Writing for the most vulnerable children
Updated: Dec 17, 2018
If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed I occasionally have a cry of despair over the lack of children's books that don't contain one of the following: 1) dead parents or 2) a missing parent and a child has to find them.
When I was a book buyer, I looked after the selection and purchasing of books that went to some of the UK's most vulnerable children: those in the care system. I was purchasing for a wide age range (ages 3-13), and from about age 9, it's near impossible to find a book that doesn't feature a child with dead or missing parents. It's to the point I've even heard that children living in a traditional family unit are getting frustrated with the dead parent trope.
Recently, the BBC published the Department for Education's statistics on children in care alongside a report that children's services are reaching a breaking point. (Article here) The statistics are upsetting: there are more than 75,000 children in care in the UK, with the majority placed in care after facing abuse and neglect. And the largest age group is children age 10-15.
Just for clarity: a child who is being looked after by their local authority is known as a child in care. They might be living with foster parents, at home under the supervision of social services, in residential children's homes or in other settings like secure units. They might have been placed in care by parents struggling to cope. Or, children's services may have intervened because a child was at significant risk of harm.
These kids are going to have their own personal tastes in what they want to read, as well as having different topics that may or may not upset them. Ideally they'd have a choice to find something they want to read themselves. But for the purpose of this post I'm going to paint a very broad brushstroke regarding finding a book that would be suitable for all of these children.
If you're looking for a nice, light-hearted read for a child that's in care (which is usually what I was after), you're probably going to avoid focussing on family, and probably avoiding stories with a happy family reunion, a dead parent, or a missing parent. And when you look at all the books on the market for that 10-15 age group... you'll be lucky to find more than a handful.
There are a lot of people who have varying thoughts on the types of books these children need. Some feel it's an opportunity to approach their problems in a book; so a therapeutic method to get them to talk about their problems. That may work for some kids - but only their carers and caseworkers will know best. If you're purchasing a book to go to a wide range of children with different backgrounds without actually knowing them individually, you have to take everything into consideration and go the more cautious route.
This means generally avoiding books with:
Dead parents (hopefully for obvious reasons)
Missing parents, particularly when a child is trying to find them (again, for obvious reasons)
Any sort of parental reunion at the end (this could give false and unrealistic hope to the reader)
A strong focus on parental or sibling relationships
Family members in prison
A strong reference to rejection
Strong themes of blame/guilt (many children in care have been blamed for things that aren't their fault)
A focus on food (due to issues around food-hoarding where children have been neglected)
Strong themes of loneliness
This is by no means a definitive list, but also isn't necessarily applicable to each child. But when you take all of these 75,000 children into mind, these are all the things you have to consider.
If you're interested in writing for this demographic (and from my point of view, if it's suitable for these children, it's suitable for all children, so why not give it a go), here are a few of my recommendations:
Keep it light. Humour is a way in with a lot of reluctant readers or children who aren't opening up much. Joke books are great because it might make a child want to share a joke with others - so why not throw a few jokes into a story to keep it light and also give the reader something to take away.
Be mindful of the family setup. It'd be silly to avoid mentioning of parents entirely. By age 10, these kids certainly know about parents and that everyone has parents of some description. While I'd say it's good to keep parents/guardians in the background as much as possible, it's so important for these kids to see positive representations of parental figures. So don't let them get too involved in the plot, but make sure they're supportive to any children in the story.
Keep the driving factor positive. Even something that initially sounds dark, like leading the fight against an evil wizard intent on destroying the world, is actually keeping it positive - it's a desire for good that's driving the main character and shows the child in an empowered position. This is a great alternative to pushing the plot forward with a character who feels they have to do something due to overwhelming guilt. So even if your main character has had a lot of setbacks, keep their motivation as a positive thing.
If your main character has to be an orphan, don't make them miserable. Ok, there are lots of very popular children's books with orphans as main characters. Some are classics, and lots of readers love a book with a parent-less hero, and that's ok. The term "orphan" itself is pretty antiquated, so it's best to avoid using it to describe the character - after all, that would be telling rather than showing. And please don't make the character constantly complaining about the care system, about how things were so much better with their parents, how they hate being a foster child, how they wish they knew their parents, etc. For so many kids in care, being put in care is an improvement to their lives (did you see that statistic above about how many faced abuse?). It's a real disservice to these kids to assume all children in care are miserable, and it is not accurately reflecting their situation to readers not familiar with the care system. Like many books have normalised single-parent households, or same-sex parent households, a child living with a foster carer should be normalised too. So there's nothing wrong with writing about a child in care, but please do some research and do it properly rather than using it as a simple trope.
Short disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on children in the care system. A few years of working with people who are has fed into my knowledge of what to look for and what to avoid. But even the people who do work in this area don't always agree on what's suitable and what's not for a wide range of these children - it's so nuanced and depends on the children you've been working with. So I've left out lots of points where there isn't always consensus and focused on areas where there is.