Sunday, 17 November 2013

Help A Hamster – using a picture book to help children understand adoption, by Hilary Robinson (Guest Blog)

It was Sonia Benster at the Children’s Bookshop near Huddersfield, who suggested that my next Copper Tree series book might consider adoption as she was regularly asked for picturebooks on the subject.

So, in preparation, we set about speaking to adoption professionals and to families.

We found that while attitudes towards adoption had changed, three poignant elements remained constant.

Firstly, the agony of parting birth mothers from their children.

The words of actor Linda Bellingham seared into me when she described how, as a baby, she was handed over to her adopted parents. As their car pulled away her new parents could see in the rear view mirror, Linda’s birth mother, arms outstretched, running after them. In a split second they had to make a decision. To stop or to drive on. They accelerated away.

Almost seventy years later *Callum’s alcohol dependent mother endured the same agony.

After immediately handing over her baby to social services in the hospital, and after regular visits to see, nurse and play with her baby at a contact centre, she was too distressed to say the final goodbye.

But unlike Linda who relied on anecdotes about her circumstances, Callum, like other adopted children today, could refer to his Life Story Book where the main details of his circumstances were recorded.

Life Story Books, it’s believed, help children, separated from their birth family, make better sense of their situation and this became a crucial element in Help A Hamster.

The Copper Tree books feature the same group of children and it seemed right that in this instance, Alfie Tate, the class character, should be the pupil that explains his adoption story.

Alfie had been appointed ‘Hamster Monitor’ when the class discovered that, Henry, the class hamster, had given birth to four babies and was clearly finding it hard to cope. This gave Alfie an opportunity to show his Life Story Book and the children discover that his birth mum “really loved him but she found it difficult being a mummy.”

We paid careful attention to the language and to the circumstances. Alfie, his parents and the teachers took the form of the social services in determining which hamster would suit which home and when one, named Alfonzo, is left, Alfie negotiates with his parents who decide that they will give Alfonzo a home.

The third constant that emerged was the tremendous integrity of families who are prepared to open their hearts and homes to strangers’ children.

One couple went from having no children to three – all from one family – while Callum’s family know that his development will forever be hindered by the after effects of foetal alcohol syndrome. His learning capabilities are impaired.

As with so many picture books, Help A Hamster, can be read on more than one level. Above all, I hope it serves as a reminder and a celebration of the human condition. Words and pictures combine to show us that while attitudes and circumstances may change and continue to evolve, kindness, respect and love towards others will always remain the most significant constant in an ever changing world. And this has to be good for children.

*name has been changed to protect identity

Help A Hamster by Hilary Robinson,
illustrated by Mandy Stanley
Strauss House Productions
ISBN 978-0957124523

Our Guest Blogger, Hilary Robinson,
has written over forty illustrated
children's books.You can find out more


Paeony Lewis said...

I'd never heard of Life Story Books, Hilary. Interesting. At first I wondered why you hadn't called it something like 'Adopt a Hamster', but then I realised that would pigeon hole the story too much and the emotions (and practicalities too) behind adoption would miss a wider, general audience, which would be a shame.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Isn't it amazing that a pile of paper with words and pictures on can make such a profound difference to people? It's exciting, and daunting, that any books, but picture books particularly for children at a formative age, can help make things better. Thank you, Hiliary. It looks a wonderful and important book.

Lynne Garner said...

What a lovely post. I teach for the WEA and meet an amazing set of people and many have said that there is a lack of books that help kids deal with life issues. So seeing that gap being filled is great.