A study this week revealed that almost four million children in the UK do not own a single book. Not a one. Not a ‘Bunny My Honey’ or a ‘Guess How Much I Love You’ or a ‘Miss Rosie Red’ to be seen anywhere.
I was, it has to be said, shocked and saddened. I personally can’t imagine a life without books. We always had them when I was growing up. My book shelves to these days are heaving with novels. I’ve even turned to using a Kindle, to save on storage space if nothing else.
My children, too, have grown up surrounded by books. We bought books for them before they were even born and reading a bedtime story together is a big part of our routine. (Although the boy now prefers to read on his own). I’m not a sainty sanctimummy. There are of course times when I feel like weeping at the very thought of reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the three millionth time - still reading is something we do together, which we both get enjoyment from.
As a child I remember vividly the joy I got from visiting the library or going into a book shop - the smell of the paper, the feel of the crisp new sheets, turning the pages and being careful not to break the spines.
I still get that same little thrill of excitement walking into a book shop and surrounding myself with all the lovely novels. (The day I visited the Eason warehouse in Dublin, were books were piled 30 foot high was a real treat. Sadly, they made me leave eventually.).
When I made my First Holy Communion I remember very clearly going to LeisureWorld at the bottom of Shipquay Street and buying my very own copy of Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl - it was not the first book I ever owned by a long shot - but it was the first book I bought with my very own money.
My childhood was one lost in a myriad of different worlds. How I longed to wander through the Secret Garden? How I dreamed of being the Little Mermaid (preferably with the Disney ending though...).
I wished I had a shed in the bottom of the garden with gingham curtains ala The Secret Seven and I longed to wander round that most famous of Chocolate Factories.
As I grew up I wished I starred in a Judy Blume book and as I got older again I wanted to live the lifestyle of one of those fancy heroines from the Patricia Scanlan novels. I was never without a novel and when I wasn’t reading, I would sit and write - creating my own versions longing one to day to see my work published and sitting on a book shelf. Reading was ingrained in us. My parents both read - and both read to us. Many an afternoon was spent listening to my daddy’s animated retelling of a Roald Dahl classic. Books were bought as gifts, or we went to the library together. It just was an integral part of my growing up - so I struggle to understand how it isn’t for other people.
The report said that children from more deprived backgrounds are less likely to have books at home. Well when we were growing up we didn’t have much. We were an ordinary working class family from Creggan - but we had books. It’s about prioritising what your children have. I have heard people complain about the price of books. £8.99 is a bit steep, they say, for a children’s book and yet some people would probably think nothing of spending £17.99 on a Disney DVD not realising how the book could give as much or more enjoyment. Similarly right on our doorstep we have the chance for local kids to meet the creator of The Gruffalo, Children’s Laureate for a mere £5 a head. Sure you would spend that on a selection box or some other such nonsense to stuff a stocking with.
Books don’t need to cost a lot of money.
In fact they don’t need to cost anything at all - we have libraries facing reduced hours and closing because they are not used as widely as they once were and yet they are brilliant places to take children of all ages. They have for books for babies, for pre-schoolers, for those just finding their way and for those looking to losing themselves in the latest Hogwarts adventure or similar.
Giving your child a love of reading and access to world of adventures gives them something truly remarkable which they will carry with them all their lives. It improves their concentration, their vocabulary, their spelling and much more. It gives you quality time with your child, and allows you to relive a wee bit of your own childhood by remembering there are magical and wonderful tales out there. It gives you the chance to use silly voices and practise your acting skills with a very forgiving audience waiting in the wings hanging on your every word.
Modern gadgets have their places - Nintendos and computers and X-Boxes - but I maintain there is nothing as gratifying as a decent read and nothing as important as giving your a child a love of reading.