Making a difference - quickly

Fanny Blake
Opinion - Books Tuesday, 18th February 2020

Fanny Blake reports on the crucial contribution of the Quick Reads programme to improving adult literacy

Reading changes lives. It gives renewed confidence, boosts brain power, increases empathy and helps relaxation. In short, reading contributes to individual happiness and to the well-being of our society.

Yet research shows that as many as one in six adults in the UK struggles with reading (OECD, Survey of Adult Skills, 2015) with one in three not regularly reading for pleasure (DCMS, Taking Part Survey: Free Time Activities Focus Report, 2017/18: 2).

These statistics persuaded me to join the Quick Reads team some four years ago. As someone who has taken my ability to read for granted, taking enormous pleasure from it and indeed earning my living through it - first as a publisher, then a journalist and writer - I feel everyone should be given the opportunity to enjoy something with such demonstrable benefits.

Author Andy McNab, who has written three Quick Reads titles, confirms this. "Every time you read a book you get a bit of knowledge, every time you get a bit of knowledge you get a bit more power. I have struggled with and overcome challenges with literacy in my life and experienced first-hand the transformational power of books. I urge anyone who does not read for pleasure to pick up a book and reap the rewards of reading."

Still not persuaded?

Low levels of literacy cost the UK an estimated £81 billion a year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending, impacting on "the success of the economy as a whole" (World Literacy Foundation (2015): The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy p. 13). Per capita incomes are higher in countries where more adults reach the highest levels of literacy proficiency and where fewer adults are at the lowest levels (OECD (2013): OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results From the Survey of Adult Skills).

"Before this initiative, adults learning to read would be given children's primers"

To combat this national crisis, Dame Gail Rebuck launched Quick Reads in 2006. Before this initiative, adults learning to read would be given children's primers as a resource - hardly encouraging or confidence-boosting. Quick Reads are short, accessible and entertaining books by bestselling authors specifically aimed at new readers, those who have difficulty reading or don't read for pleasure. The hope is that readers will find new confidence to read another of the authors' books, or another Quick Read.

Sarah Salmon, who works for Norfolk Library and Information Service, says: "I have worked in the book trade for nearly 20 years. In 2017 I lost the ability to read for a while following a brain haemorrhage. Reading has always been my main hobby and means of relaxation as well as necessary for my job, so this inability to read was devastating. I knew what all the words were but I had lots of memory problems because of my illness and at my worst couldn't remember the start of a sentence by the end. In January 2018 I was sent the Quick Reads for 2018 and these short books helped to increase my confidence in reading. I then went to the library and borrowed loads of Quick Reads and I'm now on to novels."

The books also provide a perfect quick fix for fans of an author, or an introduction for a new reader. As South London librarian Stella Chevalier points out: "Quick Reads provide our Preschool Parents Book Club with a variety of superbly written short stories by accomplished authors covering a variety of genres. This means there is always a different genre and author to discover."

Each year I commission six new titles from six publishers, aiming for as diverse a list as possible in terms of authors, genres and publishers - so we provide something for everyone. The majority of the titles are fiction, with some non-fiction adapted from bestselling titles. This year we are proud to have on board Adam Kay (Picador), Clare Mackintosh (Sphere), Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze), AA Dhand (Transworld), Milly Johnson (S&S), plus an anthology of short stories by Ian Rankin, Sophie Kinsella, Jojo Moyes, Louise Candlish, Mahsuda Snaith, Mike Gayle, Keith Stuart, Adele Parks, Mari Hannah and me, published by Orion.

The books are 15-20,000 words long with a cover price of just £1. To ensure they are written at the appropriate literacy level, we provide the authors with straightforward editorial guidelines, and the book is checked by an experienced literacy reader before it goes to print.

Their length means they are less daunting than a full-length novel; but they are no less satisfying, as book club member Amanda testifies. "As a new mum everything was always started with great ambition and then abandoned. Reading felt like an impossible task. Then along came Quick Reads which made the impossible possible once again. They gave me time for just me, even if it was only a few precious moments to read a handful of pages, and a sense of accomplishment at a time when I really needed it."

The books are now embedded in the Reading Agency's adult programmes and are promoted throughout the year by them. They are used by prisons, colleges, NHS hospitals, adult learning organisations, trade unions and other partners, and are taken by libraries throughout the country. They are also published into the general trade market by whichever six publishers generously support the programme each year.

Quick Reads provide a crucial contribution to improved adult literacy. Thanks to a kind financial gift from Jojo Moyes, it is thrilling to see this invaluable programme going from strength to strength, making a real difference and changing people's lives.

Fanny Blake is commissioning editor for Quick Reads. The 2020 Quick Reads titles are out this Thursday, 20 February.

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