The Lost Homework: representing the Traveller community in children's fiction
Published on: 12 February 2020 Author: Richard O'Neill
Writer Richard O'Neill talks about his book The Lost Homework, growing up in a Traveller community, and the importance of children seeing themselves positively represented in books.
"Where did the idea for your book come from?" is a question writers often get asked and sometimes the answer is fairly straightforward and sometimes it isn’t. The idea for my picture book The Lost Homework most definitely fits into the latter category, as it’s taken a lifetime to come up with that idea.
I was born in a caravan in the early 1960s in the north of England into a traditional fully nomadic Romani family with history going back over 500 years. My caravan was my home all year round and it was all I knew, as my close and extended family also lived in caravans moving with the seasons for work and for festivals.
No electricity meant no TV, but it was something we didn’t miss as my dad was one of the community storytellers, so we heard a huge amount of stories from him and other storytellers who came to visit. Even as a very young child I loved listening around the fire no matter how cold it was. This is where I developed my love of words. I would imagine them rising up with the sparks from the fire and floating on to the next group of storytellers.
Just before I was five years old in what was an attempt to prepare me for school my mother bought me my first book, The Farm (published by Ladybird) and from the moment she gave it to me I was hooked. It was relevant to me - it had animals, it had a farm, a place we often stayed in our caravan. I looked at that book so many times and with the help of a relative who could read a little I was able to learn it off by heart and eventually teach myself to read. I fell in love with that book in particular and reading in general. I loved the pictures, I loved the words, and I especially loved the fact that once I had learned to read I was asked to read it aloud around the campfire and indoors for my relatives - many of whom could not read and saw me as a kind of genius and often rewarded me with applause and money. These were my first public readings and paid gigs!
I realised then what a huge change being able to read had made in my life, opening up so many different worlds and opportunities to learn and enjoy.
Like most young children I never compared or contrasted my life with that of other children, it was only when we settled for a while and I went to school that the differences between my life and the rest of my classmates became apparent. I remember vividly being asked by the teacher to draw my house. Without thinking I drew my caravan. Before the teacher came to have a look at it the boy sat next to me screamed out in delight "Richard O’Neill lives in a spaceship!" prompted no doubt by the huge interest in space travel at the time. How would he know the difference, he had no experience of living in a caravan and he’d simply linked it to his experience of things that he’d seen in books and on TV, namely spaceships.
Learning to read that first book opened a hitherto unknown world of books to me, gave me a life-long love of books, libraries and bookshops, but as much as I read everything I could get my hands on, there was always something missing. I could never find a single book that had a positive real-life recognisable representation of people from my community and my background. If we were mentioned at all it was always in a negative context as thieves, unsuitable parents or mysterious trouble makers from elsewhere.
It’s hard to explain the fear and the shame a child feels when a class is reading a book which represents their culture so negatively that it also gives rise to normalising negative stereotypes and the taunts that often follow. Fortunately this didn’t put me off books - it just intensified my search for ones that did represent us positively. Unfortunately it was a long and unfruitful search.
My daughters (now both grown up) when children were both avid readers and often asked why their culture wasn’t in books. I had no good answer for that, but as most people know you can’t just write and publish children’s books, it’s quite a long and tricky road. I started by writing plays for children and adults, had them published and performed and I carried on creating and telling stories.
Eventually I came to the attention of Beth Cox, an editor and inclusion consultant who had been talking to Katharine Quarmby about an idea to publish traditional Romani folk tales. She contacted me and talked about the possibility of publishing my stories with Child’s Play, who were interested in the project, and within a few years we had the four picture books. I wanted to create a timeline from my great grandparents right up to the present and that’s where we are up to with The Lost Homework.
When writing the story I had in my mind my seven year old grandson and many of the children I know who live in motorhomes, caravans and chalets on park homes and caravan sites, where many of the residents play an active part in their local community. I wanted to reflect this and the importance many Travelling people put on education.
It’s important for all children to see that having a different culture or lifestyle is not automatically a wrong or negative thing and in fact there can be many positives too.
As someone who spends a lot of time working with teachers I also wanted to show the value of what you learn at school and how you can apply it to your home life as I did when I learned to write, but also to show that what all children - whatever their background - bring from their home life into school is vitally important too.
The Lost Homework
Author: Richard O’Neill Illustrator: Kirsti Beautyman
Sonny lives on a Traveller community site with his family and he’s super excited about a family wedding. This smart, charming book is written by an author of Traveller heritage and has a lovely message about informal learning opportunities being all around.