In a new landfall we follow in the footsteps of the few who have so far explored
The approach to Readerland takes us through the Disseminators Group and past two off-shore islands. Education and Library. Those who live and work in these places hope to see the children of the mainland grow up to become readers.
When we finally reach the land where parents and children are found what do we find’,’ The place is full of Traveller’s Tales and folk myths: television is killing the reading habit: the days of the book are numbered: reading standards are falling: only the middle-class from Booklovers Bay buy books any more: Reading rots your brains: it makes you good: it makes you bad: Books are boring: Books are dangerous. And we hear of strange legendary figures: the Reluctant Reader, the Cultural Elitist, the Dreaded Blyton.
Travellers Tales and Folk myths are all very well and by their nature often contain a grain of truth. But what do we really know about who reads, what they read. where they get their reading material from? And there are even larger questions. Why and how do people read’.’ What effect does it have on them? Does it matter what they read! Does it matter whether they read at all? And are there different answers to all these questions if we consider children and young people rather than adults?
The current guide book to Readerland isn’t much help. It contains plenty of opinion, gut feel, received folklore, accumulated experience, established practice, but precious little real information. There are more questions than answers because until recently only a few people have been asking them. Finding out about the who, what, why, how much, how and soon of reading is like trying to orchestrate a group of independentminded, self-obsessed octopuses into a Busby Berkley-style underwater dance routine. Publishers, Booksellers, Librarians, Sociologists, Psychologists, Politicians, Critics. Academics, Teachers. Writers: all have their own particular interests to pursue.
To make a map that will accurately reflect the endlessly fascinating, constantly changing features of this complex land the explorer must travel slowly piecing together information from many different sources.
We start by finding out what, if anything, we know about the book borrowing and book-buying habits of Readerland.
Free lending libraries arose as part of the movement to make the dream of universal adult literacy a reality and owe something also to the British belief in self-improvement. In its 1980/81 report to the Minister for the Arts the newly-named Library and Information Services Council reaffirmed the belief that ‘Libraries provide access to opinions and ideas, help to preserve the nation’s literary and cultural heritage and serves the needs of education and leisure’. (A fair summary of the generally received view of the value and importance of reading). The report goes on to comment on the ‘uneven collection of statistical data and ‘serious gaps in statistical information’ which ‘makes it difficult to plan for the future. So libraries don’t really know how successful they are in defining and meeting the needs of those who make use of them, and those who don’t. Without more research they are not likely to find out, and research is expensive. With libraries facing cuts of 25% in real terms in local authority library expenditure what the library-using part of Readerland increasingly will see is fewer new books on the shelves, fewer mobile libraries in rural areas, reduced services to school libraries, fewer staff to help and advise, and shorter opening hours. The value of reading is difficult to ‘prove and libraries are easy targets when money is short.
The one thing that libraries can tell us something about — and the one statistic they can use to defend themselves- is their issues. For example three years ago each person in England borrowed about twelve books a year. Scotland averaged out at around 11. Wales 10 and Northern Ireland 8. What we don’t know is exactly which books were borrowed (though the new arrangements for paying authors Public Lending Right may throw some light on this) or which people did the borrowing. What is clear is that a lot of people didn’t go near a library.
Some children’s libraries and schools librarians haven’t needed statistics to tell them that. Working on instinct they have recognised how daunting and alien libraries can be for parents and children and have gone out to meet their readers. Story-telling in inner city parks and playgrounds, books on barges, book fairs: all such activities invariably meet with enthusiasm, whether organised by librarians, members of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, or teachers. It ‘feels’ right to be showing children and their parents that books and reading can be fun, that borrowing and buying books is a natural thing to do. It seems to be effective, evidence in the form of anecdotes is certainly encouraging: but no-one has investigated in detail what the long-term effects are. More people may join the library, more books may be issued: but are they read? What makes a person a reader?
The Schools Council Research Report. Children and their Books (1977) points to ‘a marked connection between book ownership and amount of reading. What do we know about how Readerland buys its books? Specialist bookshops. chain stores (like W H Smith), book clubs, school bookshops are the main sources for new books. But don’t forget market stalls, jumble sales, school fairs and the Oxfam shop: all magnets for young second hand collectors. At present the inhabitants of Readerland don’t seem to be buying children’s books as often as they did. In 1982 children’s books showed the highest percentage decrease in sales in this country of any type of book. Publishers’ and booksellers’ explanations range from alarmist fears that television and video have finally killed off the reading habit. through a crisis of confidence about whether they are trying to sell the right books, to a more rational recognition of the effects of unemployment and that, as all teachers know, the number of children in the 5-14 age group has declined drastically, and will continue to decline.
A rational explanation but with a sting in its tail. That shrinking market for children’s books will soon be adult. If they grow up not buying or reading books the industry is in trouble. Last July, a high-level conference of representatives from publishing and bookselling met at Nuneham Courtenay to assess the current and potential market for books in the UK. Among a sheaf of recommendations came one ‘to make the maintenance and extension of the use of books by children a major long-term priority … and that proposals. research and action should be considered and developed at the highest possible level’. Also implied in the report is the idea that existing and potential book buyers need to be helped. understood and educated. In general the inhabitants of Readerland are perceived as having difficulty in seeing books as value for money. A price of £5 for a hardback or £1.50 for a paperback picture book produces a hesitation that the cost of clothes, tickets for the cinema or a football match, or a round of drinks in the pub never provokes. They need to be lured into bookshops by good displays: like all consumers they can be ‘helped’ to buy. Booksellers are studying their habits.
