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Power to the page turners

It's easier to pour water uphill than to get some children to read, but the right approach and the right books can make all the difference. Elaine Williams reports on two stories with happy endings

Paul can be a handful. When he's not in the mood to co-operate he can be highly disruptive, if not destructive. But today this 15-year-old is sitting next to Elaine Harrison, reading out loud to her from Asterix, his choice from a pile of books she has brought for him. This is real progress.

Mrs Harrison quit teaching three years ago at the age of 50 to become one of only six bibliotherapists in the UK, all employed by Kirklees and Calderdale public libraries and funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The Reading and You scheme that employs her has been shortlisted for this year's Libraries Change Lives award for library projects tackling social exclusion.

Her remit is to "prescribe" books to help heal adults suffering from mild to moderate depression, anxiety or poor general health. Having taught English in secondary schools for 25 years, 15 of them at Scissett middle school, Kirklees, she was attracted by a job that would still draw on her people skills as well as her love of books, but where she could work with small groups or individuals. She did not anticipate the new job returning her to the education front line, working at least part of the time with teenagers excluded from school.

Paul is one of 10 teenagers on Project Cool, a pilot initiative for excluded Year 11 pupils funded by Kirklees education authority and its social services' youth offending team. Project Cool offers an alternative, practical-based curriculum that includes IT, art and woodworking; youth workers to take sports; and male volunteers from the local community who act as mentors. Huddersfield's bibliotherapists were asked to join the project to help these disaffected youngsters experience the pleasures of reading.

Mrs Harrison says her teaching skills have been invaluable in managing the group, but she appreciates not having to stick to a curriculum and being able to offer a wide choice of reading - including comics, non-fiction and word games - and giving the youngsters individual attention. She says:

"When I first came, Paul walked in and said 'I'm not fucking sitting and reading, it's boring'. So I told him just to be quiet while I read to two others. It was a Paul Jennings book, very amusing. Paul lay on the desk and started making paper aeroplanes but I could tell he was being drawn into the story."

Based at a mobile library serving the outskirts of Huddersfield, Mrs Harrison also runs reading groups in a branch library and drop-in centre; she takes on GP referrals, working one-to-one with people with depression, the elderly, isolated or bereaved; she reads to long-stay hospital patients and residents of old people's homes. "People think of reading as something you do on your own, but talking about books can bring people out of themselves," she says.

After teaching she appreciates the flexibility of her job, which she can organise to suit her clients. "I loved teaching, but I was beginning to feel thwarted. The human relationship side was being snowed under by the paperwork. It's wonderful being able to say to people, 'I can give you more time. I can stay longer if you want'."

Judy and Phil Turner are also former teachers who have found job satisfaction in one aspect of their former profession. Phil, 64, is a retired education officer in the London borough of Haringey. He and his wife started The Storyteller, a children's bookshop in the market town of Thirsk, north Yorkshire, seven years ago, when Judy was suffering from ill-health and the pressure of heading a group of special schools for autistic children in Cheshire. She says: "My own children were brought up in Muswell Hill, north London, where there is a wonderful children's bookshop, and I always thought that was something I would want to do."

The Storyteller is a tiny shop tucked away in a cobbled courtyard off the market square, a treasure trove of 10,000 books. Judy and Phil make it their business to read all the books they sell, and sell only what they like. Their enthusiasm has won devoted customers, many of them teachers, nursery and playgroup workers seeking advice on books and resources, who invite Judy and Phil into their schools to run book fairs. "Teachers appreciate the fact that we know what they are talking about and the kind of thing they need," says Judy.

The couple admit that without their pensions they could not have initially made a living from the shop. They started with only 1,000 books on shelves made by Phil. But now the shop is in profit. They are children's book devotees and dab hands at fitting a book to a child. Phil says: "A lot of our work is talking to children about books and thinking about what they would like. We take them seriously but we have fun with them. We don't want them to be put off books. As a teacher I've seen enough of that."

The Turners feel lucky that they set up the bookshop at a time when children's literature is enjoying a renaissance in popularity and critical acclaim. "We feel we've struck gold," says Judy. "There is some phenomenally good stuff on the market now. I take a books course for reception and Year 1 teachers and there are always 20 to 25 picture books I desperately want to share with them."

Above all, Phil appreciates being his own man. "We please ourselves. We don't have objectives or mission statements, and we don't have targets - not even financial ones."

Judy reminds him that they do have one - "to start children off on a lifetime of reading".

The winner of the Libraries Change Lives award will be announced on June 26. The other two projects on the shortlist are the Big Book Share, a family reading project at HM Prison, Nottingham, and the Patients' Library at the State Hospital, Carstairs, Lanarkshire

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