Jacqueline Wilson is a best-selling, award-winning British novelist. Her books have won or been shortlisted for most of the British children’s book awards. She tours the country twice a year, and on one occasion in 2004 she spent eight hours signing books for a line of 3,000 fans. Her new novel will be an instant best seller; it will almost certainly garner the author still more laurels; and readers will wait in line for hours for her legendary, superstar signings. And chances are that you have never heard of her. She writes primarily for girls aged between 7 and 15. She has written more than 80 books and has sold more than 20 million copies in the United Kingdom. Her new book, Love Lessons, just out in Britain but thus far without a U.S. release date, portrays, in the most sensitive way imaginable, the attraction between a young girl and her art teacher.
So, what are her books about, and would Americans like them?
Wilson writes for several age groups, and her books for older teens—notably the “Girlfriends Trilogy“—have had some success in the United States. But her best books are those aimed at 9- to 12-year-olds, and they aren’t really selling that well here so far, despite several relaunches with different covers.
It’s difficult to describe the books without making them sound like utterly miserable examples of the genre I described in Slate as “Dreadlit.” The Wilson heroine has problems at school and problems at home. Father figures tend to be absent or difficult, but there is a distinctive Wilson mother: She wears short skirts and heels and does dance steps round the room. She doesn’t cook much, she goes out at night a lot, and what’s that she’s drinking? Well, it’s not water. Or maybe the mother has left altogether: The Story of Tracy Beaker is set in a group home—aka “The Dumping Ground”—and is now a successful TV series. Britain’s favorite role model is a very naughty 10-year-old girl who is in foster care.
But Wilson’s books are cheerful, fun, and down-to-earth. Most of them are written in the first person, the narrator is a girl within the target age group, and the voice is accurate—they are slangy and colloquial. But they are very well-written: Many high-volume children’s authors’ prose is oversimplified and even ungrammatical—not Wilson’s. The story lines are strong and the outcomes unpredictable: Does Mom have cancer? Will the foster placement work out? The answer is not always the easy or happy one, but usually life is a little bit more hopeful at the end—in a believable way. The heroines cope, but only just: Mandy in Bad Girls loses her new friend into the care system, but her school life improves; the manic-depressive mother in The Illustrated Mum is not going to be cured, but daughter Dolphin has found adults who will help. One 13-year-old told me, “I like them because it’s like you want real life to be: Things don’t work out perfectly, but well enough.” They have an amusing tone, and funny things happen as well as bad.
Wilson is good on the details of adults’ lives—the social worker with a copy of “When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” on her office wall, Dad’s new girlfriend who is not enthralled with a stepchild, Mum’s voice getting high and nervous when she’s out with a new potential boyfriend—all seen through the child’s eyes.
Everyone makes mistakes in the books. The adults have no special wisdom and are sometimes unfair, tired, and wrong. In many, the point is made, overtly or implicitly, that the daughter is having to act as a parent: The mother behaves too much like a sister or even a child. Wilson is excellent on the results of divorce—not only the frightening rows and the disappearance of a parent, but the day-to-day effects on a child who now has to share a room, deal with a new adult, etc. But the books are not the didactic tracts they might be: The “issues” of the stories drive the plots, but the books’ tone is not that of so many young adult books—”I understand you, and this book will help you cope.” Wilson’s tone is, “This is the way life is, now let’s see what happens.”
Why do British kids love them so much? Young readers like to feel smarter than the slightly unreliable narrators—”I don’t ever cry … it’s my hay fever”—and say the books give them insight. They can look at girls living in very different circumstances from their own, and because Wilson is convincing on the elements of teen life that they do recognize, they trust her to present a true picture of what it’s like to have a manic-depressive mom, to live in a homeless shelter, or to be on the run from a violent boyfriend. And it helps that there’s a truckload of them—no waiting round two years for the next one, as with Harry Potter.
The entertainment of teenage girls is big business in the United States right now: Books and films, stars and music are all aimed at this huge demographic, and there should be room for Jacqueline Wilson, with her cheerful integrity and lack of sentimentality. The characters and settings are very British, but there’s nothing a child of this global world can’t cope with. And the themes cross boundaries: Wilson is unbeatable on the horrible ways that parents upset children without necessarily meaning to. The heroines don’t distinguish between the wince-making bits of teendom that we all recognize—wearing the wrong clothes, a mother who embarrasses you—and the horror of a divorced father who doesn’t turn up for his custody visit or a mother who doesn’t care that you spent hours making her a birthday card. But the reader does distinguish, and Wilson’s brilliance lies in her ability to make those small parental disasters feel soul-chilling; she shows that failure of love and imagination are a form of emotional abuse.
Typically, Wilson’s are the type of books that kids like more than their wary parents and teachers do—she is the most-borrowed author in British public libraries because kids, who can’t afford to buy books, seek her out there. If young Americans could find them for themselves, they’d probably love them, too. But maybe adults (American and British) should be less wary: If they read the books with more attention, they might treat their children better. And swear never ever to get divorced.