Interview: Jacqueline Wilson on Hetty Feather

I want children to read about others slightly different to them and take them to their hearts - Jaqueline Wilson Picture: ContributedI want children to read about others slightly different to them and take them to their hearts - Jaqueline Wilson Picture: Contributed
I want children to read about others slightly different to them and take them to their hearts - Jaqueline Wilson Picture: Contributed
JACQUELINE Wilson sits alone, small, slight, almost lost in a vast sofa. The effect is amplified by her grand surroundings, the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel lobby, formerly a vast Victorian cathedral of a station, where the ironwork races up to meet a canopy of glass panes, below which the fronds of pot palms dwarf the murmuring lunchtime clientele.

From a distance she looks almost childlike, and closer up her observant twinkling eyes and cropped spring chicken hair give her an air of youthful expectation. Yet Wilson is very much a grown-up, a success in an adult world. She’s the country’s bestselling children’s author, with 35 million copies sold, her 100 titles still shifting faster than Haribos from a school tuck shop. An exhibition of her life has just opened at the V&A, she has an OBE and national treasure status. She’s 68 and not in the best of health, though you’d never guess. Fitted with a defibrillator, and on the list for a kidney transplant, Wilson has dialysis three times a week. Yet she still has the curiosity and imagination of a child and, seemingly untouched by the cynicism that affects the rest of us, she always sides with kids against the adults, writing as a child in the first person.

“I find it disconcertingly easy to think like a child,” she says. “I don’t know what that says about my emotional maturity. I have always been interested in children and if I’m watching a documentary about a family with problems, it’s how it affects that child that interests me. It’s not that I’m interested in childish things but as a child you’re at your most honest and direct and haven’t added all the layers of skin an adult has.

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“All the books I adore – as disparate as Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Crime And Punishment, The Bell Jar – are all first person. You get an immediacy, and it’s easier to get the tone right. Writing as an adult I might want to say so and so wanted a pair of high heels even though she was only ten, not a good idea. You might have been able to say that in the Enid Blyton days, but it wouldn’t go a long way with children now. Writing as a child, you can just say I want them, everyone in my class has them. And you have to have a child that’s quite nosey and watching what’s going on, in the centre of the action.”

A child like Tracy Beaker for instance, the spirited care home child who brought Wilson worldwide success. She had already published 40 books over two decades before The Story Of Tracy Beaker was a hit in 1991, and when the BBC turned it into a series in 2002, both Tracy and Wilson became household names.

Children might love Wilson’s books but some adults aren’t so keen on the subject matter, the tattooed alcoholic mothers, absent fathers and generally dysfunctional families.

“Sometimes parents disapprove of my books, get unsettled because the mums and dads are not always right. They say the teenage books are full of sex and drugs, but there’s no sex and drugs in my books. People get an idea, because I deal with troubling subjects like divorce and unwanted children, but I feel my books are quite moral.

“I don’t always write about children of families who have broken up, but mostly I do. One third of marriages break down today and I always remember going to one school where a teacher told me there wasn’t a single child in the class who had the conventional mother and father in their family. So there is space for writing about that.”

In fact, Wilson is a mix of prim and punk, a dame of disobedience, and while she champions the lonely, troubled child, she also expects children to have good manners.

“I’m a stickler for good manners. I come across as a silly old granny but children not interrupting when adults are talking and standing up for elderly person on tube or bus matter. Children should be valued as equal as human beings but their needs don’t come first at big family gatherings. It’s because I’m a child of the 1950s and you had to be very well behaved,” she says. “I was much gentler with my daughter but I did want her to have manners too.”

Wilson’s latest child is the one she’s here to talk about today, Hetty Feather, heroine of one of her latest books and of the stage show that arrives in Edinburgh this month. Adapted from the book by award-winning script writer Emma Reeves (CBBC’s The Story Of Tracy Beaker) and the Olivier award-nominated director Sally Cookson, whose five-star productions include Peter Pan and We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, the show is bursting with circus skills and music.

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“This stage adaptation is really special,” says Wilson, “because it’s so colourful and exciting for children.”

