Every so often a book comes along which perfectly mirrors life in the society about which it is written. I am very sad to say that ‘Running on Empty’ does just that. Focussing on the timely issues of modern-day poverty and young carers, it sharply brings into view the pressures faced by children and their families who are struggling to cope, living hand to mouth just under the radar of social services.
AJ is struggling to make the transition from primary to secondary school, struggling without his beloved grandad to help keep his family on track and struggling to keep things at home running smoothly so social services don’t get involved. His parents have learning difficulties and don’t know what to do with bills and can’t fill in forms for school. Whilst trying to come to terms with his grief for his grandad, and cope with the start of a new term at school, AJ does what he does best – run.
Inspired by his grandad and his sporting hero, Usain Bolt, AJ is determined that he will keep on running – maybe one day he’ll be able to run on the track of the Olympic Stadium! The only problem is that he has outgrown his trainers and can’t afford to buy any new ones and he thinks school may be getting suspicious.
I am not ashamed to admit that some scenes made me shed a quiet tear as I thought of some of the children I know who are living in similar situations facing similar struggles. It is for reasons like this that S.E. Durrant’s book is so important, not only to raise awareness of the issues by also to allow all children to see their lives reflected in their reading material.
I had the privilege of asking author, SE Durrant about what motivated her to write a story that tackles the issue of modern-day poverty, and what research she had to do. Here’s her response:
I didn’t so much set out to write about modern-day poverty as find it crept into my story. I began Running on Empty thinking about how the world might appear to an eleven year old boy, AJ, whose parents have learning difficulties. I imagined he would be old for his years and a little weary of our, often unkind, world; in the event he is both these thingsbut he is also quirky, ambitious and relentlessly optimistic.
I set AJ’s story close to the Olympic Park in Newham, East London because I wanted him to be engaged with the world beyond his school and home life. His happiest memory iswatching Usain Bolt win the 100m at the 2012 Olympics with his grandad. His dream is to run round the Olympic stadium.
Newham is a diverse, working class area which has experienced rapid change, most recently following the Olympic Park regeneration. Nonetheless, according the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), over 40% of children in Newham live in households that struggle to pay for essentials. AJ’s family’s struggle to survive is a common story.
AJ’s mum works in a supermarket, his aunt is an accountant for a heating company and his uncle is a security guard at the Olympic Stadium yet none of them can aspire to buy a property, either in the new apartments springing up around them or in the rows of terraced houses they grew up in. AJ’s parents, with the help of grandad, have developed coping strategies: Dad grows veg in their tiny back garden, AJ doesn’t own a phone, purchases and bills are budgeted for. When AJ’s grandad dies unexpectedly, AJ tries to step into his shoes but flounders.
Writing this book, I thought a lot about how children find themselves labelled because of their circumstances. AJ is rich in talents and personality. He is caring, hardworking, responsible and a dedicated runner yet – because he can’t tell anyone his trainers don’t fit – he is in danger of being labelled as unreliable or worse.
Teachers at the National Education Union conference this month reported that the effects of child poverty are increasingly visible, with many children turning up at school malnourished. Children in low income households are often unable to participate in local events, school trips, play dates etc. Schools often try to try to offset the impact of poverty, for example, by providing breakfast. In AJ’s case, a teacher tries to help him out.
I think it is very important that children see themselves and each other reflected in the books they read, and that marginalised children from poor households see themselves as active players in their own stories. AJ’s family won’t find hidden treasure or a magic spell; nor will they inherit a large sum of money from a long-lost relative. Instead they will keep trying to manage on a day-to-day basis and AJ will continue to be their bright, resilient boy plugging on the best he can.
S E Durrant
Beautifully written, real, heart-breaking and full of hope. A thought-provoking choice for readers aged 9+