Almost half of all sales of books, children’s and adult’s, are on impulse. Most children’s books are bought by women. Men are more likely to buy hardbacks. Older, middle-class people who live in London and the South buy the most expensive books. About a third of the books bought are for presents – but children don’t get such expensive books as adults. For whatever reason – increased prices and greater range perhaps – paperbacks are now O.K. as presents: well over half the books given as presents are paperbacks. All these statements hold good if we take as typical a survey conducted nationwide in 1980 on 3,000 people visiting bookshops. The research, commissioned jointly by the Book Marketing Council and the Booksellers Association presents an interesting picture of bookshops and how people behave in them. But what about those who never go near a bookshop? The new Children’s Book Action Group, which is being setup as a result of the Nuneham Courtenay report plans to find out much more about a very underesearched area. We await their discoveries.
Looking at Readerland. the hook trade believes that out there in the hinterland of the Great Unread there exists ‘an untapped enthusiasm for books and reading that is much wider than the old “literary society” Concept.’ The evidence of school bookshops, the work of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups and the B.M.C’s Books in the Community project in Barnsley would seem to support this.
“We must attract the non-bookish members of the public” says the book trade. Who are these non-bookish people’.) How many of them are there.’ The Euromonitor Book Readership survey for 1982 gives us an idea. Some 2.000 people aged 16 and over were interviewed during the survey. Of these 45% said they were reading a book. More of the women (51%) claimed to be reading than of the men (38%). Readership according to this survey is closely related to social class: ‘more than 60% of the AB’s (middle-class) and CTs (skilled) said they were reading a book, compared with less than 40% of the C2DE’s (semi-skilled and unskilIed).’
So less than half of the population is reading a book of any sort. Why aren’t more? For our next step let’s find out what we know about children who read a lot and those who don’t.
Evidence from Margaret Clark (Young Fluent Readers. 1976) Frank Whitehead and his team (Children and their Books, 1977) Jennie Ingham (Books and Reading Development, 1981 ) and Vera Southgate and her colleagues (Extending Beginning Reading. 1981) based on investigations across a wide age-range is all remarkably similar. In general children who read often are more likely to be those who found learning to read easy and who have a strong and positive self-image: they own books, belong to the library, are active in lots of things and come from small families where parents read or are seen to value books and reading. Not very surprising, you say. A classic description of the middle-class child. But wait. In a fascinating series of interviews with the parents of some of the children from Bradford middle schools which took part in the Book Flood Experiment, Jennie Ingham showed how much more there is to it than a quick categorisation by socio-economic class or fathers occupation.
All the children in her study, she explains, are ‘from the same sociological background’ (CD in socio-economic terms). What distinguishes the ‘avid readers’ (who fit the description above very well) from the ‘infrequent readers is the values and attitudes of their parents.
‘The main strand that runs throughout all these aspects of the home lives of the avid readers is that they know they are wanted, respected, cared for and considered. The parents of avid readers saw themselves as having considerable control over their own lives and the lives of their children.’
Parents of infrequent readers gave the impression that things happened to them which they could do little about. They felt hopeless and helpless. They had difficulty controlling their children, did not talk with them or spend time with them. Infrequent readers had never had stories read to them and reading played no significant part in their parents lives. Parents of avid readers read to their children and often valued reading for its own sake and as a way to ‘better things’ for their children. Often these were values they had inherited from their own parents.
One mother expressed it in this way. “Well, books are a way of life. You either have books or you don’t have books, and I was brought up with my dad, who shoved books under our noses at an early age and said” Look at that beautiful print. When you get bigger you’ll be able to read it!” In one family where the parents don’t share the child’s enthusiasm for reading and writing they value and encourage the interest because it’s his. The son reports ‘My mother and father read sometimes. They borrow books off me.’
These families are clear about their values.’ If a sacrifice has to be made it would be made for the child’s sake: that’s our responsibility’. Their avidly reading children are also avid doers: Scouts, fencing. football, violin. model-making, writing, drawing. (They also watch a lot of television). The infrequent readers just play out on the streets. Even if they were better readers (and many of them desperately wanted to be) it’s doubtful whether these streetwise kids would find much to interest them in current publishing. The attitudes and upbringing of the avid readers make a much more acceptable fit with schools and books.
Another theme that runs through all Jennie Ingham’s interviews is the enjoyment that the adults and children get from reading. In their study of children from 7-9 Vera Southgate and her colleagues found ‘a difference between the child’s concept of himself as a reader in school. where he is aware of his lack of skill, particularly in relation to others, and his happy acceptance of reading as a pleasurable relaxation at home.’ Is it schools not homes that bring about that phenomenon, the teenager who can read but wont? Mark, a seven year old confident reader might be an early warning system. He was not interested in reading for its own sake, but only wanted to master it, ‘so that he could stop it.’ How many children get a chance to discover what reading is and what it is for? All studies point to the crucial role that adults, parents, other relations, teachers. librarians, play in this. Government cuts mean not only newer books but fewer librarians and properly knowledgeable teachers with time to talk and advise. Those in danger of ending up with the unread are even more at risk.
In Readerland the readers and the unread live side by side. But there might as well be a mountain range between them as our map shows. Those on all the other islands who for their various reasons want to break through to the Great Unread Hinterland must find the passes. For that we need to absorb the information which already exists and seek more.
We started with questions. We have found partial answers to some of them.
The exploration will continue. If you are travelling with us. report your discoveries: it’s tough terrain.