No break in the sun: supporting child runaways

Happy New Year! I was going to do a writer’s resolutions-type post to welcome in 2013, but a more worthy cause than myself caught my eye.

The website Mumsnet is working with the charity Railway Children and Aviva to raise awareness of children running away from home in the UK. They’ve asked for blogs about any aspects of the issue, with the incentive that for each blog post Aviva will donate £2 to Railway Children. They will also donate another £2 for each comment on the post, and for any tweets or mentions on Facebook. How could I (and you, oh reader) ignore a cause like that?

I have no direct experience of children (defined by Railway Children as young people under 16) running away. Growing up, any notions I had of ‘running away’ were based mostly around images of animals setting off from home with all their belongings wrapped in a red spotty handkerchief tied to the end of a stick. I once ran a hundred yards up the road on holiday after my dad got cross with me, which demonstrates the extent of my ignorance.

But when I started to think about this, I realised that there was a book that made a great impact on my understanding of children who might feel desperate enough to run away. This was Break in the Sun by Bernard Ashley. I first came across it as a serial on children’s television – a quick Google search shows me that this would have been in 1981, so I’d have been 10 or 11 years old. Annoyingly, I can’t find my copy of the book, which showed a still from the series of the heroine, Patsy Bligh, so I can’t remind myself of it properly.

From what I remember, the story centres around Patsy who is miserable at home with her worn out, stressed out mother (with new baby) and stepfather Eddy who spends his time watching TV and shouting at Patsy. Her anxiety reveals itself as she starts to wet the bed, and she decides to run away to Margate where she and her mother used to live with an old lady, Mrs Broadley. Patsy is convinced that if she can find the old lady again all her problems will be solved. En route she hooks up with a travelling theatre company who agree to help her out (she tells them some elaborate lies about, I think, meeting up with her grandmother), but her idyll is threatened when she discovers that Eddy is trying to find her and she must stay one step ahead of him.

Break in the Sun was and is an extraordinary book. It portrayed Patsy’s anxiety and unhappiness so vividly – I still remember feeling her terror when she wakes up in a wet bed and anticipates her stepfather finding out. It showed how much children become conditioned by the way adults treat them – Patsy believes that she is useless, a baby, pathetic, no good, because that’s what Eddy tells her – and how hard they find it to trust another adult who might be able to help. It also shows how fixated children become on one thing which they think will be the solution to everything (in Patsy’s case, finding Mrs Broadley), and how at an end they can feel their lives to be when reality shatters the dream.

The remarkable thing about Break in the Sun though, was that it not only gives the young reader an insight into Patsy’s life, but also into the motives, fears and experiences that drive adult behaviour. Through Patsy’s (and therefore our) eyes, Eddy is an angry, hard man. As the story unfolds, and its perspective shifts to follow Eddy, we discover a man brutalised by a childhood with a violent father (I can’t remember, but he may have been an alcoholic), who as a child valued his own life so little that he took literally life-threatening risks, embittered by the overwhelming responsibilities of a new wife, new baby and step-daughter. We come to understand Eddy a little better, and realise that he is a gentler, softer and kinder man than we, Patsy, and even he assume.

What a powerful book then, aimed at youngish readers (there wasn’t really a YA classification in those days, but as Patsy is 11 the book was certainly for pre-teens), that is nonetheless sophisticated enough to enable at least one reader (i.e. me), to understand the perspectives of the mistreated and the mistreater (the latter is the clumsiest of words, but I hesitate to use ‘abused and abuser’ as Patsy is not abused in the sense that we use the word today), and the complexities of emotions that lead to desperation and unhappiness.

In a sense, Break in the Sun belongs to a more apparently innocent age, and is aimed at younger readers. This means that there is little hint of the potential risks that a child runaway may face – sexual exploitation, drug and alcohol dependency and violence are just a few highlighted by Railway Children. It also has a happy ending – Eddy is given the opportunity to reflect on his own childhood as a result of Patsy running away, and of how this might have affected his treatment of Patsy and the two eventually develop a mutual respect of one another. I’m sure that the stories of some child runaways also end happily, or are at least resolved in a way that will make that child’s adult life an easier one. But of course there will also be those whose stories aren’t reconciled so easily and these are the children that need help and support.

Are there other children’s or YA books that you have read that you would also recommend to raise awareness? Do you have any experience, either directly or indirectly, of children running away?Remember that for every comment posted Aviva will donate £2 to Railway Children – here’s a breakdown of how comments could translate into help:

£1 could buy a warm drink for a vulnerable child on the streets (one comment)
£5 could buy a warm meal for a young person staying in a refuge (three comments)
£10 could fund resources for 30 young people at a runaway prevention workshop (five comments)
£25 could help keep one of our workers on the streets, seeking out children who may be at risk (13 comments)
£50 could pay for 1:1 support sessions to help a child work through their issues (25 comments)

Update on 17th January – I’ve started reading Break in the Sun again, and it’s even better than I remember.

