This is the 12th Jacqueline Wilson novel I’ve read for the challenge, and I usually like them a lot. I found #110 The Illustrated Mum to be disappointing although that said, Wilson is very good at what she does, and this is still a good book – it’s just not my favourite.
The Illustrated Mum tells the story of Dolphin, age about 10, who lives with her older sister, Star, and their mum, Marigold. Marigold isn’t an attentive or stable parent – she can’t hold down a job, goes out for one drink and doesn’t come home until morning and has black and manic moods. Throughout the book, both Star and Dolphin struggle with what to tell outsiders and what to hide.
Marigold stands out not just because of her wild behaviour, but because she has a lot of tattoos. It’s the theme of the book – each chapter is named after and based around a different tattoo. Marigold is described as:
a red-haired woman in halter top and shorts her white skin vividly tattooed, designs on her arms, her shoulders, her thighs, one ankle, even her foot.
It’s a fabulous picture but definitely out of the ordinary – you can see why Star, who is trying very hard to fit in at the high school, gets embarrassed by having a mum who is different, who stands out so much.
I had two problems with the tattoos. The first is thanks to the introduction, where Wilson explains that she had seen a woman with fabulous tattoos and two small girls, and based the character of Marigold on her. That gave a sour taste to the book for me, as though Wilson looked at the woman and assumed, because of the tattoos, that she couldn’t be happy or balanced. It’s perhaps unfair as Wilson’s books tend to follow this pattern, and the subjects in the book have come up before – it’s quite a lot like Lola Rose in some ways, for example – so it’s not that Marigold is her only tattooed lady and also her only bad mother: there are a lot of struggling or outright abusive parents in Wilson’s work. But Marigold, as a woman with several tattoos, is rare in literature and I was disappointed that Wilson had made her tattoos a symptom of her problems, rather than – for example – a creative celebration.
The other disappointment was also tattoo related. The Illustrated Mum is illustrated by Nick Sharratt, who is very good. I’ve mentioned his work for Wilson’s books in Double Act and he’s done several other Wilson novels, and the pictures definitely add something to the story, expanding the experience.
The problem I have with this book that in the pictures which show a full body portrait of Marigold there aren’t enough tattoos. The only ones drawn are those explicitly mentioned in the book, and while that amounts to at least ten, there’s something off about the coverage in the picture. The tattoos are all drawn so separately, with no particular thought to how they work together, and look small and sparse on her skin. Marigold is described as a great tattoo designer, as ‘covered from head to foot with glorious tattoos’, and this just seems off. I was expecting something more like this where the tattoos work together more, and are brighter, or perhaps the full-body coverage like in this picture.
Combined, the two disappointments seemed to diminish Marigold. She doesn’t come across as a well-rounded character like her daughters, the other characters in the novel like Oliver, Micky or Michael, or the mother in Lola Rose. Marigold is her tattoos and her craziness, and that’s it.
While I was disappointed, the book is still a good read. Wilson has a talent for writing tough stories which I wouldn’t hesitate to give to a child. It’s a book for older readers – probably children Dolphin’s age, which is 10, or above. The language is straightforward but the themes are complex and might warrant discussion, depending on the child. Star in particular is in a very vulnerable position, and does not make the best decisions – I’d suggest an adult read the book carefully before giving it to a teen girl who craves nice things. All in all, I do recommend The Illustrated Mum, just not as whole heartedly as the other Jacqueline Wilson books I’ve read.