Sunday, 26 January 2014

Top Shelf Books #8 – The Story Of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

The next book to reach The Top Shelf is

The Story Of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, 1991

‘My name is Tracy Beaker’

I first came across this book in the library (where I spent a lot of time as a child).  It was a landscape hardback edition.  I’m not sure how much attention I was actually paying to it because I thought for a long time that the title character was called ‘Tracy Baker’. 

I also spent a lot more time playing around with the questionnaire-style opening and looking at the doodle-style illustrations of Nick Sharratt than I did actually reading the story.  I did eventually get my own copy of the book, an ex-library copy but this one a paperback and normal novel shape (which I was slightly put-out about, mainly because some of the drawings were missing in this edition). 

As I got older I spent more time reading the story as a whole, and although it is extremely brief, it is a sublime example of the unreliable narrator (as I mentioned in The Books That Shaped My Youth), very funny and moving.

Tracy is a ten-year-old living in care.  All the children in the home (dumping ground) are given a book in which to write about themselves.  This sparks Tracy’s interest and talent for writing and soon she is telling her life story.  We are reading Tracy’s book.  It’s filled with her skewed perspective, where her deadbeat mother is always about to arrive and whisk her away to a rich and glamorous life, and where she tries to hide how she really feels about previous failed foster families and friends who don’t want to talk to her any more, which creates a heart-breaking pathos.  As heartless and naughty as Tracy tries to appear, she is a lonely vulnerable child, and that makes a beguiling narrator. 

‘It was great.  Yes, I had the most amazing time.  First I went to McDonald’s and had a Big Mac and french fries with a strawberry milk shake and then I went to the pictures and saw this really funny film and I laughed so much I fell out of my seat and then I went off with this whole crowd of friends to an amusement arcade and I kept winning the jackpot on the fruit machines and then we all went off to this party and I drank a whole bottle of wine and it was great, it just tasted like lemonade, and this girl there, we made friends and she asked me if I’d like to stay the night, sharing her twin beds in this fantastic pink and white room, in fact she said I could stay there permanently if I really wanted and so I said…
I said: ‘No thanks, I’d sooner go back to my crummy children’s home.’ ?
Of course I didn’t say that.  Well, she didn’t say it either.  I sort of made her up.  And her party.  I didn’t go down the amusement arcade.  Or to the pictures.  Or McDonald’s.  I would have done, but I couldn’t, on account of the fact I ran off with no cash whatsoever.
I said I tell fibs sometimes.  It makes things more interesting.  I mean, what’s the point of writing what I really did?  Which was loaf about the town feeling more and more fed up.  The only thing I could think of to do was sit in the bus shelter.  It got a bit boring.  I pretended I was waiting for a bus and I tried to think of all the places I’d like to go to.  But that began to depress me because I started thinking about Watford, where my mum said she lived.  And last year I got all the right money together (which created a few problems afterwards as I sort of borrowed it without asking) and sussed out the journey and got all these trains and buses and all the rest of it, so that I could pay my mum a visit and give her a lovely surprise.  Only it was me that got the surprise because she wasn’t there, and the people who lived in that house said she’d moved on about six months ago and they didn’t have a clue where she’d gone now.’

Although there’s not much plot, it’s the progression of Tracy’s attitudes towards certain characters that makes the story.  What really works about the book is Tracy isn’t a person you’d want to meet; she lies, she fights, she picks on others, never accepts responsibility for her actions and is completely self-centred, but seeing the world from her point of view turns all that on its head.  Yes, she is all those things, but she has to be tough to protect herself from being hurt again and you’re rooting one hundred per cent for this kid.  A sympathetic unreliable first person narrator is one of the most enjoyable things to read, done well, and in The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Wilson does it brilliantly.

Who are your favourite unreliable narrators?


  1. Nice extract. You've made me want to read it, even though Tracy's a bit of a git.

    1. Well, it is good, as I said up there. Be warned it is ridiculously short though. I know it is a kid's book, but it is short even by those standards and the plot all happens right at the end.


I look forward to your enthusiastic and loving comment.