The book represents a departure in that it’s Wilson’s first historical novel. Hetty Feather, who may well end up rivalling Tracy Beaker in popularity, is a foundling, or orphan, born in London in 1876. She is left at the Foundling Hospital, which took in abandoned children. This bleak Victorian institution can’t quite contain her, and Hetty has various adventures including running away to the circus. Huge-hearted and headstrong, she’s a typical Wilson heroine who just wants to belong.

Wilson has become involved with the Foundling Museum in London, near the site of the Foundling Hospital which was the UK’s first home for abandoned children. Set up by philanthropist Thomas Coram in 1739, it took in children until 1954 and continues today as the children’s charity, Coram. The hospital benefited from patronage by the composer George Frideric Handel, who conducted concerts in the Hospital Chapel, and the painter William Hogarth, whose donations made it the UK’s first public art gallery. Wilson is a great champion of the museum, which made her a fellow and suggested she write the story of a foundling child. Hetty Feather is the result.

“I thought it could have possibility and really let rip,” she says. “Victorian stories can be very dramatic, almost verging on melodramatic, and they were very fond of waifs and strays, like me. In historical fiction it’s acceptable to read about children in appalling conditions, whereas if it was a modern institution, adults would find it unsettling. I can write about the colour and excitement of the circus that Hetty visits too, without feeling uncomfortable about the animals or acts.

“As I get older, I’m getting a lot softer. I’m always in tears at something on the TV, documentaries, One Born Every Minute... And I have been hard on animals in my books in the past. There have been one or two deaths. In Cat Mummy the cat dies and this little girl has been studying ancient Egyptians and thinks mummification is a good idea, which is grotesque and meant to be funny. But it’s also a serious book, because the death of a pet is the first death most children experience. I won’t change the way I write, but now being such a devoted cat owner, I couldn’t write that.”

Wilson’s two cats are also waifs and strays, with a no doubt troubled backstory, being adopted from the Battersea Dogs and Cats home. Wilson is an ambassador for the home and has edited Paws And Whiskers, a fundraising anthology for them. As for her own cats, she confesses to being “ludicrously indulgent with them, letting them wake me up at 6am to be fed and whine”.

Gritty realism – death, divorce, depression, physical abuse, kids shunted between warring parents, foster care, special needs, it’s all in Wilson’s children’s books. Given that she usually writes about youngsters who are bullied, alone, or in trouble, it’s tempting to wonder if her own childhood wasn’t Enid Blyton-happy. She was brought up in Kingston, Surrey, the only child of Harry, a draughtsman and civil servant, and Biddy, a clerical worker, who married during the war and never declared peace. They stuck it out but Wilson’s childhood was blighted by their sniping.

Harry died in his fifties of a heart condition Wilson believes she may have inherited, but Biddy lives nearby and she and Wilson still have a somewhat fractious relationship.

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“Mum and I were always different sorts of people and she thinks that the only way of doing things is her way. She still thinks she’s right,” she says.

“But she needs help and support at the moment,” she says, voice softening. Then continues with, “She said bluntly to the social worker when we were having a consultation, ‘I get on all right with my grand-daughter [Wilson’s daughter Emma], but Jacqueline and I never have.’ If my mother is cross with me, she will go ‘Jacqueline!’ And there’s a bit of me that goes ‘ooooh!’” she shudders, looking more eight than 68.

The young Wilson escaped from her parents’ quarrels into a comforting world of books, but found those aimed at children frustrating.

“I read a great deal, but didn’t care for children’s books because they weren’t truthful about childhood. It was an idealised version they showed, so I found adult books about children more real. I have always been on the side of odd ones out. I was a bit, and if there’s anything I want to achieve, it’s to have children reading about others slightly different to them, and taking them to their hearts.

“I get a lot of children writing to me who are lonely. They say, ‘I wish you could be my friend.’ I try and write back very warmly but today it sounds strange saying ‘I will be your friend,’ so I have to be comforting. I’m some fond great-aunty who can be concerned and want to help. I used to write back to every single child but unfortunately that’s not possible now, so I only do with a child who is ill or has written a quirky letter which amuses me.”

Despite having written a full-length novel by the time she was 16, her parents didn’t encourage Wilson’s literary ambitions or any thoughts of university, insisting she study shorthand and typing to ensure employability.

“They didn’t think I had a hope in hell of ever being published,” she says.

