When I met Diana Batchelor three years ago, at a conference about working with young people, she was on a journey. It was a journey that in the end was five years in the making. Diana had a mission to tell a story, a story that would help young people and their parents and carers, understand and move beyond the effects of crime. Like all good quests there have been challenges along the way but her story has a happy ending as her plan finally came to fruition last year when her book “Whose Been In Our Tree?” was published.
Diana spent several years consulting with practitioners and experts to get the message of the book just right. I remember being impressed by her vision and drive to get this done when I read an early version of the book three years ago. Things then seemed to go quiet for a while, but these things can happen when trying to publish a book, and last year I was delighted to hear that the finished book was on its way.
When I got my hands on a copy it was as I remembered; a vibrant, funny and very insightful look into how we feel after a burglary. It also helps us to understand universal feelings of anxiety and worry giving the book a wide range of applications, not just burglary. One of the most appealing aspects of the book for me is that it also contains a section at the back with activities and advice for parents, and things you can do together. This encourages the idea that it’s OK to be scared and even more importantly that as a parent it is OK to show that even adults are affected by these things. This helps to normalise the feelings and can often re-assure a young person. It is very easy to fall into the trap of telling young people that everything is going to be alright and the police will definitely catch the baddies (portrayed sensitively in the book as silhouette outlines of people, not a specific type of creature), but sadly this is not always the case. So we have to find a way to communicate with children. This is what “Who’s Been in Our Tree?”, does brilliantly.
The book was published with the support of a charity called Victim Support and as always I became curious as to the authors’ motivation for completing this work, so I dusted off my Filofax and reached for Diana’s email address to see if we could arrange an interview, happily she agreed and here is what she had to say –
What is your work background? Have you always worked with young people?
I have always worked in criminal justice, with both victims and offenders. I have had a few different jobs working with young people, from supervising young offenders’ community service (reparation) to supporting young victims of all types of crime.
What made you want to write a children’s book aimed at those who have experienced burglary?
When I was working with Victim Support I helped a family who had been burgled. Their young son was having nightmares and difficulty sleeping. The family asked whether there was a story book that could help him understand what happened and feel safe again. As burglary is so common, and because we know it affects so many children, I was sure that there would already be such a thing! I looked everywhere, but was disappointed. It was then that I started thinking about writing one.
How long was the process from first coming up with the idea to having the finished book in your hands?
It was a very long process! I spent a long time checking that it didn’t already exist, and then at first I thought I would draft something but get someone else to write and illustrate it – as I’ve never written a book before. However, as time went on and I got some positive feedback on my ideas and sketches, I gradually started to think that I might be able to write it myself. Victim Support agreed to help, so then we spent some time getting more feedback (including from children) and making it really child-friendly. The publication process also took a long time, and so from beginning to end the whole thing was almost five years!
What was your inspiration for the characters and the gorgeous illustrations?
The main thing I wanted to do was reassure children that a range of different responses to shock and trauma is quite normal. I had met many children and parents who were affected by a crime, and who then seemed to be suffering additional worry because they thought their reactions were embarrassing or unnatural. I also wanted children to be able to identify with all of the characters, so for example I didn’t want some to be adults and others children, and I didn’t want them to be from a specific ethnicity or family background. A few animals living together seemed the best way to make the characters accessible to all readers.
I’ve always loved drawing and for some reason I really liked hedgehogs when I was a child. A woodland scenario gave me an excuse to go back to drawing hedgehogs, which I’d probably last done at about the age of 10! I also know that a hedgehog’s response to trauma is something children and adults alike can relate to – we all know that feeling of wanting to curl up into a ball.
Are you planning any more books, maybe a series with these characters? Exploring different issues like bullying?
I’m thinking about it! As I say, this one took an extremely long time to come to fruition so I’m going to let it settle for a while. Having said that, I do have some ideas for possible sequels – focusing on hate crime, witnessing domestic violence and also restorative justice. It’s not quite as daunting now that I’ve seen one through to the finished product – but we’ll have to see!
The book has been done in partnership with the charity Victim Support, how did you get involved with them?
I started working for Victim Support in 2012, as a Children and Young People’s Worker. I worked on “Who’s Been in Our Tree?” in my own time, as book writing and illustration were sadly not in the job description! However, when I later approached the You & Co team with the idea, they were extremely supportive. They agreed to pre-order 1000 copies of the book, which covered the cost of the publication process. Now they have plenty of copies to give out to families that need it. But it also means that parents who might be searching for something to help their children will also be able to find and buy it online.
“I think the most important thing is to listen to children.” Diana Batchelor
What advice would you give to parents whose child has had a traumatic experience?
I think the most important thing is to listen to children. They might be having tummy aches or nightmares, and not realise what is going on. Helping them voice their fears or frustrations can make such a difference. They need reassurance that it is okay – it’s normal – to feel a bit strange after something traumatic has happened. They may need encouragement to build a good support network and let their feelings out – whether that’s through talking, drawing, music, sports or some other way.
Sadly, we know that teachers and other professionals are currently under-resourced when it comes to children’s mental health, and we are seeing some shocking figures in the news on the rising prevalence of mental illness even among very young children. It is absolutely key that we build skills for emotional wellbeing and resilience early in life. I hope that this book will play one tiny part in that process. Whether a child has experienced a serious trauma or something relatively minor, it’s never too early to help them understand their own reactions, learn to let their feelings out, build a support network and identify healthy ways of coping that suit them best.
“Fox, Badger, Hedgehog and Squirrel discover that someone has burgled their tree, and some strange things are starting to happen. Badger can’t sleep, Hedgehog is shouting at everyone, Squirrel is jumpy and Fox won’t go anywhere on his own. While the birds are off looking for the burglars, Fox has an idea and each one of them makes a plan…
Who’s Been In Our Tree? includes quirky, full-colour illustrations and integrated support materials, enabling children to think about their own experiences and deal with the effects of the crime. It provides guidance to parents or support workers wanting to help children start on the road to recovery. The support materials incorporate the illustrations, resulting in a seamless experience consistent with the engaging, child-friendly nature of the main story.”
For more information or to buy a copy of this book follow the links –
You & Co – Victim Support’s Youth Programme