Three Jacqueline Wilson Books: Tracy Beaker, Double Act, Vicky Angel

Back in 2003 when the BBC did their Big Read project, four books by Jacqueline Wilson turned up on the Top 100 list (these three and Girls in Love, which is for slightly older readers). I had never heard of her; I made a mental note that she represented one of those odd corners of literature I might someday catch up with.

Well, that was six years ago. Since then, young F became aware of the BBC television series based on The Story of Tracy Beaker, so I mooched it and the other two in the same age bracket for him, and took the morning off my other reading (Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn, and Wicked by Gregory Maguire, having just reached the point where the former references the latter) to read them myself.

They are very good.

The Story of Tracy Beaker is about a girl who has been abandoned by her mother to the care of the state. She tells us in her own voice about her relations with the other children and staff in her home, with her former foster parents, and with a grownup writer who she befriends. It is heartbreaking and also funny: the humour is that Tracy is a delightfully unreliable narrator, who insists that she doesn’t cry, that she didn’t break the Mickey Mouse clock, that her mother is coming to visit, etc. I can see why it scored well in the BBC poll, though the TV series must have helped.

Double Act is actually a rather happy story, of twins whose world is turned upside down when their widowed father moves them to the countryside to start a second-hand bookshop with his new girlfriend. One of Wilson’s great narrative techniques is to have her first-person characters unwittingly show us what other people think of them; here, she does that as usual but has the extra wrinkle of the twins (Ruby, the bossy one, and Garnet, the quiet one) each telling her slightly different side of the story, and (a lovely touch) with illustrations by two different artists depending on whose voice we are reading.

Vicky Angel is a well-told story about grief. Jade’s best friend Vicky is fatally injured in a car accident in the first chapter. Jade gradually and somewhat painfully moves away from seeing the world through Vicky’s eyes, and working out how to relate to her own parent and her surviving schoolmates without her, despite her continued presence in ghostly form. In this story it is the dead Vicky, rather than Jade the narrator, who we particularly start to see through other people’s eyes.

These three books all deal with difficult Issues – being abandoned by your own family (and wishful thinking about a new mother); getting used to a stepmother (and establishing your own identity); the death of a friend (and facing up to the problems of your parents’ marriage). But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is all they are about, let alone that they are tough to read. Wilson’s particular gift is to show her readers that there is more than one side of the story, and that even a sympathetic first-person narrator can be completely wrong-headed at times. It is an important lesson for life, and she does it with skill and humour.