Christopher Middleton meets Lauren Child, best-selling author of Charlie and Lola, and hears how she is working with Unesco to help street children around the world
At first sight, there don’t seem many similarities between Lauren Child and Pesky Rat, her fictional creation. She’s a smartly turned-out, internationally successful children’s author and illustrator, with a house in London’s Belsize Park; he’s the scrawny, faintly pongy hero of her newly republished story That Pesky Rat, address Dustbin Number 3, Grubby Alley.
There was a time, however, when the now best-seller author felt just as much of an outcast as her rodent friend.
"I was in my late 20s, getting nowhere in my career, and all of a sudden I had to move out of the room I was renting, because the woman who owned the house had to sell up," Child recalls. "From that point on, I was in a constant state of either house-sitting for friends or else sleeping on their floor. After a few months of that, my morale plummeted. You’re sitting there in your friends’ home, you hear their key in the door and you immediately leap up and start to make yourself busy tidying things away, or else try to make yourself as small as possible, so that they don’t feel you’re in the way. Which, of course, you are.
"Eventually, they start feeling guilty about wishing you weren’t there and you start to feel guilty about making them feel guilty. I know it’s not as dramatic as having to sleep out on the streets, but it is a sort of homelessness in its own way and it was a horrible time in my life. After all, I’d come out of art school fondly imagining I would be discovered and have my own studio in next to no time, yet here I was, years later, still no further on. And the worst thing is, when you’re in that kind of situation, always moving between friends’ houses, you’re unable even to think about the future - you’re just existing in the present."
It was this unhappy period in Child’s life that first inspired her to write That Pesky Rat, about an unloved and disregarded creature whose dream is to find a home and someone to look after him. And it was Pesky Rat, in turn, who led Child to the ramshackle back streets of Mexico City, and the extraordinary Renacimiento Children’s Shelter.
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Here, some 70 young orphans and runaways are introduced not just to reading, writing and breadmaking, but to love, care and a life away from the drug-ridden world outside.
"All the time we were there, we were told we shouldn’t walk out into the street on our own, not for one second," says Child, who recently went to the shelter to lead illustration classes with the children. "In the surrounding streets, there are all these tennis shoes hanging from wires, which is apparently the way drug-dealers leave signs for each other. The children who live at the shelter have all spent months, maybe years out on the street, where they get drawn into crime, drugs, prostitution - you name it. Most end up sniffing a revoltingly powerful solvent that kills them if they don’t stop.
"However, when they come into Renacimiento [Rebirth], they have to agree not to take or sell drugs, but to go to school each day and to take part in all the classes and activities at the shelter." One of those activities was a session with Child, in which she and the children spent several happy hours drawing characters from her TV cartoon, Charlie and Lola.
Though as English as you can get, this brother-and-sister double act is just as popular with impoverished street children in Mexico City as it is with well-to-do young boys and girls in Knightsbridge. The secret of its success is that the characters talk and sound like real children. Somehow their creator tunes in not only to the illogically logical thought patterns of a four-year-old girl (Lola loves swimming with whales in the bath), but also to their speech patterns ("I will not ever never eat a tomato").
"I don’t have children of my own," says Child, who is single, "but for some reason I have never forgotten what it feels like to be a child. I only have to get told off in a shop and I’m a seven-year-old girl again, powerless and mortified, absolutely not in control." Of course, it’s not everyday that the young Renacimiento residents get to work with famous foreign writers. Mostly, their instructors are tutors from the immediate neighbourhood, with a brief not so much to instil academic excellence as to pass on practical skills such as welding and baking, carpentry and computing.
It was the non-traditional nature of the education at Renacimiento that caught the attention of Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), under whose banner Child visited the shelter. "Your conventional Victorian model of learning, with neat rows of desks, just doesn’t work with kids like the ones at Renacimiento, who have fled from violent, unhappy homes and had to fend for themselves out on the streets," says Unesco’s Ben Faccini, who accompanied Child to Mexico.
"You have to approach education from a completely different angle, teaching skills that are relevant to these children’s lives but at the same time just happen to involve an element of reading, writing or arithmetic." And does this sideways-on approach work? Most definitely, says 19-year-old Carlos Ramirez Gomez, who came into the shelter when he was 13. "I left home at the age of 10 and lived for two years at the bus station," he says. "I took drugs, but not so many as to destroy myself. At the shelter, they give us the tools to build a worthwhile future. Now I am in my second semester doing computer studies. I hope one day to open my own cyber café and have a big family."
