It’s over twenty years since beloved children’s author Jacqueline Wilson released her classic Sleepovers. And while she continues to delight us with an ever-growing collection of titles, it remains a firm favourite among readers new and old.
Illustrated by Nick Sharratt, the book features Daisy- a new girl at school who is desperate to fit in with her friends in the Alphabet Club. We also meet Lily- Daisy’s nonverbal, disabled sister who has just started at a special school.
For the past five years, Sleepovers has been one of Jacqueline’s bestsellers and has sold almost half a million copies since being published in 2001. It was this continued interest that led her to finally revisit the story and pen a brand-new sequel titled, The Best Sleepover In The World.
Following its successful release last month, we caught up with Jacqueline about how Lily plays a leading role in the book and why it is so important disabled characters are represented throughout children’s literature.
What inspired the story The Best Sleepover in The World?
My original book Sleepovers about Daisy and Lily was published 22 years ago, and yet it’s still popular. I think it’s because sleepovers still matter to children so much, and many identify with Daisy and her anxieties. I had a quick glance through the book and realised that although Lily is shown positively, we never really know what she’s thinking. She’s just started at a special school in the first book. I thought it might be interesting to catch up with the girls several months later when Lily has had a chance to learn Makaton (a language program that uses signs, symbols, and speech) at school so she can communicate much more easily. I knew it would be fun to bring back mean spoilt Chloe too. So in The Best Sleepover in the World, we have two rival sleepovers on the same night!
Many of your books touch on important and sometimes challenging topics for young readers. How do you approach these in a way that is sensitive and relatable to children?
I mostly write in the first person and imagine I’m that child, so automatically I know how I’d react and what I’d understand. I often deal with difficult subjects, but hopefully in a child-friendly way.
Your characters are often relatable and diverse. How do you create such well-rounded and diverse characters?
Perhaps it’s because I’m an only child and while I was growing up I played elaborate imaginary games. These pretend people became as real to me as the children at school. Writing books is just an adult way of playing imaginary games.
What research did you do to make sure Lily’s character was well represented?
I’ve visited various schools for disabled children in the past to do story sessions, and I’ve also written to many disabled children over the years. I’ve had several adult friends who use wheelchairs or are disabled in some way. So I didn’t really need to do much research – though I’ve enjoyed watching the Lucinda videos on YouTube to learn Makaton.
Is there anything really interesting that you came across that has given you inspiration for future ideas?
Not specifically – but I can never really tell what I’m going to write next.
Disabled characters are underrepresented in literature. What do you think the impact of including disabled characters in children’s literature has on children with disabilities and those who do not?
I think children with disabilities feel recognised – and children without disabilities learn more about what it’s like and realise that children are simply children, no matter what they can or can’t do.
In your opinion, how can children’s books and stories contribute to breaking down stereotypes? How can they foster understanding and empathy toward individuals with disabilities?
When you read you can get inside another person’s mind and see what life is like for them. I think it’s the very best way to encourage understanding and empathy.
What messages and themes do you hope that children will take away from the story?
First of all, I hope they’ve had a good entertaining read! But then they might find themselves thinking about friendship and kindness and understanding – and that you don’t need to spend a fortune to have fun.
Your characters often face adversity and learn valuable life lessons. How do you hope your books can empower and inspire young readers?
I hope they feel comforted if they’re going through difficult situations and can sympathise if someone they know is going through a tough time. I try to show that with a little hope and humour they can often negotiate their way through a troubling situation.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring children’s authors, what would it be?
I’d suggest going into a good children’s bookshop or library and seeing the sort of work that’s being published now, and then try writing something along those lines – but entirely different!