Jacqueline Wilson was born in Bath in 1945 and spent her childhood in Kingston-on-Thames, where she still lives today as a full-time writer.
She was educated at Coombe Girls School, Surrey, relocating to Dundee to start work as a teenage journalist with D C Thomson, writing for Jackie teenage magazine, which was named after her.She has written many books for children, and her sensitive understanding of modern children, the way they live and the problems they encounter, together with her sense of humour, have made her an extremely popular author, particularly with the nine to eleven year age range. She has sold over ten million books, which have been translated into over thirty languages, and at one point in 2000, six of her books were listed among the top ten bestselling children's paperbacks.Her books include The Story of Tracy Beaker (1991) and its sequel, The Dare Game (2000), which tell the story of a child who lives in residential and foster care; The Bed and Breakfast Star (1994), about a family living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation; and The Illustrated Mum (1999), who is covered in tattoos and has multiple boyfriends. Bad Girls (1996) deals with the subject of bullying, and Double Act (1995), is about identical twins with very different personalities. Her latest books include The Worry Website (2002), a collection of short stories for children aged eight to twelve years, Lola Rose (2003), which deals with the topic of domestic violence within a family, The Diamond Girls (2004) and Clean Break (2005). Her latest books are the autobiographical My Secret Diary (2009), and Hetty Feather (2009).Jacqueline Wilson has written readers and books for younger children as well as radio plays for the BBC. Her series of books for older readers, Girls in Love (1997), Girls Under Pressure (1998), Girls Out Late (1999), and Girls in Tears (2002) has recently been made into a thirteen-part television series, broadcast on ITV. She wrote her own screen adaptation of Double Act for Channel 4, which won the Royal TV Society Best Children's Fiction Award, and The Story of Tracy Beaker has had three television series.
Her books have also been adapted for radio - namely The Bed and Breakfast Star, The Story of Tracy Beaker and The Dare Game, all of which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Stage adaptations of The Lottie Project (1997) and Double Act have toured nationally. Jacky Daydream (2007) is an account of her own childhood.
In 2005, Jacqueline Wilson became Children's Laureate, and in 2007, became a DBE. Between 2000 and 2010 she was the most borrowed author from public libraries in the UK.
Jacqueline Wilson, who held the two-year position of Children's Laureate from 2005-2007, writes mainly about young girls, struggling with their own emotions and with the world (and adults) around them.
Consequently, her readership is mostly female. Wilson started her career as a journalist, working on girls’ magazines, and this is probably a significant factor in her awareness of, and sensitivity to, the feelings and dilemmas of young girls, from dramatic, life-changing events, to the seemingly trivial problems of growing-up (which, as Wilson makes clear, are by no means trivial to those experiencing them). Wilson’s work displays a remarkable balance of serious issues and entertaining reading: her novels are grounded in strong social realism and psychological perceptiveness, yet, simultaneously, they are also ‘light’, fun and abundant with humour. This is enhanced by Nick Sharratt’s delightful, cartoon-like illustrations.
The majority of Wilson’s novels are in the 8-12 year age range, and are usually narrated in the first-person, from the point of view of the young heroine in each novel. In accordance with the relatively new tradition of social realism which has emerged in children’s literature since the 1970s, Wilson’s families are very rarely the conventional nuclear type: she features teenage mothers; family break-up; children in care; abuse and neglect. As Nicholas Tucker points out, the ‘image of the family that comes through in [Wilson’s] books is not always a reassuring one’ (Nicholas Tucker & Nikki Gamble, Family Fictions, 2001). Her novels feature an array of parents who often fail to meet their children’s needs; children are usually loved, but not always confident that the adults around them understand their feelings and needs. This applies equally to children in more traditional situations - all families are shown to have their shortcomings, and Wilson certainly does not advocate any conservative ideal.
Wilson has been writing for several decades, but her first significant success was The Story of Tracy Beaker (1991), which tells the tale of a girl who lives in a children’s home. Tracy is an endearing character but, in contrast to the classic tradition of angelic child-orphans (from Oliver Twist to, perhaps, Harry Potter), Wilson is brutally realistic: Tracy lies and steals, confuses fantasy and reality, and has difficulty forming relationships. She desperately wants a family to love her, but her behaviour makes this very difficult. Tracy’s story is continued in The Dare Game (2000), which shows her struggling to adapt to life with her new foster-mother, Cam, a woman who learns to truly love her. Eventually, Tracy realises that she has a real chance of happiness - it will not resemble the fantasies she has spent her life creating, but it may just give her what she needs. Tracy's life with Cam is explored further in Starring Tracy Beaker (2006), in which she prepares for a role in the school play. Despite her vivacious enjoyment of life, Tracy's past continues to haunt her, and she maintains a rose-tinted fantasy of being reunited with her natural mother. Tracy Beaker's Thumping Heart (2009), was written especially for Comic Relief's 'Red Nose Day'. 1992 saw the publication of The Suitcase Kid, the story of Andy, a girl who must adjust to her new life in which she spends alternate weeks with each parent, both of whom pressure her to choose between them. In The Bed and Breakfast Star (1994), Elsa’s world is turned upside-down when her stepfather loses his job and the family is forced into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. While her mother develops depression, Elsa must take responsibility for younger members of the family, yet maintains her sense of humour throughout.
