World Book Day 2020
Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland, Kelly McCaughrain writes on the importance of sharing books and reading for pleasure…
If you could wave a magic wand and give your children the kind of advantages in life enjoyed by kids from higher socioeconomic classes or kids with highly educated parents, most of us wouldn’t hesitate. We’d do quite a lot more than wave wands. Well we may not be able to magic up a trust fund, but we can go to the library, which apparently is even better.
You may be aware that children who enjoy reading perform better in vocab, spelling and maths, but did you know that the impact is around four times greater than the impact of having a parent with a post-secondary degree? Greater than the impact of the family’s socio-economic background? Or that a child’s ability to read has a bigger impact on their future attainment than parental wealth, education and employment? Or that reading for pleasure has a bigger impact on workplace success than other extracurricular activities for 16 year olds? Studies have repeatedly shown that reading is, as Miranda McKearney of the Reading Agency puts it, a “nearly magical thing that can burst you out of poverty.”
We talk a lot about encouraging kids to read, but I think we also need parents to see how vital it is. Because parents are key people in introducing this magical thing to their children.
Schools go to great lengths to encourage reading but, with the best will in the world, sometimes I think they’re stymied from the outset. Based on my observations of children eating vegetables, it seems to me that if you want kids to read, probably the worst thing you can do is tell them it’s compulsory, good for them or something they should be rewarded for enduring. School initiatives that reward kids for reading have their merits, but they also frame reading as the hard slog you have to do to get a non-book treat. It’s the yukky green stuff you have to tolerate in order to get ice cream, and anything that happens on school grounds already has an aura of broccoli about it.
Which means what we do at home is doubly important. I think it’s the adults who need to reframe how we think about books, and I have some thoughts about how we can do that.
Imagine a world where:
Books are the reward. I recently read about a school that had a book-vending machine. When students did something good they were given tokens for the machine. Books were their reward and they loved it. Parents could do something similar. Instead of being rewarded for reading, treat books and trips to the library as a reward.
Books are optional. Keen as I am to press books into the hands of children, I’m not sure we should be forcing them down their throats or making them compulsory. Roald Dahl knew this. If asked to describe Matilda you’d probably say, ‘Matilda loved to read’ not ‘Matilda wasn’t allowed to read’. But she wasn’t allowed. It was a subversive act and she had to sneak off to the library for her books. Readers are desperate for her to succeed - to get her books, to go to school and do homework and hard sums and then live with her teacher! How Roald Dahl got kids to be excited about any of these things seems incredible, but all he had to do was make reading against the rules.
Books are for everyone. Never tell a child a book is too advanced, too young, too girly or too boyish for them. If a book interests you, that book is for you.
Books are for adults too. I often ask, when parents complain that their kids don’t read, ‘Do you read? Do your kids see you read? Does reading in your house mean being banished to a lonely room while everyone else watches TV together?’
Some families have Movie Nights or Boardgame Nights. What about reading nights? Do you ever switch off the TV and have everyone read? As the parent of any teen will confirm, you have a very limited window when your kids want to hang out with you and be like you. Use it wisely. Show them that books are not ‘kids stuff’, they’re things that adults respect and value and make time for in their own lives.
I told my sister this theory recently and she tried it with her two primary-aged sons. TV off, fire lit, snacks prepared, Mum, Dad and kids all got out books and settled down to read. She thought they’d stick it for about ten minutes before asking for their tablets. In fact, they read for an hour and afterwards her eldest said, ‘That was brilliant, can we do it again next week?’
Books are bonding. One reason kids love being read to is it means having their parents’ undivided attention and I’ve no doubt that part of my nephews’ enjoyment of their Reading Night was just about getting to hang out with their parents. And I see no reason that reading aloud should stop when a child is old enough to read their own books. Adults love being read aloud to, as audiobooks, story podcasts and literary events will attest, so why shouldn’t teenagers? And what a great way to share in what’s going on in their lives and an opportunity to open up discussion on issues relevant to them.
As Children’s Writing Fellow, I’ve had the opportunity to see and be involved in wonderful initiatives organised by schools, charities, arts festivals and the media to encourage children to read and I loudly applaud all of it, it does make a difference. But the people running these initiatives have such limited time with the kids – one-off events or an hour once a week. So when I get a chance to promote reading, I generally try to target the adults rather than the kids. There’s more potential for lasting impact there because parents unquestionably have the most influence over their children’s habits and attitudes, spend the most time with them, and have the best chance of fostering those skills that can work such magic in their later lives.
If you’re looking for book recommendations, Children’s Books Ireland have just released a useful collection of reading lists on their website, sorted into categories and for all ages (https://childrensbooksireland.ie/reading-list/) Or just take your kids to the library and let them loose!
The Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland is a two-year post created as part of Queen’s and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's (ACNI) joint ten-year Seamus Heaney Legacy project supported by the Atlantic Philanthropies. Kelly follows on from the inaugural Children’s Writing Fellow Myra Zepf.