In this guest blog post, Louise Beech, a volunteer for our subsidiary company Sova, recounts the experiences that led her to write her latest novel.
Today I received my childhood care records. Aged forty-five. For the first time. A folder with about sixty pages of almost-completely-faded typing and pale handwriting. It might have been more intense if I’d not already seen my sister’s - she applied just before me – but, still, it’s a curious experience to see four years of your childhood written up as reports and letters and meeting minutes. My siblings and I have applied for them - individually because privacy laws mean other people’s names are blacked out - as a way to try and piece together our memories.
Our situation, however, is not quite like the many children who end up in care long-term. We had two parents. They simply couldn’t/didn’t want to take care of us intermittently over a long period of time, for multiple complex reasons. Some children are not even lucky enough to have their parents at all. Some children are born into care. They stay in the system until they’re eighteen. During this time their care could be insecure. They might live with multiple foster carers, have numerous social workers, and not even know their own families.
My own experiences are partly why I volunteered for Sova (Supporting Others Through Voluntary Action) back in 2008. This organisation runs an independent visitor’s service, whereby volunteers will befriend a child aged between five and seventeen who’s in care. This volunteer is there as someone in the child’s life, distinct from the professionals paid to support them. Someone on their side. Someone who takes them out regularly and does things they enjoy with them. Someone there just for them.
It was an immensely rewarding experience. I met my young girl, who was living with foster carers, and not seeing either parent. We slowly built a bond. She was shy at first, barely looking me in the eye, but every other week we went out on a Saturday, and eventually she came out of her shell. She’s an adult now, doing well, living independently, and we’re good friends.
As a writer, I always knew one day I’d like to explore somehow the difficulties children in care face. Show them in a true and honest and brave light, not in the clichéd and often derogatory way the media sometimes portray them. I wanted to create a fictional befriender organisation like Sova to show the power of volunteering with such a child.
My novel The Mountain in my Shoe, came to me when I learned about Lifebooks. This is a document created to give a child in care their history. While those of us with parents can get a narrative from them, children who move around a lot or don’t see their family might never have a full picture of their past. And this is so important. Our history can make us. It’s part of who we are. Every child deserves theirs.
And so I thought that a Lifebook - with all its entries from foster carers, parents, family, social workers - would be an incredible way to tell a story. In The Mountain in my Shoe, ten-year-old Conor - who’s been in care since birth - has gone missing. His befriender Bernadette and his foster carer Anne are searching desperately for him. We learn of Conor’s background via his Lifebook, which has also gone missing. I found this the perfect device, along with Conor’s own first person voice, to give the reader his past in absolute black and white.
I’ve had messages from readers saying they too would love to volunteer, as Bernadette does in the novel, so of course I’ve directed them to Sova. I’ve had messages from readers saying they were in care and they feel so happy that a child like them was given a distinct voice in the story. Luckily - as this was something I really hoped to do - I’ve also had social workers tell me they were glad to be portrayed in a positive light, since the media generally paint them rather cruelly.
But if writing this book means just one person decides to volunteer, or perhaps become a social worker, then I couldn’t be happier. Because just one person can make such a difference to a child like Conor.
The Mountain in my Shoe is available on Amazon, on Kobo and from Waterstones.