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In Praise of Jacqueline Wilson by Elizabeth Hawksley

February 21, 2013

 queenie[1]One of the pleasures of taking over the  children’s editorship for the Historical Novel Society Review recently has been discovering Jacqueline Wilson’s historical novels.

I was lucky enough to hear her speak a few years ago, at a British Library event. Several children’s authors, including Jacqueline Wilson, were discussing Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, one of my favourite books as a child. Unlike one of the other authors who airily dismissed Frances Hodgson Burnett as being of little account and, instead, talked about his own work, Jacqueline Wilson spoke intelligently and sympathetically about The Secret Garden. I awarded her a metaphorical gold star.

When her historical novels began to come through my letter box for review, I pounced on them eagerly and I have not been disappointed.

Her latest historical novel is Queenie. It’s set in 1953, Coronation year. Elsie Kettle lives with her Nan – her unreliable mother is a chorus girl and rarely at home – but Elsie doesn’t mind too much; Nan is her favourite person in all the world and they plan to see the coronation together. It will make up for the children and teachers at school who look down on her and make spiteful comments about her mother.

Then disaster strikes: both Nan and Elsie fall ill with TB. They are parted and Elsie is taken to the children’s ward of a Sanatorium and faces a painful treatment lasting at least eight months. How will she cope with the strict regime and no news from Nan? Her mother seldom visits and, when she does, she’s entirely self-centred.

However, there’s the beautiful snow-white ward cat, Queenie, who takes a special liking to Elsie; and Nurse Gabriel who’s so kind; and then Elsie discovers that she can tell stories that enthral the other children. For the first time in her life, she has real friends. And, as Coronation Day draws near, there is another surprise: the children’s ward will have a Very Special Visitor.

Jacqueline Wilson has the gift of being able to get inside a lonely child’s head. We experience both Elsie’s vulnerability and her stoicism. She’s matter of fact about her Mum and all the ‘uncles’ who come and go, but she also makes upsetting mistakes through ignorance and misunderstanding which get her into trouble.

An illegitimate child who lives with an ailing grandmother in poor circumstances is always going to be at a disadvantage, and Jacqueline Wilson doesn’t pull her punches. But she also knows what’s important: love. Elsie and Nan are very close, and, in her absence, Elsie comes to love Nurse Gabriel and Queenie. With love to help her through, we feel sure that Elsie will be all right.

I’m not surprised that Jacqueline Wilson’s books are so popular, nor that she holds Honorary Doctorates from a number of universities, is a former Children’s Laureate and was appointed D.B.E. for her services to children’s literature in 2008. She deserves it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Susie permalink
    February 22, 2013 7:28 am

    This is great Elizabeth. I’ve just ordered it! I particularly admire Jacqueline Wilson because her writing is so perfectly tight and yet so light. Every single word is beautifully thought through and vital to the story.

  2. February 22, 2013 1:40 pm

    Such a great review! JW’s ability to see the world through a child’s eyes is brilliant.

  3. Elizabeth Hawksley permalink
    February 22, 2013 5:22 pm

    I particularly admire Jacqueline Wilson’s honesty. We live in a world where looks are highly prized. Elsie’s Nan has grey straggly hair, knotted fingers and wears funny baggy knickers, but to Elsie, who loves her, she’s the most beautiful person in the world. I think that’s a lesson children need to learn. Love isn’t about looks; it’s about cherishing someone as they are, warts and all.

  4. February 23, 2013 5:53 pm

    Thank you for your comments, Susie and Marion. I agree with you, Susie. It’s not easy to tackle the difficult subject of a selfish mother more or less abandoning her child, or a beloved Nan possibly dying of TB, but Jacqueline Wilson manages to do so in a way which is both emotionally truthful and yet sensitive to the feelings of a young reader who may be in a similar situation to Elsie.

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