It isn’t just me. The whole world has gone mad of late and it’s our collective mental well being that’s ultimately paying the price. Sorry to be gloomy but if it’s not the rise of extremism, the climate emergency or unruly viruses, it’s unfettered consumerism, the pressure of work, exam stress, race, religion and gender tensions. Not to mention peer pressure galloping out of control on social media and a constant requirement to multitask. It’s relentless!
If all that is a worry for supposed grown-ups, it’s an even faster-developing brain-ache for our young people. Lately, the big blue ball we call home seems to be spinning so quickly out of control that, even as willing parents, carers, healers, teachers and potential role models, we can feel powerless to prepare and protect our children from the fallout.
There are a few good ways to tackle the overwhelm – mindfulness, exercise, music, even handicrafts (allegedly) – but none, in my experience, have the immediacy, the dependability and the profound relief of a good book. For me, the retreat into storyland or a sojourn within the covers of some beautifully laid out information is the perfect way to slow down, simplify and just chill out.
When I was a child, we moved house a lot. It wasn’t the greatest trauma, I had a mainly very happy childhood, but like most children of military personnel, I did have to get used to a lot of new homes and schools. Each time we moved, our stuff would follow us a month or so later in enormous metal-rimmed wooden packing boxes with my father’s name, rank and serial number printed on them in black stencilled capitals. We didn’t have our own furniture, the army provided that. The boxes contained linen, some kitchen equipment, a few pictures, ornaments, toys and an awful lot of books. My dad’s Times Atlas of the World, his Russian prize book Vogna Ee Meer, Alice in Wonderland, my mum’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and The Golden Age, my beloved Greek Myths & legends, When We Were Very Young, Now We Are Six, Wind in the Willows, Enid Blytons and a whole load of Ladybirds. Opening the boxes each move was like an extra Christmas and the treasures inside, particularly those books, came to sum up ‘home’ for me. They were the regular thread that ran through our scattered, ever changing lives.
The world has changed a lot since the 1960s, but in a way, all our lives nowadays are a macrocosm of what mine was like then: Fast moving, ever changing and in desperate need of a secure routine. And I believe that what helped me then can help us all: Books.
Books?! I hear you young folk laugh and yes, against the flash of a thousand screens, a book may seem boring and outdated, but stick with me because I believe it’s that very old fashioned-ness that is its saving grace. Unlike a screen which moves at 10,000 pixels a millisecond (and that’s a wild guess), a book never changes. The simple pre-ordering, reconfiguring and printing of an alphabet into words, phrases, sentences, stanzas, verses, paragraphs and chapters can lead us into myriad, wonderful different worlds, within just a few or many hundreds of inalterable but never stagnant pages. Combine them with some finely crafted and well-chosen illustrations or photographs and you have a perfect companion for life. We can return to our humble (or very flashy) book as often as we want to. It may be enhanced, even changed, by a second, third or umpteenth reading and deliver new insights, but it is still there on the shelf, next to the bed, in the library, on the desk, offering a simultaneous springboard to the imagination, a means of growth and a steadfast security for the soul. How about that for a rare combination in this crazy mixed up world?
If you need convincing about how a book can improve your mental health, try reading someone a story. Even with very young children, reading together is one of the most basic and emotionally rewarding ways we can connect. From the floppiest of baby books to the hardest of covers, reading together encourages physical closeness, building trust and a sense of wonder. Show the child the pictures and you will also often unwittingly show them their first written words, and that early association of words, pictures and the sense of connection with the reader casts a magical spell over a child forever after. And not only does the book before bedtime give babies an appetite for more literary magic, it helps them develop a sense of routine and promotes that essential but sometimes elusive source of all mental wellbeing, sleep.
Encouraging an early love of books and developing a child’s understanding of cause and effect through narrative may be the very best grounding for a child’s all-round future wellbeing, but this early grounding has often been lacking for children who have suffered ongoing early trauma. In the early years as an adoptive parent, I did my best to make up for lost time by reading a lot to our two new three year olds and later, writing stories that didn’t seem to exist for children like them at the time, stories which reflected their reality. For one thing, many picture books reflect very ‘normal’ children from very regular families, and not every child has had that luxury. Alas, the sort of trauma that may have been the norm for a child in the care system is understandably seen as very, very scary by many middle class, book-wielding parents, who would not wish their previously untraumatised children to be harmed by reading about it. Furthermore, most of the children in fiction who do live outside of their birth family, are languishing rather than being loved by their adopted parents – and don’t even get me started on wicked stepmothers.
For children who have experienced trauma, even those who have been taken into care very early, there is a lot of ground for new parents and carers to make up on as far as basic needs are concerned: food, warmth and security have often been completely absent. I’m not sure if a book can offer warmth and nourishment except perhaps the spiritual kind but it can be the best tool with which to bridge the security gap. For a new adoptive parent, foster carer, relative, family friend, teacher or carer of a vulnerable or challenging child, books can and do provide the regularity, repetition, physical closeness, comfort and escape that traumatised children have probably missed out on and desperately need. The ones that cast a spell on our children were a godsend to them and the whole family.
Spiritual awakenings aside (that’s another story!), as an antidote to this mad, mad, mad, mad world, for the most strung-out of parents or traumatised of children and everyone in between, I would thoroughly recommend opening the pages of a well-chosen book. Magic can and does happen. It isn’t just me, is it? Reading could literally (excuse the pun) save us all.