Everybody brace yourselves
By the fifth year of primary school, I was an avid browser of the school library, favouring reading in comfy chairs over scraping my knees at lunchtime. There was a quiet corner at the back where I would crouch, eagerly eyeing over shelves heaving with Goosebumps, Andy Griffiths, and Jacqueline Wilson books. While I did enjoy the spooks of R.L. Stine, and the gross-out gags of Just Disgusting, my nine-year-old self was most hypnotised by the Nick Sharratt covers of Wilson’s books.
Though the covers of Jacqueline Wilson’s have this bright, childlike appeal, darker themes are a mainstay of her works. In perhaps her most famous, The Story of Tracy Beaker (which has been adapted into a TV show, play, and video game since its release in 1991), the titular Tracy lives in a children’s residential care home, and grew up facing parental neglect and domestic abuse. These issues are centred in plenty of Wilson’s other stories, as well as illness, divorce, grief, mental health, alcoholism, poverty, and many others. Her novels are largely narrated from the perspective of young girls, from about the ages of nine to 16.
While I was in the early half of this age range, I would power through Jacqueline Wilson books as fast as I could. The few copies I have now, sitting on a dusty bookshelf, and packed away in boxes, are dog-eared, crinkled, and stained. Lola Rose, Little Darlings, Clean Break, Double Act, and The Longest Whale Song would often keep me up under the covers late at night. I would rifle through them, even when I had come to know certain passages by heart.
At that point in my very young life, I think Jacqueline Wilson’s books were some of the first tastes of complexity—her books had young characters that would endure and survive misery, form close connections to others, and deal with crippling social pressures. As she introduced me to stories that went beyond happily-ever-after, I came to understand that maybe life was more complicated than some of my other favourite books and movies would suggest. However, I was also a little shocked by some of the content.
Some of the work I was most keen on from Wilson, were the books in the Girls… series. These novels were targeted towards a slightly older audience, of tweens and teenagers, but I got my grubby little nine-year-old hands on them at my primary school library. By age 10, I was firm friends with the stars of the series, teenage besties Ellie (who was arty), Magda (glamourous and cheeky), and Nadine (goth and supportive). I was so excited to follow them; In Love, Under Pressure, Out Late, and In Tears. These books were a bit of a peek into the mysterious and exciting teenage years, and I remember feeling a real closeness and admiration of these girls. Under Pressure was the instalment I owned, and read over and over again. Now, daring to open the book is much more difficult than it once was.
Girls Under Pressure is narrated by Ellie, who Wilson describes in the foreword as an “ordinary comfy girl size” (yikes). After accidentally accompanying her friends Magda and Nadine to a modelling competition at their local mall, and being called “fat” by some anonymous bystander, Ellie starts to show signs of disordered eating. The novel follows her struggle with disordered eating, and the way anti-fatness and diet cultures affect her relationships, alienate her from her family, and change her self-perception.
And Wilson is not restrained in her depiction—within fifty pages Ellie is making herself vomit after binge eating. She makes vivid descriptions of Ellie’s obsessions over her body and food, delves into disturbing thought patterns, and highlights specific dietary/exercise misinformation that Ellie consumes and follows. There’s also the inclusion of another character Zoë, who ends up in hospital due to heart failure from anorexia. After visiting Zoë in hospital, at the conclusion of the book, Ellie comes to her final realisation and addresses her disordered eating. She says “I don’t want to end up one of those sad sick girls in Zoë’s ward. I’m going to eat what I want, when I want.” Ellie draws a celebratory self-portrait and declares that she is a “new powerful artistic talented” version of herself before the story ends. The morals are more than a little complicated.
Reading back over Girls Under Pressure, in all honesty, stirs feelings of horror in me. I recognise myths about food and exercise I’ve carried with me since being young, and see my own obsessive thinking reflected in Ellie’s streams of self-consciousness. I think, having a bit more context for these issues, and reading over what potentially was an introduction to these illnesses and cultures, I’m disturbed by what I consumed at such a young age.
Of course, part of this is how the book, by today’s standards, lacks a lot of much needed nuance. Anti-fatness, diet cultures, and oppressive expectations of feminine presentation are loud, insistent contexts within Girls Under Pressure, but none of that is really addressed through Ellie’s journey. Throughout so much of the book, Ellie obsesses over her own appearance, as well as the appearances of other girls and women (including portraits of women in museums, and her own teachers). The damage of Ellie’s focus on normative beauty standards is never wholly addressed. Most pressingly, Zoë’s story is so tragic and hopeless, and the representation of disordered eating lacks clarity and insight (Ellie’s ability to overcome the illness within about 15 pages feels hollow and upsetting).
However, Wilson’s work here is sympathetic to these illnesses and the experience of young people. As an introduction, Girls Under Pressure likely allowed for (some) younger readers to start to grasp complicated issues from a place that felt relatable, providing a new vocabulary for difficult discussion. It’s also likely that this story was a reckless introduction to disordered eating and body image issues for others, stirring confusion and complicated feelings about their own bodies (especially due to the use of loaded terms like normal, fat, thin, etc.).
I think that the tensions of Girls Under Pressure are representative of the place that Jacqueline Wilson’s work holds more broadly. She writes about difficult issues that children and teenagers might face (or might need to develop empathy for), while also oversimplifying and lacking resolutions that address all the contexts she engages with. She brings harmful ideologies and social contexts into view, while not quite unpacking these in complete clarity.
Perhaps the reason these books were and are so readable, for nine-year-old me and nine-year-old others, is Wilson’s focus on intense social problems. She dealt with tougher subject matter, from the perspective of characters who felt familiar, and revealed the flaws within our social contexts that we were just beginning to grapple with.
While re-reading Jacqueline Wilson can be painful, and raises confusing, conflicting feelings, there’s real value to be found in unpacking the narrative that we consumed as children. The books that sit on library shelves, and are easily accessible to young readers, shape the issues they become interested in and face themselves. Perhaps, the best lesson to take from Wilson’s work is that children are interested in stories about hardship.
I’m glad those heaving shelves held these books in my primary school library, with a vocabulary I would start to use a few years down the road. However, I wish that the books had felt a little safer, and done more work to develop understanding for kids. Hopefully, we continue to develop complexity in our stories, for the kids in libraries today who need them.