Dame Jacqueline Wilson: The Big Sister of Children's 'Literature'

The Fellowship of the Ring

What do Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Sir Keith Richards have in common? Well, there are the honorific titles of course, their mid-1940’s dates of birth, their record breaking popularity, and the fact that both look just a bit like extras from Lord of the Rings. She would make a rather lovable Hobbit. And, according to Dame Jacqueline, both buy their silver rings from the same shop near Carnaby St. in London’s West End – The Great Frog on Ganton Street [1]. I’m not sure how many rings the beloved old Ork himself has over and above that  legendary skull ring of his, but it can hardly be as many as Dame Jacqueline who has no fewer than 108 – one for each book she has had published since her first back in 1969. She may not quite challenge Sir Keith when it comes to commercial success but she has sold over 40 million copies [2] of her books in the UK alone. However, if we include translations into 34 languages,[3] combined with borrowings from UK libraries[4] – Jacqueline Wilson has been hovering at or near the top for 20 years now – you get a sense of how the work of one children’s author begins to measure up in terms of cultural penetration. And it looks like the ring maker at the Great Frog will be kept busy for some time to come as Dame Jacqueline continues to churn out two books a year. Her latest but one is a sequel to her most popular and enduring work, the Tracy Beaker Trilogy, continuing the saga of the care-worn, care-home tearaway Tracy, now grown-up with a daughter of her own, Jess, who picks up the Beaker baton, doggedly continuing to narrate in the first person the ongoing tale of hopes and tears, tense tummies and tantrums that is My Mum, Tracy Beaker.

You only have to watch Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan show in 1965 to work out or to remember why rock was so all-conquering. Satisfaction cuts deep into the heart of a young man: I am so alone and I so want to be loved. It’s alienation porn, an anthem to the lonely, alienated outsider[5] whose birth, as E. Michael Jones explains,[6] was an indispensable part of the 60’s revolution. Satisfaction is rock perfection – it is true all the way down, every step of the way down to the hell of getting exactly what you want. Everyone eventually learns, one way or the other, that there is only one thing worse than to get no satisfaction and that is to get the wrong kind or to get the right kind in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Satisfaction is the rock take on St Augustine’s prayer for the restless human heart. The devil owns the rock guitar riff and Satisfaction has the most perfect of all riffs, with Satan as tempter and accuser in perfect harmony with himself. That riff has a cold, hard beauty that speaks directly and irresistibly to the heart of a lonely boy. You only have to see the screaming teenage girls to know that girls love boys like that.

In the first of her two autobiographies, both of which are written for her young readers – her target audience is 8-14 year old girls – Jacqueline Wilson presents a more down to earth view of how girls begin to view boys: 

But then one of the boys started playing with us too – Michael, my first boyfriend. He was a cheery boy with slicked-down hair, rosy cheeks and a big smile. His mother dressed him in sensible long corduroy trousers in the winter. Most of the boys wore ugly grey short trousers that ended an inch or so above their scabby knees. Sometimes their horrible baggy white underpants showed below their trouser hems, a total turn off. Michael had much more style. I liked him and he liked me.[7]

Here we get a glimpse of one of the hallmarks of the Wilson approach: the author as a cross between big sister and agony aunt; the young reader as confidante. The free and easy – and seemingly endless – references to underwear is used as a kind of token of familiarity in Wilson World: knickers– the word appears 21 times in her first auto-biography [8] – is the password that logs you in. It’s as if she says to her young readers, If we can walk and talk in our underwear there is no need for secrets.One gets the sense that Jacqueline Wilson hates secrets. As the victim of marital infidelity, both as a child and as a wife, this is perfectly understandable. As big sister to the nation’s children, she seems to think that this kind of sensitivity training is necessary preparation for the troubles that inevitably lie ahead.

In that same autobiography she captures very sweetly the way teenage girls begin to see boys in a very practical way as potential husbands, and how girls can see and love the hero and the weakling in each boy; how girls are attracted to boys because they are ...well, boys, and mysteriously different. Girls love being in love, and girls have this way of seeing the unique perfection of each boy: 

...I have done nothing but talk and think of Ken. I think he’s wonderful and very good-looking in his own way. He is about 16 or 17 and goes to work. He lives in New Malden. He has a little sister Geraldine who goes to Brownies and his father is a Cub master. Ken has a fair sort of long crew cut and lovely eyes. I gleaned this information from Chris[tine] about his age and family etc., the rest I observed.[9]

1965 was also the year that 19 year old Jacqueline Aitken got married – not to crew cut Ken but to Millar Wilson, a printer at DC Thomson Comics (of Dennis the Menace fame) – revealing with that familiar candidness of her autobiographies, “I always hoped I’d have a lovely peaceful marriage because my parents didn’t, but perhaps that made me too determined.”[10] The impossibility of marriage is at the heart of Jacqueline Wilson’s work, an ache that throbs away in the retelling of her life-story and the sorrow that permeates all of her books. Her apparently childlike suggestion, written specifically for her younger readers – and surely a contender for understatement of the century – gets to the heart of the matter: I think slightly dysfunctional families are actually more common than people realise. Her marriage to the unfaithful Wilson ended in divorce in 2004.

