Tarred with a brittle brush

Understanding of the history of ideas about childhood informs this study of today's young people telling it like it is, argues Victoria Neumark

The story of childhood: Growing up in modern Britain

By Libby Brooks

Bloomsbury pound;8.99

In 2004 Friends of the Earth discovered that Tesco's Snack Pack of carrots for children cost 13 times the equivalent in their Value (cheapest) range.

In 2005, NCH, the children's charity, announced that their survey showed that 14 per cent of children had been bullied via text message. One in 10 children and young people suffers from mental illness at some time, a Home Office survey revealed in 2003. "Where is it now, the glory and the dream?"

asked the poet Wordsworth (1807, Ode: Intimations of Immortality), ruefully reflecting on the dimming of childhood's fresh vision by the stale usages of adult life. Good question.

Guardian journalist Libby Brooks, in a book that should be bedside reading for educators and legislators, surveys the terrain of modern childhood from its wilder ASBO shores to its pampered snooker-table-for-Christmas heartlands. She writes with crisp precision about policy issues, with tenderness about the lives of individual children, and with admirable succinctness about the history of ideas about children. Analysis of this history is so important, because it influences every "fact" and piece of "common sense" that we think we know: from whether or not a child is born with the mental blank slate (tabula rasa) on to which knowledge can be printed that philosopher John Locke declared in the 18th century, to whether or not art-show pictures of naked children arouse paedophiles (actually, the most widespread trigger is said to be children's clothing catalogues).

Libby Brooks uses a simple device on which to hang her exploration of current issues and views: she traces the lives of nine children over a year. The individuality of each is lovingly limned - a little girl picking up a big leaf, a teenage girl's careful make-up, a boy's bragging of his play-fight bruises - and their stories woven deftly into the wider picture.

There is Rosie, who lives in the country with her little sister and her parents and is just getting her new teeth. She's confident and lovable and her life prompts reflections about play and work-life balance.

She's a proficient player, one of those inventive children who make it clear that play is "children's work", as Montessori put it, but also a protected space for human development, as psychologist Erik Erikson affirmed. It's a privilege to dip into Rosie's life, and into the lives of Lois, a nearly-10-year-old whose mother is a photographer, and Adam, a six-year-old who doesn't watch television.

Others have more problematic childhoods. Majid is a refugee from Iraq, and his sense of dispossession and worry about his relatives fuels a strenuous relationship with the British social system. Lauren is a teenage mother, which ought to be a problem but actually isn't. And Nicholas has a high-achieving London family which seems to have squashed quite a lot of the life out of him, poor poppet, in the name of no-risk, fully-occupied, pre-networked attainment.

And then there are the ones where the alarm bells ring. Allana, mixed-race, from a single parent family on a council estate, with delayed speech.

Laura, self-harming, bulimic, several suicide attempts, alone in her new white bedroom. And Ashley, just getting by on the tough Peckham streets, wheeling and dealing and so outwardly tough at 15 that he can hardly crack a spontaneous smile, except when he talks of his wild dream of living in Barbados with his grandparents. To be financed by saving up from state benefits.

Ashley's story made me cry - the sheer human misery and waste of it, with his mum falling out of bed ill and his "friends" sharing their robberies with him and absolutely nothing to look forward to - whereas Rosie's made me laugh. She's going to have jelly and cake at her wedding, not dull old alcohol. And then there are some incidents which raise an eyebrow or two: Nicholas has some hilarious wriggling to do to explain why he turned in his friend for breaking a school rule.

As Libby Brooks says, explaining why she has felt qualified to write about children when she has none of her own: aren't they all our children? And if they are not; if they are ASBO'd and demonised and consigned to rubbish jobs and rubbish housing, or if they are locked up as precious little princesses whose only way to make contact with the real world is to slash their pretty little arms with razors; what on earth are we doing? Searching questions from a well-researched book, and ones to which Rosie has a good answer: "Without children this world would be dull; this world would be empty. Because everyone starts off as a child and without children there'd be no people."

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