One of the best pieces of storytelling advice I’ve ever heard is to focus on emotions. If there’s a choice between sacrificing emotional depth to keep the narrative true-to-life, or letting the story stray into the fanciful but allowing honest emotional exploration, go for the feelings every time, readers want heart more than head.
The Perfect Parent Project, the fourth book by Stewart Foster, is a great example of how true this advice is. It centres around a complicated plan set in motion by the main character. If we are frank, it is unlikely anyone would really think this ploy could succeed. However, it is because of the narrative leap of faith that Foster has been able to craft a book of profound and disarming emotional truth.
The Perfect Parent Project follows the story of 11-year-old Sam. Handed into care by his mother, he has been in the foster system for years, ushered between homes by a social worker he affectionately calls Rock Star Steve. At the start of the book, he’s recently been placed with a new family which includes six-year-old Reilly, who adores him. He has settled in well at school, so much so that he doesn’t want to leave this time. Rather than waiting to be moved again, Sam and his best friend Leah take matters into their own hands and launch the Perfect Parent Project, to find him adoptive parents. However, things become complicated when Sam tries to juggle this endeavour along with home, school and friendships. Some of the balls inevitably start to tumble to the ground…
One point of truth in the book is that there are no bad guys in a situation as messy, emotional and complicated as this one. It would have been so easy for Foster to paint certain figures with simply shadowy tones: Sam’s biological mother could have been heartless, Rock Star Steve could have been a busy-body, Reilly’s parents could have been cold. However, they are all far too human for anything so two-dimensional. There is no one to rile against in The Perfect Parent Project, just many moments when you bury your head in your hands as you see characters you love – mainly Sam – make terrible (but understandable, relatable) decisions.
The cast of characters around Sam is a real source of strength for the book. I challenge you to choose a favourite out of the adorable Reilly, the empowering and loveable Leah, the heart-growingly kind Steve, the doggedly loving Sarah and the fun and open Dave and Michelle. They are all characters you want to spend time with but it is perhaps Leah who holds the most unexplored depths for me. There are so many issues around her feelings for Sam and her own family life hinted at, that I would love to read this story again but with her as the protagonist and narrator!
The depiction of a looked-after child and the foster system is a valuable representation. It’s a situation often portrayed negatively in literature, with unfortunate (often troubled/troubling) children shoved between ill-fated homes. While The Perfect Parent Project does not try to claim it is a perfect system – the emotional impact it has wrought on Sam is profound – it does show it as full of good intentions, even if it can’t always match them with outcomes.
The extended examination of Sam’s psychology as a foster child is, of course, individual to him rather than a generalisation. However, I do think it provides useful insight into the maelstrom of conflicting emotions that can swirl around in the head and heart of such a young person. Over the years, I have worked with a number of pupils who were in foster care and I can definitely see how this book could build understanding and empathy in a productive way, both within teachers and other children. Whether children in foster care themselves would find the book engaging and cathartic or upsetting is obviously entirely case-specific, but I can see some finding the depiction of their own situations affirming and empowering.
This is a book for upper junior readers, ideally Y6, due to the issues it delves into. Saying this, Foster manages to keep the reading feeling light; the reader empathises and understands the angst without being drawn into it. A highly recommended book but definitely one to be shared by the teacher to allow for discussion, or at least for more emotionally mature readers.
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