life stuff / reading

Beef tea and a soothing hand on the brow: illness in children’s books

I’ve been ill. I might still be ill when this post goes up – or ill again. That’s how this winter has gone and I am totally fed up with it. Although I’ve been very healthy all my adult years (until recently) this takes me back to my childhood when I missed most of every winter at primary school. I had asthma, bronchitis and goodness knows what else and then every ordinary childhood bug seemed to hit me hard, too. My school photos – when I was actually there on the day – show a pale, undersized, gap-toothed child with huge dark bags under the eyes. The chest problems improved when I was about 8 or 9 but very bad hay fever took their place and I missed much of the summer term instead!

Probably thanks to my mum, I don’t remember much about actually being ill – apart from trying to avoid the vile-tasting medicines and tonics I had to take on a regular basis. What I do recall and put on my author bio is that ‘I spent a lot of time in bed reading – bliss!’

Also, as there wasn’t much on daytime television when I was young – horse-racing from Redcar, anyone? – I Iistened endlessly to the radio: plays, readings and the daily soaps.

Now that my bedroom and bathroom look like a chemist’s shop again and I’m aware that long-term illness is boring and frustrating as well as being painful and just plain yuk, I began thinking about the books I knew when I was little and how illness appeared in them.

On Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 there was always a serialised book (read aloud, not dramatised as now) and I will never forget one traumatic story that made a big impression. I’ve no idea what it was called or who it was by, but it concerned a girl who went swimming in a river on a summer’s day – and the next thing she knew was waking up in hospital trapped in an ‘iron lung’. The phrase ‘iron lung’ terrified me and I imagined a massive sarcophagus with someone paralysed inside it, just their head sticking out. Not far from the truth. The story’s narrator had caught polio (a water-borne disease) in the days before every baby was vaccinated, and her chest muscles became paralysed. An iron lung was revolutionary treatment at one time, enabling the patient to breathe. However, this is the only story I recall which dealt realistically with illness and the hard road to recovery.

polio-national museum of health and med

A boy in an iron lung – not looking too unhappy (maybe he’s just demonstrating it). The mirror was there to make it easier to communicate with other people.

The books I read myself and I can remember are children’s classics, set long ago – Clara in her wheelchair in Heidi, Colin and his weak legs in The Secret Garden, Katy and her accident in What Katy Did, Beth sweetly dying in Little Women. I might have glossed over the grim details but at this distance – and at the time – being an ‘invalid’ seemed rather romantic. Almost desirable. It mostly involved lying in bed and sipping ‘beef tea’ (whatever that was) while lots of female relatives and servants hovered about to smoothe your fevered brow. Then there might be a lovely long convalescence in a nice country place where helpful children gave you back the will to live.

Rather different from me lying on the settee with a hot water bottle, swallowing penicillin and cod liver oil, watching the racing from Redcar (!), while my mum did all the work. And she had to find a job she could go to in the evenings so that she was around to look after me in the day.

In my working life I’ve got to know lots of children who spend far more time than normal in hospital. For most families a hospital stay is a rare and dramatic episode – but some children are in and out for treatment and operations, plus frequent out-patient appointments and therapies. This is all part-and-parcel of their daily lives. I wish we saw more of this in children’s books – perhaps not making the child the hero because of their illness or disability but because for quite of lot of people this is just real life. I think we see a bit more of this in teen fiction now (The Fault In Our Stars, Wonder) but if anyone can point me towards contemporary books for a younger audience I’d be glad.

It’s not romantic being ill, it’s a pain in the butt, and no amount of beef tea – erm, chocolate – can counteract that.

21 thoughts on “Beef tea and a soothing hand on the brow: illness in children’s books

  1. I’m terribly sorry to hear that you’re ill! My family has come down with a flu/ whooping cough thing and have had it for a week now. And the bad thing is, I haven’t read anything and only briefly go online because I’ve had absolutely massive headaches and reading made them worse… Being sick is definitely not romantic- at all! 😦
    Loved your post, hope you get better soon!

    • Sorry to hear that, Hazel. Get well soon. Yes, it’s a bad time when you’re actually too ill to be able to read. Books are a great way of escaping, but another thing I find when really unwell is that a book that would normally catch my imagination just seems… bleugh… Like losing your appetite for food or going off coffee or tea (I did that recently – must have been poorly!) your appetite for books changes too. But it gets better again. Hurray.

  2. I hope you feel better asap. I know how you feel – this winter has been awful. I was ill in November for a week or so – then in bed for about 3 weeks February into March – and now have a cough again so am trying not to panic! Like you, I remember so many children’s books with illness – Joey Bettany of ‘The Chalet School’ was another poorly book worm heroine who became a writer. Let’s hope Spring and summer bring us back our bounce!

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