Tag Archives: foster care

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

My experience of facing children with unfamiliar names began when in 1972 Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda. Some of the families arrived in Coventry, and some of their children began attending the school where I taught history. At the time it seemed to me that a name is the only thing a young person brings to school that is theirs. We had to learn unfamiliar names.

All my professional life I have found it hard to learn names, but it is important for every person, a way of showing respect. So I was shocked to learn that a child, born in Wigan in 1967, but immediately taken into care, was renamed Norman by the social services. His mother had given him the Amharic word for why as his name: Lemn. This was the first act in a history of offensive behaviours that affected this child as he grew up in care. This is the treatment he describes in his memoir: My Name is Why.

My Name is Why

Lemn Sissay’s mother was an unmarried Ethiopian student who had to return home soon after his birth in 1967 because her father was ill. She refused to sign adoption papers for the child. Contact between her and Wigan Social Services Department was lost over time. He was taken into care by Wigan Children’s Department and renamed Norman. Perhaps they thought that as they were not able arrange for an adoption a less strange name would make it more likely that a mixed race child would be found a suitable foster home.

He was fostered by a couple who had no children at that time. Initially the placement was successful and three more children were born into the family. As he entered adolescence relationships began to break down as the parents were rather strict.

Over the next few years Lemn was placed in accommodation that was more and more restrictive and unsuitable. He was also nicknamed Chalky White – cruel playground humour that was common and tolerated in those days. He became more and more unhappy, began to do badly at school, and developed depression. In part this was because he believed that both his mother and his foster family had rejected him. Towards the end of his time in care at 18 he discovered that his mother had wanted him and that his name was neither Norman nor Chalky, but Lemn, the Amharic word for ‘why’. 

The short chapters are illustrated with extracts from the files from Wigan, much of it from his sympathetic social worker, Norman Mills. It took 30 years for these files to be prised out of the local authority. They illustrate the lack of departmental understanding or care for the children for whom they had responsibility, and the racism that informed the decisions taken on his behalf, beginning with his name. 

Each chapter starts with four lines of verse, perhaps written at the time, that also illuminate his emotional state. The ‘happy ever after’ part of this sad story is that Lemn Sissay has overcome these initial disadvantages caused by the actions of the social services. He has become an acclaimed poet.

A connection with this story

Many of the schools in which I worked in the ‘70s-‘90s were in run down places in Coventry, Rugby and London. There were always children in care, and always children of mixed race attending the schools. And there is continued concern that the achievement of these children remains too low, and that schools are less and less able to provide adequate support for those who need it.

During the same time my mother was a social worker, specializing in child care in Leeds and in Essex. She would have recognised the situation described in this memoir and how the young Lemn was treated. She believed passionately in listening to young people, in enabling them to speak out, now – fashionably – to have ‘a voice’. And so she would have been pleased that there is a mention of WHO CARES in this book, an organisation that supported young people to speak up, to speak out. 

The Sunday Times reviewer called My Name is Why ‘an extraordinary story’, and while some of it is, the shame is that the lack of care and racism he experienced has been experienced by so many other children in care. Sadly it is not an extraordinary story. 

As I finished this book I read about the large number of children ‘looked after‘ by local authorities who are currently placed in unregulated accommodation because there is a shortage of placements. Such lack of care and oversight has been implicated in the county lines recruitment as well as leaving many young people vulnerable to other criminal and to sexual exploitation. The care system is under severe threat. Here is the link to the article:

Revealed: thousands of children in care placed in unregulated homes [from Guardian 26.12.19]

This book then is a reminder of how things were. It confirms that personal success can still emerge from difficulties. But it must also serve as a warning about how plausibly justified inhumane treatment can be, especially to vulnerable young people. We need to be careful in every sense.

My Name is Why: a memoir by Lemn Sissay (2019) Canongate. 193pp

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The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

My choice for the 1990s in the Decades Project is Tracy Beaker’s own story  about being a child in care in the 1990s, looking for foster care. This is the tenth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

Tracy Beaker is the most successful character created by Jacqueline Wilson. There are three books with her name, and a television series among other indications of success. What is it about this spirited young girl that endears her to readers of all ages?

The Story of Tracy Beaker

Tracy tells her own story, which is as it should be for a ‘looked after’ child. Tracy is her own heroine, which is also as it should be. 

She is 10 years old and does not have a great deal going for her. She is in care and no one wants her, despite attempts to find suitable foster parents. She lives in a children’s home (Dumping Ground) and has a social worker (Elaine). She is not an attractive kid and Nick Sharratt’s illustrations aptly show her as a tangle-haired girl in ordinary clothes. Usually she has a smile on her face. 

Nick Sharratt and Tracy Beaker from his website

Tracy writes her own story in a vivid and clear style, as if she is writing in a social services workbook: Who am I? Clear-sighted as regards others, she is blind to her own faults, finding excuses for them, like hay fever (not crying), and that her mother is a Hollywood actress and will visit next Saturday. (It is likely that her mother has lost touch with her.) She is fierce and loyal, beastly to her enemies and grudgingly respectful of the residential social workers who have to deal with her tantrums.

The reader quickly sees that she is a child who will stand up for herself and at the same time she is a sulky child with poor behaviour because she has been let down by her mother, foster carers and the world. Those around her find it difficult to get on with her, but ‘dopey Peter Ingham’ persists. He shares a birthday with her and is also a resident in the children’s home. The story of how they become friends is an important subplot.

It is the search for a decent home that drives the story. Poor Tracy has been a ‘chid of the week’ in the local paper. This is how she would advertise herself.

TRACY BEAKER

Have you a place in your hearts for dear little Tracy? Brilliant and beautiful, this little girl needs a loving home. Very rich parents preferred as little Tracy needs lots of toys, presents and pets to make up for her tragic past. (61)

This is what appeared in the paper, written by Elaine.

TRACY

Tracy is a lively, healthy, chatty, ten-year-old who has been in care for a number of years. Consequently she has a few behaviour problems and needs firm, loving handling in a long-term foster home. (62)

Tracy’s reaction is over the top, of course.

I ask you!

‘How could you do this to me, Elaine?’ I shrieked when I saw it. ‘Is that the best thing you can say about me? That I’m healthy? And anyway I’m not. What about my hay fever?’ 

‘I also say you’re lively. And chatty.’

‘Yeah. Well, we all know what that means. Cheeky. Difficult. Bossy.’

‘You said it, Tracy,’ Elaine murmured. (62-3)

And then along comes Cam, a writer who is trying to write something about children in care for a magazine. Tracy, who also has aspirations as a writer, decides to adopt her although Cam finds that this is not plain sailing. Tracy tested her to the limit.

Absent parents in children’s literature

Almost all the books featured in this year’s Decades Project have been stories about children whose parents are absent or dead or completely inadequate. From the Fossil orphans of Ballet Shoes and Mary in the big Yorkshire house in The Secret Garden, to Willie in Goodnight Mister Tom parents who are present and good enough are in short supply.

The job of fiction is to explore a different reality, and in this way children can see that others may be less fortunate than them, and it allows them to face their fears about their parents.

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, first published in 1991. I used the Corgi edition (Puffin Books) published in 2018. 217pp. This edition contains an additional story Tracy Beaker’s Thumping Heart. Illustrations by Nick Sharratt.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 2000-2010. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

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