made extra finest pals right here than we’ve ever had,” she says. She provides that she’s by no means been so pleased.

“You’re not the townie that folks thought you have been, are you?” Trish says lovingly.

This rural idyll is a far cry from her childhood. She grew up on a council property in Kingston, the one little one of fogeys in a loveless relationship. Her mom was a “horrible snob” who insisted that theirs was a greater class of council property and that she’d solely ended up with Wilson’s father as a result of all the nice males have been away preventing within the warfare. In the meantime, he had a horrible mood. “He’d provide the silent remedy for weeks. It was fairly scary. I feel they have been each very sad individuals.”

Wilson says she was a disappointment to her mom. “My mum would have liked Shirley Temple as a daughter – stuffed with confidence, tap-dancing everywhere in flouncy garments, and exhibiting off.” And what did she get? “A woman sitting there studying a ebook, trying gormless.” Her mom selected Wilson’s garments until she left house and refused to let her put on jewelry. She factors to the large rose quartz ring on her finger, marking her civil partnership with Trish, and grins. “I imply, isn’t it pathetic when, even in your 70s, you put on issues {that a} psychiatrist would level out is rebelling in opposition to your mom?”

You solely have to hearken to Wilson for a couple of minutes to grasp how a lot her childhood has formed her tales. So a lot of her characters are misunderstood, deprived and susceptible regardless of a tricky veneer. Tracy Beaker is a basic instance – she has a feckless mom, lives in care and is determined for love. But on the skin, she’s a toughie who bloodies the noses of those that disrespect her and tells us repeatedly that she by no means cries (although she does admit to getting extreme hay fever when upset). “I didn’t have as harrowing a childhood as a few of the characters in my books,” Wilson says. But it surely was no picnic.

Jess (Emma Davies) and Tracy Beaker (Dani Harmer) in the BBC series The Beaker Girls, adapted from one of Wilson’s novels.
Jess (Emma Davies) and Tracy Beaker (Dani Harmer) within the BBC collection The Beaker Ladies, tailored from one in every of Wilson’s novels. {Photograph}: BBC

Books have been Wilson’s escape. First studying them, then writing them. She wrote a 21-page “novel” (Meet the Maggots) at 9, a “rambly” full-length novel at 15, despatched her first to a writer at 19 (“Not fairly for us, however we appreciated the characterisation,” they replied) and had her first ebook (Ricky’s Birthday) printed at 23. By then she’d already had a full life – leaving house at 17 to put in writing for the women’ journal Jackie in Dundee, marrying at 19 (one other dysfunctional relationship) and having her “fantastic” daughter Emma (a professor at Cambridge college) at 21.

Her books went largely unnoticed for a few years. One editor advised her: “Bear in mind, Jacqueline: individuals don’t like studying about little individuals.” She made a good dwelling writing true-life tales for confession magazines, however she by no means anticipated to dwell within the luxurious she does now.

The lounge and corridor are filled with all-sorts: artworks galore, ceramics, rubber toys (for her two canines, Molly and Jackson), a telescope, a rocking horse, and on it goes. Dominating the lounge is a large, immaculately ordered bookshelf. There are kids’s books, grownup books, first editions wrapped in protecting plastic, autographed books, analysis books on the dietary habits of foundlings. Even the desk in entrance of me seems to be a ebook – beneath the glass high are the free pages from an historical copy of Jane Eyre that has fallen to bits.

Who’s extra into books, I ask.

“Each of us,” Wilson replies. “I’m extra extravagant. Since we’ve moved right here, Trish has purchased extra nature books.”

“Primarily books on meadows,” Trish says. “Not so many novels lately.”

What number of books do you personal between you?

“I’m actually hopeless about numbers,” Wilson says.

“Forty thousand,” Trish replies, immediately.

“Nooooo! Not as many as that,” Wilson says.

“Nicely it was 35,000 a few years in the past,” Trish says.

“I’d say 15,000,” Wilson says. It’s a uncommon disagreement.

Wilson and Trish met via books. Trish was a bookshop supervisor who hosted talks with authors. “I requested her if she’d love to do an occasion with me. This was within the days once I was doing numerous signings. Terry Pratchett, who was fairly choosy, stated: ‘Have you ever completed one with Trish? She’s actually good.’ Trish had met me, however blow me, she’d by no means requested me to do an occasion. So I assumed: ‘I’ll be daring and ask her.’ And we acquired on very well collectively.”

“We didn’t get collectively instantly,” Trish says.

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With her partner Trish earlier this year.
With her partner Trish earlier this year. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

But it didn’t take long. Wilson, who had never previously had a relationship with a woman, says Trish brought out her competitive streak. “I asked her about earlier girlfriends and she said she’d never had a year-after-year relationship, and I thought: ‘Right, I’m going to be that.’ And I have been, so far.”

Wilson’s success as an author came in her late 40s. It surprised some of those she worked with as much as her. “I heard somebody who worked closely with me say: ‘Fancy little Jackie being so successful,’ and I don’t think she was referring to my height. I think that was a reference to my background and my demeanour.”

She remembers looking at the bestseller list and discovering she was No 7. That also brought out her competitive nature, she says. You wanted to be No 1? “Yes I did,” she admits slightly shamefaced. “But a certain JK Rowling came along and you’re never going to beat that. And there’s always been one or two others much better than me.” Better or bigger? “Bigger!” She laughs. “Occasionally better.”

