Jacqueline Wilson, a slight 68-year-old woman with short grey hair, glasses and a quiet voice, is not the average object of mass hero worship. Yet the phenomenally successful author, whose 100th book will be published this year, has a following large and devoted enough to strike envy into the heart of any teen pop-star.
Her literary creations – Tracy Beaker, Hettie Feather and many more – are well known to most young readers. Now Daydreams and Diaries, an exhibition about her life and stories will allow her fans to learn more about Wilson herself.
The exhibition is opening at London's Museum of Childhood after a hugely successful stint at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books in Newcastle. It will run until November, but parents on the lookout for Easter holiday activities in the capital may be keen to visit in the next few weeks.
When we visited, on the exhibition's opening day, Wilson was present along with her long-term illustrator and good friend, Nick Sharratt. His bright, cheerful and easily expressive drawings have also accompanied books by Julia Donaldson, Jeremy Strong, Kes Gray, as well as many of his own composition (Ketchup on Your Cornflakes being a particular hit in our house).
It is clear from seeing Wilson interacting with her small fans that much of her ability to understand and express the concerns of children comes from her facility in talking and listening to them.
As a child she enjoyed the stories of Enid Blyton, but unlike her early role model who didn't enjoy time with real children, Wilson clearly does. A queue of young readers has formed before her and Wilson is friendly, encouraging and interested in all of them.
While she is hugely popular amongst children – young girls in particular – from the age of around seven and up, parents are perhaps less universally keen. The subject matter of some of her books is more 'gritty' than many would like. Divorce, death, being taken in to care and friendship problems are all topics she addresses. This is, she has said before and explains in some of the exhibition displays, because these are subjects children write to her about often.
For a long time Wilson replied to every one of the letters she received. Now the sheer volume makes the task impossible, but she still reads them all and replies to as many as she can. Some of the letters which have particularly moved, amused or cheered her over the years are included in the exhibition.
Wilson's story is presented in an inviting, hands-on way. Visitors are greeted by a video welcome from the author before finding themselves in a reproduction of her 1950s council flat bedroom.
Alice, seven, was interested to read that while Wilson longed for a pink paradise, limited funds meant that second hand brown furnishings were what she got.
Mums of a certain age will be amused, and enjoy a nostalgia fix, reading some of her contributions for the magazine – on boys, babies, diets and more.
Through the exhibition, alongside the background to some of her best-loved books are snippets of information about her own family life. Alice was charmed by small story books Wilson created for her own daughter Emma.
In a section about the book, Cliffhanger (about a timid, nervous boy forced to go on an adventure holiday) children are asked to write down something they feel proud to have done and pin it on the wall. Achievements already shared when we arrived included braving a zip wire, singing in public, being head girl and having two big sisters. Alice spent a while thinking before adding her own single-handed banana bread making.
More hands on activities include designing tattoos, having a go at illustrating Wilson's characters using a light box and Sharrat's templates and dressing up as a Victorian foundling in the style of Hettie Feather.
There are also plenty of opportunities to read with a well-stocked bookshelf on offer.
Charlie, nine, was previously unsure about Wilson's books (deeming them more aimed at girls than boys). He had enjoyed The Suitcase Kid, but, despite being an avid reader, had tended to pick other authors in the library. After a quick look round he disappeared. We found him cosily ensconced on the sofa in the Tracey Beaker corner, absorbed in The Bed and Breakfast Star.
This exhibition is a very enjoyable outing – and a celebration of reading, writing, drawing and pursuing your ambitions.
Daydreams and Diaries: The Story of Jacqueline Wilson is at the Museum of Childhood until November.
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