The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

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The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Direct, emotional involvement is the hallmark of Jacqueline Wilson's work. The Illustrated Mum is one of her best books and will involve its reader every step of the way. It's not a pretty book, but neither is it a bleak one. One for the child who hates to be patronised.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: March 2000
Publisher: Corgi Children's Books
ISBN: 0440863686

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Like her mother, Marigold, Dolphin likes illustrations. She loves to draw and draw and draw, filling page after page of her colouring books with intricate designs taking every tiny inch of white space available. Every feeling, every wish, every daydream she has is contained within her drawings - they are full of flowers, fairies, stars, the seaside, rings, bangles and all things glittery. On bad days they are full of witches and wizards and demons and evil fates befalling her enemies. Sadly for Dolphin, a gentle, quiet, dreamy but shy and nervous child, there are many bad days. Dolphin and her family, her mother Marigold and her sister Star, are what you might call "different". They don't really meet the apple pie ideal of the nuclear family with its neat, trimmed lawn, regular meals and after-school activities every night of the week. And for her difference Dolphin is often bullied at school, she doesn't have a best friend, and her teachers treat her with barely-concealed disdain. She may be good at reading, but she's "dyslexic or something" and so lessons don't come easy either.

Marigold's illustrations aren't on paper. They're on herself. Tattooed all over body is a history of Marigold's life. There is a Star for Star, a Dolphin for Dolphin, a winking eye on the back of her neck and a sinuous snake down her spine which slithers and sways when she dances. Marigold doesn't look like the other mothers but to Dolphin she is beautiful: shining; glamorous; larger than life. To Star, at twelve, two or three years older than Dolphin and heading through adolescence into womanhood, Marigold isn't glamorous at all. She's an embarrasment. Star doesn't want a mother like Marigold any more; she's tired of the "funny spells" and the drinking and the boyfriends and the debt and the worry. Star wants to be normal. And Dolphin, poor gentle Dolphin, just wants her family to be happy.

When Star's father reappears she's ecstatic. At last there is a chance for a normal life. With her father Star knows that there will be no more hurried moonlight flits across London escaping Marigold's latest debt or unsuitable boyfriend. There will be no more shuddering at the thought her mother might show up at school in one of "those" moods and, horror of horrors, talk to her or her friends. There will be just school, regular meals and a normal life. She wants it so badly she's prepared to leave the mother she's looked after for so long and the sweet little sister whose father is somebody different and apparently less desirable. Poor Dolphin. All her life she's felt second best. Second best to Star, the pretty, graceful blonde girl whose father, Mickey, Marigold still loves after years of estrangement. Dolphin's father was as nothing to Marigold and when Mickey returns it's hardly surprising she chooses to stay with her mother away from the home offered by Mickey and Star. Of course, she can't cope. Marigold's "funny spells" are manic depressive episodes and, sent into turmoil by Mickey's rejection and Star's leaving, Marigold loses her grip on mental health in a more dangerous and frightening way than ever before. Her mother a catatonic wreck in the bathroom, covered in white paint to hide her tattoos in an effort to appear acceptable, and with no sister to help her, Dolphin has no choice but to invoke the dreaded authorities and to call an ambulance...

And oh gosh. Do you remember how it was to be a child? Has a smell, a sight, a word, ever triggered your memory so that you are sent right back into your own childhood as if it were right there, right then? Reading The Illustrated Mum sent me catapulting back into a world long before adulthood and reason and experience and empathy and compromise. Thankfully, I never had to deal with mental illness as a child, let alone the mental illness of a parent, but Jacqueline Wilson's Dolphin made me remember exactly how it was to be a child, in a world which is direct, vivid, immediate and oh, sometimes just so hard to understand.

I expect I've made it sound a frighteningly bleak book and I suppose, in a way, it is. Mental illness is bleak. Star and Dolphin have spent all their lives creating a dream-world around Marigold's behaviour; it's not an odd, failing world, it's a special, exciting, glamorous, different one. And in this way they have coped with taking on the responsibilities that should have been their mother's: managing the household finances; cooking; cleaning; hiding Marigold from "discovery" by the authorities. Dolphin's dreamworld allows her to escape the money worries, the fears when her errant mother fails to come home at night, the shame of wearing second hand clothes that are never clean, the embarrasment of knickers three sizes too small. But of course, it can't last forever. Marigold may be their mother but she has neglected her daughters seriously, and in the end they must seek outside help. But in a way too, The Illustrated Mum is an uplifting book: full of hope; full of the love which even a family struggling with seemingly impossible problems can share; full of the resource and capacity for generosity shown by children so often. There isn't a happy ending here, but there is a positive one, emphasising new beginnings, the importance of the love a family shares, and there is no blame meted out to anyone, just a desire to put things right and move forward. These, I think, are lessons even the great and the good of the powerful in our world would do well to heed.

Much vaunted these days, I suppose you'd call Jacqueline Wilson a popular writer of social realism for children, along with many other authors, Melvin Burgess and Anne Fine spring to mind. Her books recognise the things that many children today live with and that are talked about in adult circles more widely than ever before. They recognise that access to television, to the internet, to ever more graphic news reporting, means ever more informed children. But this is not why I like her. I like her because she is a wonderful writer: open; direct; honest; moving, never wasting a word, never over-complicating, never patronising, never preaching. She's a wonderful storyteller writing for children in a way that engages them immediately. I'd not choose her for my bookshelf for the didacticism of "social realism", I'd choose her because she's a superb writer. There is room on every good bookshelf for magic, for romance, for entertainment, of course, but also there is room always for Wilson's perfect, special brand of direct, staggering emotional engagement. Easy to read with a deceptively naive, first-person style suitable for any age of keen reader, including and perhaps especially adults, The Illustrated Mum puts me in mind of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Catcher In The Rye by J D Salinger, two books I'd recommend anyone to read, and so, I'm sure, would you.

I'll leave you with just a few words from Dolphin on her first night in foster care. I think they show how insecurity can produce fear that manifests itself in both emotional and physical ways when you are a child and what a dreadful thing shame is, but also how, when you are a child, things are so immediate. What's done is done. It's typical Wilson: heart-rending, full of emotional impact, but with a smile never too far from the surface:

I went to sleep straightaway. But then I started dreaming... I could hear the pounding of hard reptile feet running after me, the rasp of sharp claws and the thump of those terrible tails. They were getting nearer and nearer and then I was out of the forest but there was a vast black lake in front of me. I could see some creature swimming way out at the other side of the water. I wondered if I could reach it and whether it might tow me along. I knew I couldn't swim, but the fierce dinosaurs were there at my back, clawing my dress, ripping it right off me, so I leapt into the lake. It was strangely warm and so wet, wet all over me...

I woke up and realised what had happened. I lay there, sodden, my face screwed up with the shame. Then I pulled the dripping sheet off the bed, bundled it up and crept to the bathroom. I ran cold water in the bath and steeped the sheet, wondering how I was ever going to get it dry.

I thought she'd let me off school the next morning but she said I should go.

Wonderful stuff.

For another contemporary book for teens that deals with people who don't fit in, try our review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon.

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Buy The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson at


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coracollins said:

this was one of the best books i've ever read!