Monday, April 23, 2012

Childhood reading can turn nightmares into life dreams

Edinburgh City Libraries’ reading champion Niall Walker talks about his work with young people who stay in residential care units

‘I don’t read books, I just don’t . . . oh, is that one about a dog?”, asked the 12-year-old girl in residential care.

It was. She liked it. Hopefully, next time I see her she’ll have picked up another.

Young people in Britain’s care system have experienced significant adversity and this can often affect their chances at school and beyond.

In adulthood they may have difficulty finding work, training or studying, and some will be at risk of becoming homeless or imprisoned. Their life chances have been hit hard by the negative experiences that brought them into care.

I believe that reading offers hope. In fact, we know that reading for pleasure is a more powerful indicator of a child’s educational performance than their socio-economic status or their parents’ education.

This creates better life chances for young people of any background – and, crucially, for our most vulnerable young people, reading can lead to emotional resilience, confidence, functional literacy, empathy and the ability to form attachments to others more easily.

This is where libraries come in. We are working hard to cater for vulnerable young people. This means improving access to books and other reading that matches their interests and abilities, and ensuring our libraries are always welcoming, safe and interesting spaces.

As reading champion, my objective is to develop strong and sustainable links between care staff and librariy staff so that young people are encouraged to use their local library and its resources at all stages of life.

In the past week, residential care staff have been volunteering to receive training in paired reading and literacy development to better support our looked-after children. Together, we are tailoring this service to each individual.

Funding from the National Literacy Trust’s Young Reader’s Programme is being used to provide them with books.

So far, 156 books have been chosen by Edinburgh’s young people in residential care.

Hopefully, that number will have increased by the time you’re reading this, as I’m due to visit a young woman who will almost certainly love Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry, a teenage radical who will lap up George Orwell’s Animal Farm and a girl in need of some laughs, which Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid can provide.

My message to any young person who is searching for something fun to read is to visit your library and ask the professionals there for help and advice. Tell us what you’ve enjoyed reading before and we will find you one of many books you’ll enjoy.

The recent boom in publishing books for teenagers is unsurpassed in history. There are books written entirely about things you already love, and at a level you’ll be comfortable with. I’ve witnessed children and teenagers finding that “first book” about gamer records, kitten care, gross facts, otherwordly manga, cinematic graphic novels, Lionel Messi, and the best works of fiction.

The Reading Champion Project works closely with other partners, carers, teachers, families and, primarily, children in care. We must never underestimate how each individual can be full of surprises, with a lifetime of enjoying reading – and its benefits – ahead of them.

“Those books on hip hop you got me were good. Yeah I’ve finished them now. How about something about boxing . . . or y’know what, a couple of years ago I had to read a Rabbie Burns poem for school. Could you get me something by him?” This was a 15-year-old boy in a secure unit. My response: “Umm, yeah buddy. I think we’ll manage that.”

n World Book Night tonight is a celebration of reading and books which sees tens of thousands of people gift books to spread the joy and love of reading.

Five titles are selected and printed in their thousands in World Book Night editions. Givers apply to give away a particular book, which they must commit to give to those who don’t regularly read. Each giver receives 24 copies, which they will have picked up from their local bookshops and libraries in the week before April 23.

Edinburgh City Libraries staff will be giving out books at libraries and other locations and much-in-demand author Maggie O’Farrell will be at Central Library on George IV Bridge at 6.30pm – a real coup for Edinburgh.

Find out more at

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