Tough truths, tender years

A prize-winning book is helping children to learn about the homeless, writes Lesley Gerard
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"My friend tried to kill himself yesterday, by jumping off a bridge. He didn't die, but he cut all his head. He wasn't lying - I saw his bruises.

"He says he hasn't got a proper life, because his stepdad is horrid. I could understand it if he ran away and lived on the streets. He says his life is worth nothing anyway.

"My friend is aged 12."

Carla Bettington, 11, is talking during a class discussion on homelessness at Petershill Primary School at Dudley in the West Midlands. It is a tough topic but by the age of 11 - sometimes earlier - many children have already confronted tough realities.

Schools feel an increasing duty to tackle such issues head on to prepare pupils for survival in a scary world.

Sophie Evans first learnt about homelessness from television. "I was only young - the news was all about people living in cardboard boxes. I asked my mum if they could come and live with us, she said no."

Jemma Campbell tells her classmates of a recent trip to London. "This man was going through all the bins - eating chips out of rubbish bags.

"I was with my dance group and he started following us. He was mumbling, and grabbing at us, he had ripped trousers and string around his shoes. I was frightened."

"A lot of homeless people live in London," agrees Katy Forest. "They all live in the underground."

"No - some only have sleeping bags on the street," corrects Matthew Green. "I saw them when I went to visit my aunt."

Anne Harrison, a teacher, introduces the subject with an Australian picture book called Way Home. Yesterday the book was named the winner of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for children's illustration.

The intense story is about a hard-boiled street child who befriends a stray cat on the night-time streets of a vast and threatening city.

"By using picture books the children can distance themselves from reality and can confront harsh situations in a more objective manner," says Ms Harrison.

Children, the class decides, can become homeless because their parents do not want them or because they cost too much to feed. Sometimes they run away because they are lonely, being bullied, worried about exams or are being beaten by adults.

The 11-year-olds feel guilty about the homeless, want to help, but are confused as to how.

"The Government is mainly to blame," says Matthew. "People have not got jobs, they cannot afford homes, their houses are being repossessed - they get into a mess.

"This may sound horrible and selfish, but I also wonder whether some people could have prevented it by making something of their lives."

"You would think," another pupil adds, "that instead of arguing who should be in charge, people like John Major and Tony Blair could work together to help the homeless. "They just say they are sorry, but they don't do anything."

Jemma Campbell suffers from bouts of guilt.

"I have never given a homeless person money. I see them in Stourbridge, begging. I feel a bit guilty, especially when I am eating a Big Mac, and I feel their eyes saying 'I want that because I have nothing'. But at age 10 or 11 it is not as though you can devote your life to helping them. After a few days I forget because I have other important things in my life.

"I think people who have homes could do more to help. You could talk to homeless people, help them to think positive, encourage them to get a job and a life."

Louise Emery, her friend, interrupts. "That is easier said than done. A lot of businesses would not want to employ them. They would not be accepted."

Finally Matthew broaches the thorny issue of individual charity:

"If you see a homeless person in the street and give them pounds 1, then you have to give pounds 1 to the next person. Eventually you will have given away all your money and have to swap places."

At which point the bell rings.

"This is so depressing," sighs Matthew, "Can we go now?"

The Kate Greenaway Medal is awarded by the Library Association and sponsored by Peter Library Service. Winners are selected by 13 children's librarians.

'Way Home' is written by Libby Hathorn and illustrated by Gregory Rogers (Anderson Press, pounds 8.99). Age range 7+.

Runners-up were:

'So Much', written by Trish Cooke and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books, pounds 8.99). Age range 3 to 6.

'Something Else', written by Kathryn Cave and illustrated by Chris Riddell. Age range 4 to 8.