After J.K. Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson must be the second most famous British writer of children's books. Formerly (if not still) the Children's Laureate, Wilson takes up plenty of shelf space in all UK bookshops, bringing out about two books per year. Most of her books are targetted at around 8-to 10-year-olds, although she has several for younger children and a few teenage books. Wilson often writes about difficult topics that nonetheless may be reality for her readership, such as broken families, mental illness and poverty.
I must have first read something by Jacqueline Wilson at the age of nine or so, Double Act (which depicts a set of inseparable twins growing into two individuals) or Tracy Beaker (Wilson's best-known character, a lively, untameable girl in foster care, waiting for the day her mother comes back for her.) Looking at her books as a whole, I find the "gritty realism" a little overpowering with its steady stream of abusive or neglectful parents, school bullies, lost tempers and loneliness, so that I wouldn't want to read her books one after another. But there is a simple sweetness in Wilson's storytelling, an empathy with her narrator - usually a preteen girl and often a social outcast. Wilson was clearly a student of the Enid Blyton school of world-building, with plenty of description, especially of clothes and food. I sometimes skim over these passages now, but it's the sort of thing that I couldn't get enough of when I was in her target readership.
Cookie is the story of the unfortunately-named Beauty Cookson, who is plain, dumpy and shy. A loner at school, and having to tread carefully at home, lest she provoke her dad's temper, Beauty finds refuge in her books, her drawing and with her pretend-friend Sam, in reality the presenter of a pre-school TV show, but with whom she imagines interaction and the sympathy she doesn't get from her father. Beauty's mum tries to shield her daughter from her husband's rages, but after Dad's moods ruin Beauty's birthday party, Mum decides enough is enough. She takes Beauty away to start a new life, though where, Mum does not know.
When we first met Beauty's Dad, I thought he could go one of two ways. He had the potential to develop into a 3-dimensional character, being a man who's made a small fortune, built a perfect world around himself and determined to keep it that way no matter the cost. Unfortunately, I ultimately found him too much of an exaggeration, with very flimsy excuses to fly into a temper, when it suited the plot if not a character. I couldn't believe in him as a person, because he was too much of a monster, defined only by his rages and cruel words. Mum, on the other hand, is very true to life, a rather young and timid wife and mother who married straight out of high school, and who has never had the chance to become her own person. She is torn between fear of her husband - who despite everything, she still loves - and the need to protect her daughter - and herself.
The school scenes took me right back to my primary school days, and in places it was painful to read about. Like Beauty, I was clever, but socially awkward, with a vivid imagination but far behind my classmates in terms of popular culture, TV and fashion. Shy Beauty could so easily have been me. If her descriptions of family life can be a little over-the-top at times, Wilson's recreation of the primary school playground politics took me about seventeen years into my own past.