Posted: 26 June 2015

I knew how hard caring was for an adult, and I wanted to show people how hard it could be for a child

This year's Young Carers Festival takes place this weekend. Since the first festival in 2000, when 600 young carers arrived at YMCA Fairthorne Manor in Hampshire the festival has grown with up to 1800 young carers now attending every year.

Run in partnership by us and YMCA Fairthorne Manor, the festival is part of the process of recognising, informing and consulting with young carers in order to better meet the needs of them and their families. They provide the opportunity for young carers from across the UK to get their voices heard about changes they want to see by taking part in participatory consultations to inform future work and to be communicated to Government. Over the years YMCA Fairthorne Manor, in partnership with The Children’s Society, have consulted with the young people on a range of issues including education, health, social care and whole family support.

Plus, the festivals provide the young people with the opportunity to have fun, relax, socialise and have their voices heard about issues that affect them.

In advance of this year's festival - which you can follow on the Young Carers in Focus website - we spoke with author Anne Booth, who recently released Dog Ears, a book that features a young carer. 

Q: Can you tell us about Dog Ears?

A: Dog Ears is about Anna, a very optimistic but rather disorganised year 7 girl who lives with her mum and dad and baby brother and near her gran, and who has a lovely golden retriever dog named Timmy.

The story begins in November of her first term at Bekesbourne High secondary school, and it is told by Anna to her dog Timmy, as nobody else is around to listen to her. Timmy is the perfect listener, and Anna tells him about how a pop star, Frankie Santoro, is going to visit their school, and all about the plans she and her best friends Mohona and Emma have to become famous and be noticed by Frankie and the film crew.

The story is a fun one about Anna and her friends forming a band, and also about Anna telling Timmy about the mistakes she makes. As the book goes on Anna takes on more and more jobs for her family and gets in more and more of a muddle at school and at home, until the things she tells Timmy get less and less funny and optimistic and harder and harder. It does have a happy ending though.

the cover of Dog Ears

The cover of Dog Ears

Why did you write Dog Ears?

I had just spent the last nearly six years being a carer, first to my father in law, who came to live with us for six months, and then to my elderly parents. My dad had cancer and problems with his chest, and my mum, who had a lot of different health problems, including dementia. 

At the time I was an adult, married to a lovely man and with four teenage children, so I had a lot of support, but being a carer was really difficult and tiring. I had to give up my job because I had so many hospital and doctors' appointments to go to, and so much to do to help my parents, and I found it very hard to relax as I was always worrying about the next crisis. I also found that some friends I thought would understand just disappeared, and that I couldn’t talk about some of the problems I had to other friends because I felt disloyal to my parents, so I began to feel more and more lonely. 

Luckily, through my GPs I was given a therapist to talk to, and this made all the difference.

When I then read that there were children who were young carers it made me feel so cross and upset - I knew how hard the job was for me as an adult, and I wanted to write a story to show people how hard it could be for a child. I hoped it would make any young carers feel that they weren’t alone, but I also hoped that their friends and teachers would read it and understand a bit more what was happening, and that maybe this would help change things.

Do you know any young carers?

The funny thing is that when I went to the therapist she helped me realise that actually in a way I had been a young carer too, and that maybe that was why I was so affected when I read about all the young carers there are and why I wanted to write the book so much. I had already started writing the book when the therapist helped me see this, so it was very strange and interesting for me.

My family had had a lot of problems before I was born and when I was growing up, looking back I realise my mum was quite depressed and very low in confidence and I was always worried about her and trying to make her feel better. I had a very disabled brother who lived away from home, and my mum relied on me alot emotionally. It was a bit odd, as it didn’t seem as if I was a carer at the time - I did have asthma and my mum was always keeping me off school and saying I wasn’t well enough to go places and she took me with her everywhere, shopping, to church, to visit my brother and to visit my aunt who was ill.

My mum had a bad heart and the other thing was I was trying to help her and always worried about arguing with her and upsetting her and making her ill. Up until sixth form I never had a full week at school - nearly every week I was off one or two days, but I now realise that this was as much about my mum’s health as mine. I think this influenced the scene in the book where Anna’s mum keeps her off school and takes her to the doctors.

