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BLOG: The power of books and reading

I can trace my career back to my very earliest memories, and my fascination with books and reading. I loved the way words sounded; the way they would fit in the mouth, or not; the way they tripped off the tongue. For me, the book that started it all off was The Quangle Wangle’s Hat, by Edward Lear, illustrated by the wonderful Helen Oxenbury. To this day I can reel off the whole poem, and it still fills me with delight – I’m convinced it’s one of the most perfect ways into poetry and language in existence, and I can never truly express my gratitude to my parents for their patience in reading it with me over and over again.

Decades later and children’s books and reading have become my livelihood, having worked on most of the country’s major literacy schemes, headed up the education team at a children’s story centre, and programmed children’s festivals and events across the UK. I now offer consultancy and freelance project work for reading initiatives and to help develop reading and creative literacy cultures in schools, organisations and education settings. Through it all, I can trace a thread straight back to the magic of that Crumpetty tree, with the great, hidden, unknowable Quangle Wangle sat at the top.

I was supremely lucky to grow up in a house full of books, words and stories. My childhood was full of them, and I loved them voraciously; the Quangle Wangle may have started it all off, but each new book I loved, each new story was another memory, and another step along this road. Desperately, we know how limiting it can be for children who don’t have that privilege. We know that regular exposure to books, stories and language are at the very heart of a healthy education, and without these wonders, children face an uphill struggle, and a life without one of its greatest joys. But it’s not simply a matter of acquiring books – for one, they can be expensive, and for many they can be a real ordeal, particularly anyone who struggles with their own literacy, or dyslexia, or any number of other barriers.

Happily, sharing books and language doesn’t have to be quite so scary, or inaccessible, and for those of us lucky enough to be book-rich or comfortable in our reading, there’s always more to discover, more to fall in love with, more to read, hear and experience. What is more, with all the internet brings, and living in a golden age of children’s books, as we do, it’s now easier than ever to find good quality, representative books and stories for a far wider audience than ever before. That’s not to say there isn’t still work to do – there is, and in my experience the industry knows this, and is starting to slowly make some headway in improving diversity and representation. But all in all, it’s a great time to find great stories for kids.

Unfortunately, it’s also still too easy to encounter the wrong attitudes towards children’s enjoyment of books and reading, and this is where we need to separate the mechanics of reading from the joy and the pleasure of it all. Too often, we find conversations bogged down in grammar, syntax and the pure mechanics that are required to master language. This, combined with a phonics-centric approach, can leave little time for pleasure, which in turn can affect how we value the many ways we can experience language and story. It’s not that there isn’t a place for grammar, or even for phonics – of course there is – but if we never prioritise creating opportunities to fall in love with books and story, there comes a point where you might reasonably ask: what’s the point? If we see these two strands – pure literacy and the pleasure of language and story – as distinct, then we can reassess what’s most important, and give each the weighting they deserve. For me, I want children to have the same lifechanging relation with books or stories that I had in whatever way works for them – the ‘how’ comes a distant second.

Ultimately, the physical act of reading a printed book is not going to work for every single child, and it’s counterproductive to pretend that it is. It’s still the preferred medium for many – myself included – but this has led to a sense that other ways of reading aren’t ‘as good’ or are somehow bad for children. Nonsense. Anything that gets children interested in language, in words, in story, in their imagination, is a good thing. How many of us have the most vivid memories of listening to stories on cassette in the car? Or that friend or family member who was a born raconteur? What about those illustrations that take you straight back to childhood, even now? Or the hilarity of that first time you ever read a comic, or the crisp fold of a grown up reading a newspaper – so adult, so very erudite?

There’s an endless wealth of language to explore, and it’s all worthwhile. So ignoring any naysayers you might come across, do whatever you can to create a rich, storied, language-happy environment, in any way you can. Audio books, library books, the stories you heard as a child, shared storytelling, describing stories through art, singing together, hearing poems, making stories up as you go, acting, memorising, reciting, writing, trying out, shouting, dancing – as long as you’re all having fun with it, it’s doing you all good. And who knows what a lasting impact it might have? There’s a perfect story for everyone, and trying to find it might just be the most magical time you have.

I recently hosted the PACEY Live webinar with legendary author and poet Michael Rosen. PACEY members can catch up or rewatch in MyPACEY now.


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