Children's column: heroic readers

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Friday, 27th February 2009

The book trade is in most ways a business like any other, about selling and the bottom line. But every now and again something reminds us of the specialness of this industry, and the transcendent power of books. One such occasion was yesterday's ceremony at 10 Downing Street, at which Sarah Brown presented medals to 31 Reading Heroes selected from hundreds of submissions for the accolade, and selected by a National Year of Reading panel. There were 250 entries that fitted all the criteria, said Catherine Stokes of NYR, and Director Honor Wilson-Fletcher agreed that whittling them down was very hard: You wanted to reward everybody. What I didn t realise was how much time we would spend weeping.  

The ages of the winners ranged from 7 to 80, but the youngsters stories were among the most moving. Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim, for instance, a dignified young man, arrived a year ago as a refugee from Afghanistan, without his family, and with no English. He learned the language, became a keen reader, and will take GCSE English, though he has still not seen his family since he came to the UK. Thirteen-year-old Jasmine Metcalfe became an enthusiastic reader and an inspiration to others despite her blindness. Ashni Sedani, 17, from Harrow, set up and runs Write Here, Write Now , a learning programme by which children improve their literacy with the one-to-one help of other young volunteers.
There are also adult Heroes who have made significant contributions to children's reading: Dinah McIntyre, who taught herself to read as an adult and became a reading buddy for children with reading difficulties; Malcolm Wright, whose website makes children's books accessible to deaf children in British Sign Language; Michaela Dungate, who ensures access to books for foster children in Cornwall; Jermaine Daley, teacher and football coach, who has converted many 7-13 year old reluctant readers into avid bookworms; poet and football fan Paul Cookson, who encourages youngsters to read and write poetry; Rachael Dyer, who has worked to encourage boys and their fathers to enjoy reading; Carol Parchment, who has made a Hackney internet caf a hub of reading and learning for youngsters . . .
It seems to me that children's publishers and librarians, educators and government agencies have among these winners a pool of advisors whose own experiences could offer a guide to how to increase literacy and grow the market. If we want to know how to motivate reluctant readers, help those with reading difficulties and hurdles to overcome, appeal to boys, and reach readers for whom English is not the first language, whom better to ask? And even if the industry is not inspired to consult these experts because reading changes lives for the better, perhaps it might do it for the sake of the bottom line.


Above: reading heroes outside 10 Downing Street.