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Review: Dame Jacqueline Wilson at Stratford Lit Fest:

The Tracy Beaker author is back with a new book set in the 1920s. She reveals all at Stratford Lit Fest.

Dame Jacqueline Wilson appeared before a packed audience in Stratford-upon-Avon to share details of her new book Dancing the Charleston, discuss My Mum Tracy Beaker and answer fans’ quizzical questions.

The warm, engaging Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather author was among an excellent line-up of headliners at Stratford Lit Fest’s Children’s Day, including her long-time illustrator collaborator Nick Sharratt, Horrid Henry creator Francesca Simon, author/illustrator Lydia Monks, Star Wars illustrator JAKe and illustrator David Litchfield. She gave a captivating family-friendly talk on Sunday, May 5 between 12 – 1pm at Stratford Playhouse. As expected, it was very popular with a largely female young audience aged nine +.

Dame Jacqueline has just finished writing Dancing the Charleston which she says was inspired by her love of the 1920s, particularly the clothes, popular culture, arts scene and Joyce Lankester Brisley’s children’s classic Milly Molly Mandy. “I have always loved the 1920s. As a child, I used to read the Milly Molly Mandy books. She leads this ordinary life in a village and I adored this,” she said. Her new novel is also set in a village close to a huge country estate, Somerset Manor. Her central character is a young girl, Mona, who lives on the edge of the village in the gatekeeper’s cottage with her aunt, a seamstress for Lady Somerset – influenced by one of the writer’s own relatives.

She said: “My grandmother was trained as a milliner and she made all my mother’s clothes. My grandmother also made a lot of my clothes and she was so thrilled to have a great-grand-daughter she sewed baby clothes for my daughter Emma. I always see her at her old treadmill sewing machine. My most vivid memory of my grandmother was that she kept pins in her mouth which horrified me – I always thought: ‘what if she swallowed one!’ She was so sweet, and how I wish I kept some of those clothes!”

But Dame Jacqueline says Auntie’s character in Dancing the Charleston is quite different to her grandmother. “Auntie adores Mona but is so strict – nagging her to speak nicely and despairing if she gets her ankle socks dirty. Auntie tries her hand at making children’s clothes and sells them to Harrods. I enjoyed writing the Harrods part and the decorating of Somerset House.” Towards the end of the book she introduces a new flamboyant Bohemian figure – Mr Benjamin, Lady Somerset’s grandson – who inherits the estate and endeavors to bring it up-to-date. Mr Benjamin has some good ideas  – one of these was an outdoor swimming pool and he holds a sea creatures ball. He decides to go as a starfish!” When illustrator Nick Sharratt asked what Mr Benjamin looked like Dame Jacqueline let him into a little secret. “I’d based his appearance on my friend Will!” Ending a novel, she says, is like drawing plaits: “tying all the strands up with a ribbon.”

The much-loved author has now sold more than 40 million books in the UK and in her previous book revisited the heroine of her first 19991 bestseller, The Story of Tracy Beaker, as a grown-up. My Mum Tracy Beaker narrated by her daughter Jess. Dame Jacqueline says she wanted this to be accessible to seven or eight-year-olds who had never heard of Tracy and thought other readers who had grown-up with her might be interested in what has happened to her and meet up with some of the other characters she knew. My 10-year-old, who hasn’t read the first book, is totally engrossed – and is reading it at the same time as another of the writer’s masterpieces, The Illustrated Mum.


Here’s what Dame Jacqueline had to say in a 10-minute quick-fire Q&A with the audience:

Q: Who’s your biggest inspiration?

People who inspire me now are people even older than me, still writing or being an artist like the painter David Hockney and the (Warwickshire) scriptwriter Andrew Davies, who is still adapting the classics in a way that is wonderful. He’s in his eighties yet still one of the most youthful people. As a child, the writer who most inspired me most was E S Nesbit – author of The Railway Children and Five Children and It. Like me she liked silver jewellery and had short hair.

Q: What’s your worst fear?

It used to be having the builders’ in I used to feel my space was invaded. A few years ago I moved and found the loveliest of builders, which is a good job as the house needed a lo of work, and he became one of my best friends. I now have this silly fear of travelling. I don’t mind sitting on trains or planes but I live in an area where when you go to the train station you’re often likely to hear: ” I am sorry to announce the cancellation of the…” And if my train is cancelled I then have to think ‘how am I going to get to so and so, where an audience is waiting’.

Q: What’s Your favourite colour?

Black and silver are colours I like to wear. But of actual colours I would say, blue. If I open the curtains ad the sky is a beautiful blue I think no colour is as wonderful or uplifting.

Q: Why did you pick the name Mona?

It seemed quite an old-fashioned name. It gets harder when you think I’ve written 110 books  – I have used up so many names! I get a lot of emails from children saying: ‘Can you put my name in a book?’ but I don’t think they would be very happy if I were to use it for a nasty character. I know for definite I detest the name Jacqueline – no-one can ever spell it! But I have worked too hard to make my name well-known to change it to something like Charlotte.

Q: How long did it take to write Dancing The Charleston?

When I send a book to my publishers it’s like handing in homework to your teacher.  I spend six months writing a book and two months fiddling around with it. I can manage two books a year.

Q: What’s the best book you’ve read by someone else?

When I was your age I loved Noel Streatfeild particularly Ballet Shoes, Little Women and What Katy Did. In my teens, I read Anne Frank’s Diary over and over again and in my twenties, I liked Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Now I particularly like the work of American writer Anne Tyler and The Accidental tourist is my comfort read. I admire Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar but it’s not a comfort read. Of the classics, Jane Eyre has to be my favourite, and I also love David Copperfield and Great Expectations.

The Lit Fest foyer at Stratford Playhouse


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