Jacqueline Wilson: ‘Anybody reading between the lines of Tracy Beaker would see that Cam is clearly gay’

The celebrated children’s author recently came out and has released her first book about a same-sex love story. But she hopes it resonates with anyone falling in love, she tells Kate Wyver

Monday 02 November 2020 06:31 GMT
Children's author Jacqueline Wilson: 'When I was younger I was in a straight marriage, so I never really had to go through any kind of teasing'
Children's author Jacqueline Wilson: 'When I was younger I was in a straight marriage, so I never really had to go through any kind of teasing' (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

I didn’t really think in terms of ‘I must have a boyfriend’ or ‘I must have a girlfriend’,” says Dame Jacqueline Wilson of her crushes growing up. “I just hung around waiting to see who would turn up.” She chuckles over the phone. “I did have to hang around for a very long time, I must say.”

Earlier this year, the beloved 74-year-old children’s author revealed that she was in a long-term relationship with a woman called Trish, a former bookseller. This was the first time the creator of characters including Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather had spoken publicly about her sexuality. It came alongside the announcement of Love Frankie, Wilson’s 111th book, and her first LGBTQ+ love story.

“I haven’t written a teenage novel for a while,” the former Children’s Laureate says from the home in East Sussex that she and Trish share with their dog, Jackson. “I thought, this time around, why don’t I write about a girl falling in love with another girl?” Aimed at young adults, Love Frankie follows the yo-yo relationship between shy, writerly Frankie, and brazen, popular Sally. “It’s not just a book for someone thinking they might be gay,” says Wilson. “It's for anybody that experiences that extraordinary, exhilarating and terrifying feeling of falling in love and not knowing whether the person you're so keen on returns your feelings.”

Love Frankie proudly sports a rainbow cover underneath a shiny dust jacket doodled with little hearts, illustrated – like most of Wilson’s novels – by Nick Sharratt. When Wilson was growing up, young adult books as we know them didn’t exist, with the genre only starting to blossom in the 1970s. In the last decade, however, the canon of queer YA literature has boomed. “To my great joy, I've had quite a lot of feedback from young lesbians who have said ‘I wish this book was available when I was 13’,” Wilson says. “I feel so pleased about that.”

Wilson is the most borrowed author in UK libraries. More than 40 million copies of her books have sold worldwide, and she has won every award going for children’s literature, plus an OBE in 2002. Though she had been publishing books for two decades before she created the character of Tracy Beaker, it was those stories of the boisterous child living in a care home that became a surprise success and made Wilson’s name. In 2002, The Story of Tracy Beaker was made into the now-classic TV series starring Dani Harmer, with the show’s theme song famously sampled by Stormzy on his 2019 track “Superheroes". (Harmer is set to return to the character as an adult, in the BBC’s forthcoming three-part adaptation of Wilson’s sequel book, My Mum Tracy Beaker.)

Though Frankie is Wilson’s first gay protagonist, this is not the first time her books have featured queer characters. “Anybody reading between the lines in the early Tracy Beaker books,” says Wilson, “[would see that] her foster mum Cam is to my mind clearly gay. In the older books, when Tracy is grown up and has a daughter of her own, Cam gets herself a very nice girlfriend. I thought it was time she had a bit of fun in her life too.” Her 2007 book Kiss also explores touches on newfound queerness, as the main character Sylvie can’t figure out why her best friend Carl isn’t into her.

Dani Harmer and Emma Davies in the forthcoming ‘My Mum Tracy Beaker’ (BBC/Brilliant Films)

In Wilson’s love stories, her characters don’t just fancy people, they fall head over heels for them. (“I’m a very old fashioned soul,” Wilson says simply.)  When Frankie first realises that she’s in love with Sally, she can’t even bring herself to admit it to her diary for fear someone might find it. “We’d had the inclusivity lessons,” Frankie tells us in the book, “we had our celebrity icons, we all said it was totally cool to be gay – and yet I’d heard people being teased and called stupid names, especially the boys.” When Frankie does come out, there is a little teasing from boys in her class, and questions of phases from her grandma, but her experience is a largely positive one. “I think it's astonishing how people have become so much more tolerant and understanding and sophisticated about different ways that people are,” Wilson says. “It's such an improvement.”

