Jeanne Willis leaps in to Neverland in her role as Readathon in Residence author at Evelina Children’s Hospital
4th December 2017
According to Peter Pan, all children except one, grow up. It’s a lovely fantasy but the sad reality is that not all children do. Hopefully, most of the young patients I met on my Readathon author visits to Evelina Children’s Hospital will go on to lead long and happy lives, but despite the best medical care, some have life-limiting conditions that won’t go away, no matter how many times we say, “I do believe in fairies”.
Knowing this, I was blown away by how brave the children were and how pleased to be read to, despite being strapped to kidney machines. If I was them, I might have put my head under the blanket and told me to go away in the rudest possible terms.
Not one of them did. I was greeted with big smiles wherever I went; in the classroom, on the dialysis ward and in the side rooms. I didn’t expect it to be such a joyful experience, but it was. I couldn’t have wished for a more enthusiastic audience. I admit it was a captive one but given a choice of doing sums, staring at the ceiling or listening to me banging on, I felt honoured that they chose me. I always brought in props to bring the books alive- things I’d have liked someone to amuse me with if I was five and stuck in a hospital bed. Happily, my fossil collection, clockwork caterpillars and Moon Moth cocoons went down a storm.
Not all the kids I read to were ill, but they were suffering in their own way; these were the ones who tagged along while their parents sat for days, weeks and months by their sick child’s bedside. One can only imagine how very much in Neverland siblings must feel when so much attention has to be given to a seriously ill brother or sister. I hope I managed to take their minds off things for a bit but I never felt it was long enough.
I had the great fortune of having children who never had to stay in hospital. I’m not sure how I’d have coped long term. Possibly not as well as the mums and dads I met at Evelina. I was overwhelmed by their patience, stamina and courage. Doubtless they wept in private but somehow they found the strength to keep smiling on the ward. Even so, I felt they could have done with a cuddle and a story as much as their kids sometimes.
My time at Evelina has finished now. Unlike the exhausted parents, the wonderful staff and the children they care for, I can walk away. The thing is, I don’t want to. I’ve seen what an amazing difference Readathon can make to children in hospital, providing free books and author visits when the need for a pleasant distraction is probably the best medicine. I would urge every writer, publisher and school to get involved. Reading might not save lives, but there are times when it really helps to make life worth living, no matter how the story ends.