It was a scary moment when I was first asked to be a godmother. I could feel the wings heavy on my newly responsible shoulders. What gift would I wish for my fairy godchild? It was obvious at once. Books. That’s what I would wish for her, books and reading all wrapped up in a warm blanket of story that would comfort and help her for the rest of her life. A small, rather less romantic voice whispered in my ear that reading would also be the key to Life in other ways less associated with cuddles and blankets; like school; like exams; like a career. And so it was.
Reading is the greatest gift I can think of giving, partly because it was given so generously to me. Every member of my family read to me, gave me books, encouraged me towards the library – and told me stories. I don’t remember a time when my mind was not filled with Water Babies and girls who were orphaned and sent to wicked relatives; children who lived in a barn (until their parents miraculously returned from an air disaster in South America) or Mad Hatters and tea parties. Favourite books changed over the years, as they do, but some of those books can still appear before my eyes as if they are still with me – and some I have bought again, as an adult, and given to children myself.
I can’t understand what is so difficult about this matter of children and books. WHY are our children not reading? And don’t talk to me about the Internet. What do you do there except read? Yes, I do understand the whizz-bang appeal of computer-generated activities that move at the speed of light. I also see the power in teaching that computers offer and the benefits of … well, one could go on for hours.
The simple fact is that if we give our children enough books, of the right kind, they will choose to read. And when they read with enjoyment, they read more and they read better – until the whole process becomes a self-fulfilling journey towards War and Peace or Steve Job’s biography, or whatever takes their fancy in a library or on an iPad. (I mention those as being particularly large books; there are better smaller ones.)
We need a climate of action about reading and we need to take it seriously. We need to bitch and moan and tweet and shout and yell and get on Facebook and You-Tube. We need to write to the papers and email our contacts list and do whatever we do to bring the matter of children and reading to the fore. It is critically important. In fact, I would say, there is no more important issue in Education right now than that of reading; reading in home languages; in English; local books and the best that are published in other countries, but books. We just have to give our children that gift – whether we are wearing wings or not.
Lesley Beake has worked in education and writing for children all her life and has just published her 90th book for young people. She is, with co-founders Gcina Mhlophe and Sindiwe Magona, one of the motivators for the Children’s Book Network, an organization committed to all of the above – Children, Books and Networking.