Tracy Beaker author Dame Jacqueline Wilson on the explosion of celebrities' children's books

The bestselling children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson is keen that ‘children should be gently pushed forward’ in terms of literacy. Hannah Stephenson chats to her as her latest book is published.

Tracy Beaker creator and acclaimed children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson is contemplating the worth of children’s books written by celebrities. From Geri Halliwell and Ricky Gervais to Clare Balding, David Baddiel, Fearne Cotton, Paul McCartney and Whoopi Goldberg, many celebrities have penned books for children over the years.

Some, like David Walliams, have been much more successful than others.

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“I think some are very good indeed. I think others aren’t at all good,” says Wilson, the former Children’s Laureate and author of more than 100 children’s books.

Dame Jacqueline Wilson.Picture credit: James Jordan/PA.Dame Jacqueline Wilson.Picture credit: James Jordan/PA.
Dame Jacqueline Wilson.Picture credit: James Jordan/PA.

Wilson says: “I think some books are there not for a good long read and a lasting treasuring, but just to amuse and entertain for a bit and then disappear. I don’t really see much harm in it, but it’s like giving kids lots and lots of sweets, but not really a substantial meal.”

She says she’s only read the first of David Walliams’ children’s books.

“It did its job and I think he’s a very shrewd man. And I think if you have an eight-year-old boy, you know he can have a jolly good chuckle.

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“However, I was horrified when there was one survey of Key Stage Three children (from 11 to 14) in secondary schools and they were their favourites too, because he’s not writing for young teenagers but they’re still reading his books, which I suppose shows that they appeal. But I think children should be gently pushed forward somehow or other.”

She feels that celebrity is the way that books are sold now.

“I don’t see why celebrities can’t do children’s books, but I think a little bit of fame no matter how you get it is the real way that books are sold now. Look at the number of books that are recommended on TikTok and then become bestsellers. It’s a different way of thinking about who is writing a book.”

As for herself, at 78 Wilson, who is delightfully upbeat, witty and modern-thinking, remains prolific, having written three books a year for the past few years. She is famed for penning children’s stories with real-life gritty backdrops, whether it be separated parents, illness, unemployment or other difficulties children face in our contemporary world.

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Four years ago, she wrote a same-sex fictional love story, Love Frankie, aimed at aged 10+, which drew attention to her own personal circumstances. She has been with her long-term partner, Trish, for more than 20 years and they live in the Sussex countryside.

Wilson was married for 38 years before separating from her husband, printer Millar Wilson. She has said she’s not sure if she was gay when she married him at 19 – they eventually divorced in 2004, and have a daughter, Emma.

The author herself grew up in a fractious environment with two parents who disliked each other, she recalls.

“It was unconventional. I mean, I wasn’t beaten, I wasn’t starved, I was fed properly but there were rows or terrible sulks and you never knew what was happening and they forever wanted to split up, but my mum didn’t have enough to support me so that wasn’t a possibility.

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“I left home at 17, which was a relief in a way because when you grow up with rows all the time it is unsettling and if you’re a child sometimes you can’t help blaming yourself, which is perhaps why I try and write nowadays in a kind of protective way of any kids going through similar scenarios.”

Her latest novel, The Girl Who Wasn’t There, sees a family move to a tower – imagined from Wilson’s fascination with follies – after the pandemic, but it turns out to be not as much of a fairytale as they had hoped as the building is dilapidated, Dad is unemployed after his restaurant folded and there’s a sprinkling of spookiness as the youngest daughter starts talking to an imaginary friend.

Wilson shows no signs of slowing down, although several serious health issues have made her worry a little about getting older.

“I am fit, I go swimming, but I’ve had illnesses that could have been fatal. My heart failed, my kidneys failed, I had a kidney transplant about 10 years ago. I’ve gone through all those biggies and you always have a slight feeling you’re living on borrowed time. But it’s much more sensible to think of this day, this moment, rather than in the future.”

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She recalls a group of children she was speaking to asked her if she would like to go racing into the future.

“I said, ‘No! I’m hanging on here!’ It’s a thing you learn to live with.”

Her illnesses haven’t changed the way she lives her life, she reflects.

“Maybe I should have rested more. You inevitably slow down a little bit. I’m not so quick to jump up and do this and do that. So I try to take it easy. I mean, I am blessed with a lovely partner. I get breakfast in bed, which is a huge luxury.

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“I take pills in the morning and pills in the evening, for my heart and kidney. When Covid started I was classified as extremely clinically vulnerable.”

But she takes her two dogs for long walks daily, goes for her swims, eats healthily and continues to lose herself in writing.

“Friends and family very sweetly have said, ‘Look, you’ve got a nice house, you’ve got some savings. you’ve had a lovely career. Why don’t you slow down, why don’t you read books instead of writing them?’ and occasionally I think, ‘Yes, that would be fine’. But I can’t ever take more than a few days off writing.

“I have to have something to think about in the middle of the night when you wake up. It’s a method of lulling myself back to sleep. It’s a wonderful thing to be leading two lives – your real life and the fictional one that you’re inventing.”

The Girl who Wasn’t There by Jacqueline Wilson is published on March 7 by Puffin, price £11.99.

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