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Children's Books are Society's Most Vital Literature

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

Or 'Why I Started Spread Book Joy'

Readers are made by readers... We lead them to think and talk about what they have read in the same way that we think and talk. And without saying anything at all, our behaviour communicates the place and importance reading holds in our own private lives... I know that without enabling adults who are thoughtful readers to give you guidance, it is all but impossible to become a thoughtful literary reader yourself.

From p. 89 - 90 of 'Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk' by Aidan Chambers, 2011.

This quote has inspired me, both personally and professionally, perhaps more than any other I have read in nearly two decades of working in primary education. It struck me on a personal level as a passionate reader who was educated in the eighties and nineties and whose experience of learning to read was not from school. My parents were both born during the Second World War and for them, growing up in the forties and fifties, reading was one of the most exciting ways to pass the time. In those days, before television and certainly before children's television, reading did not have many other forms of entertainment to compete with. It was something that my parents and their classmates all loved to do and books were precious. And so, my parents passed that love of reading onto me and my brothers. My dad read to us every night and my mum bought us second-hand books whenever she found them and new books for birthdays and Christmas. Books were a necessity for them and they became so for us. I am a reader who was made by readers.

On a professional level, that quote inspired me to write my Master's dissertation on teachers' own reading experiences and identities as readers and how these influence the reading identities of the children they teach. The results of this small scale study are for another blog post but, ultimately, led me to start this blog and accompanying YouTube channel, Spread Book Joy. My own research, and the literature I reviewed as part of that, made it clear that book choice is of paramount importance when supporting children to become readers. Knowing which books to share and recommend to children is a professional duty. My own experience both as a pupil and a teacher have added to my own anecdotal evidence for this as well. Bear with my reminiscences. They will become relevant, I promise!


You can read this too!

As it was pre-National Curriculum and pre-SATs, my primary school days were rather less crammed than children’s days are now. We never missed story time. Story time happened without fail for the last fifteen or twenty minutes of every single day and was universally loved by all of us (although I remember as an infant, they were accompanied by the disgusting room-temperature milk - yuck!). These stories, chosen with care and delivered with enthusiasm, formed a lasting impression on me and my fellow scabby-kneed, wide-eyed classmates. We were taken on amazing journeys by our dedicated teachers and librarians. They introduced us to fantastic worlds and hilarious characters. We sought these books out for ourselves in the school and local libraries, which they also took us to every week without fail. I remember so many of us delighting in reading these books for ourselves and being ecstatic to find other books by that author or in that series. Finding the story time book or a book from that series was like spotting a celebrity - everyone would rush over to the child who cried out the title and watch with envious eyes as they smugly handed this treasure over to the librarian who would then remove the little card inside before stamping it with the return date.

Those reading adventures stayed with me into adulthood and I have often re-created them with the same awe-inducing success in my own classes. The fantastic book choices made by my teachers decades ago which engrossed me and my classmates, such as The Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken, still captured the imagination and attention of children in my classes some thirty years later. It is in helping children to choose the right books that we help them to transcend the difficult slog of 'learning to read' through to the ultimate prize: becoming a reader and finding more fantastic books for themselves. By enticing them through good text selection, by saying "You will love this and you can read it too!", we show them that the hard work is worth it and will pay off. Ultimately, we should want them to become readers rather than just learn to read. Learning to read and becoming a reader are often mistaken as being one and the same thing. So, what is the difference?


Learning to read vs. becoming a reader

In an overly-simplified nutshell, 'learning to read' encompasses mastering the skills one needs in order to decode marks on a page and make sense of a text. Mastering those skills does not make someone a reader. A reader is someone who identifies as one. Someone who chooses to read for pleasure in their own time. It is an identity that we take on when we seek to read for ourselves. This was the basis for my Master's degree research, which I will expand on in another blog post. What is important here is that this is what my wonderful teachers knew and what inpsired me when I read the fantastic book 'Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk' by Aidan Chambers. Finding, recommending and sharing books which entice all of the children in your class to seek them out and try them for themselves is the most vital skill for supporting emerging readers. And it is even more crucial today in an age where books compete with so many other forms of quick-fix media, most of which is high-reward, because it gives quick dopamine fixes, for low-effort. Even I have to make a concerted effort to pick up my book in the evening rather than turning on the much easier fast-food equivilant that is Netflix! Engaging children in reading so that they choose to do so in their own time and for pleasure is becoming increasingly difficult. However, it is actually a statutory duty for schools to ensure that children do so.

The aims of the current National Curriculum in relation to reading, state that all pupils should not only "read easily, fluently and with good understanding" but that they should also develop the habit of reading widely and often, for both pleasure and information" (DfE, 2013, p.3.). This means that it is not enough to just 'learn to read' but you must choose to do so for fun as well. This choice is the difference between 'learning to read' and 'becoming a reader'. A reader knows that they can find joy, excitement, empathy, hope and ideas between the pages of books and actively seeks to do so. The whole history of human thought and the full range of human emotions are there to be discovered in books. A reader will turn to books for answers, for comfort, for friendship and for pure enjoyment. And it is so very cliched but an undeniable truth that a reader lives many lives. "But we all know that reading is enriching!", I hear you say. That's not news! If a child can functionally read, is it really so important that they also choose to do so in their spare time?


