Jacqueline Wilson: face to face with real families

Jacqueline Wilson, who sells 50,000 books every week, doesn't do e-mail and has only just bought a mobile. Hilary Macaskill meets the children's favourite who prefers personal contact with her army of fans
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The Independent Culture

Tomorrow, Jacqueline Wilson, whose stories about real family life strike a chord with most girls (and even some boys), appears at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. She's likely to be the star attraction: at the Hay-on-Wye festival, the queue for her was longer than those for Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney. She chuckles at the memory: "That was delightful."

She will have met thousands more admirers in the past fortnight after the tour to promote her latest book, Dustbin Baby (Doubleday, £10.99): she started at Canterbury, travelled up to Lincolnshire, Bradford and Manchester (where she launched a reading group), then swooped down to the West Country as far as Truro, with a day in the Isle of Man.

Jacqueline Wilson really doesn't need to do this now. Sales of her books average 50,000 every month; she has had them adapted for stage, television and radio, and won prizes – but she's a publisher's dream, always happy to go on the road. "I know some authors find it gruelling, but I like it. The publisher always tries to put me up in a hotel with a pool; I can swim in a different place every day. And I love bookshops!"

Dustbin Baby, her 21st book for Transworld, deals with a characteristically difficult theme. (It was manic depression in The Illustrated Mum, divorce in A Suitcase Kid, death in Vicky Angel.) Here, 14-year-old April, abandoned at birth on 1 April, spends her birthday – after a row with her foster mother – revisiting scenes of her childhood in an attempt to find out more about herself.

The novel lives up to the reputation Jacqueline has acquired for handling emotional subjects with involvement but a lightness of touch (what The Spectator called "benign empathy with young victims of family dysfunction"), and tuning in to contemporary preoccupations in a way that makes her books immediately accessible.

A mobile phone – or the absence of one as a birthday present – plays a significant part in Dustbin Baby. Jacqueline herself now has a mobile phone. She used it to phone the café where we were to meet: "Very bold!" she says. "In 10 years' time I'll be using e-mail."

She has only recently acquired a computer, previously typing her stories on a manual typewriter. And she still writes her first draft in longhand, often on the train as she whizzes around the country.

She was not, she points out, an overnight success. "For years it was a matter of supreme indifference to people that I wrote books. It's really only the last four years when it's gone 'swoosh', though I think that's true of children's books generally." A sign of her increased stature is her first tour of the US last spring (and a page in Time magazine). This is interesting, as her subject matter is very different from the fantasy that characterises successful British exports such as J K Rowling and Philip Pullman.

"If you write realistically, using British colloquialisms and school settings, you are handicapping yourself," she says wryly. "But the street-wise style and English flavour has been kept intact."

Her first fiction was for adults: crime novels. "I'd started off writing what I thought was a straight novel, but it was put on the crime list. So I had to continue in that genre, which I found hard." She now revels in "the sheer joy and luxury of writing what I want to write".

The change in her fortunes came with The Story of Tracy Beaker, in 1991, her first title for Transworld and the first time she wrote in the first person as a child. It also marked the beginning of what she calls her "heavenly artistic pairing" with Nick Sharratt. "His covers are eye-catching and original, and though I deal with dark and troubling things, he conveys them in a way that is light and frothy. At first, I wrote loads of notes on illustration in the margin. I don't have to do that now."

"That has played a huge part in her success," says Naomi Cooper, Transworld's publicity manager. "It makes her books cohesive and gives them an instantly recognisable look, which helped her sales enormously." What also helped is Transworld's attitude to her: "We promote her as we would Terry Pratchett."

But she works hard, too. She keeps in tune with her readers by visiting schools and libraries, sometimes three a week. "I am with children a lot; I am naturally interested in them. And I get hundreds of letters – they're forever chatting about what they want for their birthday or what they have done."

"She has such a following," says Jennifer Morris of the Lion and Unicorn Bookshop, in Richmond. "Children just greet her as if she's an old friend." Indeed, to many children she is an old friend. She has been in correspondence with some children for years. "Some are now at university," says Jacqueline. She receives 2-300 letters a week, and replies to them all.

It is, she acknowledges, a major enterprise. "There's ten times more writing of letters than of the books. I used to fantasise about the partner of my dreams. Now it's the PR of my dreams."

In recognition of their loyalty, she dedicates books to young readers: in Dustbin Baby it is Emily Eaves, "who's been writing to me since she was 10. Now she's in Year 10. Vicky Angel is dedicated to Elizabeth Sharma. She makes me things: dolls, and a key-ring in cross-stitch of one of the twins in Double Act. When The Lottie Project was staged at the Wimbledon Theatre, I took her with me."

Slightly elfin in appearance – silver cropped hair, neat, pointy black boots – she also has a streak of exoticism that must entrance the children she meets, with her black velvety clothes, silver bracelets, and heavy silver rings on each finger (a frog on her thumb).

They don't impede her as she signs a book for Ellen, a firm fan, carefully sketching a self-portrait ("I've learnt to do a Nick Sharratt-style drawing of myself") with a chunky dark silver pen encrusted with stars – a present from her daughter. "She said, 'It's flashy, it's silver!' ". Jacqueline flourishes her bracelets with a laugh.

Her daughter, Emma, is a Cambridge lecturer. "We meet in London, have a bit of culture – an exhibition perhaps, and then do a girly shop."

Inevitably, Jacqueline's favourites are the bookshops on Charing Cross Road. She now has 15,000 books in "a house that's too small. I've turned the garage into a library – no, that's too grand a word, book room. Funnily enough, though I could now afford to move from Kingston, I don't want to. Maybe it's the thought of packing all those books."

She emits great joie de vivre, in her work as well as in person, though she never forgets her feeling of responsibility. "Children are desperately easily influenced. I was once talking to a group where a lot of girls had plaits. One said it was because of the girls in Double Act. If you have an effect over something as benign as a hairstyle then you can't just write what seems right for your story."

For that reason, she took out a mention in one story of a boy sniffing lighter fuel, though she had made plain the perception that he was a "sad loser". "My editor pointed out I might be introducing some children to this concept. So I changed it."

It's an anecdote that says much about Jacqueline Wilson's art: the finger on the pulse of modern childhood, her conscientiousness, her lack of preciousness and her relationship with her publishers. And it goes a long way toward explaining her success.

Jacqueline Wilson will be appearing at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, at Cheltenham Town Hall, tomorrow at 11.30am. Tel: 01242 227979

Jacqueline Wilson: a biography

Jacqueline Wilson was born in Bath in 1945, but spent most of her childhood in Kingston-on-Thames, where she now lives. She left school at 17, and worked as a journalist for the publishers DC Thomson in Dundee on a new teenage magazine (which was named Jackie after her). She started writing fiction when her daughter, Emma, was born, and had her first novel – for adults – published when she was 24. She has written children's books for Macmillan and Oxford University Press, and was first published by Transworld (now her sole publisher) in 1991. Her prizes include the Children's Book Award (for Double Act, A Suitcase Kid), the Smarties Book Prize (for Double Act) and most recently the Guardian Children's Book Award (for The Illustrated Mum). In a 1997 poll to find the nation's favourite children's book, Double Act was voted 10th – the only contemporary title in the top 10. Television adaptations of The Story of Tracy Beaker and Double Act are scheduled for January 2002. Over five million copies of Jacqueline Wilson's books have been sold in the UK, and her latest book, Dustbin Baby, is published this month by Doubleday. Her next book, Secrets, will be published in 2002.