By Beverley Ward
Published by the Donor Conception Network
'Is nowhere a donor-conception free zone? asks the eponymous hero, 11-year-old Archie Nolan, as his quest to establish the meaning of 'family' in the context of donor conception leads him to ask more and more questions about origins, genetics and the intricacies of relationships in 21st century Britain. He is a product of donor IVF, aware of his origins yet reluctant to engage with its implications, fearing ridicule and misunderstanding from his peers.
When I became a lucky winner in the game of egg donor IVF in the late 1990s, I was determined to embrace both the prize (two wonderful children) and the responsibility (they would grow up knowing that they were not, biologically, related to me, and that an altruistic egg donor had made their existence possible). I would not, therefore, claim the right to fulfil my ambitions to be a parent through donor conception while rejecting the more problematic issue of disclosing the origins of the children's conception on the grounds of fear. I would not cherry pick the easy joys of parenthood while drawing a veil over other, more complicated truths, simply to spare myself a real or imagined heartache at some point in my children's development. And yet – where would I find the words? How soon should I begin the process of introducing these truths into my children's lives? With donor IVF comes much responsibility.
Early publications such as 'My Story' (still available from the Donor Conception Network under the revised title: 'Our Story') did the job of introducing a complicated concept engagingly. Although adapting its sweetly pared-down story about sperm donation to one of egg donation might have proved problematic, somehow, through comfortingly routine bedtime narrations, my toddler grew up to know how he had been conceived. Touchingly, it also lent a helping hand to do the same for his younger sister when she came along four years later. A few years on, when they were both old enough to read for themselves, I ran out of energy and imagination and trusted in the power of that first disclosure to inoculate us against accusations of concealment when the children reached those potentially rocky teenage years. Despite my seemingly open-minded approach, I clearly required something that would give my growing children an accessible scientific grounding as well as an acknowledgement of the potential insecurities they might feel.
It can feel overwhelming to try provide a medical and social overview, with more than a smattering of genetics and a helping of biochemistry, to a child who is already dealing with the many usual challenges of identity and growing up. Beverley Ward's 'Archie Nolan – Family Detective', commissioned by the Donor Conception Network, aims to address the lack of publications for older children. Essentially a detective story, it follows Archie's investigations into his own family tree, drawing on familiar elements from children's fiction – an extended, non-nuclear family; a mystery involving a vampire; adventures with school friends; a pesky swat of a sister, and so on. This establishes a clear link with a genre that is typified by a lively, irreverent diary-form narrative, a put-upon protagonist and, crucially, a sense of familiarity that enables children (who are already at ease with the 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' series) to feel comfortable with the design and illustrations in the story, produced here by Andy Archer and Spike Gerrell, respectively.
The first person narrator, Archie, is someone that many ten-year-olds can readily identify with. The diary format charts his adventures as he embarks on a school project to research his family tree. Along the way we meet his extended, loving family and his friends as Archie reluctantly conducts his research and overcomes his sense of being different. This, however, is no ordinary, slim volume of vignettes padded out with illustrations; it is densely narrated and packed with ideas, diagrams and formulae that explain in some detail the minutiae of IVF, with useful statistics and a glossary that stand alone as useful teaching resources.
The ambitious scope of 'Family Detective' makes it a somewhat challenging read. The sheer number of ideas, characters and complications might, at first glance, be dismissed as beyond the concentration span of the average ten- or 11-year-old. This is to fundamentally misunderstand the way most young children actually approach reading. As a teacher, I have always been struck by the attachment to a particular genre that young readers display. It is not unusual for an 11- or 12-year-old to read and re-read something several times, returning to a much-loved text or a particular chapter time and time again, finding new information or nuance on each occasion. It is in this context that 'Family Detective' should be understood.
Beverley Ward, in partnership with the Donor Conception Network, has created a much-needed resource that delivers an exciting adventure (set in comfortingly familiar surroundings) with an investigation into some of the challenging questions of identity and family relationships that are an inevitable aspect of donor conception. A child who has been given access to this book is, by definition, already on the path of discovery and acceptance. Nonetheless, this is a book that need not be limited in its appeal to donor conception families; a copy in every primary and secondary school library might go some way towards dispelling ignorance and prejudice around donor conception and promoting a broader understanding of what it is to be a family in the 21st century. This wider conversation would help Archie find the answer to the question: 'Is nowhere a donor conception- free zone?' The answer, increasingly, is – no, probably not.