Dame Jacqueline Wilson on Kingston, writing and her memories of growing up in Surrey
PUBLISHED: 11:07 18 November 2010 | UPDATED: 11:33 24 July 2014
One of our most popular children's authors, Jacqueline Wilson spent her own childhood in Kingston where she still lives now, Here, the world-famous writer speaks to JULIA GREGORY about her memories of growing up in the county
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine, May 08
IT'S easy to see why Jacqueline Wilson is such a hit with her young readers. The author of 90 children's stories, she has sold some ten million copies worldwide, which have been translated into more than 30 languages. And she has won and been shortlisted for every children's book award going.
She is also looking forward to visiting Buckingham Palace this month having been made a Dame in the New Year Honours List, an accolade that reflects her popularity and the respect of her peers in the world of publishing.
"I was completely taken aback, but utterly touched too," says the 62-year-old, speaking at her Kingston home.
"It's such a funny sort of title - very quaint! I was absolutely astonished when I got the letter from Buckingham Palace. It's phenomenal!"
There's no chance of her getting ideas above her station though - not when she has her friends to keep her feet on the ground.
"I have had an awful lot of teasing," she laughs. "One friend keeps singing to me. 'There is nothing like a dame...'!"
Born in Bath, the celebrated author grew up in Kingston, living first at her grandparents' house in Fassett Road, and later in a flat in Cumberland House on Kingston Hill (she laughs at the suggestion though that a blue plaque may one day mark her childhood home).
She always wanted to be a writer and wrote her first 20-page book, The Maggotts, when she was a nine-year-old pupil at Latchmere Junior School in Kingston, before going on to Coombe Girls' School.
Her first 'proper' book, Hide and Seek, was published in 1972 and she's now the proud author of nearly one hundred novels, including a memoir about her Kingston childhood, Jacky Daydream, which is due out in paperback later this year.
The stories are real page-turners, with humour and characters that children can identify with. And speaking to her today, it's clear that Dame Jacqueline has plenty of time for her young readers.
In fact, she describes one memorable eight-hour book signing session that she completed without a toilet break.
"It was certainly a challenge to my bladder," she says. "But I thought if the children waiting in the long queue couldn't see me, they would think I had gone!"
Now book signings are limited to three to five hours, when she will meet 300 to 500 young fans.
"It still gives me a big thrill that my readers come to book signings," she adds. "It's a huge joy to meet them - so lovely."
Not only do the children turn up to her signings in droves, but they also write letters by the sackful too.
One of her most popular characters is Tracy Beaker, a scamp who has lived in children's homes and with a succession of foster parents, which led to a rather unusual proposition.
"Two little boys who lived in a children's home wrote to me with marriage proposals for Tracy Beaker," recalls Dame Jacqueline. "I think she would be very flattered."
Childhood memories of Surrey
In her autobiography, Jacky Daydream, she describes the Kingston of her childhood, including visits to the department store Hides, which now houses Borders bookshop, trips to the Kingston markets and regular treats at Peggy Brown's cake shop in Surbiton.
A regular borrower at Kingston library, she would frequently devour a book a day. Ironically, she's now the most borrowed writer in British libraries, which gives her pleasure.
Other memories include paddling in the pool at Claremont Gardens in Surbiton, close to the station, and walking home after getting soaked there one day.
She also enjoyed walks in Kingston with her grandmother - she now lives in the pretty house that her grandmother chose as her favourite - and remembers exploring the Surrey countryside with her father Harry.
"In the holidays, my father would take me for a hike in the Surrey lanes, to Guildford and Box Hill, where we went up the chalk path," she says. "I also loved going to the Silent Pool.
"This year, I want to go back to Leith Hill - I only went once as a child. It's so lovely being in this area - in three quarters of an hour you can be in such gorgeous countryside."
Back in the present day, the author has just completed two years as the Children's Laureate. During that time, she championed the art of reading aloud to children, and encourages parents to spend even just a few minutes a day reading with their families.
"Many people say they are so busy, they just don't have time to read to their child," says Dame Jacqueline, who has one grown-up daughter, Emma, and is now divorced. "But it's such a shame because the easiest way to get them to read is to read to them when they are young."
Kingston Readers' Festival
Dame Jacqueline is also patron of the Kingston Readers' Festival, which was founded by a friend, Sandy Williams. The pair discussed the idea on the way back from an event in Richmond and Wilson has supported it ever since.
"In a few short years, Sandy's made the festival a really huge success," says Dame Jacqueline. "She gets some of the top authors by ringing up the publicity people, and she's read all the books and knows all about the writers. It's lovely that Kingston University and Borders support it too."
In previous years, Dame Jacqueline has spoken at an event at All Saints' Church as part of the month-long festival, to raise money for church funds. This year, however, with her ever growing audience, she will be appearing at the bigger venue of Kingston's Rose Theatre (see details above).
"I first started speaking at the festival years ago and it's become a bit of a tradition," she says. "This year, I'm really excited about appearing at the new Rose Theatre."
Dame Jacqueline is also a familiar sight at the Polka Children's Theatre in Wimbledon, where she is a patron. The theatre has staged several adaptations of her work, to great acclaim.
"Vicky Ireland, who's a director and writer, does such wonderful adaptations of my work," she says. "In fact, the Polka is a fantastic theatre for children; they have a policy of not just putting anything on."
So what's next then for Surrey's most famous writer?
"I'm just about to embark on a sequel to Jacky Daydream, so Kingston will feature regularly in that," she says. "I did keep very detailed diaries and I've got a really big family photo album too!"
Soon, of course, she'll be able to add a picture of her date at the Palace, when she is formally made into Kingston's very own Dame.
A LIFE IN BOOKS
- Dame Jacqueline Wilson was born in Bath in 1945, but apart from brief spells in Lewisham and Scotland has lived in Kingston for most of her life.
- As a teenage journalist, she worked on the children's magazine Jackie in Dundee.
- She wrote her first novel when she was nine and her first book, Hide and Seek, was published in 1972.
- One of her most popular characters, Tracy Beaker, burst on to our pages in 1991 in The Story of Tracy Beaker. Tracy is a scamp who has to overcome many problems as she lives in a children's home after a succession of foster homes.
- Her story continues in The Dare Game and there have been five television series featuring Tracy.
- Double Act scooped the Smarties Book Prize, the Red House Children's Book Award and the Sheffield Children's Book Award. Its heroines, Ruby and Garnet, are identical ten-year-old twins, who are learning to cope with the changes in their lives after their dad gets a new girlfriend.
- The Illustrated Mum is Dame Jacqueline's favourite of her 90 books. The mum, Marigold, is covered in tattoos and was inspired by a woman the author spotted in the street.
- It was also the British Book Awards Children's Book of the Year in 2000 and won The Guardian children's book award.
- Her books are beautifully illustrated and usually feature the comic-like illustrations of artist Nick Sharratt.
- Dame Jacqueline has also written five crime novels for adults, a Totally Jacqueline Wilson handbook and readers can learn more about her Kingston childhood in last year's autobiography for children, Jacky Daydream.
My favourite Surrey...
La Terrazza, near Surbiton library, for a lovely, cosy celebration with friends and Italian food.
The Lion and Unicorn bookshop in Richmond.
Home Park at Hampton Court - it's just magical walking along the line of trees at twilight. It has fallow deer and parakeets too.
Place to chill
In the swimming baths. I go every day to the Kingfisher in Kingston and also go to my health club in Kingston.
Place to visit
I like Loseley House near Guildford. It's a lovely house with gorgeous gardens and fabulous ice cream!