A good book can offer a form of escapism relished at any age, but in the uncertainty of our pre-teenage years the comforts of literature were needed more than ever.
One teenage fiction author in particular that supports and opens the eyes of her readers is Jacqueline Wilson, who’s been churning out empowering books for almost 30 years. The author is known for her storylines on taboo subjects – such as mental health, homelessness and death – and for helping young girls to understand the world around them.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why we loved Wilson so much when we were growing up: she treated us like women, not little girls. And it is for this reason that we bought so heavily into her stories, crying with Jade over the death of Vicky (Angel), brimming with terrified empathy for a bewildered Dolphin watching her (Illustrated Mum) mother paint herself white with toxic paint, and rooting for Mandy (Bad Girls) when the bullies at school turned on her.
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Although Wilson’s stories vary greatly, one thing that remained constant was the strong feminist themes that she wove into her stories. Pick up any of her books – go on, we dare you – and you’re guaranteed to meet an interesting and fiercely independent female character. And, although there wasn’t always a picture-perfect ending for these young heroines, we always reached the last page feeling more worldly, more knowledgeable, and more… well, more ‘grown-up’.
So join us as we revisit some of our favourite Jacqueline Wilson novels, and look at the important life lessons we learned from reading them all those years ago...
The Suitcase Kid
For any children of divorce out there, this tale was sure to hit home – hard. The Suitcase Kid follows the story of what happens when Andy’s mum and dad’s marriage breaks down, putting an end to all sense of normality in her life. She’s forced to say goodbye not only to the ideallyic Mulberry Cottage that she calls home, but also to being the only child in a nuclear family of three.
That’s right: Andy becomes stuck in the middle of two families after her mum finds happiness with the tiresome Bill and his three children, while Andy's father moves in with Carrie and her two kids. Pretty soon, tall and awkward Andy embodies the loneliness that every confused child feels, and in the process manages to isolate herself even from her BFF at school. We acutely feel the destructive pain of Andy’s self-pity and watch how, in the end, the person she hurts most with her retreating behaviour is herself.
Lesson learned: Stubborn self-pity won’t get the results you hope for. And, if you need help, it’s always best to ask for it.
My #currentread for the #readathon! I managed to read Suitcase Kid yesterday and 100 pages of The Raven Boys. I've not long woke up, but 3 hours left, lets go! - #book #books #booknerd #bookworm #booklover #bookaddict #bookstagram #reading #bookgeek #readathon #deweys24hourreadathon #middlegrade #jacquelinewilson #vickyangel
Possibly one of Jacqueline Wilson’s most famous books, Vicky Angel explores the different stages of grief, focusing closely on how the mind can refuse to let go.
Best friends since nursery, Jade and Vicky’s relationship falls into the stereotypical leader and follower dynamic. Flamboyant and confident Vicky is the most popular girl in school, a hit with the boys and always telling her BFF what to do. Jade, on the other hand, is shyer, quieter, and far more timid.
But, when Vicky is killed in a car accident, a heart-broken Jade is left unsure of who she really is.
Yes, this is a story about dealing with grief, but it’s also about learning to believe in yourself. And, over time, Jade builds the confidence to step out of Vicky’s shadow, make new friendships at school, do the things she’s always wanted to do, and let her BFF go.
Lessons learned: There’s no time we feel less comfortable being ourselves than in our school years, but the old saying is true – there’s no one more qualified to be you, than you.
In Dustbin Baby we meet troubled teen April who, minutes after being born, was left in a dustbin by her biological mum. Even our ten-year-old selves could understand that was a pretty rough start to life.
Since then, she’s navigated her way through failed adoptions, foster homes and a school for girls with ‘problems’, never understanding where she’s come from. But, when she sets out on a journey to discover who her real mum is, she soon realises that it doesn’t matter where she’s come from – the most important thing is the people that care about her now.
Lesson learned: Blood doesn’t always run thicker than water and it’s what people do that matters, not where they come from.
