Using books to support young carers
Published on: 19 January 2023
Author Sarah Ann Juckes shares ways to help young carers, from sharing books to useful resources.
A young carer is a child of any age who cares for an adult or sibling, perhaps due to them having a disability, illness, addiction, or a mental health problem. A young carer might do practical tasks around the home, like cooking and cleaning, as well as taking on physical, emotional and personal caring duties, such as helping someone take a shower, take medicine, or looking after young siblings.
In my home county of Oxfordshire, Be Free Young Carers estimate that there are two young carers in every classroom. This is a number that’s only gotten larger since COVID-19 and can lead to the child cutting school, being bullied and developing mental health problems.
Children’s books must reflect children’s lives
As a child, I always found great respite in a brilliant book. Not only can books take us away from our problems for a little while, they can also help us learn to empathise with others and process our own struggles.
In my new middle grade novel The Night Animals, Nora is unexpectantly thrust into the role of a young carer when her mum is diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a result, Nora withdraws from her friends at school and takes on the responsibility of helping her mum alone – maintaining that everything is fine. But when rainbow-glimmering ghost animals appear in the middle of the night, they each show Nora the importance of reaching out for help from friends, teachers and family, and that there’s a great deal of strength to be found in numbers.
As an author and a carer myself, I feel a great sense of responsibility to reflect children’s lives in my books in a way that’s sensitive, accessible and hopeful. When I volunteered for the NSPCC, the main take-home lesson was to speak out to a person you trust when something is worrying you – a lesson I now include in all my books, alongside adventure, friendship and fun.
How we can help young carers
Like Nora finds in The Night Animals, there are ways to get support and respite as a young carer, and it starts with being brave enough to tell the truth about what’s going on at home.
Including a book about caring in your classroom, library or even at home can give a child a safe space to learn about the effects of caring on a young person. It can also be used as a prompt to start important conversations. It’s then our job as trusted adults to ensure we’re listening when a child might be telling us that they need additional support.
There are some wonderful charities providing support specifically for young carers, whether that be peer support and mentoring to combat loneliness; activities and breaks where they can just have fun for a while; training to help empower them in their responsibilities; or advocacy to ensure their own interests are always looked after. You can find carer services near you via the Carers Trust.
When children take on adult responsibilities, it can feel like their childhood can disappear. Thankfully, with the support of fantastic adults, life-changing charities and brilliant books, there’s hope that things can change. Like with most things in life, the first step is empowering young people to be brave enough to speak out and ask for help.
Brilliant books featuring young carers
One of my favourite recent books to perfectly balance adventure with real-world struggles is The Rollercoaster Boy by Lisa Thompson. Todd’s dad is struggling with his mental health, leaving Todd alone to look after his sister at a rundown hotel. But when Todd meets other children staying at the hotel, they team up to solve an old mystery that might save the hotel from being knocked down.
An all-time favourite of mine is Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. Loosely based on The Day of the Triffids, this is a wonderful exploration of agoraphobia wrapped up in an adventure with community at its heart. Ade finds friends in his neighbours as strange, menacing plants start to surround their tower block.
On the caring for an adult with a physical disability side, Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin is a moving story about a boy struggling to come to terms with his mum’s complex disability. An important book as more and more adults struggle with post-viral fatigue after COVID-19.
Book Trust has put together a brilliant list of books featuring young carers for a range of age groups here.