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Book Review: The Foster Child by Jenny Blackhurst

When child psychologist Imogen Reid takes on the case of 11-year-old Ellie Atkinson, she refuses to listen to warnings that the girl is dangerous.

Ellie was the only survivor of a fire that killed her family. Imogen is convinced she's just a sad and angry child struggling to cope with her loss.

But Ellie's foster parents and teachers are starting to fear her. When she gets upset, bad things seem to happen. And as Imogen gets closer to Ellie, she may be putting herself in danger...

I was initially attracted to this book as I am increasingly enjoying reading thriller and suspense novels for self-care and some ‘me’ time with a good book. However as a social worker currently working in fostering, I was also intrigued professionally as to how a fiction novel would portray foster care. There are many authors currently writing real life accounts of fostering practice and personal experiences of care, but I’d not come across a fictional account.

However as I read I discovered that the book is equally focused on Imogen, a counsellor working for Place2be after moving back to her home town and leaving a job in a private child psychology practice ‘under a cloud’ (no spoilers). I then began to swap between my counselling ‘hat’ and social work ‘hat’ as I read.

This book is about human nature and the assumptions and prepositions that we all make, both in our day to day actions and beliefs in life. The characters are vivid and imposing, and their personalities are strong and forceful. But the book makes you question what is real? And takes you to the limit to question your own (rational) beliefs and the assumptions we hold.

Loss and fear are interwoven as central themes for all the characters. Ellie has experienced the loss of her family, but equally Sarah (her foster carer) and Mary (her older foster sister) are struggling with their own understanding of Ellie’s loss alongside their own experiences, which ensures a balance of compassion and fear in the family dynamics. This is often an unspoken aspect of fostering in the written word, but something that the author has captured well.

As a counsellor I was intrigued by Imogen, and how her past issues were impacting on her decisions and actions, and another aspect of the reality /belief question the book opens up. It enabled me to reflect on what I may do in this situation, and the importance of a safe space for supervision and reflection. Could I have brought what Imogen was thinking to supervision?

A conversation with the author

I had many questions after reading this book and I was delighted to be able to put some of these to the author Jenny Blackhurst (answers edited to remove spoilers):

How did the idea for the book come about?

JB: “I wanted to write about the idea of good and evil, and whether someone’s views on this could be swayed by mass hysteria /mob mentality. I wanted to explore how reasonable people (Imogen) could be pushed to believe unreasonable accusation in the face of personal trauma. I find that many people who are searching for answers or someone to blame for traumatic events would be pushed to believe things they otherwise wouldn’t”

What is your background? I’m curious how the title for the book came about?

JB “I have a Bcs Psychology and Msc in Occupational Psychology, which is why my interests lie in the psychology of behaviour. Although the book is called The Foster Child, the fact that Ellie is in foster care is really a very small part of the story and mainly to emphasise the feelings of loss and not belonging”

The book is sinister in places, and there were chapters I had to skim read.

Where did the sinister angle come from? Do you think it is detrimental to children in the care system or would put people off fostering?

JB “The sinister angle of the story grew organically. It was always supposed to be about the dark side of human nature but I would really hope that it would have the opposite effect than the one you describe – anyone worthy of the role of foster carer who reads this book would (I hope) realise there were no real villains in the story. Each person has their own struggles and their own reasons for behaving the way they did and it says much less about the care system as a whole than it does about our tiny decisions and actions and the way they affect others”

Finally, I’m curious about the choice of Place2be as Imogen’s employer? And wondering if the general reader would understand this role/organisation?

JB “Yes, Imogen’s details were changed in the third draft of the book, and in the ebook versions, from a charity to a public sector job, drawing on some of my own experiences of working in government."

I would recommend this book for counsellors, therapists, teachers, social workers; in fact anyone who works professionally with children and young people. The content and themes in the book enable reflection and discussion, pondering the question “what would I do in that situation?” The book crosses the boundaries of accepted thoughts, and is both leisure time reading and useful for CPD discussion. The book is described as a ‘sleep with the lights on thriller’ and, for me, it certainly wasn’t bedtime reading.

If I could make one change, I would change the title to “The School Counsellor” or “The Child Psychologist”, so the focus is on the adult in the story, rather than the foster child. I appreciate that the care system was a secondary part of the book and this enabled themes of loss, acceptance and belonging, but this can be equally achieved with less focus (and for some there may be blame) on the child.

I am glad I bought and read this book and would wholly recommend it. I have learnt much about how I think and make assumptions, as well as reflecting on my professional practice.

With thanks to Jenny for answering my questions.

The Foster Child is available from most good bookstores and here at Amazon

Author's Bio


Lynn Findlay is a counsellor in training at The Academy SPACE in Sheffield, with an interest in running therapy. She is also a social worker for The Foster Care Cooperative delivering training on fostering issues. You can contact Lynn via Twitter

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