The Bed and Breakfast Star
Right from the very first page of The Bed and Breakfast Star, we fall in love with loud-mouthed and impossibly chirpy Elsa. She’s happily lived alone with her mum all her life –until a new man comes on the scene, Mac the Smack.
It’s not just Mac’s discipline techniques that are questionable: Elsa’s step-dad (and eventual father of her two half-siblings) also struggles to hold down a job which results in the whole family being forced to move numerous times, before finally ending up in a shabby bed and breakfast hotel.
Throughout the book, though, Elsa delights us with her positive attitude and relentless jokes. And, when a fire breaks out in the B&B, it’s her loud, travelling voice that successfully wakes up the guests and ultimately saves their lives.
Lesson learned: Keep a smile firmly on your face and remain optimistic. Confidence is key, as Elsa says repeatedly.
We all empathise with Daisy when she finds herself the new girl at school – as we all know, trying to fit in, look cool, laugh along with the right jokes and make friends with the right people isn’t easy. So, when she gets invited to be part of the Alphabet Club (a group of girls whose names all start with a different letter of the alphabet), we feel pretty chuffed for her.
But this story has echoes of Regina George and her army of skanks, pushing the belief that every group should have a leader – in this case the scathing Chloe. It’s not long before she decides that sleepovers are the way forward, and that everyone should have one for their birthday. Daisy, though, is afraid that her disabled sister Lily will embarrass her when her new pals come over.
Throughout the book, the conversation about disability and the awkwardness surrounding it is slowly opened up, culminating in a pretty powerful ending. And, as Wilson orchestrates Chloe’s eventual downfall, she expertly skewers that same “tribe mentality” so many of us struggle with as adults.
Lesson learned: Having a best friend is great if it works for you, but there’s no need to put all of your expectations of friendship on one single person. Also, if someone is mean to you, just make them wee themselves ad all your problems will be over. (we kid, we kid)
The Cat Mummy
When we first read that Verity’s adorably old and slightly smelly cat Mabel disappears into a wardrobe to die, our 10-year-old selves were more than a little freaked out. Even more so when Verity tries to mummify her poor pus and keep her hidden in her room. But, as Wilson deftly explains that Mabel belonged to Verity’s mum, who died in childbirth, things become a lot more understandable. And, let’s face it, everyone can relate to that feeling of trying to hide something from those around you.
Of course, Verity is found out come the end of the book, and quickly realises that she should have opened up to her family about Mabel’s death in the first place.
Lesson learned: Communication is key, and if you’re hiding something you’ll probably get found out sooner or later and have to deal with the issue then anyway.
In Bad Girls, Mandy is shy, sweet, scared to speak up for herself, and bullied for not being ‘cool’ enough.
But, when peach-haired Tanya and her enviable 90s fashion (be still our tween beating hearts) arrives on the scene, she pushes Mandy well out of her comfort zone and shows her how to live her best life. There’s just one problem: Mandy’s mum and dad think that her new pal is a bad influence – a Bad Girl, if you will. And, sure, Tanya has a definite naughty streak. But, come the end, she teaches us that we should never judge a book by its cover.
Lesson learned: Don’t assume that everyone around you has bags of confidence, even if it looks like it. Tanya may be loud, but she’s as jealous of Mandy’s intelligence as Mandy is of her don’t-care attitude – we all have something to offer.
Last, but certainly not least, is the ultimate Jacqueline Wilson crowd-pleaser, Tracy Beaker.
Arguably the author’s most famous character, it’s easy to see why Tracy’s adventures have spanned across an entire franchise of books, as well as a TV series, game, and play. From the very first moment we meet her, Tracy instantly captivates with her hilarious and seemingly fearless narrative – but, despite falling in love with her confident character, we’re soon left heart-broken by the disappointment she feels towards her parents, who dump her unceremoniously in a foster home.
Tracy desperately wants a better life – and she often spins far-fetched tales about her ‘movie star’ mum. But, while she thinks she wants a glam Hollywood lifestyle, what she needs is a loving home, And, when she eventually realises that, Cam is there waiting with open arms.
Lesson learned: What you want from life may not necessarily be what you need.