Treasure in the atticSecretsby Jacqueline Wilson 219 pp, Doubleday Jacqueline Wilson is not a follower of the fashion for children's books that are written for adults too. She is refreshingly committed to fulfilling children's expectations, and this is her enduring strength. But what makes her books worth reading for adults too is her insight into how children perceive their lives. In many of her books she returns to the same themes, shedding fresh light on the problems affecting young people without ever becoming formulaic. Secrets sticks to familiar territory, dealing mainly with the problems and joys of friendship. Lonely, overweight India, whose fashion-designer mum and embezzling dad fail to offer love, resorts to The Diary of Anne Frank as a source of emotional support.
Like Anne, India keeps a diary recording the life of pampered neglect in which she lives and her desperate need for friends at school. Her savage commentary on the techniques needed to make and keep friends is penetrating, capturing then eed for conformity so familiar among pre-pubescent girls. But the real secret begins when she befriends Treasure, a refugee from a troubled family in the poor part of town. Treasure's need for a friend turns to desperation when she realises that she is about to be taken from the home of her much-loved Nan and sent to live with her young mother and potentially violent stepfather. She decides she must disappear. Inspired by Anne Frank, India hides Treasure away in her attic, where the two live out a brief but idyllic fantasy.
If such apparent family chaos sounds like the stuff of a social worker's nightmares, it doesn't read that way. Treasure's family is loving, if fractured, in sharp contrast to India's. But Wilson is not writing a polemic on class. Her goal is to show that all children are affected by the capricious adults who take care of them. Both India and Treasure are "victims" yet both are able to survive and to be happy.
The book is written as a series of diary entries by the two girls. Wilson's chatty style is effortless to read, making it easy to underestimate her understanding. But Secrets captures a truth of childhood: that life is full of secrets, partly because so much is unknown and unexplained. What work less well are the scenes in which the two girls are together, when Wilson chooses to introduce an adult note pointing out differences and similarities between their backgrounds. Nor does the final twist, in which the two girls are taken to Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, quite come off. These, though, are quibbles.
Wilson is rightly read for the accuracy and scope of her emotional truth, not the adventure that hangs on it.