Although Dame Jacqueline (b.1945) and Sir Keith (b.1943) are contemporaries, their artistic endeavors come at the same problem from opposite ends. You could say that the Stones created the problem, Dionysos Rising,[11] to borrow Dr. E. Michael Jones’ term; and after the boys make a great big mess, who has to come along and tidy up, but a kind, sensible woman like Jacqueline Wilson, who has herself been through the storm and survived. You could put it in another way: if you start off with the Rolling Stones you eventually end up with the Sex Pistols. Start off with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and you get Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. Janis Joplin is a rocker – Jacqueline Wilson is a punk. 

Punk fiction for children

The punk formula hasn’t changed in Jacqueline Wilson’s careful hands: take a beleaguered institution or authority figure; caricature the same with clichés of authoritarianism and oppression; add an angry disaffected child, and then have a good old tantrum. Here is the formula applied to Tracy Beaker’s curiously anachronistic primary school teacher, Mrs. V. Bagley – a crudely caricatured mix of Medusa and Miss Jean Brodie – who, if she ever actually existed, certainly did not survive into the child-centred 1990’s by which time teachers in England were becoming too terrified to even admonish a child, never mind accuse him of having a warped imagination (by that time warped was an adjective reserved exclusively for the grown-ups, from paedophile priests to glam-rock pop stars): 

I looked up ‘warp’ in the dictionary she’s always recommending and it means ‘to twist out of shape’. That’s spot on. I’d like to warp Mrs Vomit Bagley, Twisting and twisting, until her eyes popped out and her arms and legs were wrapped right round her great big bum. That’s another thing. Whenever I write the weeniest babiest little rude word Mrs V.B. goes bananas. I don’t know what she’d do if I used really bad words like #### and  #### and ##### (censored!!)[12]

This is the children’s edition of the Sex Pistols’ appearance on the Bill Grundy show in 1977 when Steve Jones unleashed that infamous string of bleeps and hashes.[13] It also provides a helpful insight into how Jacqueline Wilson views her mission as a writer: to introduce her young readers to the new social and moral order which has emerged in Wilson’s own life and lifetime, without spelling it out in a way that might be regarded as offensive or crude; to initiate her young readers into the brave new world of bad thoughts, wicked deeds, and foul language without herself saying a rude word.

Anyone at all familiar with children’s book of the last half-century will recognize the Vomit-Bagley vignette as pretty standard fare, served up to the apparently ravenous children of the world by master chefs like Roald Dahl, Michael Rosen, and RL Stine. Stine’s Rotten School series, replete with farting dogs and pooping parrots and the coolest, hottest, blondest, snobbiest girl in the 4th Grade is the punk version of Harry Potter. The Great Smelling Bee begins with Headmaster Upchuck proclaiming over the school public address system the essential punk approach to things, that of combining crude noises and hot air with serious political intent: 

Tryouts for the Armpit Band will be held in the second floor boys’ locker room. If you play either one or both armpits, you are urged to try out. Don’t come just to be funny. You must be serious about playing the armpit14

There are many veils through which parents have to peer in order to get a glimpse of the punk in Jacqueline Wilson, the author who continues to captivate the hearts of five, going on six, generations of schoolgirls, for although Dame Jacqueline dresses like a rather modest rocker and speaks like a rather trendy vicar, she is at heart a punk. She is a kind of high-priestess of pre-and post-pubescent pain, indignation and righteous anger. The intent is no-doubt well meant and arises from the sorrows of her own family life which, however typical of post-war England they may seem, have made her genuinely sensitive to the suffering of youngsters, girls in particular. I have no doubt that she sincerely believes that girls need to toughen up if they are going to survive in the dog eat dog world of free love. Her repeated and ongoing efforts to portray this pain in her books are authentic – direct and detailed – but they do not amount to true stories with real characters. They are not literature in any meaningful sense of the word; Flannery O’Connor lists some of the likely impostors:  

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. They find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it or an essay with a sketch woven through it or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral or some other mongrel thing.[15]

[…]

This is just an excerpt from Culture Wars Magazine, not the full article. To continue reading, purchase the October, 2019 edition of Culture Wars Magazine.

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Dame Jacqueline Wilson: The Big Sister of Children's Literature - By Sean Naughton