Reading is one of the most transformative escapes you can have and a way of really connecting with the emotions of others and understanding alternative viewpoints. Spending thirty minutes a day reading fiction has been shown to add around 23 months to your life expectancy. It enhances our capacity for social relationships, boosts cortisol levels and counts as a meditative, fully immersive practice. This promotes well-being and reduces the risk of burnout. Stopping reading if you have previously identified yourself as “a reader” is one of the most accurate early markers of burnout.
It’s easy to see the value of textbooks, but here I’m going to suggest ten books that are a mix of novels and memoirs, written specifically for adults, young people and children. I hope they might captivate you and make you think differently, and connect better with your patients and their families. This was a tough list to come up with. I am limiting the list to just ten from a list of many more felt like I was rejecting some old friends.
1. My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal
(looked after children, hearing the child’s voice, racism)
This stunning novel, recently adapted for television on BBC iPlayer in the UK, shows us the world from the perspective of Leon. Leon is nine years old and has a baby brother. Leon is black, his baby brother is white. Their mother cannot look after them and so Leon goes into foster care while his baby brother is adopted. Is this because he is a baby and therefore more “desirable”? Is it because he is white? I want to think the care system in the UK has become slightly more aware of attachment, preserving sibling relationships and perinatal mental health, but I’m not sure enough. Long-term foster care outcomes remain uninspiring with the number of black and mixed-race children waiting years for adoptive parents increasing year on year. Birmingham in the 1980s, with its race riots and poverty, is the setting for Leon’s story. We hear it all in his voice, a voice to whom sadly no one else is listening. This compelling novel is a must-read though I would not suggest it as a book for the train or bus to work – I cried so hard I lost a contact lens. Leon will stay with me forever. We need to see the world through a child’s eyes and view them in their context when completing an assessment, especially when writing child protection conference reports.
2. Mothership by Francesca Segal
(NICU, the nature of motherhood)
This memoir chronicles the first 56 days of the life of the author’s twins, born at 30 weeks, spent in the NICU. She describes a journey that was far from smooth. It was rocky and filled with turbulence from the outset. Mothership provides a window into a world that may be familiar to many of us in a work context but is seen here through the eyes of a mother. It’s disorientating, frightening, a liminal place where babies born too small, too soon, may live or die. What struck me was the camaraderie of “the milking shed”, the irreverent humour, and the ability to be human when all that remained. It left me expanding the horizons of what the word “mother” really means. There are important lessons for those of us who look after whole families – leaving your newborn babies in the hospital and being at home, a mother with no mothering to do… The line “I am half a mother, twice” will stay with me always.
3. Instrumental by James Rhodes
(ACEs, child abuse, the use of language)
James Rhodes is uncompromising in his language when he states that “abuse is when you tell a traffic warden to fuck off”. He goes on to further challenge his readers. If we cannot say the words child rape but instead use euphemisms, we are not actually even beginning to recognise what has happened to them or acknowledge the horrors of their experience. This is a dark but oddly uplifting book and ought to be read by anyone working with children. The writing is so engaging; it sucks you in; you are there with Rhodes. The fact that his ex-wife took out an injunction to prevent its publication makes it all the more compelling. Is it a book you can “enjoy”? I’d say yes. There’s much that is funny, touching and uplifting, but, more relevantly, it is an important book that may teach you more than any online e-learning child abuse/Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) module ever could.
4. The Health Gap by Sir Michael Marmot
This is the sole non-memoir, non-fiction entry in the list. Do not let the subject matter fool you into thinking this book will be hard work. It is such an important book. It is also readable, accessible and thought-provoking without being boring. It is relevant to anyone in healthcare (and arguably to anyone interested in anything). It is the most engaging entry-level introduction to health inequalities and why they matter to everyone. There is a specific chapter on child health and why this is so vital to get right. Read it!
5. Love Anthony by Lisa Genova
(Autism, special educational needs and disability, SEND, parenting)
Lisa Genova may be best known for her novel Still Alice. It became the Hollywood blockbuster for which Julianne Moore won her Oscar. Genova is a neuroscientist and writes fiction featuring characters with neurological disorders. In Love Anthony, we meet Anthony, a young autistic boy. We see the effects of parenting a non-verbal child with profound additional needs. I loved how she described him getting stuck in different rooms and how and why transitions and instructions need to be clear and timely.
The following five books are written for children or young adults as their primary audience. Their inclusion serves a dual purpose here, both because of what we can learn from reading them and as a potential talking point or cultural reference point with the young readers who are our patients.
6. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
(cancer, secrets, communication, imagination)
This book does need to come with a warning. Unless you have a heart of stone you’ll need lots of tissues and shouldn’t read this in public.
Conor has the same dream every night, ever since his mother first fell ill, ever since she started the treatments that don’t quite seem to be working. But tonight is different. Tonight, when he wakes, there’s a visitor at his window. It’s ancient, elemental, a force of nature. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth.
A Monster Calls is the only book to have won the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for children’s fiction. It’s a regular on high school reading lists and has been made into a film (good) and a play (exceptionally good). Siobhan Dowd had planned to write the story of Conor O’Malley, a boy whose mother is dying of cancer. Sadly she did not complete it before her death from cancer in August 2007. Her editor arranged for Patrick Ness to finish the story. This is a spellbinding book and provides a salient lesson. When we hide things from children, their imaginations fill in the gaps in ways that are far worse than reality could ever be.
7. The Amazing Edie Eckhart by Rosie Jones
You may know Rosie Jones as the comedian who was such an amazing part of the Paralympics coverage from Tokyo in the Summer of 2021. This is her debut novel. We meet the wonderful Edie, an 11-year-old in her first year at high school. Edie is funny and sassy. And loveable. She also has cerebral palsy. Edie is Excited with a capital E to start secondary school with her best friend Oscar – the fish to her chips, the bananas to her custard. But Edie is devastated when she and Oscar are put into different tutor groups on their first day. Who will play secret hangman with her in class? Who will she eat sausage rolls with?
Whilst she’s plotting their reunion, she accidentally gets cast as the lead in the school play. As Edie discovers her passion for performance, she also finds new friendships, talents, and dreams. After all, it’s easy to shine on and off the stage when you’re Amazing with a capital A.
8. Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
(racism, inequality, injustice, child death)
Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for the real thing. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that’s been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing. Soon Jerome meets another ghost. Emmett Till a boy from a very different time but with similar circumstances. Emmett helps Jerome process what has happened, recognising how historical racism may have led to the events that ended his life. Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, who grapples with her father’s actions. Inequality and structural racism are themes familiar to many of us. Whilst the exact context will be most familiar to readers in North America, the themes are incredibly relevant wherever we are. The stereotyping of black boys involved with gangs, the institutional racism of the police and the devastating effect a child’s death has on a family and a community are relevant to us all. If you love a gripping story, learning some rarely taught modern American history and want to know why we must speak out against injustice, this book is for you.
9. The Star Outside my Window by Onjali Q Rauf
(domestic abuse, communication, ACEs)
Onjali Q Rauf is probably best known for her first novel The Boy at the Back of the Class along with her campaigning work as the founder of Making Herstory, an organisation mobilising men, women and children from all walks of life to tackle abuse and trafficking of women and girls. In The Star Outside My Window, we meet 10-year-old Aniyah living in foster care after the sudden death of her mum. With her life in disarray, she knows just one thing: her mum isn’t gone forever because people with the brightest hearts never truly leave. They become stars. When a new star is spotted acting strangely in the sky, Aniyah is sure it’s her mum, and she embarks on the adventure of a lifetime to make sure everyone else knows too — an adventure that involves breaking into the Royal Observatory of London. Told through the innocent voice of a child, this is a story that explores the subtle faces and impact of domestic violence and celebrates the power of hope and resilience.
I first read this with my daughter when she was the same age as Aniyah, and I was struck by how an adult’s understanding of the world differs from that of a child. To the cynical, world-weary doctor, it is obvious her mum has been murdered by her father. We see Aniyah’s slow dawning realisation, hear the whispers behind closed doors and the secrecy with which this revelation is so badly handled by the adults who are supposed to be keeping her safe. A moving read, compelling and an excellent add-on to any learning you may do about looking after children, ACEs and the effects of domestic abuse in a household.
10. Zog and the Flying Doctors – Julia Donaldson
In all honesty, no one can ever go wrong with reading any and every book by former Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson. She’s written hundreds of brilliant books, and most children in the UK will be word-perfect in “Oh no, it’s a Gruffalo”. I’ve picked Zog and the Flying Doctors as my must-read title because of the strong female role model in Princess Pearl, the fact that others around her are trying to tell her that she can’t be a doctor (because she’s a girl because she’s a princess etc.). She doesn’t care two hoots what they think, outwits her evil uncle and saves the day. Everyone needs a Princess Pearl on their team.
I hope you’ll enjoy exploring these books and will forgive me for cutting the huge number of titles that didn’t make the list.