Mad mums, bad dads and heroines with "street cred”: an analysis of multiple perspectives on the appeal of Jacqueline Wilson's dark realism

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Quinlan, Áilín
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University College Cork
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Jacqueline Wilson remains one of the most controversial – and popular - children’s authors writing today. Many of her stories focus on uncomfortable family and social issues, ranging from separation and divorce to infidelity, domestic violence, child abandonment, foster care, breast cancer and mental illness. Wilson’s depiction both of the dark side of domesticity and of how her realistic young protagonists respond to the challenges they face in chaotic, deprived and sometimes frightening home environments, has brought her a mixture of disapproval and renown from the adult world and earned her an enormous fan base amongst child readers. The question addressed in this study is why such apparently bleak and depressing topics hold such enormous attraction for young girls, and what it is about the darkness in these stories that they enjoy. Furthermore, given how these popular books are characterised by such grim modern social realism, it is also important to determine whether the young readers are receiving an accurate and fair picture of the reality of life for some children. This thesis will explore these issues and others. A study of the available literary criticism on Wilson’s work in terms of her realism, characterisation, style and technique, was supported by extensive research into the perspectives of renowned literary scholars in the area, and an examination of traditional realistic children’s literature whose roots stretch back to the publication of A Pretty Little Pocket Book in 1744 by the publisher John Newbery. This was followed by an examination of relevant sociological research on the impact on some children of living in families headed by lone parents and/or in circumstances of financial deprivation, relationship breakdown and blended families in order to determine whether the experiences of Wilson’s young protagonists accurately reflect those of real children in similar situations. Following extensive engagement with both literary criticism and sociological research, the thesis will then present the results of primary research conducted to further explore the research questions. This primary research methodology was qualitative and involved both adults and children. A series of semi-structured interviews with adults explored the perspectives and insights of parents and experienced professionals working in the area of childhood who were familiar with Wilson’s work. The research with children was conducted using participatory research methods to seek the views of some of Wilson’s young readers on what attracted them to the dark realism of her complex and often grim family stories. The researcher established a Jacqueline Wilson Book Club which met seven times and utilised focus group participatory methods. It should be emphasised that the young focus group members in particular contributed significantly to the findings of this research, offering thought-provoking perspectives on how girls are often portrayed in literature, and on the dynamics of family relationships and the complex web of child and adult behaviour which lie at the heart of Wilson’s work. It is important to state here that a significant issue to emerge from the research carried out for this thesis was the absence of the voice of the child reader in scholarly discussions of children’s literature. This thesis sets out to help address this lacuna by giving children the opportunity to express their opinions on Wilson’s work in terms of why they enjoy it, thus demonstrating the potentially significant contributions that can be gained from exploring the perspectives of child readers and thereby corroborating or contesting existing scholarly theories on the benefits or otherwise of including children’s voices in literary criticism.
Jacqueline Wilson , Realism in children's literature , Children's voices in literary criticism
Quinlan, Á. 2023. Mad mums, bad dads and heroines with "street cred”: an analysis of multiple perspectives on the appeal of Jacqueline Wilson's dark realism. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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