Ben Lee is quietly pleased with himself. He has just returned volume one of The Lord Of The Rings and is now holding volume two firmly in both hands.
More than 500 pages in a single week - not bad going for a nine-year-old.
"A week and two days," he points out, in case anyone should accuse him of merely skim-reading Tolkien's work. "And I did stay up all night to get it finished in time."
Can you picture Ben, reading by torchlight under the duvet in his suburban bedroom? Better adjust your focus, then. For Ben lives on the edge of an industrial estate in Essex, and his bedroom is in a caravan.
It's because Gypsies are not famed for their bookishness that Essex County Council and the Essex Traveller Education Service got together three years ago to devise a practical way of making reading material more accessible to children such as Ben. Now, every week, as part of the Essex Mobile Library Travellers Project, a fleet of eight mobile libraries, each stocked with a couple of thousand books, does the rounds of five Traveller sites in the county, and visits eight primary schools with a high proportion of Traveller children on their roll.
Last week, project was named winner of the Library and Information Show's prestigious Libraries Change Lives award, organised by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Nicola Baker, localities manager for the Essex library service, says the pound;4,000 prize money will be used to equip some of the library buses with laptops so children can access the internet, in particular a site called Cyberpilot, which provides a forum for Traveller children to share their experiences and contribute artworks to an online gallery.
But the real reward for those who staff this innovative service is seeing children such as Ben waiting eagerly as they reverse the library into the site entrance or manoeuvre it into a school playground.
There are 67 children on the roll at Crays Hill primary in Billericay, and all of them use the mobile library. But for the 35 Traveller children at the school, the shelves containing special books about their own way of life have a particular magnetism. First on the bus today is nine-year-old Quey, who borrowed a Harry Potter book last week, but admits to not having made it past page 64. This week, he is keen to get his hands on an illustrated dictionary of Roma and Standard English. Project co-ordinator Janet Carden finds it and he turns the pages slowly, reading out words he hears his family use: words such as "mush" for man, "kushti" for good and "hotchi witchi" for hedgehog.
The libraries carry a special stock of titles published by Traveller education services throughout Britain, typically stories about families who live in trailers rather than houses, or who make the annual pilgrimage to the summer horse fair in Appleby, Cumbria. Factual books about Gypsy history are also popular; the children can often spot their relatives in the photographs. And always in demand are books about the outside world, with horses and dogs at the top of the favourites list.
The mobile libraries help Traveller children to feel more comfortable with books. But they are also helping their parents cope with a society in which basic skills are essential (Ms Carden says she is frequently asked for cookery books, and even for a book about simple hairdressing for teenagers).
Traditionally, Traveller families have moved around, particularly in the summer months. But Sally Palmer, an advisory support teacher for the Traveller Education Service in Essex, says increasing recognition of their children's educational needs now means more families are staying in one place for longer. "The Traveller community is realising that because of the way society is now, they have to be literate," she says. "Many of the families say they miss so much because they can't read or write, and they want their children to do better."
Running a motor vehicle involves more form-filling than ever, and passing a driving test, a vital part of Traveller life, is impossible without some degree of literacy. And it doesn't stop there. "Some children went home recently and were talking about having pancakes," says Ms Palmer. "Their mother had no idea how to make them and couldn't read the recipes, so we had to talk her through it. Illiteracy has a knock-on effect with their diet, too, because they can't read packets so they don't know what's in the food they give their children. And they really do want to do best by their children; they are very strong on family."
Essex is home to more than 1,000 Traveller families. Around 200 rent pitches on local authority sites, while another 400 to 500 live on authorised private sites. The remainder make do with unauthorised sites, or simply camp by the roadside, risky options that can involve confrontation with the law.
Certainly the 25 families who live on Essex council's Hovefields site in Basildon are among the lucky ones. The senior site manager is Ann Lee, Ben's grandmother, and she makes it her business to ensure that the place is immaculate. At first glance, the site looks like an estate of holiday chalets, with caravans parked alongside what appear to be neat, brick-built homes. (Ann says she is regularly asked by passers-by if they do holiday lets.) But the "homes" turn out to be amenity blocks, containing nothing more than a kitchen, a bathroom and somewhere to put a washing machine. The Travellers live and sleep in their trailers.
Mrs Lee, who has lived at Hovefields for 28 years, and describes herself as "a house person who ran away with a Gypsy", says the library visits mean a lot to the community. "If the weather's nice, you get quite a congregation of people outside. Everybody has a chat while the children get their books.
And in the school holidays, they are always on the kerb waiting for the bus, sometimes an hour-and-a-half before it comes."
The aim of the project is to give Traveller children a choice, and, as he embarks on volume two of The Lord Of The Rings, Ann's grandson Ben would be the first to agree that libraries change lives. But will wider access to books and education erode a way of life that is already struggling to come to terms with the loss of traditional forms of work? Janet Carden believes not. "I don't see this as a weak culture," she says. "The Travellers' pride is as strong as ever, and the belief that they are special people is passed on to the children. When I ask parents what they want for their children, they tell me they want them to stay within the Traveller culture, but to be Travellers who can read and write."
LIBRARIES CHANGE LIVES
As well as pound;4,000 to spend, the Essex Mobile Library Travellers Project received a trophy from the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, at the Library and Information Show in London this week. The Libraries Change Lives award, sponsored by the show, is in its 12th year. The judges look for library projects (including those based in school libraries) that bring people together, involve communities, encourage reading and learning, share information and have potential to be developed and adapted elsewhere.
Two other projects were shortlisted for this year's award, and received pound;1,000 each. One of these, the Get a Life online creative writing project for 10 to 14-year-olds, was set up in after-school and holiday sessions by the Dumfries and Galloway library service as part of its Be Websmart campaign to promote safe and responsible use of the internet.
East Renfrewshire's information services also won a place on the shortlist for its website inspired by Holocaust Memorial Day. East Renfrewshire has Scotland's biggest Jewish community. See www.eastrenfrewshire.gov.
The award is administered by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Details at www.cilip.org.uk practiceawardschangelives.html.
Janet Carden of Essex libraries recommends: Shaun's Wellies, a lift-the flap story for key stage 1 children (Norfolk Traveller Education Service pound;6.95, order on 01603 766133); Two for One by Jamie King and Kathryn Yeaman, a tale with a twist for key stage 2 (Wiltshire Traveller Education Service pound;5, order on 01225 771687); One in a Million, the story of a traveller family from 1925 to the present (Essex County Council Publications pound;7.95, order on www.essexcc.gov.uk, click on eshop, or tel 01245 434200); Traveller Alphabet (Roma-Standard English dictionary) pound;5 from Essex as above; Gypsies and Travellers in their own Words edited by Peter Saunders (Leeds Education Service pound;15, tel 0113 2748050); Tales of the Old Gypsies by Jennifer Davies (Isis Large Print Books pound;17.95); Usborne Dictionary of Horses and Ponies (pound;9.99).