The Coventry Inspiration Book Awards (CIBA17) this week was a fantastic event. Organised by Coventry Schools Library and Resource Service, there were librarians, authors, rugby players (!), booksellers, and (most important of all) lots of fantastic readers from primary and secondary schools across Coventry.
I was proud that Boy X won its category, and loved watching the performances by the two schools that championed the book. Students from St Elizabeth’s Catholic Primary School took to the stage to tell everyone why they enjoyed the story, then students from President Kennedy School acted out scenes from Boy X, and finished off with an excellent – and very dramatic – video made in Minecraft!
Over the past few months, I’ve been to a few similar events, and I am quickly learning that if you want something organised, ask a school librarian to do it for you! They really are amazing people, and as well as all the other things they do, each one I’ve met works tirelessly to make their library an inviting, vibrant place where they can encourage students to read. And reading is SO important. Reading makes you smart, and it helps you to understand other people. If we want a smarter, more tolerant, more understanding world, we need to encourage more reading.
But I’m not talking about the kind of reading students do in lessons.
For as long as I can remember, we had books at home. My Mum and Dad read, and encouraged me to do the same. I was lucky – they let me read pretty much whatever I wanted. And that, I think, is the key to reading for pleasure; being able to read what you want to read, not what you’re told to read.
We had a small library at my first boarding school. Well, we called it ‘the library’ but it was actually Mr Whitney’s English classroom. I wasn’t a Mr Whitney fan. He was a stern, apparently humourless man, and I don’t remember being allowed to borrow books from that library. We didn’t have a librarian, and as far as I remember, Mr Whitney was the gatekeeper of that particular room.
We did have Mr Johnson, though, and once a month, Mr Johnson would set up a little bookstall in the library. He would sit there puffing on his pipe while the students were allowed to browse the new books. What a happy afternoon that always was! I used to love picking up the books and imagining the stories inside. And if there wasn’t anything that interested me, Mr Johnson would dig out a shiny, colourful catalogue of books and flick through the pages, recommending stories I might like.
Mr Johnson was doing what a good school librarian does. He had taken notice of which books I had chosen before, and what I said about them, and he was helping me to find something else that would appeal. You see, he recognised the importance of ‘Reading for Pleasure’. He wanted me to enjoy what I was reading.
‘Reading for Pleasure’ is a phrase I hear a lot when I visit schools, and in these times of constant assessments and grades and testing, it feels more important than ever before. I remember when I was at school, sitting in English lessons with a book in front of me, while each person in the class took their turn to read a couple of pages out loud. I remember studying books. I remember analysing every sentence, and often it was boring. It made books boring.
But books are not boring. Books are magic. They take us to new places, show us new things, open us to new ideas.
Reading for Pleasure is when you get three chapters in, decide you don’t like the book, put it down, and read something else. Reading for Pleasure is reading what you want to read. I understand that students have to sometimes read books they don’t want to read – life is full of having to do things we don’t want to do – but outside of the classroom, it’s important to encourage children to read what they want. To relish books. To lose themselves in stories. To let books speak to them.
That’s what school librarians do. They know the books. They treasure stories. They open new worlds to young readers. They organise events like CIBA17 to build excitement and interest in reading. They enthuse young minds.
Every school should have a library. And every library should have a librarian.