Social worker Janice Hutton has been named a “reading hero” for her work with young people who have mental health problems. She talks to Anabel Unity Sale in the run up to International Children’s Book Day
Janice Hutton is a hero. A real one. To be precise, she is the proud recipient of a Reading Hero award from Reading For Life, the organisation running The 2008 National Year of Reading to celebrate reading in all its forms.
Hutton received the award for the innovative work she does to promote reading in her role as a social worker for Newcastle Council. She is based in the Roycroft Clinic, an adolescent forensic psychiatric unit for 12- to 18-year-olds with mental health problems, run by the Northumberland Tyne & Wear NHS Trust. The medium secure unit accommodates up to 25 young people sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
What makes this social worker’s story all the more remarkable is that she struggles with reading and was finally diagnosed as dyslexic a year ago, aged 45. As a child, her mother’s concerns were dismissed by teachers who said Hutton could not be dyslexic because she could read and write. “I read really slowly and always had to put a lot more work in than others when I was studying, and I still didn’t get fantastic marks,” she says.
Tested for dyslexia
She found out she was dyslexic by accident. One of her daughters had started university and her tutor thought she may be dyslexic and recommended she be tested. Hutton laughs when she recalls telling her daughter: “No, you’re just like me, a bit slow at reading and not very good at spelling.”
When her daughter was diagnosed as dyslexic Hutton decided to be tested and discovered she was too. “I wish I’d known earlier because, having done two Masters, a Diploma in Social Work and a Certificate of Qualification in Community and Youth Work, my life would have been so much easier.”
Despite finding reading difficult – “subtitles on foreign films go by too quickly” – Hutton says she has always been passionate about books and reading. She remembers spending much of her childhood losing herself in books: “I read an awful lot as a child because I am nosy and wanted to know everything. Reading a book means you can be anywhere and somewhere else at the same time.”
It was this passion that led her to introduce books into the work she does at Roycroft 18 months ago. Accommodated in the unit for up to three years, the young people there miss out on many ordinary activities. Hutton asked them what they wanted and some requested music books, so she contacted the local library and asked if they could supply Roycroft with them.
This led to two librarians from the library service visiting the unit, and the setting up of a book club one evening a month. Hutton wanted to make the library group as stimulating as possible so invited a string of local authors and poets to discuss their work with the young people. One of the most popular visitors was the children’s adventure writer – and another Reading Hero – Anthony Horowitz, last summer.
Encouraging young people to read and talk about books helps them broaden their horizons, build confidence, and develop their resilience and positive interests. “Social workers are interested in promoting resilience factors,” Hutton says. “Reading can promote positive attitude changes and help prevent people having narrow views of the world.”
The library group has been popular with the young people and, although it is voluntary, they all attend. Some have even taken up writing their own poetry. “The young people absolutely love book club, and I can’t walk anywhere in the unit without someone asking me when ‘the book women’ (the librarians) are coming back again.”
It meets in the evening because Hutton wants to separate it from the young people’s structured day. “This way it builds up relationships with young people, and this transfers into other ways of working with them on different issues,” she says.
It was the two librarians working with Hutton who secretly nominated her for the Reading Hero award. In February, Hutton attended an awards ceremony at 10 Downing Street, led by the prime minister’s wife Sarah Brown, where she received a medal for her work. “It was a massive honour to be acknowledged in this way and it made me feel really humble,” she says.
This article is published in the 2 April 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline The reader scoops a top award