JACQUELINE Wilson tells David Robinson why she wanted to write an updated version of E Nesbit’s classic ‘Five Children and It’.
IF YOU have ever read Edith Nesbit’s classic children’s story Five Children and It, you will know all about the Psammead. You will remember how it would grant wishes on being dug up in the Kent gravel pit where it had lived since prehistoric times, and how, whenever it did so, it would push out its eyes to the very ends of their stalks and puff itself up alarmingly.
Once granted, those wishes usually turned out wrong, as wishes granted in fairy stories invariably do: not completely wrong, but sufficiently off-kilter to make you realise that your life, though apparently ordinary, isn’t so bad after all. So if you wished to be beautiful, you’d find that nobody recognised you anymore; if you wanted to be a hero, you’d discover how frightening war really is; and if you were small and wanted to grow bigger, you’d end up a ridiculous giant. That’s the point about wishes: you have to be very precise with them, and three is never quite enough.
When Jacqueline Wilson first read Nesbit’s classic story, she wanted three things too. A sister, because it was sometimes lonely growing up in Kingston upon Thames as an only child with unhappily married parents. Long hair, like her friends, whose tresses went almost down to their waists, rather than her own too-fine and too-frizzy black hair that her mother always cropped short. “And I’d love to be able to write a whole book in a day. In fact, good God, I’d like that now, to have the whole book written as soon as you have thought of it instead of having to plod on with it for six months. Imagine that!” And, down the phone from Kingston upon Thames, where she still lives, a silvery laugh only slightly tinged with regret.
At 66, she has accomplished everything she ever dreamed of the first time she read the library copy of Five Children and It as an eight-year-old. These days, she is Dame Jacqueline Wilson, the first children’s writer to be so honoured. She even has a magazine named after her (Jacqueline Wilson, “for girls who love reading”). There are Jacqueline Wilson diaries, ceramics, bags, notebooks. And of course, there are Jacqueline Wilson books, 30 million of them in the UK alone, not counting the other 32 languages into which they are translated. In the last decade, it was her books, not JK Rowling’s, that were the most borrowed in Britain’s libraries.
The difference between the children in these books and (say) Enid Blyton’s is that Jacqueline Wilson’s characters live in a more realistically drawn and complex world. Their lives are usually far from idyllic: their parents were divorced, or unhappy, or poor, or embarrassing, or seriously ill. They might grow up in care homes – like Tracy Beaker, her most famous creation – or like Dolphin and Star in The Illustrated Mum, the daughters of a heavily tattooed, manic depressive with a drink problem. “The Mike Leigh of children’s literature,” they call this queen of tween social realism, which is funny because it might lead you to imagine an iconoclast twitching with right-on earnestness rather than a petite pensioner twinkling with intelligence and charm. Children, however, always seem to get that straight off – along with the fact that, whatever she writes about, she is always fundamentally on their side.
Recently, however, both Dame Jackie’s writing and her life have changed. In 2008, her heart stopped working properly and after an operation in which she was fitted with a defibrillator, she was ordered to take a break from her heavy schedule of writing, school visits and those epic book signings (up to eight hours) that endeared her to booksellers throughout the land. She took the opportunity to read up on Victorian childhood – a subject that had first caught her attention the previous year, when she was made a Coram Fellow at the Foundling Museum in London. In 2009, she wrote Hetty Feather, her first book of historical fiction, about a young foundling in late Victorian London. Last year, she produced a sequel, Sapphire Battersea, and the final book in the trilogy will be published in September.
Next week, she launches another novel that confirms her move away from the kind of Jacqueline Wilson we thought we knew. In Four Children and It, a wonderfully imagined contemporary twist on Edith Nesbit’s tale, she takes us back to that sardonic, wish-granting sand-fairy, the Psammead. The children seeking him out are recognisably modern, but with Jacqueline Wilson, that has always been a given. “I used to write solemn little notes in my diary,” she remembers of her own childhood, “saying that if I ever wrote for children, I would write stories that were a realistic portrait of life.”
She set the story in Okshott Woods, not too far from that prosperously leafy part of Surrey where Andy Murray now lives and five miles away from where she grew up in a council flat. Her father used to take her there, to a natural sandpit in the middle of a clearing in a wood that looked, to an eight-year-old girl, unimaginably denser and imposing than it does now. When Puffin asked her to write a book that would link into an established children’s classic, then, the choice of book, central character and setting were all straightforward. “I do think the Psammead is such a wonderful character and how wonderful it would be if modern kids could discover him. So that made me think, with modern children, what would their wishes be? What would they really want?
“Without making it too heavy, I wanted the kids to be typical Jacqueline Wilson children – you know, children from so-called broken homes. And I hoped my regular readers would identify with them, and be as surprised as the fictional kids were themselves by encountering this magic creature, and I tried very hard to make it as vivid as I could. I thought, if my regular readers like it, then ten to one, they’ll start reading E Nesbit, which would be a wonderful thing.”
In Four Children and It, some of the children’s wishes are markedly different from their 1902 equivalents in Nesbitt’s book. Wanting to be rich and famous is an obvious one (“all kids say that these days, and a scary number of girls say that they want to be glamour models”), so Robbie becomes a TV chef, Maudie a star child actress, Smash a Madonna-like singer and Rosalind a bestselling author with her own massive signing queues.
