Why did you decide to reimagine E Nesbit’s classic children’s novel The Railway Children?
I love The Railway Children but when I re-read it for the umpteenth time I thought, wonderful though it is, it’s sort of a fairytale, because whenever there is a problem the old gentleman pops up and sorts it out. The mother, in particular, is a jolly good sport but almost too much so. Also I felt sorry for Phyllis. It’s clear that Bobby is the favourite. So I thought I would do a modern version and I don’t think Nesbit would mind me taking the bones of the plot. She took ideas from other authors and didn’t mind if people borrowed hers.
What happens in your version of the story?
Phoebe is the youngest child who adores her dad. She has an older sister and a brother who is on the autistic spectrum, so she can’t help feeling it’s not fair. She doesn’t get her full share of attention. When they have to move to the countryside, she convinces herself that her dad is on a desert island, while in reality her dad is a weak man who made a bad decision while working for a ghastly children’s writer.
Why did you want to show a father who commits a crime, rather than being falsely imprisoned, like in the original story?
I wanted to show that people end up in prison for all sorts of reasons—there is a mix of people there. But whatever they have done, it’s not just them who suffer, it’s the children as well. It’s horrible for the children [in the book] when they find out but when they go and visit, he’s still Dad. I do think that it’s important to show that these things happen and if we pretend that only very, very bad people end up in prison, it’s not realistic. Children are quite tough individuals.
What did you keep from the original book?
Nesbit was so wonderful in her realistic portrayal of siblings. You know they love each other to bits but there is squabbling and irritation. I wanted Phoebe to be irritated with Perry and Becks. I wanted to show the joy and freedom of being in the country, and I wanted to show the joy of a vintage railway and how exciting it can be. I’m still a novice when it comes to trains but I tried hard to check everything. The book that helped the most was an old I Spy book of railways I found that had been diligently filled in by a child!
What was it like working with illustrator Rachael Dean?
Nick Sharratt and I had a lovely artistic partnership for 30 years and I was sad when Nick decided to concentrate on his own work, but why wouldn’t he? I didn’t want to have someone who was a lookalike Nick and I thought long and hard. I was shown a lot of different artwork and Penguin Random House and I agreed that Rachael’s work is so fresh. She’s great with colour and the illustrations for the book [above] are fantastic. I don’t know whether she was being kind but the icing on the cake was when she said she read my books when she was little and dreamed of illustrating them.
Jacqueline Wilson’s The Primrose Railway Children is published in hardback by Puffin on 16th September (£12.99, 9780241517765). E-book and audio editions will also be available.