How fast the summer passes! As I write, the Big Friendly Read is in full swing, and if the number of post-it notes on the board in my local children’s library is anything to go by, it is attracting record numbers of young readers. I have been involved in organising summer reading challenges for children during the whole of my career. At first the children’s librarians in my borough – of whom I was one – organised what was very much a competition and rather prescriptive. Then the climate changed and it became a ‘challenge’ – though it was still only local. How we welcomed the suggestion that it become national! It became the Summer Reading Challenge and now, all around the country, young readers are linked in this common activity. It is such a simple idea – showing that reading is fun. And who better to deliver this message than children’s librarians and the Public Library Service?
Today, children are very much encouraged to choose books they want to read to gain their six stars. It is so important that young readers’ choices provide pleasure and they’re not having to struggle through a text designed to measure their reading level. The local library is the ideal place to deliver the Summer Reading Challenge, because it is available to everyone – truly everyone. There they can develop new ideas. Information and imagination rub shoulders and everyone can be their own teacher and pupil. This may sound idealistic, but it is what lies at the core of our Public Library Service. We would do well to remember and fight for it, for today it is an ideal that is even more important than ever.
We are lucky that the freedom to read and write is one that we take for granted. We are lucky that through reading we will be able to meet a host of characters from every conceivable background; characters who can help us understand the world emotionally. We are lucky we can find out about different points of view, learn to make judgements, decide for ourselves. There are many parts of the world where this is not the case, where there are few if any books, or where books (or rather the ideas in those books) are seen as dangerous, to be banned or destroyed, where children’s classics are rewritten in order to promote a certain ideology.
Charities such as Book Aid, Akili and Book Bus, and initiatives like the Bicycle Libraries in Afghanistan and organisations such as IBBY all work to combat these situations. They may operate in different places and have different solutions, but behind all these projects is the belief that books and reading help promote understanding and acceptance of difference. This was certainly the belief of Jella Lepman (1891-1970). Having lived through World War II, she became convinced that hope for the future lay with children and young people learning tolerance and understanding, and that this could best be achieved through books. She was active in promoting this idea, and in 1949, she founded the International Youth Library in Munich where visitors can find examples of children’s literature from around the world to this day.
The International Youth Library is housed in a very beautiful castle. Around the UK, library buildings are part of our urban and community landscape – so much so that often they are unnoticed until threatened. The emotions aroused when there is a proposal to close a library can sometimes seem excessive and sentimental. But what if there was no library building?
Recently there was a report from the Damascus suburb of Darayya, a place currently under siege, where the local community have set up a hidden library. The stock is made up of books rescued from bomb sites, the belief being that, despite the terrible conditions, reading, education and access to ideas are as important as physical comforts. Sadly the library cannot be used by everyone: Dariyya is too dangerous for many to even leave their homes. But the report showed how, for one 14 year old, it is a haven and provides an opportunity to learn.
There was a time when there were no libraries in Britain, and books were luxury items only for the rich. But public libraries provide books that are public items. While reading itself is usually a private activity, the excitement it brings should not be. Books should inspire discussion, provoke reactions and bring readers into contact with other readers. Reading groups flourish through this, vloggers and bloggers (many of them teenagers) attract enormous followings. The appetite is there. And this is what the Summer Reading Challenge promotes, with librarians encouraging children to talk about what they are reading and share their enthusiasm.