My own favourite scene is when the four contemporary children (from their parents’ two marriages) meet the five children in Nesbit’s book and Rosalind explains that Smash and Maudie are her stepsisters. Anthea (from 1902) presumes this must be because Rosalind’s mother must have died. No, Rosalind replies, her mother is fine, though she was very upset at first when she got divorced. “The other children blinked,” Rosalind notes, “as if I’d said a rude word.”
“It has long been a favourite fantasy of mine to meet children that you particularly liked from storybooks,” says Wilson. “It was fun trying to write the Victorian children using the kind of slang they would have done and to pick up and have them playing in entirely different worlds.
“But my favourite scene was the one in which the Psammead grants the children their wish to be able to fly. As a child, like everyone else, I longed to fly. I can still remember lying on my bed and trying to levitate – I mean, how mad is that? But I wanted to make flying as realistic as possible, so that you would have to try very hard to get the knack of it first, and then when you had, it would turn out to be really tiring, and after you had been flying for a long while, you would want to get rid of these great big, heavy wings.”
Literary genius, Baudelaire once wrote, lies in being able to summon up childhood at will, and some of that raw freshness of childhood permeates Wilson’s own writing. Not only do the books then still haunt her imagination, but she can still remember what it felt like to read them for the first time.
“I always find it odd that people my age don’t remember their childhood vividly. Certainly the things that were very important to me as a child – like books – I can remember with great clarity. Eve Garnett’s The Children From One End Street, for example, was the first book I ever read which dealt with working-class children, children I could identify with. I particularly liked all the illustrations: I would colour them in very carefully and played imaginary games with all the Garnett children. I have just to think of its pink and white cover and it brings back all my childhood.” She can even recall the titles and covers of books that she never read, or ever found in libraries, but can remember looking at longingly in bookshop windows.
Money was tight, and nearly all the books she read came from the local library. Her parents didn’t let her get up early, so first thing in the morning she’d read them furtively in bed, just as she did last thing at night, “and if my mum was in a good mood she’d let me read curled up in an armchair at lunchtime too. I was the sort of kid who would read while walking down the street and bump into a lamppost. Silly, but it was just what I liked to do most.
“The one Edith Nesbitt book I did own was the Treasure Seekers. I got it for Christmas when I was six because there was a TV series [in 1951] of The Railway Children and they had a painting competition based on it which I won with a painting of the three children flagging down the train by waving their flannel petticoats – the only competition I ever won as a kid.
“Normally, I didn’t particularly care for fantasy, because usually the children in it weren’t realistic. But Edith Nesbit’s children were great. They quarrelled among themselves and worried about things, and I just adored them – and the Psammead itself was, I thought, one of the most magical creations ever. I must have borrowed Five Children and It from the library several times.” Some critics call Nesbit the first modern writer for children and Wilson agrees. “She has a brilliant writing style too and draws children into the stories straight away. And as well as being so immediate, she also has the knack of knowing what children think.”
The book she is working on right now takes her back to the Fifties again, about a girl roughly the same age that she would have been when she read Nesbit for the first time. (“When I told my agent, he said, ‘Oh yes, Jackie, another historical book.’”) But yes, her childhood – mine too – really does belong to that foreign country, the past. It will be the story of a girl in a hospital, in those distant days when even when their children were seriously ill their parents were only ever allowed to visit their children for an hour or two a week: anything more was thought to be upsetting and disruptive.
“What interests me is that in those circumstances, the children would gang up together and have intense relationships not only with each other but also with the nurses. It was a little world with its own rules and its own way of doing things, and there is plenty of story mileage in that. I think I’ll have to put in a little afterword pointing out how hospitals are so different now and if they want your mum and dad can practically camp right next to your bed.”
Apart from a week when she had her tonsils out, Wilson stayed well clear of the hospitals as a child. Recently though, she has been seeing rather too much of them. “I seem to be specialising in failing organs because my kidneys are failing now too. At the moment I am keeping it all together, going backwards and forwards, seeing consultants and specialists, so the show can just about stay on the road.” She gives a stoical half-laugh. “But I rather feel the dreaded dialysis is looming and I will have to start attending some clinic where they prepare you for that. It’s not a jolly thought, but it’s better than the alternative.” I’m sorry to hear that, I tell her. And I really am. Anyone who has watched their children grow up, amassing more of Jacqueline Wilson’s books with their brightly coloured Nick Sharratt covers (a pairing as indissoluble as that between Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl), anyone who knows just how much she has given back to the children as the second Children’s Laureate, who has read her books as bedtime stories, who has marvelled at the thunderous rush of her fans to meet her on the Edinburgh Festival duckboards or how they would be prepared to wait, brimful of excitement for hours to meet her, would be sorry to hear it too. On top of that, she’s a warm-hearted dame and I like her a lot.
Next year, she says, she’ll have to cut down on commitments. “But I’ll still be writing and I’ll still be determined to do festivals and give talks.” She will, surely, I ask, have to cut down on the number of books she writes – one a year, perhaps, rather than her usual two?
“In the last year,” she laughs, “I actually did three. It’s like, ‘Right, I want to get everything done that I really want to do.’ I think I’m an obsessive. I’ve been writing books all my life and I think I’m just jolly well going to carry on as long as I can.”
• Four Children and It is published on Thursday by Puffin, price £12.99. Jacqueline Wilson will be at the Edinburgh book festival today
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