Dame Jacqueline Wilson arrives at the top of the restaurant staircase and apologises, quite unnecessarily, for her appearance. She has come from a World Book Day webinar – her Zoom call from a studio in Brighton was beamed out to multiple schools – and the veteran children’s writer seems to think it has taken its toll. “It’s fun to do and lovely, but really just sitting down is kind of exhausting,” she smiles.

In truth, she looks more glamorous than exhausted, dressed in a black wool coat, a selection of her trademark chunky rings on her fingers.

We’ve met in the gallery of a hotel bistro in the seaside city, where she orders a sparkling water and doesn’t touch the plate of pastries someone places in front of us. She couldn’t log in to the school event from the home she shares in rural East Sussex with her wife, Trish, as her Wi-Fi is too weak.

“That’s one of the disadvantages of living in the country,” she says. “There are lots of advantages.”

You might think it would be a fairly major disadvantage for a writer, but it hasn’t impeded Wilson. The former children’s laureate has sold more than 40 million books in the UK and been translated into at least 34 different languages. In 2017, she featured on a list of the 1,000 wealthiest people in the UK for the first time, with a reported fortune of £40 million.

Now, aged 76, has published her 114th book. Baby Love is a story of teen pregnancy set at the dawn of the 1960s and aimed broadly at readers aged 12 and over. In May, Wilson’s 21st-century “reimagining” of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree will also hit the shelves – to the apparent disquiet of the Enid Blyton Society, which has sniffed that it, too, “will become out of date as time passes”.

The Free Speech Union huffed earlier this year that “classic works of children’s literature should not be rewritten to make them more politically correct”, a charge that exasperates Wilson, who bristles at the suggestion that her version of the book (about three children who discover enchanted lands at the top of an enormous tree) is a modern update. “It isn’t,” she says firmly. “I found that mildly irritating because nobody had read it. It’s simply that my children in the book are modern. I wanted to be very respectful to Blyton’s setting... I would love to get the Enid Blyton Society on my side.” In fact, Wilson thinks it’s important to teach children that values were different in the past, “particularly now in the age of throwing statues in rivers”.

Baby Love is a story of teen pregnancy set at the dawn of the 1960s and aimed broadly at readers aged 12 and over

She does concede, though, that her readers would find “the idea that a woman’s place is to look after the menfolk – if you can call pixies and goblins menfolk – a bit odd”. So while Blyton’s magical world remains intact in Wilson’s version, we can expect hers to include fewer of the questionable social mores that can make some of Blyton’s work feel dated today.

The Magic Faraway Tree: A New Adventure is not Wilson’s first reimagining of a classic. She has also retold E Nesbit’s The Railway Children, using modern characters, and Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, to show what life is really like for children with serious spinal injuries, without any miracle cures. But she remains best known for her Tracy Beaker stories, adapted for CBBC in 2002, which have, as their central character, a girl living in a children’s home.

Wilson has also tackled divorce, homelessness and mental illness.

Are there any subjects she wouldn’t write about? “I’d be very wary of [including] a really violent scene, or anything really sexually explicit,” she says. “On the other hand, you only have to eavesdrop outside a playground or on a bus to know children aren’t innocent little things.”

Still, her absence from social media diminishes any worry she might have about being “cancelled”.

“It’s quite scary, particularly for older people who don’t want to offend anybody at all, how easy it can be [to offend],” she says. “But you have to write what you believe.” Some would argue this rather depends on what it is you believe. J K Rowling has been repeatedly accused of transphobia for comments she has made online. “I feel sad for her because she made such a difference to children’s books and reading,” says Wilson. But she is wary of commenting further, on the grounds that “authors generally, if they’re wise, don’t talk about other authors”.

Baby Love, meanwhile, will shock modern readers for a different reason. The story of a 1960 schoolgirl who becomes pregnant and is sent away to a mother-and-baby home to preserve 
her family’s honour, it will strike today’s teenagers as cruel and strange. But Wilson still remembers the stigma around such pregnancies that existed in her youth.

“There was such shame, and loving families would send their daughters away to these homes to have their babies so no one would know. Even then, it just seemed dreadful and now looking back it seems almost barbaric. Girls were encouraged after [giving their babies up] never to speak of it again.”

The only child of working-class parents from Kingston upon Thames, the author was only 19 when she married Millar Wilson, a printer who later became a policeman, and 21 when she had her daughter Emma. She and Millar divorced in 2004 and she hasn’t seen him for at least 10 years.

When she met Trish, then a bookseller, 18 years ago and after six years of being single, “I knew very much she was the one for me”. After her marriage ended, she had never thought of herself as being in the closet. “I never had very divided ideas [of] ‘Am I straight? Am I gay? Am I bisexual?’” she says. “I just thought, ‘I want to meet someone and fall in love,’ and for a long, long time, I had a reasonably conventional marriage with a man. Then that broke up.”

Today, she has no plans to stop writing, and is a little exercised by the way society treats older adults. “We’re all so careful about not upsetting any member of the community but we do [say] ‘daft old biddy’, ‘silly old codger’. We do patronise the elderly and I’ve noticed once or twice, when I’ve had to make a phone call about something, and your age or health status is important, I’ve had one or two very well-meaning people say: ‘Ahh bless.’”

Perhaps looking down on older people is the last acceptable prejudice? “It is!” she agrees, with spirit. “And I understand it, because I think we all rather fear getting old.”

But she seems rather fearless to me. Or at least determined to wring every drop of creative fulfilment and domestic happiness from the rest of her days.

The Daily Telegraph

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