I“d heard of people framing notes of money or holding on to receipts as memorabilia when starting a new business; however, I could not have predicted the mark that would be left when I sold my first book. I was approached by a teacher looking for a story to help him talk to a child in his class about his mum's cancer diagnosis. I was struck by how much it resonated with my own experience.
‘My mum died of pancreatic cancer when I was 18. The day I‘came home from sitting my last A-Level exam, she told me she had 3-6 months to live and died at home 4 months later. Her death was not something I felt able to process at the time, and 12 years later, I’m still learning to access the feelings I unconsciously disconnected from at that point in my life and over the years before it. I could see and feel the difference it could make to such a young child to have a teacher supporting him to acknowledge such an emotionally challenging experience.
The child was 4, so I recommended ‘Big Tree is Sick by Nathalie Slosse. It’s a story about a tree that gets poorly with wood-worm, providing a powerful and accessible allegory for illnesses
like cancer. The back of the book contains an activity section to help build on the conversation and explore feelings associated with a loved one being unwell.
That first conversation, although brief, will stay with me. 1 felt privileged to have played a small part in helping a child process feelings associated with their mother’s cancer because they know how valuable that would have been for me. It bought to life my mission and the vision of what I dreamed Be with Books could be. I was so encouraged by the thoughtfulness, kindness
and care the teacher was offering to a family whilst they navigated frightening and unpredictable circumstances.
I've been a social worker with children and families for 8 years. It has become absolutely clear to me that books are an in-valuable resource when talking to children about what they are experiencing or have experienced in their lives, Books contain stories, stories contain words, and words are sometimes hard to find, especially during difficult or challenging times.
In social work, we often use the term ‘age appropriate’ when thinking about what is or isn’t ok for a child to see or hear. I’ve learned that age cannot be the only benchmark for determin-ing what we talk to children about. It’s fairly engrained in our culture that topics like sex, drugs and violence are for adultears only, which, for the most part, is entirely reasonable. But if you're a child or young person who has lived through these experiences, that’s exactly what there is to talk about. Sensi-tively, of course. Whether direct or not, children are introduced to conversations about war, sex, gender, racial issues and the environment during childhood. I believe that it’s ever more important that books represent and reflect human life's diversity.
Beneath the words and pictures of books is space for relational connection. When I look back, I can recall how I felt as a child when my grandad approached my favourite lines in the story of Peter Rabbit. I realise now this was a relatively rare moment of comfort and connection I felt amidst my own family dysfunction. My mum was spirited and resourceful and she loved us dearly, but was not always as available to my brother and me as we might have needed or wanted her to be. My father was largely absent, and my mum struggled with her history, being a single parent and working full time, such that alcohol became her release. In those moments as my grandad read to me, I felt uplifted by his voice impersonating Mr Mc-Gregor and sitting with him, cuddled in, offered me a space to relax.
Supporting and strengthening relationships between chil-dren and their families has to be high on the agenda in social work. Sometimes that involves acknowledging people's pain and distress, and sometimes it’s scaffolding their understand-ing of a corporate process they feel lost and unheard within.
There are three books I've found most helpful when talking to children and families, which can make being with their unique circumstances that little bit easier.
1: DENNIS AND THE BIG DECISIONS
by Paul Sambrooks
This was the first book I ever recommended to a foster carer, and it became my most used book when working as a Children’s Guardian and talking to children about the family court process. I realised it was ineffective for me to be the primary person having this conversation with children, and I met a lot of foster carers who were concerned about saying the wrong thing and confusing children during an already overwhelming and unsettling time. I saw that by providing carers with words they weren't sure how to find themselves, they could relax more and focus on being with the children they looked after. The response from carers about this book was overwhelmingly positive, and children were given answers to questions they might not have known how to ask.
This series has two other books: Dennis Duckling and Dennis Lives with Grandpa and Grandma.
2: THE INVISIBLE STRING
by Patrice Karst
This book tells a beautiful story relevant to children anxious about situations involving loss and separation. The metaphor of an invisible string represents connections to people we can’t always see in person. The invisible string can connect a child to a parent at work during the day, a loved one who has died, or someone a child misses because they can’t see them very often. This book is crucial for children living in care, away from family or moving on from foster care to adoption. A book alone cannot heal a child of loss and trauma. However, I have recently seen how much reassurance was provided to a 6-year-old boy who was frightened to leave his foster carer to go to school, making the pain of separation just a little more bearable for them both and letting him know he would be held in mind.
3: SARAH NAISH’S COLLECTION OF
Features characters; Katie Careful, Charlie Chatty, Ellie Jelly, Rosie Rudey, William Wobbly and Callum Kindly. Sarah is well known for writing the A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting. She is also an adoptive parent to five siblings, and she and her daughter Rosie Jefferies have created a phenomenal collection of children’s books. My particular favourites are Katie Careful and the Very Sad Smile, reminding us to look beyond a child’s behavioural presentation to see what is masked by competence, compliance and helpfulness. Ellie Jelly and the Massive Mum Meltdown is a perfect story for parents and children, reminding us to be compassionate with ourselves when as adults we don’t always get it right. This book beautifully depicts repair!
ABOUT BEING WITH BOOKS
Be With Books launched in April 2022 but lived as a quiet dream for many years before that. We are here to empower individuals and organisations to talk to children. Our website contains specially curated categories of books relating to all aspects of human life. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share such extraordinary books and the power of connection through stories.
‘To learn more, please visit our website: www.bewithbooks.co.uk