Tom Percival on Making Every Child Visible
Tom Percival's brilliant new picture book, The Invisible, tackles themes of child poverty and social exclusion in a sensitive manner that introduces a potentially difficult subject to young children. In this deeply personal, child-friendly piece, Tom discusses his drive to create the story as well as talking about his own childhood experience of living hand-to-mouth whilst growing up in the 1980s.
The Invisible is about a young girl called Isabel whose family don’t have enough money. Their situation goes from bad to worse, and when they have to move out of the only home Isabel has ever known, she begins to fade away - she becomes invisible.
But, when this happens, she forms friendships and connections with other invisible people and that sense of community, of belonging is where everything turns around for her.
According to the Child Poverty Action Group (cpag.org.uk) there were 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2018-2019. That’s 30% of all children in the country. Or nine in a class of 30 children who don’t have access to the same opportunities and experiences of their wealthier peers, who often don’t have enough to eat and go to bed cold, and hungry.
This obviously has a massive effect on their future chances of success and can lead on to devastating cycles of intergenerational poverty, where children who were raised in poverty and are ill-equipped to deal with the world, grow up to become parents of children in poverty. It’s a crushing, vicious cycle and one that desperately needs to be resolved.
The world today is a very different place to the one that I grew up in during the 1980’s, but all the same, this is a situation that in some ways resonates with me. You see, when I was a young child, my family didn’t have very much money at all.
We lived in a caravan in rural South Shropshire. The plan had been to live in this caravan for a short period of time while my parents renovated a derelict cottage, but life, as it often does, had other ideas. Our family income was unreliable, money ran out and all work on the house stopped for long periods of time. Instead of spending a few months in this caravan, it was my home for nearly six years.
One of my abiding memories was just how cold it was in the winter. I would wake up with ice on the inside of the windows, on the bedposts of the bunk bed that I shared with my brother and even on the blankets where my breath had condensed over-night. And if I needed the toilet at night, I had to go outside, through the inky darkness that I found terrifying at the time, to a tiny shed that contained our camping toilet. Needless to say, I did everything I could to avoid having to use the toilet at night.
We didn’t have a TV. We didn’t always have electricity. We got our water from a spring that bubbled up out of the ground close by the caravan and we had gas lamps to read by in the evening. The majority of my clothes came from jumble sales and there was never much beyond the bare essentials.
But despite all of that, in lots of other ways I felt rich.
I lived in a beautiful area. I had access to the most amazing countryside that I was free to explore from the time that I woke up, until it was dark. So, I never felt trapped or hemmed in at all.
We also had a mobile-library that would pull up a mile from where we lived. I’d walk down there, clutching my pink library slips and the books that I had read the previous week, ready to take all sorts of new reading adventures. I would sit in the cosy, carpet-covered library for what felt like hours, choosing whatever books I wanted, and best of all for me, it cost absolutely nothing! It was a real safe haven, and libraries have always been hugely important to me as a result.
While there were a lot of things that we didn’t have, my mum always worked incredibly hard to ensure that my brother and I had all the love, support and encouragement that we needed. She would spend hours reading to us, which is no doubt where my passion for literature came from, and I always had plenty of paper and pencils to draw with, which will all have fed into what became my chosen career.
After my parents separated, my mum, my brother and I moved to a nearby town where our situation gradually improved. My mum worked at the local high school and we finally had a steady income. Whilst we always had to be careful with money, and any non-essential purchases were still carefully considered, it was nothing like it had been in the caravan.
Looking back, I feel lucky. Without all that love and support, my life could have been very different. My experience of life in the caravan certainly gave me an insight into just how easy it is for anyone, from any background to get into financial difficulties. But regardless of the reasons why my family were in that situation at the time, it had a profound impact upon me as a young child.
And this is the crucial point really, whilst there are any number of reasons why families can struggle, it is NEVER the child’s fault, and we need to be doing everything we can to ensure that all children have a fair start in life.
That’s why I wanted to write a book that explored poverty. So that children in comfortable homes might be able to understand just how challenging things can be. But more than that, I wanted to write a book that children who might currently be in a similar situation to Isabel could identify with. So that they might feel recognised, visible. After all, if you’re over-looked or ignored by the world, left out of culture and art, like you’re not a part of society, then you’ll start to feel like you don’t belong. Like you’re invisible.
And it’s not just poverty that can make you feel that way, there are all sorts of ways that the world has of making various groups of people feel ignored. I wanted to counter that. I wanted to make a book that offered some hope. A book that says you DO belong here. We ALL belong here.
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