The Tracy Beaker books saw the character become an icon to legions of kids who grew up in care. But her creator Jacqueline Wilson faced a Twitter storm fuelled by disappointed care leavers earlier this year when it emerged the adult life she’d imagined for Tracy was on a council estate as a single mum. The Big Issue arranged for the author to meet some youngsters who know about care so they could explain why smashing the stigma might have been a more powerful message for Tracy.
Kenny Murray, who was in care from age 11 to 15 and who now works for charity Who Cares? Scotland, says Wilson could have used the character of Tracy to address failures in the system.
“Where is the critique of a system that hasn’t changed for almost 150 years? Where is the critique of successive governments that have allowed this to happen? Where is our ambition for Tracy?” he told The Big Issue when the row broke out. “It would be good if Wilson, and other writers, spoke to care-experienced people to allow us to tell her what we think.”
So we approached the author to ask if she would meet young people, either currently in care or recent leavers, involved with charity Who Cares? Scotland to discuss whether their lived experience is being reflected.
In the first book, 1991’s The Story of Tracy Beaker, Tracy arrives at ‘the Dumping Ground’ (a children’s home) as a troubled 10-year-old from an abusive home. The series went on to be the most borrowed titles from British libraries between 2000-2010, with a turbo-boost from the CBBC adaptation.
In the latest instalment, My Mum Tracy Beaker, it’s just Tracy and her nine-year-old daughter Jess. And so the backlash began. Was this slipping lazily into a negative stereotype, or would a happily-ever-after simply have been too unrealistic?
On a Sunday in Edinburgh Wilson meets a mixed group of young people: some adopted or in foster care, others now independent. All have a unique relationship to Wilson and Tracy Beaker.
Farrah and Olivia, both nine, clutch new copies of Wilson’s latest book, while older guests bring battered paperbacks. Samantha, 14, asks about the inspiration behind Hetty Feather, a foundling from the 1800s. Carlos, 13, says maybe one day he’ll be a writer like Wilson. “Growing up, Tracy Beaker was the first book I could ever relate to,” says Sandi, 17, who introduces herself as a rapper. “It was like: ‘Tracy Beaker’s in care, I’m in care, oh my God!’” But she asks Wilson why Tracy shows such challenging behaviours in the children’s home.
“I think she’s been messed around quite a bit and gone backwards and forwards,” Wilson responds. “I’ve met lots of children who for one reason or another have grown up in different kinds of care, and some found it a bit of a struggle to control their temper. Often it’s not their fault. And I think for Tracy, it’s just the sort of child she would be whether she had been in care or not.
“But I’ll tell you something, I hadn’t thought of making her a rapper!” Wilson adds. “If Tracy were 20 years younger, how she’d love to be a rapper! Have you been watching X Factor this year?” Some of the young people nod, and a conversation springs up about the growing number of impressive female rap artists.
Ashley, 28, and recently graduated from university, says: “I didn’t realise until today that I’m the same age as Tracy and, like Tracy, I’ve been moved around a lot to the point where I’ve moved 53 times now. You were the first children’s author that I was exposed to as a young child in care and there was so much that I related to. However, we also face a lot of societal and structural stigma and it felt like this was a chance to change the narrative a bit – but I don’t feel like Tracy got her happy ending, the ending we all want and imagine.”
26% of care leavers have sofa-surfed
14% have slept rough
Only 6% go on to university
“I think you’re absolutely right and I’ve been thinking about the sequel I hope to write… I think it will be more satisfying for you,” Wilson says. “I think a lot of people hoped that Tracy would automatically have fantastic relationships and a brilliant career and all the things that, nowadays, we think equal success. I was more interested in showing that she’s a brilliant mum even though she might still have faults – which mother is ever perfect? But showing that even though her own mum let her down repeatedly, she’s never once let her own daughter down.”
“I think in the sequel we might help Tracy achieve some really great things, but I think it also has to be realistic,” Wilson continues. “For every great success there are very many other kids who haven’t been able to get to that position, and I want everybody to feel a success story. But I think I will try very hard to make sure that the next Tracy book does have a really positive and yet realistic ending too.”
Things are slowly improving for care-experienced young people since we first met Tracy, Wilson points out. “I’m thrilled there are more organisations trying to make life easier for people leaving care, because things are hard. Like universities: only six per cent of care leavers get to university and we know that’s not an example of intelligence, it’s a measure of how hard it is to get there.
I’ve always wanted to show children who’ve had to deal with difficult things that they’re not alone, there are other people there who understand and care. And I want to show children who’ve had no problems what life can be like for others.
Sandi agrees. “Things are starting to change,” she says. “There are more people from different backgrounds making names for themselves since Tracy Beaker. It makes such a difference when people really listen to us and make us feel like we can change and achieve things.”
By now the room is won over. Younger children grow in confidence, lining up for photographs once Wilson has shared her own coping methods (“When I’m feeling shy I have a big coat with a big hood and I just pull it right over me like this!”)
A few days later The Big Issue catches up with the author as she reflects on the meeting. “I found it very interesting and liked everyone enormously. I thought they were very brave – it’s not easy to sit in front of someone and try to point them in a different direction. I found it touching and illuminating to listen to their stories.”
During the meeting Wilson offered to try to list the names of her young critics in the sequel. What was the thinking behind the gesture?
“I think Tracy herself matters particularly to people who have been in the care system and so I felt that it was important to take everybody’s points very seriously. I was touched by how they sometimes talked about Tracy almost as if she were kind of a sister to them.”
My Mum Tracy Beaker is out now (Doubleday Children’s, £12.99)
Eve Livingston @eve_rebecca