7 brilliant (but brutal) Jacqueline Wilson books to reread as an adult
Written by Kayleigh Dray
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
Which Jacqueline Wilson books are worth rereading as an adult? Other than The Illustrated Mum, obviously?
Jacqueline Wilson’s books have proved surprisingly controversial over the years. But, while some have criticised them for being “full of issues”, they have always been incredibly popular – and that’s because they don’t shy away from the fact that some marriages end in divorce, some children grow up in the foster care system, and some families look very different to the ‘perfect’ two-parent, two-children model peddled by the media.
Wilson’s books acknowledge the fact that some homes are abusive, that some kids go to bed hungry, that some are bullied at school, that some are bullies themselves. They don’t assume everyone is growing up in a house with a garden: instead, they’re set on council estates, in social housing, and in tower blocks. They explore big, bold, ballsy themes, such as grief, mental health, sibling rivalry, and falling in love. And, despite all of this, they’re packed to the brim with funny, relatable, and larger-than-life characters. The kind of girls you hoped might step off the page and into your life, as a ready-made best friend.
As someone who grew up sharing a box-room with her sister (one which was just big enough for our bunk beds!), filling up on free school dinners, and all-too-aware of the fact my parents were different to the others at the school gates, I found Wilson’s books to be incredibly comforting. They made me feel… well, they made me feel seen, I guess. Normal, even.
And, even now, as a fully-fledged adult, I often return to the few surviving Wilson paperbacks on my bookshelf (I’ve moved a lot over the years, à la The Suitcase Kid, and tragically always seem to lose one or two in transit) and pull one out for company.
You can imagine my reaction, then, when I noticed that Jacqueline Wilson was trending on Twitter this week. Why? Because someone on the social media site had dared to suggest that, before JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was published, “women authors were unheard of.”
“OK class,” reads one of the many, many replies to this absolutely ridiculous claim. “Raise your hand if you read a book by a woman that was published before 1997.”
Of course, many names were put forward (indeed, we have a list of 107 brilliant female authors you should read, if you’re in the market for such an article), with people listing off the likes of Malorie Blackman, Toni Morrison, Enid Blyton, and Mary Shelley. None, however, appeared more frequently than Jacqueline Wilson.
With that in mind, then, I’ve decided to look back over her books (of which there are over 100, at this point) to highlight seven favourites. Seven favourites which, if you so wish, you can reread now as an adult, and still enjoy every bit as much as you did as a kid.
The Diamond Girls
Aimed at older readers, The Diamond Girls deals with adult themes of birth, sexuality, teen pregnancy, gang-culture, abuse, and post-natal depression. It also, though, spins a compelling tale about four sisters who find themselves living in a derelict house when their heavily-pregnant mum’s plans go awry. Our protagonist is Dixie, who reminds us frequently that she’s not pretty or clever or streetwise like the rest of the family. And so, when she stumbles across a dark secret, she finds it difficult to convince anyone that it’s not just the result of her overactive imagination.
The Illustrated Mum
Marigold is the ‘illustrated mum’ of this book’s title, thanks to her head of bright red hair and the elaborate tattoos covering her body from head-to-toe. Dolphin, Marigold’s youngest daughter, idolises her mother: she loves that Marigold plans exciting adventures for her and her sister, Star. That one day can be spent making hundreds of cakes in their tiny flat, the next scouring Brighton for her long-lost boyfriend. That life with Marigold is never boring
Star, though, disagrees, pointing out that a day of baking usually means a month of living off bread and butter. That a city-wide search for an ex leads to blisters, rumbling stomachs, and heartache. That life with Marigold is always stressful.
The warmth and humour of this slim tome belies its heavy story, which sees two girls coming to terms with their mother’s depression, mental instability, and alcohol problem. Read with a pack of tissues to hand.
Fourteen years ago, April was found in a rubbish bin as a newborn baby. Now, she’s settled with her foster mother, Marion – but there’s still a part of April that’s desperate to know where she really came from, and who she really is. Cue her sacking off school and heading out into the world, with just her satchel and a train ticket, on a desperate hunt for the woman who abandoned her all those years ago.
Everyone remembers Vicky Angel. It tells the tale of Jade, a shy girl who’s spent years living in the shadow of Vicky, her loud, confident best friend. And so, when Vicky is killed in a tragic accident, a shattered Jade finds it hard to believe that her BFF is no longer around.
The trouble is, of course, that Jade’s not the only one who’s finding it hard to come to terms with Vicky’s death: her dearly departed best friend is, too. And so, whether Jade is in lessons, out running or tentatively trying to make new friends, Vicky is there at her ear and all-too-determined to make her presence felt.
A tear-jerking tale about grief, guilt, and moving on.
My Sister Jodie
One of Wilson’s lesser-known novels, this book made me weep uncontrollably for hours as a teenager. Even now, just thinking about it, I can feel hot tears pricking at my eyelids and I feel a desperate urge to call my own sister.
My Sister Jodie, narrated by shy little Pearl, sees the book’s two sisters relocated to grand, fusty old boarding school, Melchester College after their parents find themselves jobs there.
When they get to school, though, things begin to change. Jodie, always so bold and confident, struggles to fit in with her new classmates. Pearl, though, comes out of her shell and starts making her own friends for the first time – so much so that she even begins to wonder if she needs Jodie as much as she used to.
But, when the school’s Bonfire Night celebrations end in tragedy, Pearl suddenly realises quite how much Jodie means to her.
After running away from her abusive dad Jay in the middle of the night with her mother and younger brother, Jayni adopts a new name – Lola Rose – to make it hard for him to track her down.
At first, things seem to be going well. The trio go to London, check into a hotel, and buy themselves new wardrobes to fit their new identities. They treat themselves to cream cakes in glittering restaurants, to toys at Hamley’s, to a day out at the zoo. But, when the money runs out and Jayni’s mother gets some unexpected news, the book takes a seriously dark turn.
India lives in a large, luxurious house with a mum she can’t stand, a dad she adores, and a diary she keeps in sincere imitation of her heroine, Anne Frank. Treasure, meanwhile, lives on a nearby local council estate with her loving grandmother – although she’s constantly afraid that she will be forced to return to her mother and violent stepfather.
A chance meeting sparks a great friendship between the girls. And, when Treasure is forced to go on the run, India comes up with a hiding place inspired by her favourite writer.
Is it really safe for an asthmatic girl to spend days on end in a secret attic, though? Only time will tell…
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