There is power in words and stories. Power to guide our imagination, transport us in time and space, and wrap us up in magic and adventure. This World Book Day, 100 countries across the globe will work to encourage children to read and experience this power for themselves. According to World Book Day UK, reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success; not their home situation, or their parent’s educational background or income, but reading. It’s the secret to everything.
For care experienced children, this levelling of the playing field is vital; especially when it can feel as if we’ve started life off on the back foot, unable to catch up, let alone succeed, all because of family circumstances outside our control. The power of reading can be more than just an equaliser though, it can be an escape and a safe space too. It was for me.
At four years old, I was taken into care. What was only supposed to be a two-week placement turned into fourteen years. Through each of those years and every change that came with them – navigating the system, moving three hours away from my birth family, and witnessing placements breakdown – I turned to books. I devoured them. It was easier to read and experience somebody else’s life, watch as they overcame their battles, than it was for me to face my own. When things got hard or confusing or too scary for me to comprehend, I turned to books and the comfort they offered. They inspired me and they saved me too, but they also made me feel invisible and alien. Alone. I read line after line and turned page after page, but I didn’t see myself in any of them. In the few instances where I did, I saw caricatures of useless social workers, foster homes likened to rubbish tips, and troubled and neglected children, unworthy of love or destined to fail. None of these stories painted the possibility of change, success, transformation; they didn’t offer me hope.
Even now, at twenty-four years old, I look around me and I still see these same prejudices. In books and on TV, there are endless negative stereotypes that hang over the head of every care experienced child and continue to haunt us well into our adult lives. Troubled children; academically challenged; mentally and emotionally unstable; overcome with baggage; destined to be bad parents; unable to process and form meaningful relationships; ultimately broken. This is a different kind of story – corrosive, but just as powerful.
The parentless or 'Looked After child' has become a tired, well-worn trope, often used without any glimmer of truth. And this lack of understanding or thought is a problem because these experiences are actually the reality for many children and people in the UK.
How can we encourage care experienced children to read – to acknowledge that reading is a great equaliser for success – while surrounding them with examples that only ever seem to reinforce these stereotypes and generalise their stories and their experiences? We can’t. We mustn’t.
Every child, every person, be they care experienced or not, deserves to see themselves within the pages of a book. In truth, the books on our shelves should be as diverse and representative as the people that walk down our streets. We learn so much through reading, watching, and hearing about experiences outside of our own. But more than this, seeing yourself reflected within a book is confirmation that you are not alone. Many care experienced children feel isolated within the system, surrounded by countless grown-ups that have their best interests at heart, while simultaneously being cut off from other children or people who understand what they are going through. In England alone, a child goes into care every 15 minutes – there are quite literally thousands of people who have experienced the system in some form – and yet it often feels as if nobody is doing our stories justice. And the truth is, they can’t. Not really. These are our stories to tell. Ours to own.
My story doesn’t fit the trope of the troubled care leaver. I’ve gone on to further and higher education, to discover a loving relationship, and to create a happy home. I have a job that I love in the field I want to be in. I’ve fought for and invented my own happy ending. And I am proud of it.
The most powerful and positive thing we can do, is to tell our stories – write them or talk about them – it is the only way to counter stereotypes and untangle prejudices. We should and we must speak, start conversations, and work to make sure that the wider world sees that these assumptions aren’t true. To be care experienced means a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean that we are defined by our home situations. We are so much more than that. It’s time everyone else began to see it too.
There is power in words and stories, but there is even more power in owning your story and taking control of it. I am me first, and the kid who grew up in care second. Behind all of the stereotypes and the numbers and the statistics are real people, each one unique and amazing, each one resilient and strong. So, this World Book Day, don’t just share a story. Share your story. It’s a powerful one. It’s one people need to hear. It’s one that needs to be told.
You can follow Callen on Twitter, @CallenJMartin
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