"Libraries are absolutely key for getting children to understand the joy of reading books," says children's author and Waterstones children's laureate Cressida Cowell.
Coming from someone whose job it is to champion reading among children, this may not sound surprising.
But her comments are not offered as a celebration of school libraries but as a warning that unless we treasure them – and fund them properly – we will be failing a generation of young readers, both now and into later life.
This is why she’s launched her campaign Life-changing Libraries with support from a number of literacy charities and organisations, including Book Trust, the School Library Association and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, which seeks, among other things, a government commitment to boost spending on primary school libraries.
Call for more funding for primary school libraries
We spoke with Cowell to find out more about the project and why she is taking her demand for funding right to the top, and it was notable that the economic impact of reading was mentioned as part of this – no doubt she sees this as key to helping her cause in the corridors of power.
“Research tells us that reading for the joy of reading is important for a person’s future economic success,” says Cowell, author of the How to Train Your Dragon series of books.
“We all know libraries are absolutely key [for this aim]. But how is that possible if [pupils] can’t afford books, they can’t get to a public library, and there isn’t a library in their primary school?”
This is why she sees funding as so important and has written an open letter to Boris Johnson, calling on him to provide primary schools with £100 million of ring-fenced money every year to spend on libraries.
"Over time, £100 million a year would enable every primary school in England to invest in the key areas of library excellence – books, expertise, space – that their pupils so urgently need," the letter states.
The letter is also signed by numerous other heavyweights of the children's literature arena, including Malorie Blackman, Julia Donaldson, Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen and Dame Jacqueline Wilson, giving it further impetus.
WATCH: Cressida Cowell discusses her Life-changing Libraries project
What's more, Cowell says, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem of children not having access to books, especially those from less-advantaged backgrounds – and leaving this unaddressed will be hugely damaging.
“Millions of children, particularly those from the poorest communities worst hit by the pandemic, are missing out on opportunities to discover the life-changing magic of reading – one that OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] research suggests is a key indicator in a child’s future success,” she says.
Promoting the joy of reading
“How can a child become a reader for pleasure if their parents or carers cannot afford books, and their primary school has no library, or that library is woefully insufficient?”
As such, she hopes any funding boost would ensure that this inequality gap is closed by making sure schools in all locations are adequately stocked and managed to give all pupils access to quality reading material.
But that isn’t all. The campaign has a practical aspect, too, as it has chosen six primary school libraries that will be given a "makeover" to show how the magic of a well-stocked and well-run library can transform learning.
“I love a practical project, because magic has to be practical as well as magic,” says Cowell.
“We’re going to create the best libraries ever – the gold standard of school libraries. They’re going to have books chosen by literacy experts, special audio boxes so children can have books read to them, and wonderful wall art.”
And it doesn’t stop at books and pictures either.
As well as focusing on the things found in the library and making the environment as pleasant as possible to be in, Cowell says the campaign is also going to focus on equipping the staff with the skills they need to make the most of these special libraries.
“The School Library Association will provide free tuition to a teacher in each of these schools on how to get children reading for the joy of it,” she says.
“It’s all the ingredients of a really good, gold standard library. And then we’ll monitor what happens over the 12 months in the school.”
'Books that look like sweets, not Brussels sprouts'
The schools haven’t been picked at random. The campaign has selected schools with at least 25 per cent of children on free school meals, and the schools are of different sizes and contexts in order to reflect the different types of schools you find across the UK.
“Some of these schools have had no library at all,” Cowell says. “And we want to make these new libraries joyful places. We want them to make the books like sweeties, not Brussels sprouts.
"Children from more well-off backgrounds get to experience the bookshops, with books looking exciting, and this is what we want libraries to look like, so books are as appealing as films and television.”
For more details about the campaign, you can search the hashtag #lifechanginglibraries and go to the Book Trust website.