Just Imagine

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child: The importance of school and community in Will You Catch Me?

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.
Nelson Mandela

I started my book Will You Catch Me? with Nelson Mandela’s powerful quote of truth that strikes at the very core of our community.

Every February the charity Nacoa run a Children of Alcoholics Week to shine a light on the hidden problem of parental drinking – 2.6 million children are growing up in the UK with a parent who drinks too much.

Nacoa – The National Association of Children of Alcoholics – are there to reach out to the children struggling at home with a parent who drinks too much.

I wrote my children’s book Will You Catch Me? to raise awareness of this hidden problem and because I was one of those children.

For those children untouched by this issue it will be a moving and often funny adventure story. For those children that read Will You Catch Me? and think, “This is me, this is my story” I wanted to reach out to them and let them know they are not alone.

I knew that Nell Hobs, my eleven-year-old heroine in Will You Catch Me? would need support from school and the wider community as she struggles at home with her  alcoholic mum. Without that she would have nothing.

So let’s start with Nell’s school. I loved creating kind, lovely Miss Petunia who knows that something is wrong and keeps gently trying to find out. Nell adores her but will not reveal what is happening at home because she is terrified that she will be taken into foster care and have to leave behind her animal family – Bob Marley the Tortoise, Asbo and Chaos the guinea pigs, Fiz and Tyrone the gerbils, Aunty Lou the hamster and Beyoncé and Destiny the goldfish.

Then there is Mr Samuels, an inspirational history teacher who belongs to an historical reenactment society dresses up as a cavalier at the weekends. He introduces Nell Hobs to the life and times of Nell Gwyn, one of the first actresses in England. Nell Gwyn’s mother was alcohol dependent and Nell Hobs feels a deep connection to Nell Gwyn. She decides that Nell Gwyn is her honorary ancestor and the ‘orange girl’ (the nick name for the young girls who sold fruit for refreshments in London’s theatres) turned actress appears to her several times during the narrative offering guidance and support.

Oh how I wish Miss Petunia and Mr Samuels had been my teachers at school. I would like to take a moment to thank all the Miss Petunias and Mr Samuels out there who do such wonderful work with children. I know that the words of wisdom from a kind teacher stay with you for the rest of your life. I also know that, now more than ever, many schools have washing machines to wash the clothes of children from deprived backgrounds and toasters to feed children who have not had enough to eat. Sadly, more than ever, in this current climate a teacher’s job is about so much more than education.

Now let’s go on to the importance of community in Will You Catch Me?

It takes a village to raise a child
African Proverb.

My book is dedicated to the late Viola Clarke or Aunty Vie, as she was known by all of us. She sailed from Jamaica to England on February 2nd 1952, part of the Windrush Generation. Incidentally The second of February was also Nell Gwyn’s birthday, a lovely coincidence.

I met Aunty Vie as a young adult and she reached out her arms to me, drew me in and made me part of her family and for that I am eternally grateful. I understand how important it is to have the welcoming support and love of people other than your relatives.

Nell Hobs needs this same support more than anyone so I set her story on the Beckham Estate, a fictional North West London estate featured in my previous children’s novel How to Fly With Broken Wings?. I put Nell living in the flat next to door to Aunty Lou who, like my Aunty Vie, was born in Jamaica. Everyone on the estate is aware of Nell’s mum’s drinking problem and they all offer small but incredibly significant moments of support throughout the story (a free bag of chips or a gifted chocolate bar or comic, a lunch bag of sandwiches passed to her on the way to school or just a kindly smile). As the story reaches its climax and Nell’s ‘hidden problem’ comes tumbling out into the open, the whole estate community come together to host a fundraiser for her mum’s rehabilitation programme.

I set Nell’s home on an estate where everyone lives in flats in close proximity so that her neighbours would see and hear what’s going on. Growing up, I lived in a house and I can’t remember a neighbour ever commenting on the shouting coming from our house when my dad came home drunk from the pub.

Nell’s community, from her teachers to her school friends, to her neighbours on the estate, become her family and when she needs someone to catch her there are welcoming arms all around, reaching out to help. To show her she is not alone.

The National Association For Children Of Alcoholics (Nacoa) has a message for children like Nell. It is ‘You are not alone’. Their helpline number is 0800-358-3456. Children of Alcoholics week (10-16 February) aims to raise awareness of the lives of the 2.6 million children in the UK who are growing up affected by parental alcohol problems. For further information, including ways you can help and a downloadable #URNotAlone poster, please visit their website www.coaweek.org.uk or www.nacoa.org.uk

This is a guest blog from author Jane Elson as part of her Blog Tour to mark Children of Alcoholics Week (10th – 16th February 2019)  www.coaweek.org.uk  where children and adults living and working with children can get advice and info on how to help with this hidden issue. There is also downloadable #URNotAlone poster for use in schools and libraries.

Read our full review of Will You Catch Me? here