Young at heart: Jacqueline Wilson is back with a new book – and her first venture into videogames

The silvery, petite and very pretty sixtysomething woman chatting to me over coffee is a Dame of the British Empire, but there is absolutely nothing of the grande dame about Jacqueline Wilson, whose heart-rending but cheerful stories of vulnerable children sell in their millions in more than 30 languages, mostly to children aged eight to 14.

We are at a hotel in London's Waterloo to talk initially about Wilson's best-known character, Tracy Beaker. About to get a new lease of life as the heroine of a videogame, Tracy is a feisty, troubled, troublesome, but profoundly lovable child in a care home. She narrates several books and has featured in a number of BBC series. I tell Tracy's creator that I had grave misgivings about fine books (by a former Children's Laureate with a brief to encourage reading, no less) being reduced to a videogame – until I saw the game in action and realised how surprisingly bookish it is.

"Yes, I had doubts, too," she agrees, telling me that she sees herself as a sort of protective foster-mum to Tracy. "I had heard that videogames were often violent and, given Tracy's volatility when she's distressed, it would have been easy to hijack her." So she insisted on a full consultancy role. The result is a game which requires users to read whole sentences and get involved in shaping the narrative by making choices for Tracy. It is, we agree, likely to nudge young game addicts towards reading the books. Bravo.

Wilson hopes that Tracy Beaker: The Game will entice more boys, too. She has no idea ' how many boys read her books, but at signings – and in her huge postbag – 90 per cent of her fans are girls. "Although my books are read as part of school classwork, too, so boys are involved there," she says.

Quietly spoken, elegant and articulate in her unassuming way, Wilson has published more than 90 books for children and teenagers over the course of the past 20 years. And every word she writes and speaks makes you realise just how deeply she cares for children and how well she understands how they feel when, for example, they are forced to be quasi-parents to a bipolar mother, as in The Illustrated Mum, or they have to deal with motherlessness and the death of a beloved pet as does the child in The Cat Mummy. Patron of the children's cancer charity Momentum, Wilson works hard to help sick children, too.

Then, last year, heart trouble pulled her up short, putting her in hospital. And although she has made a good recovery, it has forced her to rethink her work schedules.

"I used to swim 50 lengths every morning but now I get up and lie on my lovely Victorian chaise longue and write for an hour, longhand. I find being still sleepy is a good time for creativity. Then, later in the day, I aim for a couple of hours to put that day's work on the computer and revise it."

The swimming is now occasional, partly because Wilson doesn't care for being accosted by excited children in the changing-room. "I like children very much – but only when I'm dressed," she says wryly. The adults with whom she used to swim before breakfast were more circumspect, providing the day-to-day chat missed by people who work from home, as Wilson has always done.

"I try to avoid hypochondria, but I do have to be careful these days," she says, telling me ruefully that when she fainted recently in a hot, stuffy room at a reception, the organisers called an ambulance. "I expect they were thinking 'Oh God, she's died on us!'"

Being "careful" doesn't seem to stop her from taking on masses of commitments. I am fascinated by a chunky little leather-bound book on the coffee table. A well-thumbed prayer book? Surely not. No, it is Wilson's diary. "It's ridiculous," she says, picking it up and leafing through it. Every page is thickly covered with busy black writing. No wonder – as she admits – it is sometimes difficult to ring-fence writing time.

But somehow she does. Her meaty, new novel, Hetty Feather, is set in the late 19th century: unusual territory for Wilson, although I surprise her by reminding her of two of my favourite Wilson short stories, both historical: "Call Me Blessed" (1986), about the Virgin Mary, and "The Daughter" (2000), about a Hampton Court kitchen maid at the time when the future Queen Elizabeth is born.

There is a strong Wilson-esque girl as the narrator at the heart of Hetty Feather and it is as much of a page-turner as anything she has written. Hetty, a foundling, is brought up by very decent foster parents until the age of six, when she has to go back to the Foundling Hospital in London that "owns" her – a terrible experience for any child, although foundlings were better looked after physically than most poor children in the community.

"I am a Foundling Fellow," Wilson explains, "and this book is my response to the honour." Three inaugural Foundling Fellows were appointed in 2007 by the Foundling Foundation, with Duffield Clore funding and a brief to develop original, creative initiatives for children.

Wilson researched most of Hetty Feather from her own collection of 15,000 books in her spacious Kingston house, purchased five years ago when her library outgrew her previous, very small house. "Hetty Feather was a perfect convalescence project," she says, explaining that a life-long love affair with late-Victorian Britain meant that a lot of the book's background was already in her head.

She is now three-quarters of the way through a new book – probably to publish in March 2010 – about a troubled child with celebrity parents.

I have seen dramatisations of several Wilson books – such as The Lottie Project and Secrets at the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon. Isn't it very difficult to hand over your "baby"? "No: Vicky Ireland, my usual adapter, is a novelist's dream," she says. "She won't change storylines because it upsets children in the audience who know the books but, skilled actor and director that she is, she finds wonderful ways of presenting it on stage." Wilson has also been generally happy with TV adaptations such as last year's Dustbin Baby (BBC).

I ask her about critics, since I remember the MP Ann Widdecombe vitriolically declaring that the subject matter of The Illustrated Mum was unsuitable for a children's book because the two girls belonging to the mother of the title have different fathers. "I try to reflect real life," she says. "I'm not condoning any of the sad things in my books, just acknowledging that they happen and that children have to deal with them." Then she grins: "After all, when dear old Phyllis [PD] James writes about murder, no one assumes she approves of it!"

As a girl herself, Jacqueline Aitken, who grew up in Kingston upon Thames, didn't shine at school, and left at 16. Then she moved to Scotland to work on a girls' magazine. There she met and married a printer named William Wilson and moved back south with him.

Her only daughter, Emma – now a Cambridge academic – was born when Wilson was 21. "I was a young mother lucky enough to have it both ways," she says. "I could look after Emma full-time during the day and write at night. That made us very close and we still have one very special holiday together each year." Her marriage lasted for more than 30 years before ending in divorce.

Justly proud of her achievements – though neither of us gets around to mentioning the DBE, the first ever given to a children's writer, in the 2008 New Year Honours – Wilson is keen to tell me about her ongoing work as Professorial Fellow at the Roehampton Institute, part of Kingston University. "I teach six seminars a year to a selected group of MA students on the Children's Literature and Creative Writing courses as well as giving an open lecture," she says, adding with a grin: "Not bad for someone who left school at 16, eh?" It's hard to disagree.

'Jacqueline Wilson's Tracy Beaker: The Game' will be available on Nintendo DS and PC from 11 September. 'Hetty Feather', is published on 1 October

The extract

Hetty Feather, By Jacqueline Wilson (Doubleday £12.99)

'...They opened a door at the end. It was empty apart from an old blanket and a chamber pot. "No!" I cried. "No, please – you can't put me in there!"

"Oh yes we can, Hetty Feather. You stay there and pray to be a better girl," said Matron... The door slammed shut and I heard the sound of a key turning. I was locked in! I heard their footsteps retreating. Perhaps they were simply trying to frighten me. They would come back any minute. They couldn't leave me locked in here'

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible