A circular from the Society of Authors dropped into my inbox yesterday morning. Although the theme was not a new one, I stopped and read it carefully.
The Society of Authors is the unaffiliated trade union that represents around 9,000 writers in the UK (including pretty well everyone you’ve ever heard of) and lobbies on everything to do with writers and writing. It’s largely responsible, for example, for the fact that we don’t pay VAT on books – and what it says is always worth paying attention to.
This time the message is stark: UK primary schools are fast becoming a reading-free zone. In 2005, one in 10 children said they didn’t have a book of their own at home. Now it’s a horrifying one in three. Nearly a third of parents don’t read to their children. And, as everyone knows, public library services are under threat all over the country.
Therefore, the Society continues, it’s vital that children are introduced to inspiring books at school. But many schools have neither a library nor a trained librarian, and many teachers struggle to identify contemporary fiction that engages their young readers.
So the Society has asked for a meeting with Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, to recommend three things: that primary and secondary schools are required by law to have a school library and a trained librarian; that teachers, in all stages of their careers, are encouraged and helped (through various schemes proposed by the Society) to inspire a love of reading for pleasure; and that Ofsted should officially recognise author visits and longer residencies in schools.
The encouraging thing is that the Society tends to be listened to, and that Nick Gibb appears reasonably sympathetic. The depressing thing is that it’s got to this point at all. I don’t know which is worse – that we’re rearing a generation of children who don’t read, or that they’re taught by teachers who themselves (for whatever reason) don’t read.
But these days don’t they get stories on their computers, on TV, at the movies? Well, yes, and there’s some wonderful storytelling out there, but with few exceptions it doesn’t encourage reflection in the same way that reading a story for yourself, at your own pace, does. Writing leaves room for the imagination to admit its own truths, while being read to by a mother or father is one of the great life-affirming experiences of childhood.
In 1999, when I was chairman of the Society of Authors in Scotland, I also chaired the judges for Scottish Book Trust’s first-ever Scottish Children’s Book Awards. It was a couple of months after the Columbine High School massacre. This is an excerpt from what I said at the awards ceremony:
“Anyone who finds themselves with the task of reading enough children’s books to start a small library will inevitably end up asking themselves one very basic question: why is this important?
The answer is simply this. A child’s imagination is the most precious thing it possesses. You can take away almost everything else, but so long as a child has a healthy imagination, it stands a good chance of surviving, of becoming a reasonably well balanced, thinking individual that will make its way in the adult world.
And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – that feeds a child’s imagination like good writing.
From good writing more than anything else, children gain a sense of right and wrong – because it comes with no strings attached. From good writing they gain an understanding of the world around them, a very real sense that they’re not alone. And so they find the confidence to engage and participate.
Children who read good writing stand the best chance of rising above the floodtide of cultural mediocrity that threatens to dumb down our society. And they have the means to escape the moral and cultural vacuum that can – at its most terrifying – give rise to events such as we saw recently at the high school in Colorado.”
That was 13 years ago. I believe it’s just as true today. In fact, I can’t help wondering – and in saying this I do not intend to trivialise what happened there – if the butchers of Houla are readers. Whatever the answer, this is why reading and being read to matters so much. I hope Nick Gibb agrees.