World Book Day has come and gone with thousands – millions, even – of books being passed around and huge numbers of children enjoying book-related activities with their teachers, ranging from dressing-up to creating amazing entries for the new World Book Day Award (congratulations to all who took part). At the heart of World Book Day is the belief and awareness that books – or rather the stories they contain – need to be personally promoted by people who have been gripped by them and who want to share their excitement.
However, World Book Day is just one day. How can such enthusiasm for books continue for the rest of the year? And how can readers, whether they are already committed, or have just begun to discover reading as an enjoyable activity, find books they want to read? The obvious answer is to go to a bookshop – or visit the library.
This is presumably the thinking behind the latest government initiative, which is to encourage schools to enrol all Year 3 children into a library – which begs the question whether there are school libraries or local or mobile libraries for them to enrol into? This is not a new idea. Sadly, while visits to libraries are advised, there is no mention of librarians in the government paper, Reading: the next steps. There is mention of school book clubs and support offered for setting one up – what about support to create school libraries with librarians? This would create a permanent book club reaching all ages.
It is the consistent failure to recognise the importance of a professional librarian that is disturbing. I am sure that all library authorities try to ensure that there are staff to manage Baby Rhyme Time, the Summer Reading Challenge and Bookstart as well as being there in the children’s section. However, this is not the same as having a professional specialist in each branch who has real book knowledge. In the early years of my career, I was fortunate to benefit from a scheme whereby librarians saw and handled all the books bought. We were also expected to read as many of them as possible. It was not a case of necessarily liking the book – though I found wonderful surprises – but of developing awareness and gaining knowledge; of being able to give a child the right book for them, one they would enjoy and which would encourage them to return.
I realise this is a utopia. Nevertheless, the need for book knowledge has never been greater or more urgent. There is no problem with the best sellers: Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson, the Wimpy Kid, Horrid Henry, Harry Potter are known and loved by all! But what about other books? What else might children read of what might they like to read next? The greatest compliment for a librarian is to have a young reader returning again and again, asking, “Please, can you find me a book”.
These days, there is a certainly a huge, often bewildering, choice of online resources for those wanting to find out about new books. Personal recommendations can be found on Goodreads, for example, or on blogs by enthusiastic readers. There are sites alerting you to what is being published, and sites to help with more specialist queries – like CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education), Book Trust or Letterbox Library. There are even sites designed specifically for young people themselves. There are also printed directories such as The Ultimate Book Guide (Hahn) and specialist lists like The Books for Keeps Guide to Children’s Books for a Multi-cultural Society (Triggs). For recommendations of books and authors from the past, Books for Keeps with its online archive is ideal – and it’s great for information on new books too!
However, I believe there is no real substitute for having libraries where children can actually handle the books, and having professional librarians, who read as widely as possible; find authors, stories, genres that excite; listen to the recommendations of others – especially young readers – discuss books with colleagues; attend book launches, unconferences and the occasional conference; and visit bookshops and other libraries. I believe they’re crucial to encouraging reading.