The acclaimed children’s author talks to Chris Titley ahead of her York book launch

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‘I love York’… author Jacqueline Wilson. Photographs: James Jordan Click to see a bigger image

If York has a red carpet we should roll it out on Saturday (February 14). Writing royalty is coming to town, in the form of bestselling children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson.

St Peter’s School, Clifton, York YO30 6AB

Sat, Feb 14 @ 11am

£7 adults, £5 children, or £18 included a signed copy of The Butterfly Club

Waterstones York events page

Author of more than 100 books, including hugely popular series about children’s home resident Tracy Beaker and Victorian foundling Hetty Feather, Jacqueline, 69, will launch her new novel at St Peter’s School, courtesy of York Waterstones.

The Butterfly Club is about Tina and her transition to junior school. A fearsome teacher, a scary classmate and the plan to create a school butterfly garden all come together in the book, illustrated as always by Nick Sharratt.

In a wide ranging interview we talked about writing, schools, children’s hopes and fears, her concerns about the impact of social networks on young people – and what she plans to do while in York.

‘Teach Year 9? Absolutely not!’

The Butterfly Club’s heroine is Tina, the smallest of triplets. Where did the idea come from?

I’ve always been fascinated by sibling relationships, probably because I’m an only child. I’ve done identical twins before. If you’ve got twins that’s two of you, and you’re both in it together. If you’ve got triplets I thought that’s a slightly difficult number because it’s harder to be a threesome all the time.

If you have a multiple birth, sometimes sadly something goes a bit wrong. What would it be like if you were the triplet that has heart problems, you haven’t developed as quickly as the other two…? You wouldn’t be as independent as the other two. And the whole family would get into the habit of protecting you.


Tina’s teacher is quite scary at first.
butterfly-club-coverThere are still some teachers, maybe in their sixties, who’ve got very different points of view. So I thought I’ll have a teacher of the old school who believes in being quite firm with the kids.

My Miss Lovejoy in the book has really got a heart of gold. Schools still have people like this who effortlessly command silence from even the lippiest children.


And she’s not Tina’s only problem…

There’s always one kid who’s the bully, who’s the one that everybody’s scared off. I thought I’ll have my little girl Tina, this little cosseted child, fragile child, sat next to fierce Selma. My teacher will actually have a cunning plan…


Would you have been a good teacher?

Probably not. I like children, and if it were teaching literacy (apart from the grammar – they do seem to go overboard in teaching children all sorts of things now) I think I would have been reasonably inspirational.

But as I am practically innumerate, maths would have been a hell of a struggle.

You could say well, I could have been a secondary school teacher and just taught English. But secondary school, year 7 and year 8, that would be lovely. Sixth formers, lovely. Year 9? No. Absolutely not!


‘I pinch anecdotes’

A question from my daughter – and Jacqueline Wilson fan – Mia, 11. Do you base your characters on real people?

I would say it’s nearly all completely made up, although occasionally little bits of people that I know might creep in.

A friend of mine told me that when she was little, she was desperate to have a budgie. Her mum had a thing about birds, didn’t like them, and didn’t let her. So she bought one of those toy budgies that you get in pet shops to keep a real budgie company. She walked round for months with this budgie on her finger, pretending it was real.

I liked that idea. There’s a book of mine called The Diamond Girls, and the little girl in that, Dixie, has indeed a budgie like that.

So if there’s little anecdotes about friends’ childhoods, I’m not the right person to tell it to because I will pinch it!


Why do you mostly write about girls?

I like boys just as much as girls. But I feel I’m on safer territory writing about girls. I didn’t have any brothers, I didn’t have any sons. Most of my friends had daughters or granddaughters, rather than boys. I did feel I’m on safer territory.

Although I know lots and lots of girls are obsessed with both football and electronic games, they’re not quite so engaged [in them] as boys are. These are areas that I know nothing about and don’t wish to particularly.


‘Children talk more about bullying’

You get a huge amount of mail from young readers. How do you cope?

It’s always the constant worry. I used to take great pride in saying I wrote back to everybody. Now it simply isn’t possible.

I’m in the horrible position where basically I have to choose who I reply to, because otherwise I would literally sit up all night long replying to everyone.

I always reply to the ones who are ill or really seriously worrying about something. Or the ones who write really glorious, quirky letters that catch the attention.

I can’t help thinking of the little girls that I don’t reply to. It’s an awful feeling to think that they will be waiting at their computers for that ping, or waiting for the postman to come, and not getting an answer.