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36 thoughts on “No break in the sun: supporting child runaways

  1. How about Joan Aiken’s The Woves of Willoughby Chase in which children escape from the clutches of the unkind Miss Slighcarp who is looking after them while their parents are abroad? I remember finding that absolutely terrifying. I’m sure that a lot of fairytales also fall into this category with unkind step-parents being the obvious offenders. Then there’s Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. OK, so the main character is an animal but, in terms of cruelty and survival, it fits the bill.

    • Thanks Margaret, for the comment and the suggestions. Joan Aiken is a wonderful writer. I need to re-read The Wolves (or Woves) of WC as I can barely remember it. The Call of the Wild passed me by as I was never a fan of books featuring animals as the main characters.

      • I know what you mean, Lucy. I haven’t read it, either. However, I remember crying buckets over Black Beauty. Also, The Incredible Journey was very moving. I suppose the thing with animal protagonists is that they allow difficult subjects (death, cruelty, etc) to be explored but with a sort of safety barrier. (Got a paper on this somewhere.) Fairytales, on the other hand, do not pull their punches. Interesting topic 🙂

  2. Excellent idea and a brilliant charity. I’m working on a story idea right now which involves runaway teens; but I hadn’t really thought about exploring it directly through that angle, so this has stimulated some ideas for me.

    Do you remember the song Runaway Train by Soul Asylum, back in the 90s?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runaway_Train_(Soul_Asylum_song)

    The video was edited for different parts of the world to show missing children in that area, with a plea to contact the authorities if you knew their whereabouts. Apparently it was quite successful in tracing a number of the young people featured, which makes me wonder if television could be more proactively used in getting the word out about missing young people, especially outside of the usual News and Crimewatch-type programmes that are only watched by a certain segment of the population.

    • Suraya I’d totally forgotten that song but a quick Youtube search has reminded me of it. I wonder why television isn’t used in the way you suggest – is there perhaps no hard evidence that it works, hence the money isn’t spent?

      And can I read the first draft of your story 😉

  3. Oh I absolutely loved that book (and the series), it had a massive impact on me at the time. Patsy is such a fantastic character. Thanks for the reminder of it!

      • I’m going to dig the book out. I really wanted to got to Margate after reading it, and sadly it’s still quite an exotic place in my imagination (never having visited it!)…

  4. The Borribles ( I know I’m always banging on about it!) is about runaway children but doesn’t dwell on any trauma linked to it. Its more of a gang book.
    Just a quick comment for cash.

  5. Hi Luce – I loved Break in the Sun! Nicola Cowper seemed so grown up. I still have the book with her on the front. If you go to Youtube you can see a little bit of the last episode. It certainly seemed more like a big adventure to ( glamorous – always in my mind) Margate. I fear it’s innocence wouldn’t wash today, when 10 – 12 year olds are reading The Hunger Games. But it was a hugely influential book in my young years. Maybe Aviva should do a follow on or revival.. ?
    Rx

  6. Before I started reading this post properly I was trying to remember exactly this series! Thanks for reminding me of it – it was brilliant – I was 11/12 when it was on TV. And, and amazing blog post/ charity idea too! I’m looking at the youtube material right now – fabulous!

  7. Hi Lucy!

    I’ve been keeping an eye on your blog for a while now, do keep the good work! Your post made me think of Way Home by Gregory Rogers – a picture book full of character I’ve used with my year 4s. Worth taking a look if you’ve not seen it!

  8. I was just this evening thinking about “the thief lord” and that whole tradition of children having adventures on their own in the big wide world. The thief lord, which we loved, has a lighter more fantasy take on it all though, the kids are never really in danger… Loved the post will follow you now x

    • Thanks Miranda. I’ve not read ‘The Thief Lord’, although it’s sitting on my ‘to read’ shelf. I suppose I’m thinking of much grittier stuff, less of the adventures and more of the reality bites side of things.

  9. I loved Break in the Sun too – I thought I had it, and can still picture the front cover, but can’t find it anywhere. It’s not a book but I remember as a young child – probably pre-teen – listening to my parents’ copy of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper and reading the lyric sheet to She’s Leaving Home and being really shocked and upset that anyone would want to run away (though I know the girl in the song is probably older than the children you’re talking about). Thinking of children’s books, The Runaway Summer by Nina Bawden is about this topic – I’ve found my copy and see from the blurb that one of the characters is a Kenyan asylum seeker; seems very radical for a book published in 1969. Junk by Melvin Burgess also features runaway teenagers – and there must be others.

