Maketime for kids

As Benji Bennett marks the 10th anniversary of ‘Before You Sleep’, he continues to deliver a powerful message, writes Áilín Quinlan.

I came away from a conversation with Benji Bennett with a lump in my throat.

Bennett has been writing children’s books since the shocking sudden death of his four-year-old son Adam from a brain tumour in August 2007.

The loss inspired the then-Vodafone employee to write and self-publish an award-winning picture book, Before You Sleep.

That book became two and then three, and has now grown into nine children’s books, all of them centred around what Bennett calls ‘Adam’s message.’ This message, presented in various ways in the books, is that parents should always, no matter what, make time for family and children.

This year Bennett, who left Vodafone to write full-time in 2009, celebrates the 10th anniversary of the resounding success of Before You Sleep.

It won Book of the Year at the Irish Children’s Book Awards in 2009, out-sold The Gruffalo in Ireland in 2009 and 2010, and has since sold more than 250,000 copies.

In all, Bennett’s books have received five nominations and he has won two Irish Children’s Book Awards, the second in 2013 for When You Were Born. And although the nine books have between them sold more than 500,000 copies, Before You Sleep is still the most popular.

“Adam’s message is hugely important to me, and it has allowed me to make sense of why Adam left,” Bennett says. “When I visit schools, sometimes little kids ask me why Adam died.” He tells them that “Adam is a very special boy and a little angel.

“He came to earth and looked around and saw that some children were not having enough time with their family, and he saw that not all children are loved.

He felt sad about this, and he was only four, so he had to go up to the magic cloud in heaven and inspire people to change.

“He chose me to do this so I try to inspire people to spend time with family, love them, mind them and put family first.”

Adam is the middle of Bennett’s three sons. The nightmare began during a trip to the family mobile home in Brittas Bay on a summer weekend in 2007, which was also the weekend of Benji’s 37th birthday. Adam started to complain of a headache and when it didn’t go away and appeared to worsen, he was brought to the doctor on the Sunday.

However, as things escalated and after he became increasingly unwell and began to vomit, his parents brought him to hospital the following morning.

In hospital, recalls Benett, Adam vomited again:

“I lifted him up — he went rigid. He’d had a massive seizure and then he went limp in my arms.”

Adam was put on life-support and given a scan. It later emerged the little boy had, says Bennett, “a brain tumour the size of a tennis ball:” “It bled and that was what was causing the headaches. He was actually gone at that point, but his body was kept alive, his heart was beating but there was no hope for him.”

Looking back now, he believes the only reason he and his wife Jackie survived the loss of Adam was because, “thank God, we spent time with him”.

“I got out there with him and had the chats and the hugs and kicked the ball and went to the cinema.”

Spend time with your children, he advises, adding that he urges parents to imagine a big heart in the middle of their family:

“Around that heart stand the mums and dads and the children.”

Everybody in the family has to make that heart grow by putting something of themselves into it, he explains: “We could do things which are just for me— play golf, watch the match — but what I’m saying is that, maybe, if I went for a walk with the family instead, this would be to everyone’s benefit.

That’s my thing and I know it works because I do it in our own life. Jackie and I are happy, the kids are happy and we all have to put into the heart— it’s not just about mum and dad. The children have to be involved in this as well.

This way he says, children learn that they’e part of the family. “Go for a walk with your children; spend 10 minutes reading to them at night, chat to them; don’t stick them in front of a computer.

“If they’re in front of a screen ensure they’re on the device in your presence and not in a room on their own.

“That’s my message from every fibre of my being to every parent.

“Adam has inspired this message; it’s a celestial message. It’s from up in the clouds, and I’m passionate about passing on this message in a very subtle way.” Bennett still self-publishes from his home in Stillorgan, though he and Jackie now have what he calls “a proper publishing business,” Adams Cloud Ltd, but they “keep it simple,” he says:

“ Jackie and I work in the business; how we run our life is family first, life first. We work very hard on the business and we’re always working on it but not to the detriment of our family.” Being self-published means Bennett is responsible for the distribution of his books, and, while they’re available for purchase online at adamscloud.com, he enjoys getting out there and selling directly to his customers:

“I go to shows like the RDS, the National Ploughing Championships and Bloom.

“I put books into the boot of my car and get the boat to the UK to attend similar events there, and I stand there and spread Adam’s message about families spending time together and making time for each other.”

He’d never have had either the self-confidence or the ambition to do this he says, if it wasn’t for his readers: “I couldn’t do this if I didn’t have people writing the things they have written to me, or coming to my bookstall to talk to me.”

People like to explain, he says, how Adam’s message has changed the way they view life, and to discuss the emotionally bonding experience they have with their children when they’re reading the books to them. “They say to me ‘you’ve no idea of the work you are doing’, and ‘you’ve changed the direction of my life and my outlook on things’.

“For me that means that that person’s child or children has a better chance of being happy because these parents are buying into Adam’s message.”

Do it while the children are young, he says — transmit the messages about good things like taking exercise, communicating with one another and showing love and respect for everyone in the family: “I believe that up to the age of four or five is when everything happens; when their personalities are being made.

“I’m a big believer that if you get the years up to four or five right, that’s the recipe for creating happiness in a child.

“It’s hard work to always think about what’s better for the family rather than ‘me’ as an individual,” confesses Bennett, who is also father to Harry (18), Robbie (12) and Molly (10), who was born 10 months after Adam’s death. However, he says:

“I find when I work at making it better for the family it’s better all round; less stress, no hassle and we are all operating from the same rulebook.”

He’s no parenting coach, he acknowledges, but he believes that it is in the early years that you “set down the family rules and the family brand.”

“I say ‘yes’ to my kids a lot and I say ‘no’ to my kids a lot,” he says, adding that when it comes to family first, children must also be expected to “give something into the heart.” “The message runs through the books, about love, happiness, kindness and friendship.

“People often think that Before You Sleep is about me and Adam but it’s really about expressing how to love a child.” It’s about explaining to the child that you love him or her even more than the lovely adventures you have together, like Christmas and Halloween and a great day on the beach.

I’m a big believer that the relationship happens from the day a child is born.

“They’re absorbing everything. If you can match a happy warm feeling with every time a connection is made in the brain, it gets locked into the brain.

“A lot of parents don’t necessarily know this because nobody’s told them about the importance of it – but it’s a belief and a theory and a philosophy which runs through all of my books in various forms.”

As of now he doesn’t want to distribute his books on tech devices: “I feel when you read a book to a child, it’s about the parent’s voice, the beating of the heart as the child sits on your lap, the warmth of your embrace as you have your arms around them.

“They engage with you. That’s the warmth of a real book in your hands - tech is cold. There’s no emotion; it is an inanimate object which works through images and sound.”

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