16 June, 2016

A slice of real life in fantasy

If you grew up on a healthy dose of children’s fiction by English authors, revisit it in your adulthood. Just to reinterpret what gnomes and pixies really are. Did you ever read Jacqueline Wilson?

Children’s literature penned by authors from England tends to be the foundation of most middle- and upper-class Indian households growing up. Starting at the age of six, I grew up on a staple diet of Enid Blyton, travelling with elves, gnomes, and pixies; going on adventures with the Famous Five and the Secret Seven; and navigating with Noddy and his pals of various shapes and sizes through Toytown. Joining my collection at the age of eight was the esteemed J.K. Rowling, who entertained me with the adventures of boy wizard Harry Potter and his duels with the Dark Lord Voldemort. These are the books, among others, that inspired me to do what I do today: writing for a living.

Source: Wikipedia

The award winning, Jacqueline Wilson is an English author of children’s books. She is best known for creating the character of Tracy Beaker. Many of her novels have been adapted to screen on television. Very popular among a young readership, many of Wilson’s books revolve around the themes of divorce, adoption and mental illness. Several times, Wilson has been subject to controversy due to such themes in children’s literature.

Many 80s/90s children will recall the warm embrace of a Jacky Daydream book that comforted and dispelled their loneliness.

However, as much as Enid Blyton’s universes and Hogwarts transported us from reality during our childhoods, these are ultimately worlds of fantasy and make-believe. In the real world, children also bear the brunt of issues like bullying, being adopted, parents who divorce and remarry, first love, hitting puberty, inability to cope with academics, the list goes on. These issues are not alien to Indian society and family structures and, for me, there was one author who helped me understand it all: Dame Jacqueline Wilson.

Discovering Jacky Daydream’

Growing up outside India meant that I had greater access and knowledge of books written by non-Indian authors. During a book show-and-tell session in the fifth grade, a classmate of mine chose a work by Wilson; a thickish predominantly red paperback titled The Lottie ProjectThe Lottie Project revolves around eleven-year-old student Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Enright, who is assigned a project on life in the Victorian era for her history class. She decides to pen a diary of a young Victorian girl of the same age called Lottie, who is forced to leave school and work as a nursery maid in order to financially support her widowed mother and siblings. The book shifts effortlessly between Charlie’s and Lottie’s perspectives, and the reader sees that Charlie is in fact mirroring her recent real-life experiences through her writing of Lottie’s diary.

Reading Wilson as a grown-up

I decided to reread the book before writing this piece. Analysing it as an adult, I realised that Wilson had infused the piece with a lot of issues and experiences (not necessarily mine, this included friends and classmates) I had faced through my adolescence.

Charlie lives in a single-parent household with her mother Josephine (Jo), who gave birth to her when she was in school. The identity of Charlie’s father is unknown throughout the book. The only mention of him is when Charlie states that he was her mother’s boyfriend in school, and wanted nothing to do with the baby. Jo works multiple jobs to keep her and Charlie afloat, as the manager of an electrical appliance store, a supermarket cleaner, and a governess for a five-year-old boy called Robin (whose relationship with Charlie is an important aspect of the story). She refuses to take financial assistance from her parents, who are blatantly critical and dismissive of her parenting methods, much to Charlie’s chagrin. Charlie’s rebellion in all her interactions and experiences is apparent throughout, especially with her Victorian project (as she completely ignores her class teacher Miss Beckworth’s rules and guidelines to get it done). If you’re a rebel yourself and not sure if that’s good, this will help you realise that it is not misguided, but rather a necessary measure to understand what you are truly good at doing.

After reading the book back when I was in school, Wilson’s engaging and incredibly English (she uses words and phrases like ‘dead chuffed’, ‘swot’ and ‘easy-peasy’, ‘simple-pimple’) prose, accompanied with adorable illustrations by her longtime collaborator Nick Sharratt, got me hooked onto her work. Over the course of my time in school, I read books like Double Act (sibling rivalry between identical twins and their struggle to accept their widowed father’s new girlfriend), Secrets (varied issues on troubled family life, domestic abuse, body image and self-esteem, and even battles of guardianship), Dustbin Baby(living in foster homes), The Suitcase Kid(moving back and forth between divorced parents), and Bad Girls (bullying and living with parents who are generations apart), among other works of Wilson.

Jacky Daydream, which is Wilson’s autobiography published in 2007, was one of her most impactful works for me. The title itself comes from a nickname given to Wilson by her teacher in school, since she constantly daydreamed, staring out the window during class. This was indeed a reflection of my own childhood, as I was constantly berated in school for daydreaming during class.

The underrated friend young Indian adults need

Indian society is loath to talk about societal and family issues openly. This has a profoundly negative impact on children, since parents believe ignorance and denial serves the purpose. I have friends and former classmates who have been adopted, lost parents to disease and accidents, endured their parents’ separation and eventual divorce, and even engage in self-harm and thoughts of suicide. Through my adolescence, I endured bullying, body image issues, and struggled with my self-esteem. I wasn’t particularly proficient academically, and the truth is that I am not alone in that struggle.

Wilson’s work helped me understand all these issues. As a child, I empathised and understood, but I was never really sure why. As an adult, I know exactly why, and I am glad I understood it through her humorous prose and simple yet earnest explanations.

The genre of fantasy for children serves as an escape, no doubt. They are essential in helping children and young adults temporarily ditch reality for a world of magic and adventure. However, at the end of it all, books that emulate real-life issues and struggles help a child understand and not feel alone in what and why they feel and experience, and these are essential especially when Indian parents are unable to explain those very issues and struggles. Wilson’s work, I believe, is largely underrated and unheard of in our country, and should be introduced to young Indian adults and children.

To me, Jacqueline Wilson is an honorary wise grandmother who introduced me to a slice of real life through her quirk, wit and simplicity.

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