26 Orphans and Hetty Feather

– Margaret Kenna

As we get closer to the launch of 26 Orphans, Margaret Kenna shares an insight into her subject of choice.

I have always really admired “professional writers” i.e.  people who write to a brief, and a deadline. But I didn’t become one myself until very recently, before that I would wait, moodily, for inspiration to strike. Happily, via a Dark Angels course, I found 26. Here, most projects are inspiring one way or another, from 26 Habitats to 26 Shields and then of course, anything to do with Bloomsbury, (because, well, how could it not be?)

And now 26 Orphans, which had an immediate appeal. Why? Was it the many years I spent hiding in my bedroom, reading about feisty orphans who could overcome any number of odds? Identifying with said feisty orphans despite (or perhaps because of) being part of a large family? Any parents in the books I read, were largely absent, off somewhere in the distance, not berating their offspring to do maths or learn the violin. Ungratefully, I yearned to be left alone. I didn’t want anything to happen to my parents, obviously, but a lot of the time I wished they just were not there. And the actual orphans in books seemed to have such fun.

Fast forward 20 years, working in a children’s bookshop, with children of my own and my reactions to these books were different. Poor things, I thought, with no one to lavish the care and devotion my fortunate offspring have ladled all over them. Then my daughter, too, withdrew happily into a world where children had no parents or very absent or feckless parents. The world of Jacqueline Wilson books, in fact, not even an author I knew.

I was appalled. My own daughter, just as ungrateful as I was, but not even reading Ballet Shoes, or Anne of Green Gables.  Then, Jacqueline Wilson came to the bookshop to do a signing. Many little girls lined up quivering to meet her. My daughter had written down some questions in case she was too overcome to speak to her heroine. Jacqueline read them carefully.

“Mm,” she said, “what good questions! I shall have to think about those and write to you with the answers.”

Neatly dodged, I thought. Then a few days later, a card arrived, with each question carefully addressed. My daughter was ecstatic. From then on, I would have been a firm, Jacqueline Wilson fan, even if her books were awful. But the power of them took me by surprise.

“It’s just a story, Mum,” my daughter said, kindly, patting me, as I stopped reading “The Cat Mummy” to mop my eyes. “it’s not real life.”

Out of all the Wilson books, the story of Hetty Feather was our favourite and Hetty our favourite heroine. Something about the combination of history (she is a Victorian heroine,) and her feistiness, of course. Hetty has an unshakeable belief in her great writing ability, a talent for annoying people and a passionate devotion to the people she loves, (while also driving them demented.) Then there is her white-hot hatred for the evil, Matron Bottomley, always inventively expressed.

But most importantly, there is the scattering of Wilson magic, conveying so perfectly that childhood sense of not feeling quite understood, and the power stories have to help deal with this. There is always a lot of love in Jacqueline’s Wilson’s books, but also the understanding that those expressing the love are not perfect, and the heroines, like Hetty, don’t always make the most of the love offered. This struck a deep chord for me and my middle daughter

Involvement in the 26 Orphans project has been a great privilege (as well as a great excuse to re-read a load of Jacqueline Wilsons books.) If you don’t yet see yourself as a writer, pick a project that speaks to you and try it out. It is much easier to get writing when you have a project that inspires and a deadline to work towards. 

I will be on the “Jacqueline Wilson floor” of the Foundling Museum on the afternoon of 22nd October, after the workshop. (I’m not sure they know they have such a thing yet, but that’s what my daughter calls it.) Hope to see you there!

– Margaret Kenna

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