And Then There was Light; Capturing the untold story of  children living without…

Early every morning, Oman and his family haul empty water jugs to the town square in el Raval (a neighbourhood in Barcelona, Spain), trying to reach the fountain and return before neighbours figure out the reason for their morning treks. They don’t have running water at home.

Irina describes how her mother flips light switches on and off or twists faucets at the sink throughout the day. She says she doesn’t understand why her mother does this but knows something is wrong.

Shot of mother reading a bedtime story with her daughter at bedtime

Sophia spends long nights in darkness and fear, and notices that her older brother never finishes his homework. Without electricity, they have no way to keep scary shadows at bay or the pages of a math textbook well-lit.

And Then There Was Light is an eye-opening collection of such stories that capture how children experience energy poverty – an abstract concept that is hard for many grown-ups to grasp.The idea for the storybook came about in a meeting of La Alianza contra la Pobreza Energétic  (APE / Alliance Against Energy Poverty). It is also a key output of research conducted by Irene González-Pijuan, PhD candidate at Sheffield Hallam University (UK) with the help of an ‘Energy Poverty in Early Career’ (EPEC) grant from the Fuel Poverty Research Network (FPRN).

In a forthcoming academic paper, González-Pijuan will highlight both findings and methods for others to give a voice to this particularly vulnerable group. Importantly, the book can help parents find ways to talk with their children about their situation while also showing that others face similar difficulties.  

The challenge of getting a child’s perspective

González-Pijuan, a former high school teacher who subsequently joined the APE in Barcelona, recognised early on that research on energy poverty had a gaping hole: little work was being done on children, arguably the most vulnerable group. With the APE, she carried out research to understand how lack of access to energy affects their health, well-being, educational attainment and social interactions.  With the work based primarily on policy reviews and interviews with policymakers, González-Pijuan knew a key piece was missing. “I couldn’t manage to get the children’s perspective and I felt that was something I had to do,” she says.

The desire to fill that gap prompted González-Pijuan to pursue a PhD programme. With extra funding from the FRPN EPEC grant, she was able to add the element of carrying out research based on direct interaction with children in the Canada Real and Raval neighborhoods in Spain, the former of which is home to 1 120 minors. Since October 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, families living here have had their electricity supply cut off by the main energy company, Naturgy. Hence, no light to read or do homework at night, no electric heat, and difficulties accessing hot running water. From the outset, she knew she would face several challenges. 

“You can’t just go into these classrooms and homes and ask 7- and 8-year-olds ‘What’s energy poverty from your point of view?’,” says González-Pijuan. “Because they’re not going to answer.”

Children's workshop
González-Pijuan worked closely with the educators and colleagues from the APE to encourage children to talk about their experiences.

Rather, to get children to describe their situations – and express their thoughts and feelings – González-Pijuan and her team had to get creative. Drawing inspiration from Clark and Moss’s multi-method mosaic approach to learning, they developed  diverse workshops, allowing children to draw, do handcrafts, play with Playmobil or use theater and interviews.

“I wanted to provide different art space perspectives … so that they could feel comfortable in one of them and express their view,” says Gonzalez-Pijuan. Early on, she realised she would also have to adapt her own expectations “because [the children] are not going to make complicated and philosophical reflections on energy poverty.”  

Children's workshop
Simulating some of the experiences of energy poverty during workshops prompted children to speak openly.

Also instrumental in capturing the children’s perspectives were the group of mothers González-Pijuan enlisted to collaborate on creation of the book. The book was written in a collective way so as to highlight the day-to-day lives of these women and their children living in energy poverty. 

Interactions inspire illustrations, which inspire more interactions

Quickly, it became clear that the lived experience of these children was a rich resource on several levels.

Drawing from children's workshop
Drawings made by 7-year-old children reflect how they express the difference between light and darkness.
Drawing from children's workshop

Knowing the importance of children ‘seeing themselves’ in picture books, González-Pijuan and her team recognised an exceptional opportunity to work with the stories and information they had collected. They connected with  Ivonne Navarro, a Spanish-born illustrator, whose work reflected their desire to “to avoid a very childish drawing…the very round and very fairytale style.” Finding Navarro’s drawings to be sharp but also “shiny and fun,” they felt her style would balance the seriousness of the topic without losing the light-hearted nature of a child’s picture book.

The picture book fills another gap González-Pijuan and her team uncovered: the hesitation to talk about ‘the elephant in the room’. Often, parents go to great effort to protect their children from bad news – and will sacrifice a great deal to meet their children’s basic needs.

“We saw that there are many families that don’t talk about it because they want it to go away,” says González-Pijuan. “The thing is that when you don’t talk about something, it’s still there and still affecting the children.”

The picture book has created a means for parents to engage with their children and better understand how the situation is affecting them. In turn, as children consider and express their thoughts and feelings – and ‘see’ the stories of others from diverse backgrounds – they feel ‘part of a community’ and less alone.

Shot of mother reading a bedtime story with her daughter at bedtime
And Then There was Light’ can help parents engage in open dialogue about how lack of energy is affecting their daily lives, including their health and well-being.

González-Pijuan also found that the early experience of energy poverty has profound impacts as children grow into adolescence. 

“They [the government] don’t care about us having light or energy,” says a 16-year-old boy living in La Canada Real. “Like we’re not citizens. We can’t study or do normal things and they don’t care.”  

A vital aspect of the picture book, says González-Pijuan, is that it shows children it is “OK to express what’s going on in their heads – or that even when they don’t understand, they can begin to try.” Ultimately, she hopes the picture book will help such children begin to understand their own lives in relation to societal issues and, rather than viewing themselves only as ‘discarded victims’ of unjust systems, become advocates for change as they mature into adulthood. 

Across Europe, different sources estimate that between 36 and 100 million families [1] are living in energy poverty, with children and teens making up a large share. With the current energy crisis and prices skyrocketing, the number is expected to grow this winter. The research methodology being developed by González-Pijuan will create an exceptional opportunity for other researchers to implement similar practices to investigate how children experience energy poverty in different contexts.

The work of González-Pijuan in collecting and sharing the first-hand accounts of children in Spain provides crucial, and previously absent, perspectives on personal impacts and the ‘ripple effects’ energy poverty has on communities. It also demonstrates why children’s voices need to be taken seriously in the fight for energy justice.

How electricity really can change everything

When interviewing a mother of five children, González-Pijuan gained additional insights into how different daily life is for the energy poor.

On one level, taking her family for a day of running and playing at the wide-open beach is the antithesis of the cold, dark living room they all crowd into at night. For a few hours, her children forget their nighttime fears and easily feel they are just like all the other kids.

Portrait of a happy little boy splashed by wave on the beach.
In a seaside city like Barcelona, a day at the beach can serve as a discreet way to get kids bathed.

But while other women might bask in time at the beach to relax, read a book and work on a tan, this mother wracks her brain for ways to pay overdue electricity bills. At some point, she’ll join her kids in the water, making sure they all use the chance to bathe – thus avoiding disapproving stares that come from using bathroom sinks in gas stations or grocery stores. 

After months of living without electricity, the APE was able to help this family get their connection restored. Again, a child’s perspective was surprising, says González-Pijuan, “Her daughter said that her mother was a hero … because she brought the beach [i.e the light and water] home.”

Close up of woman's hand filling the water bottle from a fountain.


Kate Denhart wrote a series of three blogs about the work of FPRN EPEC grantees while completing an internship with The Energy Action Project (EnAct) in Summer 2022.

Irene Gonzalez’s Children’s fight against energy poverty project was funded by the FPRN’s Energy Poverty in Early Career programme.