Steph Green remembers the iconic YA books that got her through her youth, and taught her that being an underdog is something to be proud of…
Pre-teen me didn’t want to read about popular girls and their parties. I wanted to read about awkward girls – girls who had to escape from bad situations, girls who snogged their teachers. And so came my love for Jacqueline Wilson.
The Saturday afternoon trip to the library was the event of the week, when I’d come home proudly clutching my catch of the day – Midnight, The Lottie Project, The Diamond Girls – and would sit and devour them, refusing to look up until it was time to watch Louis Walsh wave his hands around manically on The X Factor.
Jacqueline Wilson went where other YA authors didn’t dare go. We learnt about Dolphin and her manic-depressive, alcoholic mum Marigold in The Illustrated Mum, the crippling pain of bereavement in Vicky Angel and My Sister Jodie, a domestically-abused mother who gets cancer in Lola Rose, and Elsa and her struggling, working-class family in The Bed and Breakfast Star. Instead of framing the stereotypically aspirational, popular, beautiful characters as the heroes, they were cast as the antagonists, leaving space for the underdogs to rise up.
In Love Lessons, Prue falls in love with her art teacher, a plotline that led to a puritanical tirade against the book. Wilson defended this unapologetically, saying ‘Why does a girl in my book snog a teacher? Because that is what girls fantasise about.’ She was on our side. We’ve all been there.
The Girls in Love series with Ellie, Magda and Nadine (name a more iconic trio, I dare you) drip-fed us our first titbits of knowledge and understanding about love and relationships. They talked about sex and drugs, unabashedly detailing the girls in the clubs with eyes like dinner plates. What’s more, the books truly showed the warmth that can be obtained from female friendships, as well as the conflicting attributes of all young women. Ellie, artsy and smart, was the perfect teen protagonist: she was witty and driven, yet insecure and jealous, she loved boys (and even fell for the pretentious sadboy, Russell – definitely a Pisces) and struggled with societal expectations and her weight. Wilson’s characters stepped right off the pages and into our hearts, leaving a mark as indelible as the Illustrated Mum’s tattoos.
I’m pretty sure that the thousands of children around the country who were struggling with their parents’ divorce found comfort in The Suitcase Kid, building rapport with Andy and her to-ing and fro-ing between parents (although maybe not with her weird obsession with mulberries). The same goes with working class kids who read The Bed and Breakfast Star, in which Elsa’s mum was depressed, her dad was abusive, the family was homeless, yet she was able to find the light in every situation and was always cracking jokes. Or, even darker – if you had lost a family member to suicide, Tanya in Bad Girls might have been your only friend to lean on.
One of my favourite Jacqueline Wilson books was definitely Kiss. Shy Sylvie doesn’t know why her best friend Carl is becoming increasingly distant, and it eventually transpires that Carl is in fact gay, after he tells classmate Paul that he has a crush on him to heart-breaking results. Reading it aged 12, it was one of the first times I’d even heard of the concept of homosexuality outside of the odd, slightly forced reference on television. It explored the isolation and fear young people experience in grappling with their sexuality and coming out, as well as the importance of family and friends to show support throughout the process.
Thank you for everything, JW. I learnt more from your plucky, brilliant girls that I could have anywhere else.
Words: Steph Green