DC Thomson had other ideas and when she answered an advertisement for teenage writers, they published the article she wrote, then when she sent many more, offered her a job working on women’s magazines.

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“It was so wonderful to get this chance to be a journalist and I have earned my living as a writer since I was 17,” she says, proudly. “Dundee has changed a lot since the 1960s. There were many more tenements and with the jute mills all up and running, the smell of it, it was my first experience of a large industrial city. I found it extremely exciting. There were my absolute favourite cakes from Fisher and Donaldson, and fish and chips from The Deep Sea. I’ve been back since, and bought some rhubarb pies to take home, but I ate them all on the train.”

The story goes that DC Thomson’s Jackie magazine was named after Wilson, which she explains.

“I had to report to Mr Cuthbert and Mr Tate, who were in charge of girls’ magazines, and I also brought them their coffee. One day they said, ‘We have decided what we’re going to call the new teenage magazine. We have named it after you.’ Some say it was a corporate decision, and that might be true too. Jackie was a popular name in the 60s, Jackie Kennedy, lots of hair salons…”

The young journalist was also popular with Miller Wilson, a Dundee printer, and they married when she was 19, with their daughter Emma born two years later. The couple moved south and Miller became a police officer, eventually rising to detective inspector, and Jacqueline wrote 2,000 words a day while Emma was at nursery. “True confessions” type magazine articles and detective stories followed, then Wilson began writing children’s books.

“For the first 20 years I didn’t make money. Tracy Beaker was the breakthrough. It worked because it is heartbreaking and funny too, and it was the first Nick Sharratt illustrated, and with a new publisher. It was that combination, and a lot of luck.”

As for her marriage, the bookish Jacqueline and athletic Miller were never really a match made in romcom heaven and they divorced in 2002 after he had an affair and moved out.

“We are on good terms and every now and then he knocks on my door with books for signing. It was painful at the time, but it’s many years ago now.”

Emma grew up to become a professor at Cambridge, teaching French literature and visual arts. Wilson’s face lights up when she talks about her “lovely Emma”. “I wanted six children but it didn’t work out. Obviously we both live separate lives but we still phone each other every morning and meet up a lot.”

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Despite her dialysis regime, Wilson is working on a new book, this time in an Edwardian setting. She writes every day, in longhand, and only the cats are allowed to interrupt. She’s written this morning, despite a long day of promotional work for Hetty Feather at the Foundling Hospital.

“I have to write every day, then I feel better. I’m writing a long Edwardian tome now. I have always been passionate about Edwardians and Victorians and I’m delighted children like them. I was worried they might not like the tone, but they do.

“It also gives me the chance to write about 14 and 15-year-olds without having to address social media and problems about sexting etc. It’s deeply unattractive territory and I don’t know what my take would be. It’s hard to dissociate myself from being 68 and saying, ‘Gosh girls, get out there and enjoy yourselves properly.’ My Victorian and Edwardian girls would fall over dead if they saw someone twerking.”

Also in her diary is the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer. “I couldn’t do anything last year, but this year I’m coming. And I heard Harvey Nichols is a great thing. I quite like shopping,” she says, indicating her ornate silver knuckle dusters, Zadig and Voltaire dress and gloriously fluffy coat.

Not that Wilson regards her lifestyle as indulgent, despite there being no need for her to continue with her two-book-a-year output. The mortgage was paid off long ago. “I’m not rich at all compared with film stars or footballers, but compared with the secretary I trained to be, I am. I don’t have a flamboyant lifestyle, the house needs redone – my kitchen is 1970s – and I have a granny phone. It’s lovely to have money to be generous to friends but there’s no posh car or yacht. I’m very comfortably off and if I never write another word, I have more than enough to keep me happy and look after my family.”

Jacqueline Wilson not write another word? That’s never going to happen. n

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

Win four tickets for Hetty Feather, Live on Stage! and a signed copy of the book by answering the following question. How many books has Jacqueline Wilson written? Answers to [email protected] by Sunday, 11 May

Hetty Feather, Live on Stage! 27 to 31 May, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh. Recommended age seven plus, tickets from £16-£21 ( Hetty Feather by Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Nick Sharratt, is published by Yearling, £6.99 ( Daydreams And Diaries: The Story Of Jacqueline Wilson, until 2 November, V&A Museum of Childhood, London (

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