Again, not the same sort of story as Child’s. Far from being damaged by a traumatic home life, she and her two sisters had a happy upbringing in Wiltshire (her father was a much-respected art teacher at Marlborough College). "Nothing really bad happened to me, but at the same time, I got to the age of 29 and felt that I’d failed at absolutely everything I’d set out to do," says Child, 41. "A friend once said you can’t tell people how to change their lives - first they have to go to hell in their own way. And I rather think I did.
"Eventually, after about 10 months of feeling very wobbly, I finally came to the decision that instead of holding out for the perfect job or the perfect place to live, I was just going to take what was offered and see what happened. So when friends asked if I’d like to rent their tiny box room, I didn’t turn my nose up, I said yes. And when another friend told me about a job that was going as an assistant in an art studio, I didn’t say: ‘Oh no, it’ll stop me doing my own work’, I just applied for it and got it.’" (The artist involved turned out to be Damien Hirst.)
"So when someone else suggested I write a children’s book, because childhood seemed to be a recurring theme in my illustrations and my thinking, I thought: ‘Yes, I’ll try that; I might get an agent out of it.’" She then wrote and illustrated Clarice Bean, That’s Me, which not only got her an agent but launched an award-winning literary career, in which so far she has sold three million books in 19 countries.
"I’d always had confidence in my ability, thanks mainly to my father, who was very good at getting people to achieve more than they think possible," says Child. "But at art school I’d gone into a downward spiral, which continued for some years until suddenly, with my book, people started to value something about me again." It’s this experience of her own renacimiento that has prompted Child to throw herself into her Unesco work, which officially starts on Wednesday with the launch of My Life is a Story, a website and campaign fronted by Child (see end of article for details).
Not only are she and her publishers, Hachette, donating profits on the re-released That Pesky Rat to Unesco’s Programme for the Education of Children in Need, but Child is now visiting other projects that the programme funds.
She recently went to Mongolia to see a scheme aimed at rehousing the street children who are rounded up by the overwhelmed police. And she has just come back from Vietnam, where she visited an orphanage that has been amalgamated with an old people’s home. "The children get comfort and love, and the old people get a new focus for their lives."
There’s more. Over the past decade, Unesco’s Education of Children In Need programme has helped fund 336 projects in 92 countries, working not just with street children but also with former child soldiers in Mozambique, with Aids orphans in China and with young rubbish-scavengers in Cairo, who have been trained in recycling and now run waste-saving workshops for the staff of smart Red Sea hotels.
Again, rather than overtly inculcating the three Rs, the project leaders get the children to develop those skills almost subliminally, through the disciplines inherent in the non-textbook subjects they do teach, such as ballet (in Brazil), basketball (Benin) and circus skills (Mexico).
"We only support projects that are already up and running and can supply us with properly audited financial accounts," says the Unesco programme’s director, Françoise Pinzon-Gil. "And although we pay the teachers for the teaching, we never pay the salaries of the administrative staff, because we want them to put in place a structure that will enable them to continue when our funding stops [three years is the maximum period].
"Of course, we are working all the time to commend these projects to the governments of the countries in which they are based. In Mongolia, for example, the state has taken up our distance learning scheme for children in the Gobi Desert and expanded it across the whole country.
"In Laos, we created a portable bamboo school, which has 10 teachers and can be set up in remote areas, then dismantled after a few months and taken elsewhere. The government was so impresed it has now set up its own Department of Informal Education." Although it might seem a long way from the mountains of Laos and the back streets of Mexico City to the grassy lawns of Great Britain, Lauren Child believes that the distance is not as great as we might like to think. "What my experience in my 20s taught me is that so much of life is down to luck," she says.
"Through a not particularly dramatic or unlikely chain of events, I discovered the absence of the safety net that had always been there when I was a child.
"Luckily, I had friends who helped me, and who let me sleep on their floors. But I could all too easily see how, say, someone would go to London hoping to make it as a singer, say, and end up, just by lack of good luck, homeless and out on the streets.
‘In the past, I could never understand why people like that didn’t just do the logical thing and go back home to their parents. Then I found myself in that position. Yes, the logical move was for me to go back home to my parents in Wiltshire, yet I couldn’t even contemplate it: I was too old, too proud, it was a backward step, it was an admission of defeat - all that sort of thing.
"So I had a glimpse of what homelessness could be like, and I realised that, if it could happen to me, it could happen to any of us and any of our children, too." For a first-hand account of what life really does look like from the dustbin, who better to turn to than Pesky Rat himself?
"Sometimes," he says, "when I am tucked into my crisp packet, I look up at all the cosy windows and wonder what it would be like to live with creature comforts. To belong to somebody. To be an actual pet."
June 21, 2008
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