Reading is the key to everything
Jacqueline Wilson makes no claim to having been the world's best mum - ‘I sometimes got tetchy and I was always a rubbish cook,' she says frankly - but there is one aspect of caring for her daughter Emma about which she is particularly pleased and proud.
‘There was just one thing that kept us both thoroughly happy and contented, and that was our reading aloud sessions. I'd sit her on my lap and cuddle her close and we'd turn the pages of a big picture book together. When there was a dog we'd go ‘woof, woof' and pretend to stroke him. When there was a picture of a cake we'd pretend to eat and go ‘yum, yum'. It was as simple and as basic as that.'
The reading aloud sessions did not stop when Emma learned to read. Instead, Jacqueline read her older books that she could not yet tackle on her own.
‘It's the thing I cherish about her childhood,' she says, ‘we both feel very nostalgic about that time. When she was 14 she enjoyed doing patchwork, and I would read Charles Dickens to her, and then if I had a particularly grim mountain of ironing to do, she would read to me. Reading aloud somehow helps you to get to grips with the characters.'
Because reading aloud has been such an important part of her own family life, she was surprised to find some years ago that it is an experience many children never enjoy.
‘I was talking to a group of school children and I said something about a bedroom story, "you know, like your mum or dad reads to you every night." They looked blank - and these weren't children in some really grim sink estate, they were from ordinary middle-class families. Very few of them had stories read to them when they went to bed. Story tapes are fine, they stop you going bonkers on a long car journey, but they're not the same as having your mum or dad reading to you, and that doesn't happen so much now.
‘When I looked into it a bit, I was surprised to find that parents would often read to small children who couldn't read for themselves, but then stop when they were six, instead of carrying on until they're 10 or 11, reading them more challenging books that they might not tackle on their own. That's one good thing about the whole Harry Potter phenomenon - it has encouraged a lot of dads to read to their children. It need not cost anything, because you can borrow the books from the library, and it's something that families can do together.'
During her time as the UK Children's Laureate, Jacqueline turned this private passion into a public campaign, making reading aloud her top priority. She promoted a book called Great Books to Read Aloud, saying: ‘It's a wonderful way of bonding together and simultaneously entering the magic world of the imagination. It's the easiest way of making sure your child is hooked on books for life.'
Some parents, though, say that it is hard to find time to read to their children.
‘Yes, it's terribly easy for me,' says Jacqueline, ‘long since finished with being a mother and always having had a job where I could juggle my time to be with my daughter when she came home. It is exhausting working full-time with two children at home, but you don't say ‘Well, I know you're hungry but I haven't got time to give you any food.' If you haven't got time for a cuddle and to read together for 15 minutes every evening - well, maybe something needs to change.'
Apart from urging parents to read to their children, Jacqueline tries to reach out to children who do not read much, talking to big crowds at the seaside and a summer carnival. She helped to set up a travelling exhibition to which well-known authors lend manuscripts and personal items, and perhaps even talk on video about how they write and how they get their ideas. She hopes this will encourage children to write as well as read.
‘It will show that writing is not always done in the way in which children are taught to write in schools,' she explains. ‘Authors are not generally sensible people who sit down at their desk on the dot of nine-o-clock. They are odd and they do things in different ways, and sometimes that is the best way to write.'
Jacqueline's own way of working varies.
‘Most of it is written inside my head,' she says. ‘I only spend two hours a day, maybe less, writing a first draft. I use a notebook and I hand write it. I like the idea of a notebook - it's much more portable than a laptop. And I'm very lucky, if I take a travel sickness pill I can write anywhere, on a train or in a car. I don't need to be sitting quietly at my desk.'
Yet although she has written ‘about 90' books, she says that halfway through the writing process she always begins to doubt whether this latest one is going to work.
‘I don't plot it out too much beforehand, and I never write with great confidence. Often when I'm in the middle of a book I don't like it, but I've learned to just keep forging ahead, not to rewrite as I go, just concentrate on getting to the end. Then you can start all over again and change anything you want.'
Her characters become a big part of her life.
‘They are who I think about first thing in the morning and last thing at night when I go to sleep. I go swimming every morning, and I think about them then. In fact, I think about imaginary people more than the real people in my life! Then, when I finish the story, these characters just sort of waft off, and I feel empty inside my head and wonder what I should think about.'
Many people have commented on Jacqueline's ability to write in the authentic voice of a child.
‘What does that say about my maturity!' she laughs. ‘If I had to write about another 60-year-old woman I would find it very difficult to do, but I have a vivid recall of what life was like as a child. It's still hard work, though. I try very hard to make the books easy to read, but that doesn't mean that they're easy to write. I care very much about each word. Because the language is very colloquial, people think that I just toss them off, but it actually takes a lot of work. Unfortunately, young children tend to believe that if it takes them three days to read a book it must take me three days to write it!'
These days, simply finding time to write can be difficult. In addition to selling 100,000 books a month in the UK alone, Jacqueline has also spawned a considerable industry of TV deals, websites, merchandising, and a stage show just going into production. Yet after waiting many years for success, she expresses herself thrilled to bits with her celebrity status - ‘I could retire but I wouldn't want to in the slightest,' she says.
So, as regular as clockwork, she writes two books a year - and just as regularly they shoot straight up the best seller lists. Yet Jacqueline happily leaves her publishers to monitor the sales figures, deriving her own satisfaction from getting out and meeting her readers, talking and reading to children.
‘When I go to schools I get a group of average children, and yet you can see with almost all of them that their eyes light up when they talk about their favourite stories. They do seem to be very keen readers. In fact, in the last few years it has become quite cool to read.'
In her rare moments of private peace, she still likes nothing better than to curl up with a good book.
‘I find reading is one of the most stimulating and enjoyable things to do,' she says. ‘It's the key to everything else. If you read well, in many respects you can educate yourself and step into so many worlds. It's the only way you can find out what actually goes on inside other people's heads. In a film, you see the external actions, but in a book you know what they are thinking and feeling. Reading is a way of expanding the mind, and helping people to understand what it is like to be another human being, even an imaginary one.'