I admit I was nervous when I met Jacqueline Wilson because there was one question I was told I must ask and I wasn’t sure I could. It felt unprofessional.
As an impartial journalist, lines have to be drawn when conducting an interview, yet this one question would surely compromise that. It nagged away at the back of my mind for the entire interview and I sorely suspected I would bottle it.
Of course, there is no reason to be nervous when meeting this most popular of children’s authors, as she is both genuine and personable.
Wide smile, pleasant demeanour, with, I suspect, not a bad bone in her body, the fourth Children’s Laureate is good company and easy going.
Unsurprisingly, given that this is one of the most influential writers of her generation, she is passionate about children’s literature and is content to speak at length about the importance of books in a child’s life.
We meet in the brasserie at Malmaison, in Birmingham city centre, a couple of hours before she launched the annual two-week Young Readers Festival, which is due to end on June 3.
The event celebrates children’s books, with authors travelling from across the country to talk to youngsters, inspire them and entertain them.
Dressed entirely in black, with her trademark flamboyant silver rings on every finger, and an ornate silver medallion around her neck – given to her on her two-year appointment as Children’s Laureate – this award-winning writer sipped black coffee as she carefully considered her answers.
I knew, as I sat on the leather couches, I would be the envy of tens of thousands of young girls who adore her work and who would give their eyeteeth to be in my place. I have been told that girls have been known to become hysterical and faint when Jacqueline does her book-signings at shops. For a huge number of girls between the ages of eight and 14, she is an icon.
A prolific author, her 86th (or it could be 87th, she wasn’t entirely sure) book has just been published, but for those who were too old to have read her books when she came to the fore in the 1990s, or have not had daughters over the past 16 years or so, she could well have passed you by.
JK Rowling may have caused a revolution in literature, but Jacqueline has been responsible for an uprising or two since her first book, The Story of Tracey Beaker, about a young girl in a care home, was published.
Her books are about real life: dubbed the Mike Leigh of children’s books, she tackles divorce, abuse, children in care, step-families, love, manic depressives, friendships and relationships. The subjects she confronts are real and gritty. Go to any street in any town and there will be families who are grappling with the same complications as in her books.
She seeks to break taboos and she knows exactly what girls want to read about. But while her audience absorb her words greedily, some parents get distinctly hot under the collar, claiming her work is too controversial and unsuitable for young minds.
“Some adults do have a problem with my books, without having read them,” admitted the 60-year-old.
“They think they are very outspoken and depressing. But I think I write lightly and with a sense of humour.
“I always take care to have a happy ending, but it has to be realistic. I’m not out to depress the nation’s children.”
One of the biggest brouhahas was when Love Lessons was published last year, in which one of the protagonists, Prue, develops a bond with her teacher and their relationship spirals out of control.
“Some schools decided they didn’t want to stock it and made the decision possibly without reading it. I’m not condoning a romance between a pupil and teacher.
“I know a lot of teachers were irritated with it and complained about girls reading Jacqueline Wilson books, but this was a book about a strange girl and the situation got a little out of hand.
“It’s only a few adults, but you can’t help feeling it’s a little unfair. I want to say, ‘Don’t take it so seriously’. You can’t please everybody. I have to write for myself and I care about my books, too.”
She has no shortage of ideas when it comes to her future books – she publishes two every year – although her daughter, Emma, a lecturer at Cambridge, is usually called upon to read drafts, done in longhand, of her new works.
“Touch wood, the ideas keep on coming perfectly OK, but if my daughter reads my books and feels I am repeating myself, she has to tell me. I can’t churn out the same old story.”
Jacqueline, who overtook Catherine Cookson as the most borrowed author from public libraries two years ago and has held on to that status, describes herself as a Dr Dolittle-style figure to her readers – “He talked the animals and I talk to the children” – and lights up when she talks about the 200 or so letters she receives a week from her fans. But is she an agony aunt figure, too?
“It is a real privilege receiving all these letters, but it is worrying because I have no qualification in dealing with children’s problems.
“I like to feel I am not their agony aunt, but a kind aunt: have sympathy with their problems. If a child has a particular problem, I write back and say something comforting. But the vast majority write to tell me about their pets, about their favourite books and so on.”
As she speaks, Jacqueline uses the word “privilege” frequently and you do get the sense that despite her hallowed status in the rarefied world of literature, she has her feet firmly on the ground and is a genuinely nice person.
For her two-year stint as Children’s Laureate, a role she has relished so far, she is there to inspire children, encourage more to pick up books and love reading, raise the profile of children’s literature.
But there is one cause that is very close to the heart of this author who has sold more than 20 million books worldwide and it is one she is championing during her period as laureate: reading aloud to children.
It is this one area that she believes could make a huge difference to a child.
“I’ve spoken to well-meaning mums who claim they can’t get their children interested in books. They say that they give their child a book and tell them to look at it and wonder why the child has thrown it aside.
“You don’t give a child a book and expect them to get on with it. You need to make it come alive for them. That way they will respond and enjoy it. There is a time factor as many parents don’t have time to play or read with their children, but it is the best time and you never get that time back.”
She advocates parents reading aloud to their children to the age of about 11 as more books with complex subject matter can be tackled more readily. “Left to their own devices, they wouldn’t pick up big books with dense text. It’s a good way of getting children keen on listening to a story.”
More so, she despairs at the parents who struggle to buy their child a television and computer for their bedroom, buy them trendy clothes, but neglect to give them books.
“Give a child a delight in books, so they enjoy reading and you’ll have done the best job of all.”
Growing up in Kingston upon Thames, where she still lives, as an only child, her parents did not read to her’ hers was not a literary family. The only time her father read to her was when she was six-years-old and suffered a very bad bout of measles.
She was not allowed to read, as doctors believe it would damage her eyes. Her father read Enid Blyton’s three Faraway Tree books and embarked on the first few chapters of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (“Not very suitable for a six year old. But I do remember enjoy being read to.”).
It was for that early age she developed her love of books and borrowed voraciously from the library. She filled exercise books with stories and it was her life’s ambition to become a writer.
“It’s quite embarrassing to admit this, but I had a half hour walk to school and if I wasn’t making up a story, I would pretend I was a published writer, being interviewed.
“It’s very strange to have done many interviews and had so many books published. It seems just as surprising to me sometimes, as if there is an element of play to it.”
As the interview closes, I realise it is now or never. Have I got the bottle to ask that question? I take the chance.
Out of my handbag, I carefully take Candyfloss, her latest book. “Would you mind signing this for my daughter?” I ask shyly.
“Of course,” she beams, taking out a silver pen from her capacious bag. “What is her name?”
Jacqueline Wilson was born Jacqueline Aitken in 1945. She was born in Bath but moved to Kingston upon Thames as a child and still lives in the town.
She moved to Dundee at the age of 17 to work on a teenage girls’ magazine. It was named after her: Jackie.
Her big breakthrough was in 1992 when she wrote The Story of Tracey Beaker.
She was appointed an OBE in 2002.
She was appointed Children’s Laureate in May last year. She is the fourth person to be appointed to the two-year post, following Quentin Blake, Anne Fine and Michael Morpurgo.
She has won many literary prizes, including the Smarties Prize and the Children Book Award.
She earned £3 for her first commission for a magazine when she was still a teenager. “Even in the 1960s that was not a lot of money. But that £3 meant as much to me as anything else since as it meant someone had faith in me as a writer.”
The Gothic silver rings that adorn her fingers weigh a total of 2lbs.
This article was first published in The Birmingham Post in May, 2006. It must not be reproduced without prior permission from Jayne Howarth