Few children growing up in the past 20 years won’t have heard of Dame Jacqueline Wilson. Her books would make Chris Mullin happy (they certainly “zip along”), and usually concern girls dealing with family problems and school life. Perhaps her most famous character is Tracy Beaker, who has her own television show. So it may come as a surprise to discover that Wilson has turned her hand to historical fiction, in the form of Hetty Feather, whose title character is a young foundling. The first book came out in 2009; a sequel, Sapphire Battersea, was published this year, and she is currently working on a third. Yet Wilson is definitely not abandoning modern fiction. “What is delightful is to alternate,” she says, in her gentle, unassuming voice – exactly the sort of voice you’d expect of a children’s author, like a kindly aunt with a bag of boiled sweets. “Delightful” is a word that often springs to her lips. She’s quietly defensive of her fiction, which many parents feel is inappropriate because of its gritty subject matter. It’s impossible, she claims, “to protect children from the realities of life; you only have to eavesdrop on a junior school playground to know that children know precisely what’s going on”. If children don’t have the problems that feature in her books then hearing about them “helps them see something different”. This subtly didactic approach is reflected in Hetty Feather. Bemoaning the way that history is taught in schools (she was amazed to speak to some children who thought the Victorians came after the Egyptians), she says: “I think children, after reading Hetty, have slightly more of an idea about Victorian times.” She believes that heroines such as Florence Nightingale should have much more of a presence in education. So was this part of what caused her to make the move to historical fiction? The impetus came when she took up a post as a Coram Fellow at the Foundling Museum. Always interested in the “strange and fascinating” Victorians (“I’m very much a Victorian girl inside”), her schedule did not allow the necessary research. She became ill, and only then had time “to recline like an invalide”. She read social history, as well as “an obscure Victorian children’s novelist called Mrs Molesworth” (almost as prolific as Wilson – she wrote 100 books); and devoured George Gissing, “a mine of information… although a little goes a long way”. It was a challenge, though – she wanted Hetty Feather to be “readable”, but still have “some air of Victorian authenticity”. As it turns out, she’s had “loads of responses” from readers saying that Hetty is their favourite character. “Basically it means if you’ve got a story about a child going through a hard time but having a good time, and it’s got a strong storyline, ultimately children will want to read it.” Historical fiction has certainly touched a nerve this year in children’s books, particularly with girls, as in Mary Hooper’s Velvet and Angela McAllister’s The Double Life of Cora Parry, both reviewed opposite. Why is this? “Well, I think that it puts things at one remove for children. I wanted to show them that Hetty experiences things the way they do, and she can be as naughty and as miserable as any modern child.” During her research, Wilson spoke to many orphaned children, one of whom had “given herself various different names”. The same happens in Hooper and McAllister’s books, which have heroines similar to Hetty. These girls are vulnerable, imaginative and constantly seeking to reinvent themselves. Hetty believes herself to be the daughter of a circus rider, and even later renames herself (as do the girls in Hooper and McAllister). Wilson laughs, saying that girls always question themselves: “Even nowadays, if girls become, I don’t know – God help us – glamour models or something, frequently there is a change of name as well.” More escapist than her modern fiction, perhaps Hetty also represents a way out for Wilson. “If I turn into a doddery old lady who doesn’t understand anything about modern children, perhaps I will have to write about children in the past,” she says. Plans to present the next Hetty Feather book as the third and last in a “Victorian triple decker” may be disrupted, she says – she’s become quite taken with her flame-haired minx. And what would happen, I ask, if Hetty met one of her modern heroines? “She’d be amazed at the freedom. I think she’d probably suggest that they seize the day, take their chances when; they can – and just realise how lucky they are!