Have their worries changed over the years?

They’ve stayed pretty constant really. Kids are worried about their best friend. They like having pets. They get irritated by their younger brothers. The same old things.

Children talk more about bullying now. And certainly in some cases I think children are being horribly bullied.

But also the sort of thing that’s always gone on in schools, like some kid saying to another, ‘well you look stupid’ – something silly and innocuous like that – is now called bullying.

When I write back I try and be as comforting as possible and say I’m sure you’ll find a new friend, and try not to take any notice of that silly girl who says you’re stupid.


‘Social media pressures are dreadful’

Are you concerned about how social media is affecting children?

I just feel depressed by the whole thing. I can’t take a totally objective view because I’m a bit of a technophobe.

Although there’s a professional Facebook and Twitter page, I am not somebody that is truly interested in social networking at all. I know, particularly if you’re a young teenager, that is your social life quite often. I would find it very difficult indeed.

Obviously you want to feel part of things and be part of the in-crowd and everything. It’s difficult enough being a teenager as it is without all this worry about being on the right social network and people ‘liking’ you and everything.

I think it is dreadful, quite frankly. Let’s hope that in the future people aren’t quite so dependent on these kind of things.

What I am shocked by is the absolute cruel and abusive comments people make. Even on something delightful and worthy like Mumsnet. One time I was going to be doing a chat on Mumsnet so I got onto the website in preparation.

I was looking at comments from these nice young mothers, and somebody had made some statement about something. And they were saying the most dreadful things about her – real personal abuse, not just disagreeing with her opinion.

This seems to be what happens on the internet now: things that you would never actually say to somebody’s face. I do think that’s a shame.

All this rage and fury going around, I don’t think it can be good for people. I don’t know what the answer is, but I just thank god that I’m not a teenager now.


Do you worry that young girls are under more pressure about how they should look nowadays?

I think it’s a shame, yes. Women have always been obsessed about the way they look. Which I know shouldn’t matter, and yet somehow it does matter.

I think in the music world it’s rather good, in that we have a nice variety of women. You can have larger singers now, and they can be considered really cool and become very popular. So we’ve got slightly better there.


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‘I understand it entirely. I was that child’

‘Adult life is better than childhood’

You were a shy child. How did you gain enough confidence to do talks and signings?

Long ago, when I first started doing this, I found it agonising. It would prey on my mind if next week I was going somewhere.

Then I learned that the easiest way to overcome this is to do lots of it. No one can be desperately anxious all the time.

I found the more talks I gave, the easier it became.


That’s good for any shy Jacqueline Wilson fans to know…

Lots of children who queue up to meet me, when they’re in front of me they don’t know what to say at all, and they go red, and they shift from one foot to the other.

And their mum always gives them a little poke and says, ‘for goodness sake, don’t be so silly – you said you wanted to meet her’. The thing is, I understand it entirely. I was that child. And I had the mother who prodded me and said, ‘come on, speak up!’

I would like to reassure most of them that eventually you do get confident, or you learn to avoid the situations that you find difficult. This is the nice thing.

I can’t understand people that say childhood is the golden age. I think your adult life, when you can choose for yourself more or less what you’re doing, is much better than childhood.


You deal with many of the traumas of childhood in your books: why?

If ever I’m going through a really worrying time in my life I find it immensely comforting to find some fictional equivalent.

So if I’m writing about a child who’s parents are splitting up, or a child whose sister is favoured rather than them – all these very common experiences – I want to feel that my book is behaving a bit like a metaphorical hand reaching out and saying, ‘it’s OK, you’re not alone; this character’s gone through all this and it works out OK for her, and it’ll work out OK for you’.

Contrary to what some people think, I’m not in the business of depressing the nation’s children. I want to try and show it’s OK, I understand.


‘I never get enough time in York’

Are you looking forward to coming back to York?

I love York. It will be slightly irritating to me because I never get enough time to see everything.

If ever I go to York on work things, my publicist knows perfectly well I need to go to Bettys! It’s my favourite place. The only trouble is I sit there staring at that menu and I want at least half a dozen things, and I will take a big box of cakes home with me.

I love York’s bookshops, particularly the second hand and antiquarian bookshops. I love the Castle Museum and think that’s an absolutely wonderful museum.

I keep saying I’ll have to go to York for an actual holiday because I never get enough time there.