When I was 16 I finally told an adult about it and was given the encouragement to  insist on going to school every day, and studying became much easier for me. I think if that hadn’t happened I would have really struggled. My husband, who is a teacher, says that now the educational officer would have got involved, but in the 1980s nobody questioned my mum and dad about what was happening, although I got some nasty comments and some bullying at school when I was younger.

I wanted to tell you this in case anyone reading this is in a similar complicated position

I was very worried about leaving my mum to go to university, but again, another adult - a priest at my church - helped me realise that I wasn’t selfish to do that and I eventually left home. My mum got very depressed when I left home, but I think because I wasn’t there people noticed more and she got more help. I find it very difficult to talk about even now, as - unlike Anna’s mum in Dog Ears - my mum and dad never admitted how they used me to keep my mum happy, and I feel a bit guilty about talking about my mum like this as I know she loved me and would never have wanted to make my life difficult. However, I wanted to tell you this in case anyone reading this is in a similar complicated position.

In a way it was much easier when I was an adult carer as it was very clear that it was my mum who was ill and that I was the carer - but when an adult is depressed they can sometimes not realise it and if you are the child, like me, you may not realise it either. Sharing this with you now is the first time I have ever put in writing what happened to me growing up, and it feels a big thing to do. There is still a bit of me which worries about sharing it, but I hope it helps someone.

Have you shared your book with young carers or people who rely on young carers? What has been the response?

When I was writing it I went up to The Children’s Society and chatted to someone who was a young carer, but I haven’t shared it with young carers yet  - so I am very happy that you are asking me about this and I would love to know if it helps anyone who is a young carer. It was only published in June - I have shared it with a group of children in a library, and that time I think it helped them to realise what their classmates might be going through - so Dog Ears is as much for children and adults who are NOT young carers so they understand how hard it can be for those who are. 

Anne holding a copy of Dog Ears

Anne with a copy of Dog Ears

How did you become a children's author?

I think the first thing you need to be before you become an author is to be a reader. I’ve always loved reading, and I used it as an escape when things became too much for me at home. Then, when I left home to go to university to study English Literature I still kept reading my favourite children’s books as well as adult books, and then I got a job in a bookshop and read more and more.

I studied the history of children’s literature at university and then got married and had my own four children. I wrote articles for magazines, short stories and a (not yet published) novel for adults before I started writing for children, but once I started writing for children I realised how much I loved it. I sent off my stories and lots got sent back - but eventually Nosy Crow Publishers decided they liked my rhyming picture book story about a little fairy who gets into muddles and they gave me a contract for The Fairiest Fairy. then I got my lovely agent, who got my book Girl with a White Dog published, and I was asked to write Lucy's Secret Reindeer, and I was suddenly a published author at last! 

What are your favourite children’s books?

What a difficult question! There are so many wonderful books out there.

When I was growing up I loved Enid Blyton (Timmy my dog is named from the character in The Famous Five) and I would have loved to have had a special gift with animals like Jimmy Brown from Mr Galliano’s Circus, for example. I also loved Enid Blyton’s adventure stories and school stories and the mystery detective stores about ‘The Five Findouters’- basically I loved all her books!

I also loved books like Anne of Green Gables and Just William and Little Women, and A Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce. I loved The Little Wooden Horse and Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams. I loved books set in the past like The Little House on the Prairie series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and time-travel books like Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer or A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley.

I loved and still love the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. I remember laughing until I cried at the Paddington books by Michael Bond, and I still love them, and I really enjoyed The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley, which is a continuation of the story of Aladdin and is very funny. I loved Noel Streatfield’s books like Ballet Shoes and I used to read lots of books about horses, even though I had never even been near one myself.

I think one of my very favourite books was Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh, as it has cats and magic. I’d better stop now but I think I could talk about more of my favourite children’s books for hours.

I think there are very many wonderful children’s writers now. I particularly admire picture books writers and illustrators like Shirley Hughes, and I am also just about to read a brilliant historical novel by the writer Lydia Syson. I loved a book about water voles called The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse. Recently I read and loved The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine, The Secret Hen House Theatre and The Farm Beneath the Water by Helen Peters, and Head over Heart by Colette Victor.

Basically, I could write for hours about wonderful writers now for all ages, and if you tell me about what you’re interested in I am sure I could recommend a wonderful writer and their book to you.

By Anne Booth - Guest bloggers

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