Wilson’s own experience of coming out was relatively straightforward, and didn’t happen until much later in life than Frankie. “When I was younger, I was in a straight marriage,” she says – from 1965 to 2004, she was married to Millar Wilson, a printer turned policeman with whom she has a daughter, Emma – “so I never really had to go through any kind of teasing.” She laughs and clarifies. “I went through my own teasing because I had a mother that made me have terrible home perms, so I just looked ridiculous a lot of the time, and got teased about having this wild exploding hair everywhere. But I didn’t get teased for any sexuality that wasn't considered the norm in those days.” Though her announcement earlier this year was news to her fans, everyone close to her knew that she had been with Trish for years. “It took me by surprise,” she told Times Radio at the time, “it just happened, and nobody blinked an eye.”

Love Frankie’s release has been timely: it hit the shelves as primary and secondary schools in England have begun including information about LGBTQ+ families in their curriculums. This legislation was the cause of protests in Sheffield and Birmingham last year, and as recently as this month, a woman was sacked from her job as a teaching assistant after arguing against the teaching of LGBTQ+ rights in her school. “I do think it's about time,” Wilson says on the introduction of inclusive education. She admits that sex education is not the easiest topic to broach with kids, regardless of gender or sexuality. “Maybe children are more laid back and grown up than they were in my day, but even when sex education was the biology teacher talking about rabbits, we still got the fits of giggles.” But just like reading about gay characters in novels, these new lessons are designed to create empathy and understanding. “It's very important that children have the information in an appropriate way,” she says.

When the conversation turns to trans rights, a topic that is frequently inflammatory, with JK Rowling’s comments this year having caused enormous amounts of controversy, Wilson chooses her words carefully. “I fully support the rights of anybody to be whatever they want. It would be a wonderful world if we could all just accept each other and that was that. I think it's wonderful that most young people are tremendously accepting, and I think that shows that we've taken a great leap forward.” She contrasts today’s increased acceptance to her own upbringing. “If you were different in any way in the 1950s when I was a child, you were considered really beyond the pale. There was this terrible determination to have everybody conforming. Life has improved in so many ways.”

‘Love Frankie’ by Jacqueline Wilson (Puffin)

Part of the author’s success comes from her refusal to hide tricky or complex subjects from children, tackling topics such as divorce, homelessness and abuse in her books – but she believes childhood is much more complex today than it used to be. “You weren't expected to look perfect and be able to post wonderful photos on Instagram, and also be incredibly bright and sparky,” she says. “God, the pressure on the really young now is awful.” She laughs when I ask whether she has a focus group of 13-year-olds teaching her how to use TikTok, saying instead that she’ll occasionally chat to friends’ grandchildren to keep up. “I don't go too far in trying to be ultra cool and trendy,” she says. “By the time I've written something and then the book is edited and eventually published, probably some particular craze or type of slang will have dated anyway.”

In fact, Wilson actively dislikes modern technology. For the majority of her career, she wrote everything longhand, with a new notebook for every novel, but she made the switch to a laptop when she was on dialysis before receiving a kidney transplant almost a decade ago. “I was hooked up with my right arm, which is my writing hand, and I learnt very painstakingly to type a little bit with my left hand so that the four hours three times a week weren't wasted.” More than five decades on from the publication of her first book, Wilson still gets just as much pleasure out of writing as she did when she started. “When I’m standing in the supermarket or walking the dog, my thoughts will go to my novel. I would miss that so much.”

Wilson isn’t sure whether Frankie and Sally would make it as a couple in the long-term. “It’s often the way with first love that you fall for somebody quite inappropriate,” she says. “That’s part of their charm and excitement.” But, in a “very happy” relationship herself, the author’s romantic advice boils down to laughter and compromise. “If a relationship is 50/50, that's absolutely perfect. If it's 60/40, with you doing 60 per cent of the compromise, that can still work. But when it gets to be about 70/30 I think you have to think: is it really worth it? I think if anybody has managed to get through this weird year still feeling fond of each other and wanting to see each other, yes that's a very good sign. Everybody's relationship is different. As long as for the most part you get on well together, and can make each other laugh, well then, that sounds good.”

Love Frankie by Jaqueline Wilson is out now

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