Or at least that was where it started. I had a week before me, during which I was planning and packing for a very big trip, two thick books lined up in the queue (which would be the wooden box between my front door and the couch), and Dustbin Baby already read. I was not that impressed, and took a stroll through the giant spreadsheet of my Best Books to Read, where I found a total of twelve more Jacqueline Wilson books. I was not pumped. But I was surprised.
Who is this Jacqueline Wilson character that she makes the top 1200 (or so) books thirteen times and yet ceases to impress me? I’ll tell you. She’s a British lady. She has written over sixty-one YA books. She is now some sort of tour de force, complete with a whole online wonderland of games and information, as well as more than a few books-to-movies. She became popular after something like thirty books, when she wrote The Story of Tracy Beaker. Her popularity is thanks almost entirely to the people of England. And here is her schtick: since the 70s, she has been writing short, accessible, encouraging yet realistic books about kids and teens in really tough situations. I ended up gobbling down six more Wilson’s books (that’s all my American library had) before laying out my judgement, and the topics that sampling covered (some of her most lauded, included) were being a foster care child, having a parent with a mental disorder, dealing with the death of a friend, going through parental divorce, being a twin, and being abandoned by your parents.
I can’t help but keep thinking about the comment I received about my book from Zack Smith at the local paper: “I’m just going to say it: More coming-of-age novels need stuff like this. Estranged parents and soured relationships can only take you so far.” And yet, I think that Wilson’s books, with their accessibility and their very real and positive outlook, are also important to children. And I don’t know who benefits more: kids who can relate to this stuff, or kids who can learn compassion and understanding. (On the other hand, I think romps into light, airy, and imaginary worlds is also good food for the developing mind.)
These are the books I read (some of them in an afternoon), in this order:
- Dustbin Baby, 2001
- The Illustrated Mum, 1999
- Double Act, 1995
- The Story of Tracy Beaker, 1991
- The Suitcase Kid, 1992
- Vicky Angel, 2001
- Girls in Tears, 2002
In the end, these books are not really my cup o’ tea, although there was some fun in breezing through them and analyzing them together. And really, I can see the merits of them. Really. Writing-wise, they were unspectacular. Wilson sticks to such straight-forward vocabulary that it can grow flat. At no time was I transported to a grassy hillside. While her characters are rounded out nicely, her plots (I think because of the featureless writing style) leave you wishing for more. With all these terrible, real-life situations and triumphant endings, I ended the last page of the last book wondering why my heart had not soared nor one lonely tear come to my eye. However, the ideas behind the books are solid, and the insight, empathy, and tact with which she writes about them are spot-on. She understands kids–and these kinds of kids (/preteens/teens)–unlike any other author (or even person) I have ever read (met).
Six random observations:
One, I absolutely love the way so many of her main characters see themselves in such negative terms (including, of course, their appearance, but also often their behavior) or even just unrealistic terms, but Wilson never takes the easy way out explaining and patronizing about how they really are beautiful or slender or kind or whatever. The character always slowly, and in a very understated way, discovers something redeemable about themselves, for themselves, and with the tender help of one compassionate person. We need not cue the sappy music.
Two, these books are for girls. Out of the seven I read, not one of them would be of too much interest to a boy. They were all about girls and written to girls. That’s all.
Three, part of how Wilson does her Wilson-thing is using illustrations (by Nick Sharrat) and other story-telling devices. Yeah, lots of YA books these days use them, too. Like Captain Underpants and Origami Yoda. Wilson uses different techniques in each book, like telling the story through a journal, or starting each chapter with a letter of the alphabet, or hanging the storyline in the structure of a walk through town. Got it?
Four, I also love that she is honest about how kids perspectives are often skewed, especially in that they are often attached where it is unsafe and repelled where it would be good. So many times, her heroine clung to an unhealthy relationship because it was familiar, justifying behaviors and running an internal dialogue of excuses, or separated themselves unwisely from people that could have offered them much better than they were already getting. We adults could take a hint, too.
Five, occasionally Wilson’s books bring up the occult or witchcraft, and not necessarily in a fantasy way. I believe she regards it as a type of play-acting, but the line is a thin one. Several of her characters imagine themselves using magic to change things around them or even hurt others. One of the characters imagines a friend who is an “ace” at the occult (turning into a vampire, etc.). Also, Christian belief is seen more in negative terms. The kid characters tend to view religion as worthless and even mock it, while the only positive religious character I read in Wilson’s books was sort of flaky about her religious affiliation to the point that you eventually forgot she was a Christian. (I only just now remembered her because the description of her stiff collar clashing with her lively pants was a stand-out.)
Six, there are movies. I have not seen any of them yet, and have no idea about their availability stateside, but I plan to look into it. \
And now I will give you my brief thoughts on each of the books.
Dustbin Baby was the one which I was referring to when I said I was not that impressed. It remains my least favorite out of the lot. I think the idea was a good one–Wilson is exactly the person who could and should write about the kid who gets left in a dumpster–but the end result was a tad mundane. Also, somehow with the real-time plot and flashback to memories thing, the timing got off.
The Illustrated Mum is a fascinating book for me, not least of all because I too have a family member with bipolar disorder. I found it to be part of the new language and dialogue about this and similar illnesses, where they focus more on the positive elements of the bipolar (or autistic or ADHD or whatever) personality. Being as that may, the mother was an entrancing character, and the struggles of the family so honest and accurate. Besides the slightly cheesy last paragraph, I found this book much better than the first.
Double Act deals with a subject I can’t say I’ve ever really read about, and that is learning to separate from your twin (or other very close relations or friends; I think that would apply, too). There were moments when the dominant-passive relationship (very prominent in Wilson’s overall writing themes) got to be a lot, but it was a fine read with what I though was one of her better conclusions.
The Story of Tracy Beaker, the book that put Wilson on the map, was a fine book. I’m betting it put her on the map for two reasons: one, it is from the perspective of a kid in the foster care system. Two, it is so honest and accurate and empathetic to the view of a child who has behavior issues. In fact, it takes a little while before you even realize, “Hey, this kid is a behavior risk,” because that’s not really how she sees herself. You like Tracy, and I enjoyed not having a sanitary, syrupy ending, but more of a slow self-realization and absorbing of the bits of pieces of compassion that happen in our daily lives, even if most of what we get is bad luck and bad people. (I can not speak to what happens in the rest of the books in this series.)
The Suitcase Kid was not a favorite, but I was still intrigued, witnessing what it might be like to be a child struggling with her parents’ divorce. I like that this book challenges the idea that divorce is normal and fine for kids, but also that it says to the reader, “It’s going to be okay, even if you’re parents are not okay and your new life is not perfect.” Just like all the other books, the solution is found when some third party puts a gentle spin on the world and the main character comes to a healthy realization about herself.
Vicky Angel was, by far, the most interesting of the books. It’s funny, because this is largely due to the truly-fictional element of the book (as well as the touch of romance). I mean, is Jade going bonkers, or is Jacqueline Wilson asserting ghosts are real? And that Vicky! Someone we love to hate.
Girls in Tears. Fine, I’ll admit it. I have not finished this book yet. I’ll update the entry, later.