How did we let this happen?

My last school author visit of 2016 was at a large secondary in the Midlands. The brief was simple: ‘We want to get our Y7s reading for pleasure.’

And there they were, about 120 of them, sitting and waiting for the tall balding bloke at the front to say something. I did my bit, the thing I love, I surprised them and captured them and drew them in with stories and remarkable facts and fervent recommendations of books I know they will enjoy.

It went well, it always does. I hit home the message of why reading is so important – how it can set your life on a new course (as it did mine) and enable you to make something of your life and perhaps even fulfill your dreams.

But then there’s that awkward bit when you’ve convinced them and they want to read and they know what books are out there and they want to choose. Some will use the school library (if there is one) and pick a book from there. Some will have books and home and will hopefully look at them afresh. Some will go online and order books. A few will have brought money and will buy a signed copy (they are the one guaranteed to read that day).

And then there are the others. The ‘reluctant readers’ as we call them, including the ones who maintain they hate books along with those who might read but have no parental model to spur them and an increasingly large number who come from homes where there is no money for books.

That last one is hard. But I tell my audience that there is a place where you can get books for free, a place in town with a huge choice of titles of all kinds: stories, adventures, jokes, facts, diaries, manga, puzzles, TV tie-ins, funny poems, sci-fi, thrillers, graphic novels, footy annuals, older picture books and miscellanies. You can go there and come out with 20 books and they’re FREE.

‘It’s called a public library,’ I say. About 117 of the 120 kids stare at me in disbelief. I want to laugh but I keep a straight face. ‘It’s true. Go there and see. Current books by the thousand – a massive choice – and you can borrow them for nothing.’

This could be a critical moment in a young person’s life. They know they should read. They know it’s good for them and will help them. There is evidence to prove it will help them with school work and probably lead to better exam success and greater likelihood of a decent job. They’ve been told about the range of great books out there by an author who knows this stuff. And they have been told that they can get books for free.

In effect, there’s nothing stopping them from succeeding (apart from our society’s empty-headed insistence in waving every distraction in front of kids, of course: iPads, consoles, phones, pulp TV, Instagram and so on).

Oh, except there is another thing. Our political system is causing libraries to close. This is led by those politicians who insist to us that educational standards are not good enough. By those who tell us they are committed to closing the gulf in society between the haves and the have-nots by increasing social mobility. 

So there I am, standing in front of 120 children at a critical time in their lives. I’m getting through to them, enabling them to realise that there’s truth and importance in this message: that READING can not only help them but it can be fun. I’m giving them the keys.

Yet I’m in danger of widening the gap. The middle-class kids will go home and read the books they’ve bought/got/ordered but the poorer kids can’t get to the public library now because it’s been closed due to ‘council spending cuts’ (a government austerity programme which refuses to fairly tax those with more than enough money to maintain a public library service and even establish proper school library provision).

So that’s why we protest and weep when another library is condemned. We are closing the door on hope for kids who need it most.

Merry Christmas.

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