What a huge treat it was to hear Jacqueline Wilson speaking after Wednesday’s IBBY UK AGM. Especially lovely because she devoted her talk to the books she had loved as a child and their influence on her views and her writing. Every book she discussed was one that was among my favourites too. It was delightful to be reminded about them, and to discover what they meant to her.
We heard first about Heidi. As a girl Wilson was particularly struck by the sleep-walking scene and the reasons for it. It gave her a new level of understanding. She didn’t know the term repressed emotion then, but this marked the start of her passion to find out why children did naughty or strange things, something that has had a major impact on her writing. The religious tone and evangelism of Heidi now make her uncomfortable, but did not register when she was a child.
Next up was Secret Garden. I loved this so much I wrote my master’s dissertation on Frances Hodgson Burnett. Great to hear that Wilson was also a huge fan. The story of Mary Lennox’s emotional growth inspired her, making her realise that the hero of a book does not have to be perfect. Like Heidi, Secret Garden now provokes some unease: Colin’s recovery as a result of positive thinking does not in any way reflect the reality of disabled children’s lives. While Wilson is a big believer in being positive, she never gives false hope in her books.
It always rankled with Wilson that the front covers of her copies of Heidi and Secret Garden pictured girls who did not resemble the descriptions in the books. She’s very pleased that Nick Sharratt reads each of her books several times before illustrating them. She also revealed that the sequels to Heidi were not written by Johanna Spyri, but by her English translator. She pondered about how she would feel if one of her translators published a follow-up to Tracy Beaker.
What Katy Did was next. She spoke about its humour and freshness, and how these and Katy’s impulsivity, naughtiness and silliness influenced her writing. Even as a child though she hated the sanctimonious tone that comes in after the accident that disables Katy, and again the attitudes to disability disturb her as an adult. In Katy, her modern day version of the story, there is no miraculous recovery. Her hero may not be able to walk, but she remains naughty, funny and sporty after her accident, and is also angry, determined and courageous.
Wilson also told us about the impact of Jane Eyre. In particular it influenced her Hetty Feather novels, and she loves it that these are probably now her most popular books. We heard too about recent and current writing projects. She still doesn’t know what is going to happen to the protagonist of her newest novel, which is about evacuation. How lovely that her hero pretends to be the fourth Fossil sister, in a tribute to another of her favourite children’s books, Ballet Shoes. Rent a Bridesmaid, published last month, demonstrates that weddings don’t have to be traditional and expensive to be meaningful. It’s her riposte to the weddings in fairytales, which she also of course read as a child. The great thing about being a children’s author, she told us is that ‘You have power. You can twist things a little bit.’