This was a golden age for children’s literature. Rowling and Wilson endowed so many kids with a love of fiction. Although independent bookshops have recently announced an upturn, according to the Booksellers Association, Wilson worries about the reading habits of the young.

“Children’s books are often to do with something on TikTok, like The Wonky Donkey and Greg the Sausage Roll.

“I’m not knocking these things, but they’re not quite Where the Wild Things Are.” Many bookshops now feature selections based on BookTok, a subcommunity of TikTok.

“What’s missing some of the time is books that require stamina to read. I loved books that kept you going, and if you didn’t understand a word you just learned to get the gist of it and carry on, and if it was vital you looked it up. Now, there is a tendency to make children’s books so easy to read that it makes it hard to imagine most children would go on to read complex wonderful literary novels as they get older. There are a lot of books kids like now because you can read them in an hour.”

Not everything is being dumbed down: “I’m a huge fan of Katherine Rundell, who is one of the most exciting children’s writers ever. But I do think texts nowadays do tend to not be quite as subtle as they used to be and plots are not quite as complex. When you look at children’s classics like Little Women and Treasure Island, it would be odd to find a seven- or eight-year-old reading them happily now. I didn’t come from a posh background, but lots of kids were reading those books in junior school without thinking about it.”

What has changed? “The digital age, mostly. It’s frightening how when travelling or sitting in child-friendly cafes, if a little kid is being fretful or difficult, the tablet is put in front of their face and then they’re watching something.” Wilson says there’s a big difference between reading and watching. “You have to use your brain more when reading. I don’t think parents automatically read aloud to their children now. I know everyone leads very busy lives, but reading aloud to your children when they’re little is one of the best bits of being a parent. You cosy up together, share the magic of the story, and it could be a memory that lasts for ever for your child.”

Is she worried about the increasing censorship of children’s books? A report from the writers’ organisation Pen America said book bans in US public schools increased by 28% in the first half of the 2022-23 academic year. Of the 1,477 books banned, 30% were about race, racism or include characters of colour, while 26% had LGBTQ+ characters or themes. Research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in the UK this year found that a third of librarians had been asked by members of the public to censor or remove books, with the most targeted books involving empire, race and LGBTQ+ themes.

“This is a huge worry,” Wilson says. “We are not America, but we do follow American trends and this is becoming scary.” Intolerance terrifies her. “One of the worst things is there’s no reasoned debate. It’s black or it’s white.” The inevitable result is cancel culture, she says. “People are getting cancelled in cruel and horrible ways. I don’t like the idea of anybody being cancelled because we live in a country where we’ve always taken pride in free speech.” But, she says, censorship is a complex issue. For example, books by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton have been updated to remove inappropriate and dated language. “Publishers do have a social conscience – life has changed.” She’s happy with this so long as original versions are still available for those who want to read them. Last year, Wilson wrote The Magic Faraway Tree, “inspired” by the Blyton original. She kept true to the tone of the original, but stamped out Blyton’s sexist stereotypes.

Wilson admits one of her own books troubles her today. In 2005, she wrote Love Lessons about 14-year-old Prue falling in love with an art teacher who partly reciprocates. They kiss, and he admits he loves her, too. Would she write the book today? “No. It’s so different now.” She pauses. “Well, I did have my doubts then.” Nowadays, I say, you’d see Prue as a victim even if she had initiated it, and the teacher as a paedophile because he responded to her. “Yes, that’s very true. And it does change things around so much.”

It’s 15 years now since Wilson suffered heart failure, nine since she was on dialysis and had a kidney replacement. “I sat for months in dialysis with Jackie,” Trish says. “It was a terrifying time. Terrifying.” She could not give Wilson her kidney because their blood types weren’t compatible (the only way they do seem incompatible). They joined a scheme for people with a failing kidney and a partner with a healthy one to match other couples in the same situation. Trish gave her kidney to someone in need, while the recipient’s partner donated to Wilson.

Jacqueline Wilson
‘If my heart stops, hopefully the defibrillator they fitted will give me a kick like a donkey’ … Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

As for Wilson’s heart, she’s had a defibrillator fitted. “I’m not going to expose myself, but it looks like I’ve swallowed an iPad.” She giggles. “No, not an iPad, an iPod.

“If my heart stops, hopefully it gives me a powerful kick like a donkey.” She doesn’t write as many words a day as she used to, but she’s still knocking out a minimum of 1,000. First thing in the morning, then in the later afternoon over a glass of wine while Trish is cooking.

We’ve been talking for four hours. Wilson and Trish have been fabulous hosts. We’re standing in front of the epic bookshelf. “I treasure books so much,” Wilson says. “As someone who left school at 16 and never went to university, I am in awe of great literature.” I pull out a Carson McCullers and panic when I realise it’s a special edition.

“Anybody I’ve really loved I get a really special edition. That’s my huge, huge treat,” Wilson says.

What’s the most you’ve spent? “Far too much. Am I going to say that in front of Trish? No.”

“That’s not for public consumption!” Trish says fiercely.

Wilson finds it funny. “There are some booksellers who say my name with such happiness!” she says.

On the way out, I brush past a smiley painting of Wilson. She doesn’t like it, and shows me a copy of one she prefers. “I love this because I look like a serious person. Trish didn’t care for it because I looked quite stern.” She looks at it. “I’m not little Jackie there, am I?” she says. Then she pauses, and laughs. “Oh, but look – he still chose to have the rocking horse in the background.”

The Best Sleepover in the World by Jacqueline Wilson (Penguin Random House Children’s UK, £14.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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