I sometimes wonder what is more difficult; creating a fantasy world and making it feel real, or writing about reality and making it believable.
Jacqueline Wilson is sort of passing out of the public spotlight (I have a hard time finding her in bookshops, anyway) and that makes me sad, frankly, since she’s such a stellar addition to the world of YA and children’s literature. You read her writing and it is one of those rare, beautiful and slightly shocking instances where you forget that you’re reading a work of fiction. It feels real, unprocessed and unvarnished.
She’s got a knack, that’s what it is, a critically acclaimed knack. You read the stories her characters are telling you and it’s not the words of an adult writer that enter your consciousness but the words of the characters themselves, whether they’re fifteen or nine, rowdy or introverted, or whatever wonderfully written hell they’re going through.
And they go through some hell. Some of her books have been quite controversial in that they examine weighty issues like domestic abuse, homelessness, split families and mental illness and parcel them in colourful covers to be handed to children to read. And that’s a silly situation in itself — the reason kids enjoy and relate to her writing so well is because they can see themselves in it and (like I said last week) come to understand what they might be going through themselves, and if not, learn a thing or two about the troubles that some people face.
Something interesting about her stories is that they can be terribly poignant and weighted with social issues, and yet they manage not to seem dramatic. As I said, there’s a verisimilitude that just radiates off the pages and you feel like you’re walking beside the characters listening to their thoughts and ideas.
I discovered Jacqueline Wilson in my primary school library, and somehow found myself speeding through one of her books (of course, I can’t remember what it was now. It might have been The Bed and Breakfast Star) and craving more. I went back to that library with bated breath every allocated lesson to see if there was a new book in the author’s designated box that I hadn’t read.
My favourite remains Secrets, and to this day I have a sacred copy on my bookshelf, an artefact of bygone days. It’s pages are dog-eared, it’s spine is creased and cracked, there are grease stains on the edges of the pages from where I held it so many times, and ‘Alex’s Book =)’ is written in the inside cover in silver gel pen.
Why did I love this book so much? The storyline is thought-provoking, stressful as only fiction can be and ultimately heart-tugging, but that wasn’t what drew me in. It’s told through diary entries and switches between two girls with equally bizarre names and rocky family lives, Treasure and India. Treasure’s story begins smack in the middle of her leaving her mother and family when her mother’s boyfriend belts her, and going to live with her cool and lovely Nan. Bam, already we’re thrown into this world of turmoil and family tension and carried along on Treasure’s matter-of-fact writing style. She’s tough, is Treasure, and she’s had to be.
Then there’s India, in a very different world and with a much more lyrical and entertainingly melodramatic take on life, daughter of a fashion designer who resents her with tight-lipped smiles and concealed sighs and a once-fun but “under a lot of pressure at work” dad who later turns out to be having an affair with the au pair and embezzling. She’s obsessed with the story of Anne Frank, and that becomes important once the two girls meet and become friends, but I won’t go on.
These two girls living in and accepting their troubled worlds struck a chord with me, for some reason. Treasure had guts that I admired balanced with a caring and protective nature that I recognised in myself, and India was creative and lonely and danced along the line between longing to be accepted and clawing at her hair at the state of the human race. Looking down through those pages and into the heads of these two, I felt a connection that’s been very rare in my reading since.
As an eleven-or-so-year-old it was a magnificent book to stumble across, one of those magic volumes that everyone searches for without realising: a very special book that resonates within your imagination and strikes a certain, melodic note. In fifth grade, that book found me, and it was Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson. I not only saw myself in her heroines but felt like if we somehow ended up in the same universe we could have been fast friends, which was a very welcome thought at that time.
Not that the wondrous Ms Wilson is without her flaws. As absorbing and real-feeling as her characters may be, when put together in a figurative pot it may be difficult to tell some of them apart. There seems to be a shelf of main character moulds that she selects from and reuses for each book, adding details to disguise it (the same goes for supporting characters too, particularly in the case of parental figures).
Another problem that can pop up is the endings of these stories; Secrets, for example, wraps itself into a whirlwind of positives at the end after so much tension and gruelling emotional battles, and suddenly everything is rather neat all things considered.
The Bed and Breakfast Star, too, ends on a positively buoyant note after the lead character saves everyone from a fire that doesn’t end up hurting anyone, thanks to her, but damages their awful living quarters so much they get relocated to a fantasy palace of a place. Lola Rose, another tale of heart-racing escapes from abusive households and girls forced to grow up before their time, sprouts a magical, loving and supportive auntie towards the end who pretty much sorts everything out. It all seemed a bit far-fetched and convenient, but I guess that’s what you want for younger readers: to instil a sense of hope back into the world after presenting it in such a bleak light for the past 200 pages.
However, the books that don’t end with all loose ends neatly tied (for example The Illustrated Mum, which I’ve just reread, and to be fair Lola Rose to a similarly-themed extent) leave you hanging and a bit heart-splintered, so I guess you can’t win — but such is reality, and Wilson captures it so wonderfully it just seems effortless.
If, in some twist of the universe, I ever meet Jacqueline Wilson, I will probably kiss her feet — not just for writing amazing books and inspiring me, but for giving me a pair of friends just when I needed them.