How should you talk to young children about bad news? What, if anything, should you tell them about the pandemic, or the war in Ukraine? When should you talk to them about death or illness? Our instinct may be to shield them from the hardest facts of life, and yet too often life intrudes.
These were problems that Rebecca Smith grappled with while at More House, a private secondary school in central London, teaching philosophy and religion – two subjects that invite students to wrestle with big, existential questions. She left teaching after the birth of her first child, and now has a nine-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. That problem, of how you help children confront terrible realities, grew more pressing four years ago when her daughter’s best friend, Daisy, fell seriously ill with a rare condition called Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH). She was two years old and had already spent months in hospital before receiving her diagnosis. Her prognosis was uncertain.
Smith had for years been writing children’s stories – they were accumulating unpublished – and when she heard of Daisy’s diagnosis, she felt a new urgency to write. She wanted to create a story that Daisy might find helpful, a story that would give her hope and courage. The problem was, she couldn’t finish it. “I couldn’t write an ending for her without knowing that she was going to be well,” Smith explained when we met for coffee one bright spring afternoon in London.
While Daisy was undergoing chemotherapy, Smith’s father, Richard, was also battling cancer. In September 2019, as Richard was dying, Smith received the good news that Daisy was responding well to her treatment and was expected to pull through. Smith held her father’s hand as he lay heavily sedated and talked to him as much as she could, hoping and failing to elicit a response. Only when she mentioned Daisy’s recovery did he squeeze her hand and smile. He died two hours later.
In her grief, she was reminded of the GF Watts painting, Hope, which depicts a blindfolded figure hunched over a lyre with only one remaining string, straining to hear the last note. “That painting sums up my father in the last moment, when he found hope in the idea that there was a young child going through the same disease as him but winning. To find hope in the face of imminent death is the most extraordinary thing,” Smith said. After her father died, she knew she had to get her book for Daisy published. She contacted HarperCollins directly, and secured a two-book contract.
The result is SuperDaisy, the story of a girl who loses her hair while being treated for cancer, but who finds a pink wig that gives her superpowers: both the courage to face her treatment, and the power to fight unfairness, wherever she sees it. It has a gentle but lively rhyme, and is accompanied by Zoe Waring’s vivid, whimsical illustrations. The book introduces children to the idea of serious illness, but without scaring them: the message is optimistic and uplifting. “Because that’s all you’ve got, isn’t it?” Smith said, “You’ve got science, and you’ve got hope.”
Smith wants the book to enable children to ask difficult questions, and to help adults answer them. “The idea of mortality, the threat of illness, are all very sobering, potentially disempowering things and it’s very important to get the balance – you can read this story, introduce these concepts, but do it in a way that’s empowering,” she said. She has been giving talks in schools and has created a classroom pack to help teachers discuss the book. In the aftermath of the pandemic, in which many children have lost parents and grandparents, teachers are having to find ways to broach difficult subjects such as illness and bereavement.
Smith is a passionate believer in the power of stories to change lives. During the first Covid lockdown, when she learned that more than 380,000 children in the UK don’t own a single book, she approached the supermarket Morrisons with a proposal to establish a free book exchange in her local store. Morrisons liked the idea so much that in May 2021 it started implementing the project nationwide, naming it Morrisons Little Library.
Smith pointed out that in the UK, life expectancy in areas with low literacy rates is more than 19 years lower than in high-literacy areas (she is someone who trots out statistics with ease). But she was also interested in the less-tangible, but no less important, benefits of reading – the way that books expand children’s imaginative horizons and help them forge their identities. “Even the rhythm and sound of a mother’s voice reading makes you feel valued and believed in,” she said.
Smith, 37, has a warm, earnest manner and a glamorous dress sense: she wore a white blouse, straight-leg jeans and oversized sunglasses when we met. She has a geeky side, and said she was profoundly shaped by the stories she’d read as a child. When she met her husband, the cricketer and author Ed Smith, she was reminded of a favourite childhood story about Smith the Hedgehog, whose spikes and shyness thwart his quest to make a friend until, by chance, he meets a hedgehog just like him.
Ed teases her that she was so influenced by Cinderella that for their first year together, she wore shoes a size too small. (She is now toying with the idea of a feminist rewrite of the classic fairy tale.) While reading to her daughter Margot she rediscovered an Enid Blyton fable in which a girl’s wish to never be forced to brush her hair is fulfilled in the worst way, when she is turned bald. “For a lot of children, the idea of losing their hair is very frightening,” Smith observed.
A percentage of the sale proceeds from SuperDaisy will go to the Little Princess Trust, a charity that since 2006 has provided more than 12,000 free wigs to young people with cancer and has raised more than £15m for child cancer research. Having approached the charity with her book even before she found a publisher, Smith is now one of its ambassadors. Currently, only between 2 and 4 per cent of cancer research funding is spent on childhood cancer, but there is an urgent need to develop better and gentler treatments. Many children who survive cancer are left with serious, long-term health problems as a result of chemotherapy.
The father of a six-year-old girl had recently told Smith that his daughter, who was recovering from leukaemia, was likely to die prematurely because of her aggressive treatment. A parliamentary debate on 26 April secured cross-party consensus on the need to ring-fence funding for childhood cancer research and to ensure that children are diagnosed earlier: more than half of childhood cancers are picked up through A&E rather than by GPs. Smith sent me updates on the debate via WhatsApp.
Daisy is now six years old and in remission. Smith showed her the finished book about a month ago – Daisy’s three siblings listened too. Smith was nervous, unsure of how each child would react. In the days that followed the four children would read the book together many times, and they gathered up props – such as cuddly toys and a unicorn headband – to try to recreate some of the scenes. In the immediate aftermath Daisy was quiet, lost in thought. Then she asked for the story again, and again.
This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man