Monday 25th November 2013
Hello. This is a two part blog post today.
If you haven’t read ‘Close your Pretty Eyes’ by Sally Nicholls you may want to skip the short first bit in case it spoils your read, although I won’t be re-telling the story.
First Bit you may need to skip whilst you rush to order the book so you can read it yourself
Or please go to your library or nearest independent bookshop.
I am sorry I am not technically adept enough to have managed to post an actual picture of a cover here! Hopefully I can get some tips on this and edit this post later.
This weekend I finished ‘Close your pretty eyes’ by Sally Nicholls. It wasn’t perhaps the best choice for cosy bedtime reading but what a fantastic writer she is!
The unreliable narrator, Olivia, is an 11 year old from a very abusive background. She has suffered at the hands of her mother (I found that so hard to read) and a criminally cruel foster carer (horrible), and successive family placements have been a disaster. She has been separated from her baby brother and her sister and feels that she is evil and unlovable. It is clear, even reading the book from her viewpoint, that she is a nightmare to deal with. This is one seriously disturbed little girl, and many well meaning adults have been defeated by her.
I had only one quibble with the book, which is that I did not really understand why a sensible good foster carer would have a photograph of an evil convicted Victorian baby killer who had lived in his home on display in his house. Olivia’s obsession with this woman provides an engrossing and powerful subplot, but I wish she had come across the photo somewhere else.
HOWEVER, apart from that, I cannot stress enough the astonishing quality of Sally Nicholl’s writing, and I will never ever forget Olivia. This book made me physically ache with pain for her, and yet it was never sentimental or trite, and the ending was heartbreakingly true to life. This is one brilliant writer and this is an absolutely amazing book, even with the earlier quibble. Buy it from a bookshop or borrow it from a library, with the warning that it has stupendous writing about very upsetting subject matter.
I knew before I read this book that I would not be a person who could cope with a real-life Olivia. As a reader I cared for her but in real life I would be more like the failed foster carers Sally describes. I really admire people like Liz in the story who do know how to work with such a disturbed child. My husband and his colleagues do this in real life.
My husband works as a teacher of Design and Technology and Art in a Pupil Referral Unit for children who have been excluded from school. There are children there who, like Olivia, have flashbacks to terrible abuse and behave violently, who are school phobics, or who cannot cope in ordinary schools because they have special educational needs, or are children who have been excluded because of terrible behaviour which can often be directly linked to extremely unstable home lives. My husband is a very calm person who does not take it personally when the pupils swear at him when he suggests a new design technology or art project. He expects them to tell him that it is all rubbish, that he is rubbish, because they think they are rubbish. He understands they have very low self esteem and a terrible fear of failure, and then takes great satisfaction from quietly and steadily refusing to give up until they have made something they are proud of. And they do, against all odds, often (but not always) make wonderful things. They make tables and mirror stands and painted masks and collages, and one girl in particular, a school phobic, went back to her school and settled back in well with a new ambition to be a carpenter. It took an awful lot of work to get her to that point – but she got there.
Olivia’s experiences of abuse are, sadly and horrifically, not only found in fiction. These children are, as Sally Nicholls so skilfully shows, extremely difficult to deal with, but they are in great emotional pain and need and deserve help. The work of people like my husband and the teachers and teaching assistants he works with is amazing. The work of the social workers and specialised police officers who work with them is very hard but worthwhile. Shockingly, not everyone thinks so. Too many people dismiss the behaviour of children like Olivia as ‘naughtiness’ and think they need ‘short, sharp shocks’. Suddenly, inappropriate, morally loaded language is used. People in the public eye consider such children worthless and ‘bad’. They resent money being spent on them. My husband and his colleagues and fellow professionals know that what children like Olivia need is consistent long term help, long, skilled, loving, complex support, but that is expensive, and that, these days means everything. Their Pupil Referral Unit has been under constant threat of closure in spite of the police, amongst others, testifying to how effective they have been in turning children’s lives around or at least making damaged children a little less damaged.
I can’t do the job that my husband does, but I can support him. I don’t have the personal skills to adopt a child as wounded as Olivia, but I can insist that my taxes are well used to support her, and others like her, educationally and emotionally and that we do not penny pinch when employing people to do this. It appalls me that in this country today companies are bidding to provide the cheapest children’s services to different councils. I have a friend who works for a council who has been told she cannot legally comment on the fact that a very rich and notorious company with an appalling public record both in compassion and efficiency is bidding to take over children’s services in her area. A lot of LAs buy from this company because it is very aggressively developing services across the country and they are desperate to place people & there are not enough services…(it’s complicated). The company concerned has been in the news with the use of inappropriate methods of restraint in adult services, and there are concerns with its involvement with other vulnerable people. This company, which my friend is not legally allowed to comment on because of her employment in the council, has been reprimanded in public for colossal expansive organisational inefficiency in other areas apart from children’s services, and yet they are tendering to look after vulnerable children with no families to stick up for them. Judging from their consistent extraordinary success in getting lucrative contracts in spite of frequently being in the news for doing very badly, they may well win this bid. We must not let such things go unchallenged.
Some of us cannot do the work of the fictional Helen or Liz, or the work of my husband and his colleagues, social workers and police, fosterers and adopters in real life. Some of us could never cope with Olivia, even if Sally Nicholl’s skill enables us to empathise more with her than we could ever have thought possible. But what we can do is make sure that these children are looked after by well qualified people and not dismissed or given cut price services. Olivia may be an unreliable narrator, but we can decide to be reliable narrators of a different, kinder story for them and try to give these seriously hurt children the education and support they need. Please keep an eye on the press and be aware of the services that are being cut – demand to know who is providing the complex education and care for these children – as if we don’t remind the government they are worth it, then, apart from wonderful writers like Sally Nicholls, who will?