One of the most powerful things we can do for a child is to tell them a story

Written by Laura Beveridge on 7 December 2017 in Comment

Laura Beveridge shares her belief in the power of books and stories to inspire hope

Laura Beveridge - Image credit: Nick Grigg/Holyrood

I love Book Week Scotland (27 November-3 December) and all the excitement I share with my little girl as we look forward to the events where we can read stories that we love, and discover new ones too.

It’s also the time of the year when I think more about my grandmother, who I lost three years ago.

I love nothing more than to be cuddled up in the tartan blanket she left me, cosy with my little girl and a good book, like The Gruffalo or Elmer.

My grandmother, Elizabeth, was a clever, hardworking woman, but she didn’t have the access to education that we have now and reading just wasn’t part of her world.

She worked hard as a domestic, a childminder and as a cook in a children’s home.

She worked hard so the next generation – my generation – had a better life, free from poverty. 

Elizabeth taught all her grandchildren to value opportunities to learn and told many stories of the barriers she faced.

She carried a sense of deep-rooted injustice that she didn’t want any of us to feel and encouraged me to “stick in at school”.  

But in the end, Elizabeth couldn’t protect us from harm, and when I was taken into care, I was more likely to be found using drugs or alcohol than in school.

The only things I read were case files and reports that described me as “devious” or “manipulative”. I stopped writing for a while and never looked at a book for years.

When I was 16, I moved in with Elaine, a supported landlady. She made me feel like I had a home and she reintroduced me to books.

It was such a treat to choose a book from the packed and colourful shelves in her home and I chose Junk by Melvin Burgess as the first book to read from them. I loved it! 

Last week I spent time with storyteller Claire McNicol from Children 1st, who was delivering a Kitbag reading session designed to encourage calm, confidence and resilience.

Claire and I went into a classroom of around 30 eight-year-olds where the children were chatting, giggling and curious about the new people in their classroom.

Within a few minutes of Claire reading a story, the room fell silent. The children were captivated.

The story was about two brothers. One brother was rushing around the world being busy while the other brother stayed home reading.

The brother that stayed at home learnt more about the places and people of the world from the books than the one that had actually visited them because he was too busy to stop and learn.

This made me think of my grandmother, who was so busy caring for her brothers and working to provide for us all that she never had the time or access to books.

It also made me think of my life in the care system and how the chaos prevented staff reading me a story or even offering me a book. There always seemed to be other ‘priorities’.

It also makes me think of how important stories are for children and young people, especially those that are in care. Books are where we can find hope and discovery.

I have a friend who was in care over 30 years ago and she told me that her library card was her survival, books were her escape and she said that the library felt like her home – her sanctuary.

When I first met Mandy Rhodes, the editor of Holyrood magazine, she told me about a residential children’s home she had worked in ‘undercover’ for a newspaper feature many years ago and how shocked she’d been to see that there were no books.

Only two of the seven children’s homes that I’ve visited in the last year had a bookcase and one of them had only two books, face down on the shelves.

I met a residential care worker recently who told me about the incredible artistic talent the young people she worked with had.

She said: “Our kids aren’t clever or academic, but they can do art.” She then introduced me to one of the young people in her care.

The young person asked me how I managed to move on with my life. I told them that it was learning and education and how I had been written off as “not clever enough for school” but proved them wrong.

The last four years of my life have been the most healing, because I’ve taken time to reflect, understand and finally felt strong enough to tell my story, but also strong enough to listen to other people’s stories.

In all of the stories there is a golden thread of hope: something they’ve aspired to do, a person that’s given them love, the sheer determination to overcome adversity or simply a book they’ve read that has inspired them to go on.

I believe one of the simple, most powerful, loving things we can do for a child or young person is to tell them a story.

When we give someone a story, we can ignite a spark of hope that stays with them forever.

And remember, when you are reading to a child, you are inevitably holding them close.

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