The Importance of Sharing Books
Did you know that almost a million children in the UK don’t have a single book at home?
I was mooching in the aisles of the local charity shop, arms already full with well-worn books, when I heard it on the radio. A million. It’s a huge number. And one that impacts the smallest of people the most, as Michael Morpurgo shared this week, that only half of children aged between one and two from low-income families are read to every day.
In some ways it’s hard to imagine - many of us know the pleasure of toddlers snuggling on our lap for stories and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that can recite The Very Hungry Caterpillar word for word. However, as Morpurgo explained in his interview on BBC Radio 4, this goes beyond the responsibility of individual parents. This divide happens on an income level; a systemic issue of access and privilege. Morpurgo, alongside 11 other Children’s Laureates, calls on the government to ‘lead the way’ to address the massive impact poverty (which more and more families are facing) has on reading for young children. It’s a rallying call, and one every practitioner can get behind. We need fewer library closures and more free books in sticky toddler hands. This is an easy yes for many of us but, let’s face it, not an easy system to change, especially when so many of us ‘on the ground’ are facing numerous pressures of our own.
Rachel's children enjoying #10SharingBooks.
Those of us working with under 5s and their families likely already have a myriad of ways to bring books to life. It’s our bread and butter. But here at 50 Things we’re not just about the bread and butter. We like sprinkles. Fun, playful, low-cost but high-impact activities that can make a meaningful difference.
So, while we still ask you to sit in the sombre message Michael Morpurgo shared and work towards change on a national scale, we also wanted to offer some suggestions that can help us step towards change right now.
First, read, for fun, ourselves. It’s a big ask, I get it. Between the intensity of postnatal days with my own children and then balancing raising them with paying the bills, books for myself weren’t really high on the agenda for a long time. But just as we know we can’t expect children to develop a love of veggies if all they see is us munching on cheesy puffs (my personal snack of choice!), we can’t expect the joy of reading to spread without modelling it ourselves. Read for fun - not caring what’s high literature or not. Read in front of the children you work with, laugh out loud at the funny bits and don’t hide the tear in your eye when your favourite character has a mishap. If you’re in management, why not tell everyone the first half hour of next Wednesday's meeting is dedicated to reading for fun - you bring the biscuits and have your staff bring the books. There’s a reason #10 on our Before 5 app is called ‘Sharing Books’ not ‘Reading Books’. But to share the joy of reading, we have to have it first!
Share a book together!
Second, celebrate all stories - no matter the format. While we acknowledge limited screen time is good for families, we also readily accept the fun and safety families find in watching the latest TV shows together. It can be a great introduction to world-building, plot, antagonists and protagonists, suspense and humour. Talking about the stories your families already love in ways that build bridges to talking about the stories in books is powerful. There’s no shame in chatting about the latest plot twist in a soap with parents you work with or in knowing the names of the characters on a child’s t-shirt and laughing about their latest adventure.
If you can, make it increasingly accessible for low-income families to #23 See it Live. Whether it’s the panto or a puppet show or a local artist singing their own songs - seeing stories lived out in fun ways is vital. If leaving the house is difficult for parents, you can also provide them with links to read alouds like StorylineOnline on YouTube - instant access to over a hundred books! While we might not have the funding to give out free books ourselves, we can certainly show families how to subscribe to helpful channels! (And, while I’m at it, let’s remember audio books count! Often a much more accessible format for families, you can access them for free with a library card.)
If we see how enjoying all stories builds strong connections to enjoying books, we’ll rightly celebrate them in all their varied shapes and forms.
Third, let’s get extra creative with bookish play. And I don’t mean spending hours laminating stick puppets or spending your own hard earned cash on making those role play areas extra special. Could you challenge children to read in unusual places? Up a tree, under an umbrella, on a seesaw - with the appropriate risk assessments of course! Maybe while you’re #9 Mini Beast and Bug Hunting you could read to the worms you find. Take a book along on a #30 Yummy Picnic or have joke books on hand for #21 Gigglebox to grab during snack time. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel but we can look through our usual activities and try to see how to bring bookish play naturally into our days - whether it’s in silly ways or special ways - they’re sure to help us in the task Michael Morpurgo set for us all:
“We are the storytellers, the parents, the families, the teachers, the librarians, the publishers and booksellers, the society, who can help make this happen, at home, at school, in the library, in the hospital, wherever. We can help transform the lives of children everywhere.”
Written by Rachel Cambell
50 Things Bradford Project Officer