Wilson can be compared with her contemporary, Anne Fine, particularly in the ability to empathise with both the child’s and the adult’s point of view, and in showing that no-one, child or adult, is wholly ‘good’ or wholly ‘bad’. Both these writers depict the inner workings of their child (or teenage) characters’ minds with sensitivity and understanding, and make it clear when a child’s needs are not being met. Yet many of the adult characters are also shown sympathetically, or at least ambivalently, even when their behaviour is at fault. The Illustrated Mum (1999) is told from the point of view of 10-year-old Dolphin, who lives with her 13-year old sister, Star, and their mother Marigold (the title derives from Marigold’s abundant tattoos). Throughout the novel, the question of whether or not Marigold is an ‘unfit mother’ is raised again and again, yet Wilson shows that there is no clear dividing line between ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’. Marigold is endearing and affectionate, but she is infuriatingly irresponsible, and assumes the role of child rather than adult. This forces her daughters to take on the role of parent; Star is responsible and scolding, while Dolphin comforts and reassures: ‘ “What should I do?” [Marigold] whispered to me. “Star didn’t really mean it,” I said’.
Marigold is depicted as a somewhat tragic figure. She was abandoned by her own mother, and she also suffers from a mental health disorder. Readers may find themselves experiencing the same ambivalent feelings towards Marigold as those experienced by her daughters - she is clearly vulnerable and desperately needs to be loved, and is therefore a sympathetic character, yet her child-like needs give her a disturbing inability to care for her daughters. Star and Dolphin have trained themselves to think, ‘She can’t help it’, but Star is now beginning to question this and feels that her mother must take responsibility for herself. This dilemma of individual responsibility versus ‘victim-hood’ is at the crux of the novel, and Wilson does not attempt any clear-cut answers. It is also clear that Marigold dearly loves her daughters, but the novel raises the issue of whether love is really enough. Again, there is no definitive answer.
Wilson’s ‘Girls’ series - Girls in Love (1997), Girls Under Pressure (1998), Girls Out Late (1999) and Girls in Tears (2002) - is also one of her most popular successes, and has been adapted into an ITV television series. These books are aimed at a slightly older age-group (early teens) but, paradoxically, they tackle less serious issues than some of the pre-teen books. Ellie (the narrator), Nadine and Magda are all from relatively stable, secure families, and the series focuses on the ups and downs of adolescence - boyfriends, worries about appearance, conflict with parents and so on. The books do address bereavement, step-parents and mild eating disorders, but on the whole these three girls do not suffer from the more extreme fears and crises experienced by Tracy Beaker, Dolphin and other characters. Yet Wilson shows that every situation in life has its ups and downs - those in more ‘ordinary’ situations still have anxieties to deal with, while those in very difficult circumstances can still find something to laugh about.
Kiss (2007), also aimed at young teens, is about a young boy’s discovery of his homosexuality, though the story is told from the point of view of his female friend. Sylvie is in love with Carl, who has been her devoted best friend since they were toddlers. However, as they enter adolescence, Carl begins to withdraw, and Sylvie must come to terms with this huge shift in their friendship. My Sister Jodie (2008) is also about a close relationship undergoing a huge change - this time between two sisters. Quiet, sensible Pearl has always depended on Jodie, who is outgoing and rebellious, but their move to a new school sees Pearl settling in well while Jodie struggles. As Pearl develops newfound confidence, their roles towards each other gradually change. Wilson thus explores the way in which friendships and relationships require flexibility and adaptability in order to survive in the long-run. My Sister Jodie ends with a tragic death, which some readers have found shocking, but Wilson is not afraid to tackle taboo issues and she does not present her readers with a sugar-coated view of life.
Ultimately, Wilson’s novels suggest, with delightful humour, the importance of accepting the complicated and contradictory nature of life and family relationships, and the futility of attempting neat solutions: life is a rollercoaster to be negotiated (and enjoyed), not a puzzle to be solved or ‘fixed’. Wilson’s girls seem to know this instinctively: most, if not all, of her heroines are strong, feisty characters who survive whatever life throws at them, though they may develop some battle-scars along the way.
Wilson has also written two autobiographies, aimed at her young readers: Jacky Daydream (2007) and My Secret Diary (2009).
Liz O'Reilly, 2009