Q&A with Jacqueline Wilson

We speak to the former Children’s Laureate and next chancellor of the University of Roehampton

May 1, 2014

Source: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Former Children’s Laureate Jacqueline Wilson has taught on the children’s literature and creative writing MAs at the University of Roehampton since 2008. She has been a pro-chancellor for the past three years and in January was confirmed as the university’s next chancellor, succeeding BBC journalist John Simpson.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Bath just after the war, but spent most of my childhood in Kingston upon Thames, where I still live.

How has this shaped you?
I don’t think living in Kingston so long has particularly shaped me in any way, although certainly nearly all my children’s books are set in similar suburbs.

What do you see as your most important role as chancellor?
I want to spread the word on the excellence of Roehampton, liaise with as many students and staff as I can, and make graduation a truly joyous occasion.

Is children’s fiction/verse as important as the literature studied on most English courses?
I don’t feel we should label some literature as important and some not worthy of study. This same argument was used when universities started introducing women’s studies and gender studies. I’d happily defend studying many outstanding literary children’s texts, from The Secret Garden to Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

As a creative writing teacher, do you have any sympathies with Hanif Kureishi’s opinion that such courses can be a “waste of time”?
I don’t agree with his opinion at all and I think his remarks are hurtful and insulting to his students. Of course no creative writing course can turn someone with little ability into a creative genius, but good tuition can hone talent, help students develop a great love of literature and give support and guidance. Tutors can give practical help and might even make valuable introductions to publishers if a student is truly promising.

Your books cover difficult topics which many children have to face (bullying, adoption, foster care, grief, etc) and are often described as “social realism”; was this a conscious decision when you took up writing?
I suppose it was partly a conscious decision because the children’s books I read in the 1950s reflected a safe middle-class world where parents rarely argued and no one had any money problems. I wrote rather solemnly in my diary that if I was ever lucky enough to be a published writer, I would take a different view. However, I don’t start a book by trying to think of a difficult topic. I think of my character first and then I start to deal with whatever problems she might have.

An exhibition of your life has just opened at the V&A Museum of Childhood. Is it strange to see your personal effects/memories on public display?
I selected everything carefully to make the exhibition as interesting as I could to all children. I knew they’d like to see the replica of my childhood bedroom, some of my dolls and stuffed toys, the pictures I used to have pinned up on my wall, the books that were my particular favourites.

Have you had a eureka moment?
I’ve had a few. I think the most important was when I wrote The Story of Tracy Beaker in a new child-friendly style and asked if the text could contain many illustrations. I knew this was the way to get many children to read the book. How lucky I was to get Nick Sharratt to illustrate this, and all my subsequent books.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing is always having an imaginary other life inside my head. The worst things are all the time-consuming but worthy extras that go with being a successful writer.

What keeps you awake at night?
The most banal things. I worry if the boiler is chuntering alarmingly – and I find it hard to get to sleep until I hear the little high-pitched mews that mean my two cats have come back home for the night.

What’s your biggest regret?
I suppose there are a few, but I don’t believe in looking back and regretting anything. My most trivial regret is that I didn’t learn to ride a bike as a child. I’d love to be able to cycle down country lanes now, though I don’t think I’d like to ride in today’s cities.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
It certainly costs a frightening amount nowadays to gain an undergraduate degree, and sadly it doesn’t guarantee a good job at the end of it (though I’m pleased to say Roehampton graduates do very well in the job market). But what it does do is stretch the mind, help you to develop powers of analysis and enable you to learn in depth. It also gives you a chance to enjoy a good social life for three years, helping you make friends with people from many different cultures and countries.

john.elmes@tsleducation.com

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