I am once again supporting the Book Trust’s Christmas campaign to send a book parcel to children who are vulnerable or in care. The campaign is an extension of their work through the Letterbox Club, which sends monthly parcels of books and educational materials to children. For some of these children, it may be the first Christmas present they’ve received, or the only indication that someone cares.
I support this campaign because books are important; studies show that reading to children has greater impact on improving literacy than any other activity. Reading improves vocabulary, reasoning skills and understanding of the world. For children who may not have had the best start in life, books can open up a route through education to a better future.
When you’re a child, there are many ways that books are important beyond their educational value. I know this because of all the ways in which books were important to me as a child – and to be honest, all the ways they still are important to me.
When I was little, I found myself very frustrated with a world I never seemed to fit into. I don’t know if it was my red hair, my left-handedness, or maybe I’m just an awkward piece of furniture but I never felt like I fit in. When I was reading, all that disappeared. The first book I remember reading by myself was The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark and it’s a story about facing your fears. I think after that, I took flight in the dark just like that owl. Over the years, I learned about magic, animals, heroes and heroines. I learned about the Romans through Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, about World War II through stories such as Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom and Back Home, or Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I’m sure my passion for the natural world and environmental conservation has more than a little bit to do with Watership Down and Colin Dann’s series The Animals of Farthing Wood.
As I became a teenager, my sense of not fitting in became more acute and I was bullied for most of my time at secondary school. Books were my refuge; my teenage friends were nearly all fictional characters. The courage and sensitivity of the teenagers in Judy Blume’s books, the resilience and guts of the family in Cynthia Voight’s seven volume Tillerman Cycle, the strange and vivid magic of Alan Garner’s books such as Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – I carry them all with me to this day. Ponyboy Curtis from SE Hinton’s The Outsiders made me think about how poetry could help me in ways beyond simply enjoying the words. (The three words still most likely to make me cry are “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”)
Now I have a kindle; it’s quicker and easier than ever to get books, simpler to get recommendations and yet books are still the ultimate luxury to me. Right now, my life is really complicated. I have a part-time job, freelance commitments, a PhD to study for, a book due to launch next year, my Mum isn’t well, my family isn’t getting on... Sometimes, if I think too long about the blank darkness of my future and how much it feels like I’m teetering on a sheer drop, I find it hard to breathe. Then, I’ll read for a while and suddenly all my concerns are in the background. When I resurface from whatever world I’ve been immersed in, I feel less alone and able to take on whatever challenges lie ahead.
I hope you think about also supporting the Book Trust campaign. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where books were valued and available, trips to the library taken as a matter of course. For many children, that isn’t the case and that makes the Book Trust’s work all the more important. Think of all that books have given your childhood, your life - and then for as little as £10, pass that incredible gift on to a vulnerable child who needs the lifeline.