Like many, I learned to love stories from hearing them rather than reading them. As a child, I loved listening to the magic and mystery of the classic fairy stories and the quirky adventures of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin and Jemima Puddle-Duck, although I certainly didn’t properly understand that story until many years later.
But for early readers, understanding the detail is never essential. Getting the point of where a story can take you and what it can make you feel is what really matters; and that’s what spurred me on to want to read more. And so I jumped from the earth-bound boredom of Janet and John to Rosemary Sutcliff, whose empathy for outsider characters, combined with her exceptional ability to make the past a place you can inhabit, filled both my head and my heart. I knew what stories could do and I needed to read them urgently.
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development research shows that reading for pleasure is the single most important indicator of a child’s future success, offering the skills they need to succeed at school and work. But it can be formative in life, too, helping to increase empathy, improve relationships with others, reduce the symptoms of depression and improve wellbeing.
Books, as Stephen King says, really are “a uniquely portable magic”. At the turn of a page they offer journeys to new worlds, meetings with new people and messages from the past and future. Books have the power to transform lives.
Reading for pleasure
Despite this, there’s long been a barrage of bad news about the accessibility of children’s books for all readers. One in eight children from disadvantaged backgrounds does not have a single book of their own at home. Historically, libraries would have helped make up that deficit. But both public and school libraries are shrinking or closing altogether (if even in “the town of books” isn’t safe, where is?), and parents have less time than ever to read with their children.
For many potential young readers, too, the books that are availble to them aren’t enticing enough. Children’s literature is hampered by a lack of representation with bookshelves failing to fulfil their potential of offering access to diverse voices and experiences.
The fact is: the UK risks lagging behind in literacy, and it's time we fought back.
.Keeping reading for pleasure at the centre of the conversation, we need to make books more appealing by finding ways of getting writers and readers better connected. We also need to fight for accessibility by protecting libraries and guarding high-quality provisions for books in schools.
Libraries themselves should be treasured and used regularly. Books must be gifted to young people at every opportunity. Parents and teachers need be helped to find out more about books so that they can help young readers find the books that are right for them.
And, above all else, we must continue to celebrate great books of all kinds, whether new or old, and make sure they get into the hands of young readers.
With all this in mind, Hay Festival has partnered with Tes to celebrate inspiring books for young people. With the help of your submissions, we’ll compile a list of books that we think every library and school should have on their shelves simply because they are full of engaging perspectives and important stories for young people to encounter.
To support the Hay Festival #BooksToInspire initiative, you can nominate a title here. Aside from inspiring the next generation of readers, everyone who nominates a book will be entered into a prize draw to win the selected titles for a school of their choosing. Hay Festival’s Programme for Schools is out now at hayfestival.org/schools.
Julia Eccleshare is Hay Festival children's director