    • Great tips Becky, I’d forgotten about both of these so must re-read. Nina Bawden was very ahead of her time (see my post on her from earlier in the year). Perhaps your copy of Break in the Sun is lurking in a hidden corner with my copy!

  10. Hi lucy what an excellent cause. I work with children who have self esteem and behaviour issues and it is quite scary how a seemingly off the cuff remark can be misconstrued as a deep personal criticism so imagine how destructive it must be to have an adult constantly putting you down or worse. Lets hope we raise lots of money to help these vulnerable young people.

  11. this sounds worthwhile and i really like Lucy’s response. Understanding the reasons behind the problems is crucial.WHY children run away is part of wider issues that affect all of us, especially attitudes towards young people Having spent my life working with distressed families, children, and the system, I feel that treating children with genuine compassion is vital- love is part of this, but this is such a misused word, and can be mis-applied- e.g. buying ‘good behaviour’ with material promises is not necessarily helpful in the long run. COmpassion includes seeing the child as s/he is, a six- or eight-or fifteen year old, with all the needs, fears, anxieties and lovely qualities that their age and stage of development brings, thinking hard about what might be affecting a child when s/he is being difficult.A person in his/her own right, not an ‘add-on’ in an adult’s life; There are already large numbers of social workers in the State and voluntary systems doing all they can to help vulnerable children, and we need to consider why the system has not brought about improvements in this particular field since it was set up in 1948.
    I would like to know more about how this money being raised is spent.

  12. A really interesting piece Lucy. I must confess not to have come across Break in the Sun when I was younger. All of my exposure to children running away came from films! The original Oliver! film deeply affected me (although, hanging my head in shame, I’ve yet to read Dickens’ original). Later on, the runaway characters who ended up seeking refuge in CBBC’s Biker Grove hit home too. Call of the Wild is brilliant, although quite masculine and I remember struggling through it around the time when my friends were indulging in Sweet Valley High! I’ve noticed London’s Centre Point Sponsor a Young Person campaign on the gogglebox this festive season. A really compelling ad, reinforcing the fact that these young people are at the start of their lives, who deserve the right to feel optimistic about the future and what they might be able to achieve. The thought of any young person trying to exist in such a threatening and dangerous environment as the streets of London (or anywhere for that matter) without a loving and protective family to support them, is soul destroying.

    As an aside, for all those that wanted to go to Margate, I speak from personal experience when I tell you that it was the most depressing place to go to in the 80s and 90s, even the bright lights of Bembom Brothers (so-called Dreamland) was a disappointment to behold in the flesh!

    • Thank you for the comment mrscbeebies (love your name). And thanks for exploding the myth of 1980s Margate. I always thought that Dreamland sounded the most exciting place ever after Disneyland!

  13. While I don’t have any direct stories or experience with homeless youth, I have seen the toll that abuse and hopeless family situations can take on young people. So, I applaud you championing this cause, and getting the word out to raise awareness about it. Maybe some folks have a resolution to get involved by volunteering and could make an impact that way as well. I feel very strongly about coming from a place of understanding and having a nonjudjmental attitude toward homeless people in general, and I wish more people in the U.S. did too. Every kind act, smile, or even acknowledging someone’s existence can sometimes make a small difference.

    • Thanks for commenting Andrea. It’s always good to get a US perspective – I’ve been horrified by the amount of homeless people in some of the cities I’ve visited over there (not that it hasn’t become shocking over here too).

  14. I have never read Break in the Sun but I really must look out a copy. Like Becky commented above, I remember reading the lyrics to She’s Leaving Home – but they were in a collection of poetry that included song lyrics – and being moved and distressed by what the song was actually about, and the heartbreak of the parents who were left behind. I’m afraid I can’t really add any book recommendations – I have been racking my brains trying to think of a book! However there is a really wonderful episode of Public Eye from 1965 called “The Morning Wasn’t So Hot” about young runaways from the country ending up in London – and falling into rings of call girls. It sounds lurid when I describe it like that, but as is typical of Public Eye it’s actually very nuanced.

    • Thanks for commenting Roisin. I’ll have to look out that episode.’She’s Leaving Home’ is such a moving song. It’s interesting as well that it’s more the parents you empathise with than the ‘she’ somehow.

  15. Really interesting post, Luce…it makes me want to read the book (possibly to my kids, though when they’re a bit older of course). If only you and I had shared books more as youngsters! (or, rather, you’d passed books my way).

    • I probably assumed you wouldn’t be interested. When I was about 11 you were mainly reading information books I think. When I’ve re-read my newly ordered copy I’ll let you know what I think – am hoping it hasn’t dated too much.

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