Prolific author Jacqueline Wilson made a return to in-person panel events to celebrate the release of her new novel for young adults, Baby Love. This also marked a return to YA writing, an age range she hasn’t explicitly written for since the hugely successful Girls In… series in the early 2000s. It is clear from the audience makeup on the 5th floor of Waterstones Piccadilly that Wilson, 114 (or 115, there was some debate) books later, is still a universally beloved literary icon. For so many, myself included, Wilson’s novels have provided a blueprint for coming-of-age and fostered a love of reading for generations. As such, the excitement for Baby Love was palpable and especially so from host Holly Bourne, a successful YA novelist in her own right. Bourne was also keen to stress that like for most of the audience, Wilson's books shaped her childhood, and when the Girls In… series was published in her adolescence, she loved that she could grow up alongside these characters, and so was glad to see Wilson return to YA fiction once again.
Wilson’s new novel Baby Love, is set in the 1960s and tells the story of fourteen year old Laura, who becomes pregnant after meeting French exchange student Léon. She is subsequently sent away to a mother and baby home by her family, facing the prospect of forced adoption, which Wilson found this extremely poignant, describing how as part of her research for this she read social work books from this period and was shocked by the lack of compassion that was shown to these young girls and women. There was little reproductive education at the time Wilson states, reflecting on how during her own schooling, their information came from a class dissection of ‘stiff dead rabbits’.
Whilst pregnancy remains a primary theme of Baby Love, in classic Jacqueline Wilson style, power and class dynamics within relationships play a key part in learning about Laura. Laura’s own family is said to be working-class, which contrasts to her friend Nina who seems to live out a fantasy posh life, which Laura desperately longs for. When asked about why she focuses so much on class in her books by Bourne, Wilson laments how in publishing, there is still little class diversity, which she wants to change and as someone who grew up working-class herself, she wants to represent those voices in her writing.
Wilson’s choice to set Baby Love in the 1960s, when she had her own adolescence, was because she found creating an authentic teenage voice more difficult now in the age of social media, whereas childhood tends to be somewhat more universal; it’s more vivid. Her choice to move away from social media is because she feels that phones ‘spoil the plot’ and wants to rely more on her characters’ thoughts and feelings as opposed to their online personas.
Moving on from Wilson’s latest novel, Bourne seemed keen to ask some more personal questions from a writer’s perspective, namely what her favourite title is and what her writing process is exactly. For the former, The Story of Tracy Beaker was an obvious favourite as it made Wilson a household name, but she also holds a special place in her heart for Hetty Feather, a story about a Victorian foundling, and The Illustrated Mum, which follows sisters Dolphin and Star and their mum, who struggles with bipolar disorder. For the latter, her writing process is much less thought out, claiming that she spends about one hour each morning writing in her pyjamas and then carries on with the rest of her day; she is not one for a strict 9-5 schedule.
Finally, Wilson and Bourne discussed what they like most about writing for a young audience, to which Wilson replies with ‘their genuine reactions’. She reflects on one occasion where someone told her she was their third favourite author at a book signing, an anecdote which provokes some laughs from herself and the audience. Wilson likes how children and young adults don’t seek out to impress you, and their words are always honest, which she finds refreshing.
Much of the subsequent audience Q&A was a chance for members to express their gratitude to Wilson for writing books that they themselves could be represented in, and how even as adults her words have stuck with them - proving that books are indeed important and Wilson did write for a whole generation.