The Importance of Reading to Children and to Society

I didn’t exactly remember what I’d come for. I am so forgetful, and when the lady in the Scottish Parliament asked what I was there for, I mumbled something about books and reading. I mean, I didn’t know how specific she wanted me to be. It was enough. It separated us from the normal tourists, and she sent us to wait over by the letter D.

Theresa Breslin had suggested we come to hear her on a panel organised by the Carnegie Trust. Other participants were Annie Mauger for the Carnegie Kate Greenaway awards, Miranda McKearney from the Reading Agency and Marc Lambert from the Scottish Book Trust.

I was surprised to find the parliamentary chairs so tightly packed. You need to be friendly with whoever sits next to you. And I’d have liked an elevator to get up there. Daughter was disappointed that she couldn’t vote without a card. Not that there was a vote, but still.

The discussion was chaired by former Biggles fan, Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, John Scott MSP. He gave the four guests ten minutes each to speak, and Theresa went first, starting with a most impressive Scots poem(?), waving her tartan scarf around to signify who was saying what. It seems she was brought up on this kind of thing, so it’s hardly surprising she went on to become a librarian and an author, despite having to be interviewed by the dragon librarian before she was allowed to borrow books as a child.

She told us about the two books that were the most important to the young Theresa, and went on to describe how she wrote Alligator with the help of some school children. Only a numptie would buy an alligator, apparently.

Miranda spoke about how shocking it is with disadvantaged children who don’t read. She wants reading to have a wider role in children’s lives, and mentioned how well it deals with stress. There is bibliotherapy for mental illnesses, and she seemed to advocate doctors who would prescribe reading.

The Reading Agency has a Story Lab, and it offers the Summer Reading Challenge. She had a lot of quotes from successful cases, and I especially liked the child who said that reading is like going on holiday, but without having to pack.

Next Marc talked about the costs of illiteracy. One billion pounds every year, which sort of makes you wonder why no one does anything about it. Prisons are full of people who can’t read, and too many children’s bedrooms have televisions in them. Few Scottish teenagers read for pleasure.

He compared things here with how it is in Finland, pointing out that teachers there have less teaching time per week, so have more time to arrange their work. It is a prestigious job to have, and the children don’t start reading until they are seven. All this helps.

Annie – who is not a dragon – works with the Carnegie Trust. She had been to a conference in Helsinki (Finland, again), where she had talked to delegates from Nepal. There people put small change into piggybanks, with the money eventually being used to build simple libraries. And South Korea is building 180 libraries. (Did you hear that? 180 libraries!)

‘A literate society’ helps you move forward. (Now, what does that make me think about this country?) It’s important to find the right book for the right child. The shadowing programme for the Carnegie/Greenaway prizes involves a lot of schools, and provides an online discussion forum where silent children can take part, chatting about books.

The Biggles fan remarked that as a new grandfather he sees his daughter reading to her six-month-old baby. But for those who aren’t that lucky, one participant mentioned how you can teach parents to read to their children, including how to hold the book and how to turn the pages.

One important question is how to make reading cool. Theresa favours inviting authors into schools. Someone suggested free online reading for first chapters, and then, once people are hooked, you charge. When money has to be saved, the choice is often between books and sports. Usually sports wins.

Several people in the audience spoke passionately on the subject of reading, and one politician who was present ended up answering questions. We could have gone on and on. But we didn’t, because there were more places to go and more things to do for all of us.

And back in Charlotte Square, I couldn’t help noticing that the children there are the complete opposite to the disadvantaged non-readers we’d just heard about. It makes you think.

Library Cuts doodle

Someone next to me found inspiration for this doodle during the debate… Wonder who she had in mind?

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14 responses to “The Importance of Reading to Children and to Society

  1. I was just thinking. Never mind making reading cool. You need to introduce the concept, first.
    So, get it onto those television sets in the bedrooms (or the computers). Make people on the screens read. Read often, make it look natural. And desirable. We copy what we see. Because surely that is why young people now want to do what they see on television?
    Think of the child who sees adults read. They will sit down with their upside down book and copy.
    So, change what you see on the box.

