I think that quite often children’s fiction is more open and honest than adult fiction. It reaches out in a very special way and can be an awesome teacher. So often the sheer creativity found in a well-crafted children’s book by far surpasses an adult novel. Opal Plumstead, by Jacqueline Wilson, delivers all of this in one wonderfully purple covered package.
Opal is an intelligent, sparky and artistic fourteen-year-old, living in the post Edwardian/pre-World War I period. She is lower middle class, has a scholarship to a local girls’ school and keeps getting told off in art class for not being realistic enough. Her relationship with her mother is a difficult one as her mother shows little love for her, choosing instead to criticise severely. Opal is too plain, too bookish, too creative. Not what a girl should be. Then life changes dramatically as her father is sent to prison for taking money at work; Opal is forced to leave school and work in a sweet factory to save her family from the workhouse. Whilst working there, Opal meets the progressive factory owner and suffragette Mrs Roberts and there is also romance in the air in the form of Mrs Roberts’ son Morgan. I won’t give any more away as I obviously think you should read or listen to the book, however be prepared for an ending that is far from sugar coated.
On one level, Opal Plumstead is simply a cracking read; had I not been listening as an audiobook, I think I would have devoured the actual book in one sitting. The plot is well mapped, the writing lively and brilliantly engaging. The characters jump from the page and it feels like Opal is a personal friend, telling you her life story.
But it is also so much more. Wilson takes her audience seriously, she clearly believes they are able to deal with more than a good story. She immerses the reader in the time period. The details are there in abundance but sometimes subtle or not obviously explained, so that the reader learns but may have to go and find out more by herself/himself. Big themes such as emancipation, class division, poverty, difficult relationships and loss are explored. It is a very real feeling story, showing life to be challenging and even dark at times. It isn’t all bleak though; the wonderful moments are celebrated too: the pride you feel in yourself when your opinion is taken seriously for the first time or the exhilaration of first love. She wants her audience to feel, to think and form their own opinions.
I also must mention the reader/narrative voice chosen for this audiobook version because I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her – and I am rather picky when it comes to audiobook narrators! Madeleine Leslay has a really expressive, clear and fluid reading style. As well as this, she is fully in character throughout. I love it when you can tell that the narrator believes in the book she is giving a voice to.
What I love most of all about all the Jacqueline Wilson books I have read (and I have read a fair few) is the resilience of her determined girl leads. Books that empower children are so very important but I think that books that empower girls in this current climate are vital.