The clocks have gone back, it’s dark as soon as school finishes and, as fireworks flash outside, I am reminded that the things that happen at night are the most magical. It is Children’s Book Week and I think that one of the most happy, warm, delicious and magical childhood pursuits is reading. Particularly after dark.
A certain sort of book is better read in bed. Breaking the lights-out rule is one of the happy comforts of childhood. Nighttime reading gives a child the license to be safely afraid, warm and comfy in their bed. It lets magic permeate their dreams; it wakes them up with ideas. There are many different kinds of reading for children: sharing a book with a parent, reading in class with a teacher, finding a book in a library – but perhaps night-time reading is the best reading of all.
Imagining a childhood without books gives me a horrid sense of deprivation. I cannot imagine my childhood without the characters I met along the way. The age you are when you first read a book is vital. As a child reader I certainly brought more magic to the party. I believed in absolutely everything, and reading permitted me to do the things that I was not allowed to do, not yet, and let me imagine the things that I would never do – although I believed that I might.
'Stardust in their imaginations'
Reading is the most powerful gift we can give a child: it puts stardust in their imaginations, the tingle of possibility in their minds, the knowledge of facts in their brains, the crackle of magic in burnt fingertips that have cast wondrous spells. Books give you a best friend who understands when you really need them to. An animal with warm fur who loves you. The belief you are someone special and that you can overcome difficulties, that the world belongs to you and you can make something wonderful of it. You can also make mistakes, you can walk into danger, you can experience untold terrors, and – with fiction for older children – you can even die.
Then you can put the book down and live.
Books are an anchor that show children how people cope in difficult situations and how situations can develop outside our control. They are full of knowledge – and a springboard to developing that knowledge. They offer facts and figures (the Guinness Book of Records is absolutely fought over by boys in our school library who can tell you specific page numbers, facts, data…) as well as opinions about things where knowledge runs out. Books are aspirational – and inspirational, providing an insight into human frailty and human strength. Books are a guide to the galaxy. Books are clever – they show us what nature has achieved. Books are funny – they can be really funny – and some of our most loved children’s authors are the funniest of all.
A bookcase of one's own
And then there is the power of choosing a book. I remember how it felt when a £5 note fell out of a birthday or Christmas card when I was small. I was never quite so keen on a gift voucher. I liked having real money. I liked spending it on Lego (the first and best instructions that we read) and on books.
I think it is lovely to give a child that responsibility. To walk into a book shop with their own money and spend £6 or £7 wisely. It’s a pick ’n’ mix for the imagination, and they get to keep the book for ever. To fill up a bookcase of their own.
We all remember, either clearly or vaguely, the books that imprinted on our imaginations as children. We often have difficulty describing exactly what happened, but we remember the feeling it gave us. ‘There was this book I read as a child…’
It may be a disappointment to find this book now and read it with an adult brain because the colour might have faded, the sparkle dissipated like the words written by a sparkler. But perhaps it may ignite all over again. The alchemy achieved by the little black shapes on a page – not even proper shapes – that build worlds in the mind and make you someone else for the duration is a glorious, high magic.
Walking around I see teenage boys (in particular) wearing t-shirts to show they’ve not quite come back from the brink of unreality. They prefer the worlds of comic books and graphic novels, and they want this world to know that. They believe in what is right and wrong, in super-powers, special mutations.
Need to read
We need food and water, we need to be warm, we need to have hope, and we need to make sense of this world. We need to dare to dazzle and create, and to step outside of ourselves. We need to take risks. We need to be. We need to read.
We need more children’s book reviews, more people like Adi Bloom and Nicolette Jones, who champion children’s literature. We need more libraries in schools and communities, because if a £5 note doesn’t drop out of your Christmas card, a library means you can still go and choose a book. Learning to love a library means learning to be comfortable in one and being confident in using one, so that when childhood is no more, and you say goodbye to those who love you and head off to university or wherever the world is leading you, you can always find a library. You may think, ‘I’m a little lonely, and this is all a little new,’ but you will gather a stack of books and open a computer and think, ‘But I’m in a library, I recognise this. I know about reading, so a part of me is home.’
In time, reading might turn to writing: in all its different forms, from something as small as a tweet to a doctoral thesis. And it is through writing that wonderful new books will be born that will light the touchpaper of inspiration that ignites the brains of our children.
Between here and Christmas is the time of year when the most books are sold. It is dark, it is cold, it’s time to hunker down and light up the fire of imagination. So ignore the lights out rule and give a child you love a book. It is a magical gift, and a unique one, because once those words are mixed with the power of a child’s imagination…well. No other gift could possibly contain as much.