Bullying, EBSA and school anxiety are tackled head on in Simon Packham’s heart-warming novel for middle-grade readers

Words: Libby Norman

Simon Packham didn’t have to stray too far from personal experience for Worrybot, his new novel for the 9+ age group. At around age 12, he pulled off the considerable feat of avoiding school for a whole term by feigning illness. This was particularly impressive acting, considering his mother was a trained nurse.

“The thing that brought me back – well I admitted what had happened – was I ended up in hospital having these tests. I suddenly felt guilty taking up a hospital bed,” he says. “I had to come clean and say what was happening at school.” With the wisdom of adulthood, Packham can marvel at how he clung to that time-honoured childhood code of silence about his big problem – bullying had made his school life a misery. “I’m certain my parents would have been sympathetic if I’d said anything, but it was a horrible secret I kept to myself.”

The young Simon Packham who played invalid so convincingly went on to become a successful actor, working for some 25 years on stage, film and TV (alongside the likes of Ben Elton and Judi Dench) before turning to writing in 2008. His books for young adults and children have earned him a reputation for tackling important themes with sensitivity and depth. In Worrybot he explores topical areas of concern for all parents and educators – anxiety, school avoidance, bullying.

“There’s also a super-clever twist in this tale that encourages young readers to recognise both bullied and bully as victims”

As a parent, he watched one of his daughters grow up managing anxiety and panic attacks and this – with her blessing – is the central theme. Josh, our protagonist, has a happy and loving home life. He has managed to control his anxiety with family and outside support, and a homemade cardboard robot with a slot where worries get posted. But when the family relocate for his mother’s job the anxieties flood back, and in his new school he is picked on by class bully Noah.

Unexpected support and friendship come in the shape of a real AI device – a ‘learning robot’ that enables a girl called Charlie to be in the classroom virtually. Josh and Charlie form a close bond because she empathises with his fears. Josh grows in strength and has the courage to return to the stage (stage fright was one of the triggers of his earlier troubles). That star performance in the school play with the real – not virtual – Charlie is a triumph and a turning point for both children.

There’s a super-clever and unexpected twist in this tale that encourages young readers to recognise both bullied and bully as different kinds of victim. Packham felt this was important. “For a long time, all I had was feelings of hate towards the bullies in my school but gradually, being a parent and getting older, I’ve realised that bullies aren’t very happy generally,” he says. “I think that was one reason one of the boys picked on me – I obviously had a happier home life than he did.”

While this is a complex and nuanced plotline, there is a satisfyingly old-school comeuppance for Noah. Packham’s editor was especially keen to see justice served. The character was fun to draw and specialises in a type of banter nearly all children and adults will recognise. “He reminds me of many of the bullies at school – not particularly the ones who bullied me, but some of the others. There’s certainly humour, if unpleasant, in his bullying,” says Packham.

Bullying, EBSA and school anxiety are tackled head on in Simon Packham's heart-warming new novel for middle-grade readers
The worrybot of the title is a place where our hero used to post his worries. Illustration above and top: Lucy Mulligan

The robots (cardboard and AI) were what inspired the storyline and play a vital role – both in the title and through the narrative. Charlie has no physical characteristics other than robot animation and her disembodied voice for most of the book – it’s a great moment when she finally appears in flesh and blood form. Meanwhile, Josh’s tattered cardboard bot stands as an enduring reminder of bad times behind.

There is one especially poignant moment when Josh retrieves his worrybot from under the bed, dusts it off and rereads those worries he’d posted through its cardboard mouth – a great takeaway for any reader going through bad times. This is a point well understood by an author who still vividly recalls his own dark moments of childhood and empathises with children living through them now. “All those things you worried about,” he says. “None of the things you worried about were actually worth worrying about.”

Robot stories – Simon Packham's timely tale about tackling anxiety

* Worrybot by Simon Packham, with illustrations by Lucy Mulligan (UCLan Publishing, £7.99).

Further reading: School refusal – understanding EBSA