Jacqueline Wilson at Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival

Jacqueline Wilson at Cardiff Children's Literature FestivalJacqueline Wilson is an impressive author. I read and loved her books when I was a child and she is still churning out brilliant (and fabulously illustrated) books, year after year, with 38 million books sold in Britain alone. The Story of Tracy Beaker has been turned into four different series on CBBC, and Hetty Feather has been adapted for TV and stage. She also has her own magazine and regularly speaks at events around the country. I should not have been surprised, therefore, to see a queue of families snaking its way outside Cardiff City Hall in anticipation of this event.   

Jacqueline Wilson is also an impressive speaker. She held the attention of a room full of children (most of whom couldn’t see her because she was sitting down) for just over an hour, moving from one subject to another, never wavering or pausing. She has the voice of a storyteller with a quiet, calm enthusiasm and a strong sense of humour.

Queue for Jacqueline Wilson event

The queue to get into Cardiff City Hall

She began by describing her own childhood enthusiasm for writing, how she would take her weekly pocket money into Woolworths to find “the perfect notebook” and “the perfect pen” in the hopes that one day she would also be able to write “the perfect story”. She would go home on a Saturday afternoon and begin writing a new story straight away. On Sunday she would still be writing, but by Monday she would have given up already and moved on to something else.

Book by Jacqueline Wilson - The Butterfly Club

Jacqueline Wilson wrote book number 101 (The Butterfly Club) very quickly…

Jacqueline left school at 17 and studied to become a secretary, although it wasn’t really what she wanted to do. She described seeing an advert in the paper: “Wanted – Teenage Writers” from the company DC Thomson, who were planning on creating the first ever teenage magazine in full colour. She wrote a short story to send them, but instead of the usual “romantic, lovey dovey, boy meets girl story” she decided to write a funny story, based on her own real experience, about “going to your first big dance with all your friends”. They bought her story for three pounds. “No matter how much I’ve earned since,” she explained, “nothing has ever meant so much to me as that three pounds”.

After “bombarding them with stories”, they offered her a job in Dundee which, she said “was a scary prospect” for a seventeen-year-old. But she took the job, and had a great time. They even named a magazine after her – Jackie Magazine. She talked about some of the more unusual work she’d done, such as writing a mother and baby column at the age of 18 (having never even held a baby) and faking 8 different ‘reader’s letters’ every week for a magazine which didn’t actually get any real ones. She even wrote a horoscope column, making everything up, and nobody ever seemed to notice.

It was funny to hear her describe how she actually lost count of how many books she’d written. She knew she was approaching 100 books and used to joke that she’d “like to write 100 books and then I’ll keel over!” but when she got to book number 100 (Opal Plumstead), she was a little worried that her prediction might come true, so she wrote book 101 “very quickly indeed!”

Copies of her new book 'Rent a Bridesmaid' were on sale

Copies of her new book ‘Rent a Bridesmaid’ were on sale

Book number 101 was The Butterfly Club, a book about triplets. She said that she particularly likes writing about sisters because she was an only child, and sister relationships have always fascinated her. Apparently Double Act is one of her favourite books (and it just so happens to be my favourite of her books too).

Book number 102 was Katy, which is a re-working of the classic What Katy Did by E. Nesbitt. She explained how she wanted to make the book realistic, saying that “if you have a severe spinal injury which puts you in a wheelchair, it doesn’t matter how good or patient you are, you’re not going to walk again.” She wanted to write about “what it’s really like” for a girl to go through all that.

Rent a Bridesmaid is her newest book, and isn’t officially released until May, but copies were on sale at the event. The plot was inspired by a young girl called Tilly who was very excited about being a bridesmaid and showing off her dress. This reminded Jacqueline Wilson of when her own daughter went through a similar phase, desperately wanting to be a bridesmaid, but with no weddings to attend. She had, in fact, bought her daughter a very pink bridesmaid dress as a special dressing up dress. She held up the new book and explained how her illustrator (Nick Sharratt) had got her characters “just the way they should be”.

Jacqueline Wilson's new book - Rent a BridesmaidMany hands went up at the end in a desperate bid to ask questions. Unfortunately there wasn’t time for many. One girl asked which of her characters was her favourite, and she said that it had to be Hetty Feather. She picked this character’s name as it sounded Victorian and “slightly quirky and unusual”, and she was very surprised when, three months after publishing the book, she “received a furious letter from a lady up north saying ‘How dare you steal my name!?’” She replied to the lady’s letter, explaining how she came up with the name, but the lady hasn’t ever written back.

Another girl asked where her inspiration and ideas come from, and it was interesting to hear her describe her morning routine, and how she has to make herself get started. “It’s a little bit of inspiration,” she explained, “but an awful lot of determination”.