How Tracy Beaker was born
It was a series of adverts trying to place children with foster parents that provided Jacqueline Wilson with the inspiration for one of her most enduring creations, Tracy Beaker, the unlikely heroine familiar to schoolchildren across the country.
Before writing the Tracy Beaker books, about a girl brought up in a children's home, Ms Wilson, the children's laureate, knew very little about the care system.
"I wanted to create a child who was streetwise, suspicious of people and determined to fight her own battles," she said. "But as she is only 10 years old, she cannot stop herself going on flights of fantasy. Deep inside she is a total sweetheart."
Tracy is a tough, independent girl, desperate to find foster parents. Based on the book, the children's BBC TV series, which ended last week after five years, followed the different ways Tracy found to make sure she was ruling the roost.
"I wanted to show what being in care is like," Ms Wilson said. "I am always interested when children are going through hard times and the odds are stacked against them.
"I have had lovely letters from children in care, who see Tracy as speaking for them. Two 12-year-old lads in care wrote to me recently, and said they had fallen in love with her."
The Story of Tracy Beaker appeared in 1992, followed by The Dare Game in 2001. A third book, called Starring Tracy Beaker, is scheduled to appear in the autumn.
Ms Wilson grew up in Kingston-upon-Thames, south-west London. In neighbouring Surbiton, Tracy Beaker has plenty of fans among nine and 10-year-olds at St Andrew's and St Mark's junior school.
Claudia Bell said she liked watching Tracy quarrelling with another girl, Justine. "I like seeing who wins," Claudia said. "Mostly Tracy wins, but Justine never admits it."
"I find it funny and interesting," Anthony D'Arcy said. "What happens in their home is different to mine. My family does not start food fights."
Emily Steer said she thought growing up in a children's home would be miserable. "It would be nasty not having your parents around. Some of them are there because their parents don't care. It would make me bad-tempered."
All three children understood what children's homes and foster parents were. The same was less true of three boys who had never read about Tracy Beaker, or watched the programmes. "If you don't have any parents they put you in an orphanage," Oliver Whiteside said. "It's a great big house. I've never seen one. The only one I know about is in the BFG (Big Friendly Giant, a book by Roald Dahl, later made into a film)."
Zach Mribiha said having no parents meant running out of food. "I would try to cook, but probably get burnt," he said. Niall Murphy said he preferred watching American football to Tracy Beaker. "There are too many girls, and not enough boys."
Maxine Wrigley, national co-ordinator of the charity A National Voice, which campaigns on behalf of children in care, said : "A lot of people would know nothing about care without the Tracy Beaker books and TV programmes. The impact she has made is unparalleled."
Susanna Cheal, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, said she hoped Tracey Beaker had made children in care feel less isolated. "It has shown that they are not alone," she said.
Ms Wilson said that she wholeheartedly supported the TES's "Time to Care"
campaign. "If teachers become more aware of the problems facing children in care, it can only help," she said.
FRIDAYMAGAZINE 8, 18