The life-saving magic of story time

There is plenty of research that supports the positive benefits of reading for pleasure which go beyond strong evidence for academic achievement through to health and social benefits (see below for further reading). However, I just want to draw your attention to this important and frightening anecdote from The Reading Agency annual lecture given by Neil Gaiman in 2013:

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure. It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

Neil Gaiman

Reading this for the first time was a huge wake up call for me. I had known the benefits of reading for pleasure but had never stopped to think about the adverse affects of not reading for pleasure. That it didn’t just mean missing out on improving academic outcomes, increased enjoyment or getting a better job. Not becoming a reader, not reading for pleasure, could actually contribute to the very worst outcomes for children that I taught and cared for. I need to be clear that this post isn't trying to claim that all children who don't choose to read for pleasure will go to prison but evidence points towards increased social disadvantages and, therefore, much higher risk of becoming socially disaffected. ‘To read for pleasure’ sounds like a delightful aspiration but it’s actually a life-saving practice. It is a society-saving practice. I would urge you to read Gaiman's lecture in full because, funnily enough, he is a better writer than me! I will indulge in one more quote from him:

Fiction ... a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key.

Neil Gaiman

Suddenly, story time takes on a whole new significance. It's not just the most pleasurable part of the school day, but the most important. Children's books are the gateway drug, the key, the spark - whatever you want to call it - to becoming a reader. And by becoming readers, children are given a chance to avoid uncertain futures. And the prison system, at least in the USA, will need less prison cells. Which is why, I would argue, that children's books truly are our society's most vital literature. But how do we get the right books into the right hands? How do we, as adults who support young children to become readers, keep up to date with the latest children's books?


What do you mean you don't have the time to read kids’ books?

In my experience, it takes a lot of time to seek out great children's books. Tons of time! Time to visit book shops or libraries and speak to booksellers and librarians. If you'd rather not spend the additional travel time going to shops and libraries, then you will spend time reading reviews online, signing up for and reading email updates from various publishers and book shops. You will need time to trawl through social media, following authors or book reviewers. And this is all before you devote the time to actually read the books. Yes, teachers - you should read them yourself first! And this is even while knowing that you are not going to enjoy all of them! If you are a teacher on a tight budget, splashing out money on a book you didn't enjoy and can't see yourself reading with your child or class is not something you want to do on a regular basis. Spare time, if there is such a thing for teachers or parents, is so very precious. And if you are both a teacher and a parent, then I'm honoured you have devoted what little spare time you have to reading this blog post :-)

In a perfect world, schools would devote money to regularly purchasing a selection of the latest children's books and then devote professional development time each term purely to reading them! (If you are working in a school that does this right now, don't leave it. You've found a unicorn. In fact, let me know if there are any jobs there!) But in the real world, despite text choice being of paramount importance to supporting emerging readers, most schools do not have the money to regularly buy the latest books or to allow teachers allocated time to read them. So, shockingly (not in a 'this-is-news' way but in a 'it's-bloody-scandalous' way), it comes down to whether or not teachers can devote enough of their own free time and money to keep up with this vital professional duty themselves. And so many of us choose to do this because we love children's books and we want to provide the very best books for the children in our care. But what about the teachers who do not have the time, money or even the inclination to do so? As I've just explained, it takes a lot of time and many of us are already working 50+ hours per week. We might also like to spend some of our free time with our families or on our own hobbies. Or even just catching up on sleep!


The mission: to Spread Book Joy far and wide!

When I was deciding on which books to buy for a Year 5 & 6 book club that I ran for many years, I first did tons and tons of research, both online and in bookshops, in order to find exciting new titles for the club to read. There are lots of great websites out there that have wonderful book lists and reviews. However, none of them could give me as thorough an overview of the books as I wanted. The details were somewhat lacking for me as a teacher. I wanted more detailed breakdowns of each book with information on themes, ideas for teaching and, most importantly, content warnings. By that, I mean just a warning on anything I might need to know that might be triggering for pupils in my group. Not so that I could avoid difficult subjects, but so that I could prepare pupils if need be and treat the material with sensitivity rather than be surprised by it. Guess how I had to get that information? You guessed it - I had to read them! This is not a hardship for me. I spend lots of time reading and enjoy children's books but I know lots of my colleagues don't have the time and so newer titles will be avoided in favour of books with a proven track record. I decided that I might as well make the information I had about some children's books available to others. I may not be able to read every new children's book that comes out there but I can give the information I do have to colleagues and parents and anyone else who might be interested in knowing it. Spread Book Joy, both this blog and the YouTube channel, are my way of doing that. According to Aidan Chambers, we loan children our reading experience and our consciousness when we read and recommend books to them. So, in sharing my reading adventures, I am loaning my reading experience to whoever finds it useful. I do this because readers are made by readers. I do this because I know that time is in short supply for many teachers and parents. I do this because children's books are vital to children's futures and, therefore, to our society's future. If one child is recommended the right book at the right time as a result of this project, then, surely, that is worth it?

I would love to hear what you think. Are children's books our most vital literature? Leave a comment below!


Further reading:

Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

OECD Report 2010 and Clarke and Rumbold 2006 for the impact on reading and academic skills:

Impact of reading for pleasure from non-literacy points of view:


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