“I have the best job in the world!”

The pandemic has been tough for all of us. One thing I have missed was the chance to meet up with other storytellers and Read for Good staff – thank goodness that has changed.

For many years Read for Good has ensured that children in thirty hospitals across the UK have had books to read and fun storyteller visits. Most recently digitally, then back to in-person. We, as storytellers, aim to distract children, help them feel less isolated and bring some fun – a visit that is a gift tailored just for them.

We finally managed to gather in person for the Read for Good Storyteller Conference in September – the first time in over three years. It really was so great to reunite, and to chat with new staff. There were lots of Read for Good initiatives to catch up on and we definitely appreciated the conference focus being on the storyteller’s support and well-being.

We loved the much-needed reflective session facilitated by Jill Evans, a counselling specialist, in which she explored skills and experience relevant to working with young people with mental health issues. We’re meeting more and more young people receiving care for their mental health in post-pandemic children’s wards. Bigger hospitals often have dedicated staff and units, but for the smaller hospitals, the best and safest place for a child is in a general children’s ward. It’s so important that we are able to give a book, have a chat, and, where possible, do a story activity with them.

There is a thing called ‘normalising play’ which hospital play staff use to help children navigate their time in hospital; loosely our work fits into this category of activity. To bring back the normal when things have been the opposite can feel profound, liberating and a little bit like coming home. There’s an emotional quality too.

For some months I’ve had a lingering sense that I’ve never completely understood why in-person visits to children in hospital feel so fundamentally different following the pandemic. There is a certain gravitas to them that’s been difficult to pinpoint.

I’ve noted there are many changes in the hospital settings since we’ve been back: redeployment of staff, different resources, frequently changing protocoles, loss of play spaces and classrooms. But it’s not that; what we have been doing on our return is no different – so what is?

On the second day of the Storyteller Conference, I had a sudden realisation as to why. It now seems really obvious, but it’s simply this.

What we as storytellers do hasn’t changed – the wider need has.

Our job is to offer a bedside visit to a sick child to bring joy, friendship, distraction and fun. What we do relies on a connection, rapport, and relationship with the child to make it work.  As the world changed the value and meaning of what we do has evolved. The benefits are so much deeper and wider.

Over the last couple of years there’s been a dearth of person to person contact in the lives of children, families – and let’s not forget staff. What we took for granted is now exceptional. On reflection, we are meeting a need, so deeply felt at a quality level of reconnection, that storyteller visits can feel a little bit like pure medicine.

Where I noticed it, but hadn’t understood it, is in part by the way we are thanked. By parents, children and staff – from the heart, in quantity and with a slow awakened light and joy that is brilliant. I could tell you stories, numerous stories, about these moments and they could make you cry.

Read for Good has received humbling feedback about the benefits of the donated books on children’s hospital wards. During lockdown it was often the only offer staff could make to the young inpatients. A bright, colourful and immersive gift of nurture, with a collateral benefit of feel-good well-being, during stricken times.

As the clean, brand new books became front and centre for staff working with children, during that longer lockdown which hospitals needed to keep vulnerable people safe – so the benefits of storytelling or story-making sessions are similarly useful and important.

As I write this in Autumn 2022, some hospitals have only just opened to us. So we continue to operate in a context where meaningful contact has been stymied and spontaneous or casual interaction – a baseline of children’s development – has been stolen away and we do our best, one book, one visit at a time.

And Read for Good is a community. There are volunteers, authors and illustrators who are behind our cause, plus great funders who support us and hearty individuals to take on challenges to raise money.

As well as this – amazingly – there are thousands – yes, thousands of  fabulous young readers who raise sponsorship through their involvement in Readathon with their schools. Monies raised support the storyteller visits and book donations in hospitals. Can you imagine – as the context has changed for us visitors, so it has for the need for such great reading efforts.

They have never been more needed.

There is nothing like seeing a sad child smile, seeing their eyes light up, hearing them laugh and suddenly losing control of the story to their creativity and imagination as they participate in the power of a good story.

I have the best job in the world!

Amanda Smith, Read for Good Storyteller