Children's column: Bookstart and future readers

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Friday, 6th March 2009

While helping out at a bookstall at a school f te a few years ago, I overheard a woman say with pride that she had a new grandchild, a few months old. In that case, I barged in, perhaps she would like to buy some board books for the baby. She looked at me in astonishment. Oh, I don t think he's reading yet, love! she said. This week at the Booktrust conference, we saw a short film about Maya, granddaughter of Rosemary Clarke, who now runs the Bookstart books-for-babies programme. The film showed Maya from birth to 21 months. At each stage of her life, she got evident pleasure from books. We saw her learning to focus, poring over pictures, snoozing with a book on her chest, turning pages, lifting flaps, imitating gestures, making sounds, pointing, listening with rapt attention to her father, her mother and a babysitter, laughing, filling in the blanks in the text and, eventually, sitting alone with a book and teaching herself the names of her own features. She was also, since hers was a bilingual family, doing some of this in French.

The idea that all this learning and delight should be withheld until you get to school is, fortunately, losing its currency. And the main reason is Bookstart, the brainchild of Wendy Cooling (now deservedly an MBE) in 1992, when the scheme began with a trial of 300 people in Birmingham library. Most importantly, the venture was followed up by research into its effects. The resulting report, by Professor Barry Wade and Dr Maggie Moore, is still the foundation of much of the thinking about the importance of books in the development of infants. It also persuaded Sainsbury's to sponsor the scheme.
Cooling and the inspired Birmingham librarians began their project with books donated by publishers and with the support of Booktrust, and kept it going, and growing, for a few years when Booktrust support was withdrawn. Under Brian Perman, Booktrust took it on again, and has administered it ever since. It was run for some years by Alexandra Strick (now Booktrust's disability consultant and co-founder of Outside In, which promotes books in translation). In 2004 Gordon Brown as Chancellor announced funding for the gifting books programme at three stages: Bookstart, a baby pack for children up to 12 months, distributed through health centres Bookstart+ aimed at toddlers; and My Bookstart Treasure Chest for 3-4 year olds.
Bookstart is also now followed up by Booktime, which gives books to children in reception year of school, and Booked Up, which allows 670,000 11-year-olds to choose a free book at the point of transition to secondary school. The scheme gives away 3.3 million books every year; 25 publishers support the project; and the scheme has been imitated in other countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands. A sister scheme, the Letterbox Club, sends packets of free books, personally addressed. through the post to looked-after children.
Although it may just have been too late for the grandchild of the woman at the school f te, this scheme is our best initiative for creating a new generation of readers, and therefore the single most significant contribution to the future of literacy in this country. Three cheers.