Why reading really matters and I’m not even kidding…

In case you can’t read the text on Posy Simmonds’ clever cartoon, the little girl is bringing her fellow train passengers up to speed with her Harry Potter book:  ‘… but see, they aren’t really them…they’ve just changed into them, cos they took the magic Polyjuice potion… so Harry becomes Crabbe, Ron becomes Goyle and then…’

sketch from Posy Simmonds'
sketch from Posy Simmonds’ A Literary Life’ ©Posy Simmonds 2003

The joke is that  the passengers look as if they want to wring the precocious girl’s neck but my first thought was ‘if only ‘. The kids I see on trains are more likely to be kicking the hell out of the seat in front of them or whingeing that they’re bored. The few I do see absorbed in something are usually holding a Nintendo DS or similar gadget. I actually can’t remember the last time I saw a child reading a book on a train.  How sad is that?

I have nothing against Nintendo, Playstation, X-box etc. These things are great. They’re valid, exciting forms of entertainment that I accept are as much a part of today’s childhood as Sindy dolls and Johnny 7s were to mine. But Sindy dolls and Johnny 7s (a huge replica gun with which you could do politically incorrect things like pretend to kill people without being told off) didn’t replace books when I was 9 or 10. They were something you played with when you weren’t reading.

It sometimes feels as if the digital age is determined to undermine anything paper based. Books with pages and covers and all them long words – woah, they’re so last season, dude.  Why else would Borders bookshops, alongside hundreds of independent small bookshops, have gone into liquidation recently?  Why else would the chartered librarian be the first member of staff to be made redundant when cuts are called for in larger schools?*  Why else would town and city libraries have spent thousands of pounds on sweeping away acre after acre of bookshelves to make way for computer suites and coffee bars?  The message is: if it doesn’t flash and ping and have ‘apps’ and start with a little i then it’s too uncool for school.

Only books aren’t uncool. They’re really not.  And for every school head who gets rid of a librarian and every town that loses a bookshop and every library that tries to ‘keep up with trends’ I say: STOP IT YOU MYOPIC MUPPETS!!

What? You genuinely are that myopic and want evidence that limiting access to books is damaging?  OK, buster, I’ll give you evidence.

A recent survey carried out by the Sutton Trust has found that young children who are read to daily and taken to libraries more regularly are more advanced in their language skills than those who are not.  Note it says read to. Not plonked in front of the telly. Not given a handset. Read to. From books. Big books, little books, picture books and pop-up books. Fact and fiction and any-and-all-books.  Books found when the children are taken to libraries.  Not taken to libraries to sit at computers BTW. Taken to libraries to choose books to take home to read. It’s not exactly rocket science is it?  And there’s no excuse for parents who say they can’t afford it. Books are  FREE to borrow. F.R.E.E. They cost nowt – nada – zero euro. Yes, nothing – even if little Loretta loses them or puts them in the washing machine/tumble drier/microwave by mistake. Some libraries lend up to 12 in one hit.

As for parents who ‘don’t have time’ to read to their kids. Well make time!  Find it! Half an hour a night  isn’t beyond anyone, especially when you think of the pay-back you’ll get. For: ‘more advanced language skills’ read: ‘a child better at communicating with other children and less likely to go off the rails and demand your attention for all the wrong reasons.’ For: ‘more advanced language skills’ read: ‘better job prospects’ For: ‘more advanced language skills’ read: ‘informed, rounded, interesting person.’

Why am I even writing this?  I don’t need to convince you, do I? You guys already read. You know what it feels like when you go into a library or a bookshop and your heart starts singing. You know how you get goosebumps when you read an opening page that draws you in and you think ‘this is going to be good…’ You know how a well written story stays with you forever. You know that and more.

All we can do is spread the word and pass those feelings on. Well, what are you waiting for?  Go show someone a copy of Are All Brothers Foul and tell them how wonderful it is. You know it makes sense.

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*for more information on the drive to make libraries statutory in all secondary schools go to Alan Gibbons’ blog about the CAMPAIGN FOR THE BOOK (www.alangibbons.co.uk)

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