When I was a teenager, I was a voracious patron of a number of my local libraries, so often ended up making my way through novels that were not exactly new. This was how I came across Jacqueline Wilson’s Waiting for the Sky to Fall (1983). Wilson herself needs no introduction, but few are aware nowadays that before her colourful, Nick-Sharratt-illustrated bestselling children’s and young adult novels, she wrote a number of novels aimed at older teenagers that are now out of print, of which Waiting for the Sky to Fall is one. I love Wilson’s newer novels, but I found myself even more impressed by this earlier book. Firstly, its teenage heroine, Katherine, is seriously flawed; often spectacularly unpleasant to those who least deserve it, half-convinced that she is special and brilliant (and half-convinced that she is hopelessly stupid) and occasionally verbally vicious. Despite this, Wilson pulls off something that is very rare for teenage characters (and pretty rare for female characters); by presenting Katherine with such respect and understanding, she allows her to be sympathetic even though she gets so much wrong. A superficial description of Katherine would make her sound like a typical teenager, but Wilson refuses to fall into that trap; she lets Katherine be taken on her own terms, like an adult.
Katherine herself is torn between childhood and adulthood. She seizes upon her first boyfriend, Richard, as a ticket out of her lonely life; as a scholarship girl at the local grammar, she has few friends, and very little spending money; she is brutally conscious of her ugly clothes and lack of make-up. It’s also a chance to rebel against her controlling father, who expects Katherine to get 11 As at O-Level, and go on to sixth form and to university, as he never had the chance to do. Nevertheless, as she admits herself, she is not in love with Richard. In reality, she is closest to her little sister, Nicola, but it is Nicola who is the main victim when she lashes out against the world. ‘Weird’, ‘babyish’ and ‘odd’, Nicola represents everything that Katherine fears in herself, and she vehemently denies that she enjoys the complicated imaginary games they play, claiming that she is only humouring her sister. And yet -in a scene that is striking for its psychological bravery – when Katherine goes to help at her local nursery and sees the pristine playroom – her first thought is ‘If only I had the room to myself and could have a proper play!’. Despite the media lamenting that we force adolescents to grow up too quickly, it’s rare to see a teenage narrator acknowledging how close to childhood many teenagers still feel.
More unusually still, Waiting for the Sky to Fall absolutely does not present a narrative in which Katherine must ‘put away childish things’ in order to truly grow up. Instead, she is forced to realise that she has been playing a fantasy game all along – but with Richard. ‘I was good at getting round people and I knew the roles to play with Richard’, she reflects after making him cry. ‘I knew I was manipulating Richard. I couldn’t help resenting him for being so gullible. I wanted him to see through my little games and despise me for them.’ When Richard’s mum accuses Katherine of using Richard, she has to recognise the essential truth of the accusation, even though a lot of his mum’s claims are unfair (another huge strength of the novel is the fact that Katherine’s relationships with adults are never marked by total misunderstandings or perfect harmony – the adults in this novel are real, flawed people as well, and can be right or wrong, often both at the same time). In contrast, the resolution of this novel sees Katherine realising that her most important relationship has always been with Nicola: ‘We were almost part of each other, Katherine and Nicola. We had been conspirators until this summer’, and recalling all the games they’ve played together. While much of the sisters’ play is ‘childish’ (Paper People, their most developed world, is no paracosm) it is depicted, by the end of this novel, as ultimately healthy, one of the many ways that the sisters have supported each other.
Waiting for the Sky to Fall is distinguished not only by its close attention to the minutia of class distinction – something that is still present, but muted, in Wilson’s later novels – but by its depiction of teenagers, especially teenage girls. With Katherine’s homemade frocks, her 50p pocket money, her O-Levels and her letters from her boyfriend, the book feels ‘dated’, but only insofar as it presents a realistic and fascinating picture of suburban life at the time that it was written. More importantly, its emotional honesty, and complex analysis of how family relationships actually function, sets it apart from modern YA fiction, and much fiction written for adults. (Analysing Katherine’s relationship with her supposedly fat and stupid mother, who turns out to have a subjectivity of her own, would alone provide more food for thought than many apparently character-driven adult novels). It’s a shame that it’s out of print, but I’m glad I had the chance to read it again.