Are Jacqueline Wilson’s books doing more harm than good?

Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

Rachel Campbell
Writer

As a child, I embodied the stereotype of the outsider finding solace in books they could relate to. I was shy and awkward, and in Jacqueline Wilson’s protagonists I saw myself – the misfit who remained positive despite their obstacles. Wilson has a way of capturing this optimistic loner in a way that means children can relate to their isolation, if not their exact circumstances. This surely produces more empathetic children, who are able to put themselves in the shoes of those dealing with grief, living in care, or facing abuse. Not to mention it helps make children in those particular situations make sense of the world around them and feel less alone.

Tracy Beaker, Wilson’s most renowned character, whilst not being the best role model, shed a light on the care system – a reality for lots of kids. Without Wilson’s portrayal of the troubled but charismatic inhabitant of the “dumping ground”, many may have been ignorant to the fact that not everyone has always had two loving parents and a warm bed. In the school playground, ignorance leads to cruelty, and I’m sure Wilson’s books (and their subsequent TV shows) have led to a greater understanding of differences.

The Suitcase Kid covered divorce, Lola Rose covered domestic violence, and The Bed and Breakfast Star covered poverty. She discusses such issues in a way that makes them accessible to young people; there are light moments, sunny dispositions and hope within the darkness of the realities she details.

In making these issues accessible to young readers, is this potentially damaging? For the most part, I’d argue no. Looking back on some of these books now, I think some of the content went over my head. I remember reading The Illustrated Mum, where the main character’s mother suffers from bipolar disorder, leading her children to assume the role of carers and struggle to keep their family together. I didn’t understand the complexities of mental illness or why the mum in the book acted the way she did, but it showed me that families can face many difficulties, and that if someone my age looked or acted very differently to me, there may be a reason. A few years later, when I faced similar difficulties, I think this did have a lasting impact in knowing that family members can love one another, yet may not be in the right place to care for one another at that time. The legacy of Wilson’s most provocative stories are one of empathy and understanding.

This being said, I do see where controversy lies, especially considering Wilson is against the practice of age banding. I understand not wanting to discourage children from reading more books, but it does seem clear that the content of some of Wilson’s books aren’t for all ages. Her Girls series explores issues which seem to be targeted at pre-teen to teen audiences, such as sex, body image issues, and puberty. For this age group, the books are informative and relatable, and touch on realities of eating disorders and being pressured into sex. The character Ellie struggles with bulimia nervosa in the book Girls Under Pressure, feeling as though she is not as skinny and therefore not as pretty or worthy as her friends. Of course this is a very serious issue, but Wilson’s approach to it could split readers. Ellie’s realisation that she has a problem and her decision to try and combat it makes the novel an important device in what is, to me, a necessary conversation to have with young teenagers who may face similar struggles. But in the book, Ellie does not seem to struggle with stopping her behaviours at all – she simply decides not to do it anymore and goes back to eating normally, which could give younger readers the dangerous impression that eating disorders are simply a diet plan that they can use and stop at will.

However, Love Lessons is undeniably problematic. It details a young girl, Prue, who has a crush on her teacher, referred to as Rax. He reciprocates these feelings, which is not presented as the main issue in the novel, and they even kiss. When their affair is revealed, there is an element of victim-blaming from the headteacher, as Prue says, “None of this was his fault” and her response is, “I’m inclined to believe you.” The headteacher asks if Prue ever thought about how Rax could have lost his job and faced a court case, and it is never acknowledged that Rax has abused a minor and this needs to be reported. Instead, Prue is expelled and Rax faces no consequences. In a sea of what I believe to be helpful, informative books which spark necessary conversations about serious issues, this one completely misses the mark.

Whilst I believe Love Lessons to be harmful with its failure to acknowledge this abuse and how it should have been dealt with, I do believe the majority of Wilson’s books have been useful in sparking important conversations and creating a greater understanding of issues children go through, highlighting that their peers may be facing a lot more than they know about. So I’d say leave Love Lessons off the bookshelf, and take your pick from the 110 others.