Dame Jacqueline Wilson on her latest novel and favourite Surrey places
- Credit: James Jordan Photography
She may have recently moved to the seaside, but Surrey still holds a uniquely “precious” place in the heart of legendary children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson – not to mention the crucial role the county played in bringing everyone’s favourite and newly-returning feisty foster-kid to life
For those now entering their mid-to-late-20s, and their collective parents who will on the whole look back on a time before their young flew the nest, the sight of Dani Harmer’s Tracy Beaker recalls end-of-day bells, doors flung open, rucksacks cast aside, and sofas settled into at homework’s expense. For five seasons, between 2002 and 2005, Nick Sharatt’s gloriously simple illustrations blended in perfect harmony with youthful high-jinks and the occasional teary eye, as Dame Jacqueline Wilson’s most famous literary character ran the rule over her foster home, the so-called ‘Dumping Ground’, and its fellow inhabitants.
And 12 years since her last outing in 2006’s Starring Tracy Beaker, the award-winning Wilson is thoroughly excited at the upcoming prospect of a grown-up version of her titular tearaway. Entitled My Mum Tracy Beaker, Wilson’s latest novel will give fans a glimpse of what life held in store for Tracy after she stormed into the sunset with eventual foster mother, Cam.
“I’m thrilled to bits about it, I just hope everybody else who reads the book likes the way she has turned out too,” the 72-year-old enthuses. “I’ve been joking that I wanted to write about Tracy Beaker grown up because you couldn’t help but feel curious about what might be happening to her – particularly what kind of mum she would turn out to be. And after a while, I thought don’t just natter about it, get typing!”
These days, Tracy Beaker has a nationwide appeal: “Tracy and the TV character have become part of a lot of people’s childhoods,” nods Wilson. “They feel they own a bit of a her in a way, and why not?” Her earliest conceptions for the character that was, by the author’s own admission, to turn her from a prolific if unknown writer into a household name can be directly linked back to her time in Surrey. Although this year has seen her cross the border into Sussex to settle near the coast, Wilson’s relationship with her childhood county and the familial memories it continues to evoke remain very dear to her.
“My grandparents, my parents, they all lived in Kingston,” she explains. “I did leave home to go and live in Dundee with DC Thomson, but when I came back, having married very, very young – not necessarily anything I would recommend – we lived with my grandparents for a while because we couldn’t possibly afford anywhere of our own, and I just sort of stayed in Kingston for one reason or another ever since until just recently.”
When it came to alight on the original inspiration for her wild-haired and occasionally pugnacious protagonist, it could even be argued that the tearaway Tracy is, at heart, a Surrey child. “I actually got the idea from my local newspaper at the time, The Surrey Comet,” Wilson reveals. “They had a half page featuring children in care, who were very much needing to be fostered. I couldn’t help wondering what on earth it must feel like to be one of these children, old enough to read the feature and maybe their friends at school might spot it.
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“I didn’t have the courage, dedication and determination to take on a child myself, but I thought I’d write about one and what it felt like to be a child in these circumstances. And almost straight away Tracy Beaker sort of sprang to life.”
It would take over a decade before Dani Harmer’s Tracy hit TV screens on CBBC, but the combination of Wilson’s endearing prose and Sharatt’s engaging illustrations were enough to ensure this literary creation would be the author’s defining moment for years to come. Things even came full circle for Wilson in terms of Surrey’s role in realising the story, as she who was able to use the new-found financial security Tracy’s story delivered to live out a long-held local dream.
“My house in Kingston was very precious to me,” she says of the Victorian-era manor she resided in until just this year. “When I was a little girl going out with my grandma we always used to admire this house which was way beyond my grandmother’s means. And then, after many, many years of writing, I was lucky enough to be able to afford that sort of property myself. I did actually pop a little note through the owner’s door at the time saying if they ever did think about selling I’d be very interested because the house means a lot to me.
“Wonderfully, it was perfect timing and I got a phone call the very next day saying they were going to put it on the market! It’s lovely to believe in the shade of my grandmother flying about the chimney tops looking down at me living in the house we used to love together.”
It was in this house, rich in the heritage that continues to bond Wilson to the county to this very day, that she set about amassing a collection of literary works to rival that of the local place that she herself had learned to love to read.
“As a child, every summer holiday, almost every day, I went to Kingston library,” she beams. “I didn’t have many books myself, and I always thought about how wonderful it would be to own lots of books, so you never had to take them back, and if you fancied reading something you could always find it on the shelf. And now I would say I probably do have almost as many books as Kingston library itself, and I just love them.”
The Story of Tracy Beaker was by no means Wilson’s first book. At the relatively tender age of 15, she had “written something that was as long as a full-length book” although “it certainly wasn’t good enough to be published,” she admits. Nearly six decades later, and Wilson can claim to have authored over 100 books – most of which are aimed at eight to 12-year-olds – and has played a pivotal role in inspiring legions of school-children to embark upon a lifelong obsession as a bona fide bookworm.
“Although I vaguely know the plot and I know what my characters are like – I think about them quite carefully – after I’ve done the first few pages I don’t really know what’s going to happen next,” she explains. “I feel like if I can keep my own interest in the story, that should encourage the children to be interested as well. It’s just a case of: get started, go for it! And just enjoy writing it!”
The imminent return of Tracy Beaker and her daughter Jess can’t properly be understated in the world of children’s fiction. For older readers, Wilson’s tales mark a turning point for many towards a life filled with new and wonderful written worlds, whereas a generation of young readers will soon be taking their first steps on that same path under Wilson’s careful guidance. She’s even thinking ahead of time: “I’ve got bags of ideas, and Tracy has no idea what I have in store for her,” she says.
And if she was to meet the girl herself? “I’d thank her very much for making a huge difference in my life, and I’m sure I’d adore her company,” she smiles, before adding mischievously. “I’d like to see her once or twice a week, but she might be a bit full-on if she was around all the time. She’s arguably my favourite character, but some of my quieter fictional characters, I think, would make for better company!”
My Favourite Surrey…
• Bookshop - In Kingston there’s a huge great Waterstone’s in the Bentall Centre, which is lovely, and Richmond is only a quick bus ride away and the book shop there, The Open Book, is run by my friend Helena too. It’s a small shop but it’s always got a vast selection of books! Then, if you hop on the train to London, my favourite modern bookshop there is Hatchard’s – if I was being incredibly wicked and buying antiquarian books!
• Walk - I call it Home Park, nowadays, on maps sometimes they call it Hampton Court Park. When you go through Kingston, past John Lewis and over the bridge, there is a little gateway into a wonderful little park where, unless you are bound for the golf course in your car, nobody else can park their cars there so it’s nearly always wonderfully empty – apart from the deer! It’s a wonderful, wonderful place, and not a huge trek. Richmond Park, unless you’re very determined, you probably can’t walk all the way round and back again – whereas you can have an hour’s walk in Home Park.
• Writing space - In bed! Every morning I set my alarm relatively early, and then I sort out my cat and take the dog out, make myself a cup of coffee and get back into bed with my laptop and write for an hour. I’m feeling relatively fresh so long as the coffee has jerked me awake a bit! Nowadays, so much time goes into answering emails etc but as long as I feel that main hour of writing has happened, it doesn’t really matter if I get caught up with anything else later.
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