  2. There is definitely a certain type of parent who takes their child to the Edinburgh Book Festival! The WORD festival in Aberdeen used to make all children’s events free, then they started charging, now, it seems they are not even doing the WORD festival any more. A huge loss for those in this part of the country.
    I read to a small group in a class of 12 yr olds one time, when I was doing a “please take” in school, and they were just enthralled. Pretty much every child in teh room stopped to listen. It made me wonder…

  3. My favourite programme when I was young was Jackanory. Somebody famous sat reading a story to camera. (Jackanory, read a story…) That was all. You switched on the TV and got a storyteller in your living-room. Brilliant.

    And there was the excitement of who was reading the story. Once it was Doctor Who!

    It was pulled as it was considered too old-fashioned. Because today’s kids don’t need someone reading stories to them, do they?

  4. Ah, is that what it was? I’ve heard of it, but had no idea what kind of programme.
    Today they need that even more, seeing as parents read less with their children. But look at Blue Peter, which is no longer watched by enough children to merit a ‘real’ television channel.

  5. Jackanory was great! I do think CBBC has pushed people towards books in some areas though – I’m sure using Nick Sharratt to illustrate the little animations between scenes in Tracy Beaker must have nudged people just a little bit towards Jacqueline Wilson’s actual books…

  6. Yes, if they ever encounter the books, they will think them an extension of television…
    I have clearly missed something big in Jackanory. I come from a country where they eat green cake on camera, and believe that is ‘a programme.’

  7. I went to this discussion too, and as a children’s writer living south of the border, was incredibly envious that this debate was happening at all, and that I could just go straight along to the Parliamentary chamber, with no planning at all, and take part.
    From the school visits I do, one thing that’s overlooked is giving the underprivileged kids access to BOOKS. Primary kids don’t go down the public libraries under their own steam any more, so if their parents don’t take them, they rely on the schools to give them access to a range of reading material. And in too many primary schools, there’s no library any more, but a room of gleaming computers, and just a couple of shelves in the classroom full of Roald Dahl are not enough.
    I really like the Dolly Parton giving books to kids idea – as adopted in Rotherham.

  8. Wish I’d known you were there, Emma! And I like Dolly’s idea, too.
    (Loved Wolfie, btw.)

  9. I don’t come from a particularly deprived background, but neither of my parents are readers, really. This doesn’t actually mean a complete lack of words – Dad religiously reads the paper every day, and my mother is a scientific librarian (which involves much less reading than you’d think!), but I had no models for people who spent their free time reading books. And yet, my mother was incredibly keen to get us to read – I read early, often and incredibly quickly, and live my life drowned in books, something my parents were prepared to support with time (trips to library) and money (at least until I could spend my own). Mum even researched children’s books she’d never read herself so that I was exposed to all the local English-language classics people with immigrant backgrounds often miss. However, my sister had the same upbringing, and barely read anything as a child – as an adult she’s discovered it’s fun, but she reads very, very slowly, which makes things hard for her.

    So there are no guarantees, no matter what parents do. And my parents made one heck of an effort. (And incidentally, I hated being read to! Even now, I find audio books pretty hard to warm to.)

    PS: If you want some more pessimism, I work with trainee teachers, and it’s alarming how many of them don’t enjoy reading in their native language, let alone in English. Which makes it hard for me to imagine how they’ll manage to inspire others to read…

  10. Interesting.
    And I always wondered about Son’s reception class teacher who marvelled at how many books we had. I don’t feel a teacher should, regardless of whether they read or not.

  11. I was at the Parliament session too and came away a bit depressed and frustrated that we continue to have the same old debate again and again. I was heartened though that so many people still care so passionately and that we’re all doing our little bit to try and help.

  12. True. We talk, and we agree, and then not much happens. I hope that at least in Scotland there is a little bit more sense and that something will change.

  13. You are a magical Bookwitch to fly on you broomstick to Scotland and whiz about Edinburgh and generate comment on this subject! The Library Dragon Ladies are long gone ( I think!) but there be Dragons in Scotland as elsewhere who attack our libraries. Maybe we should start a Library Dragon Demerit Award for those Local Authorities who slash services. I’ve got one in mind for what’s been done to the William Patrick Library in Kirkintilloch.

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