Friday, 4 May 2018

When children's writers write about neglect and drugs – David Thorpe

Last weekend my nearby town Llandeilo hosted a LitFest and, as part of it, I went to see Wendy White, a fellow member of the Welsh branch of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Is this Wendy White - or Sara Gethin?

Wendy has had a few children's books published, but she wasn't there to talk about one of those. Instead she has had a book for adults published – but under the pseudonym.

She won't mind if I tell you that her identity in this guise is Sara Gethin (who has a completely different website from Wendy). Her publisher, Honno, decided to take this move to prevent children who follow her work from picking this book up and reading something they might find upsetting.

This is because the book, Not Thomas, is written from the point of view – and therefore in the simple language – of a five year-old child and consequently could seem like it is written for young children.

If you haven't yet read it, I do recommend it, but it makes uncomfortable reading, as you quite quickly realise that the boy is neglected by his single parent mother who is a drug addict.

The boy himself, of course, doesn't yet know this.

It got me wondering how common it is that children's writers who also write for adults take steps to protect their young readers in this way. I don't know of any others, do you?

Roald Dahl, for example, wrote some pretty scary stories for grown-ups under the same name.

Perhaps it is because Wendy writes for especially young children rather than the middle grade or older children who form most of Dahl's young audience.

Wendy took over 10 years to write this book, often writing huge chunks of it in her head and keeping it there for weeks before writing them down. She was a primary school teacher in deprived areas of south Wales, and that's where she found her material and her inspiration.

At her session, whose topic was writing about dysfunctional families, Wendy divulged that she is frequently invited to do work in prisons around Not Thomas, where she was initially afraid of what inmates would think about her book.

She discovered that many of them found it highly affecting, forcing them to recollect their own childhoods, which had been not dissimilar from poor Thomas'.

She recounted that one of the prisoners said he had a child on the outside who was being raised by a single mother, and she asked him what this child's life was like. The man replied, pretty much like in the book. It's heartbreaking.

Children of addicts and alcoholics often grow up to have real problems of their own and frequently do end up in prison. Unfortunately we are in the middle of an epidemic of drug addiction, with gangs of children often being used to supply the drugs and getting involved in turf wars.

Perhaps writers who care about these things need to get out more into these communities to use their particular communication skills to help these kids, just like Wendy.


Lynne Benton said...

I quite agree with you, David, "Not Thomas" is a wonderful book, but definitely not for children. Maybe when Roald Dahl wrote his books the publishers were less worried about children reading one of his adult books and being scared by it, whereas today everyone is much more careful. And yes, I do know of at least one other author who writes children's books under her own name, but her adult books under a pen name (not because the latter would upset children, but because they are written for adults about topics that interest them.) So I can entirely see why Wendy chose to write "Not Thomas" under a different name. Highly recommended!

sara gethin said...

Thank you so much for writing about 'Not Thomas', David - and thank you for coming along to my talk at Llandeilo Lit Fest too. It's a tricky business writing under two names and it does mean I have two separate websites, twitter accounts and Facebook pages, which is a lot of upkeep. From time to time I refer to my other persona on each, so I hope people understand that I'm both Wendy and Sara.
A big thank you to Lynne too, for reading Not T and recommending it - I really appreciate that.