Read Michael Morpurgo's beautiful paean to reading, books and the power of education

21st September 2016 at 18:28
Improving literacy
Speaking at the inaugural Book Trust Annual Lecture, one bestselling author says there has been a growth in reading and literacy, but it has not been all-inclusive – far from it

We live in dark and troubling times. The late Bertolt Brecht, poet, playwright and theatre director, once asked: "In the dark times, will there be singing?" 

I will answer that later.

The concern I have about giving this talk – supportive as I am hugely of the aims of this Book Trust "Time to Read" campaign – is that I know, and you know, that I am talking to the essentially like-minded.

We may differ, but even then perhaps only minimally, as to how we achieve what we are all hoping for, seeking and working for: a culture in which to love and cherish books is common to everyone, a society in which we all feel that literature is universally valued and respected, belongs to us all, helps us to grow intellectually and emotionally, helps unite us; a society where homes and schools encourage children to grow up listening to and reading stories, where local libraries are open and free at the point of delivery.  

We know, without reminding ourselves endlessly, the obvious and less obvious benefits children can glean from developing a life-long love of reading, the widening and deepening of knowledge and understanding, the ability to empathise, to explore and discover, to be comforted, excited, provoked and challenged, to spur confidence and creativity.

Like many wordsmiths and storymakers, I speak of all this often, rather too often, I fear, at conferences here and there, at literary festivals, at gatherings of like-minded folk, as I am doing this evening.  

Our hope, of course, when we do this is that we provoke debate, and that this debate will help to change attitudes, and ultimately contribute to the enriching of children's lives, and life-chances, through a love of stories. That's my hope. That's why I'm here. I think it is why we are all here.

But is this a vain hope? What are we doing this for? What is the point? Who will be listening, except ourselves?

I, like you, can sing the old song, blow the trumpet, bang the drum, for the love of books, the importance of literacy for our children, proclaim it loud. I can bemoan the closing of libraries; the homes where parents don't read to their children; the schools where stories and poems can still so often be used simply as fodder for teaching literacy to the test.

I could blame successive governments who have all indulged in short-termism in their education policies, to a greater or lesser extent, who corral schools and pressure teachers into teaching literacy fearfully, who insist that measurable outcomes and results are the be-all and end-all of the education process, who often make a chore and a trial out of reading and books, who have succeeded so often only in banishing enjoyment.

But that would be passing the buck. We live in a democracy – just, an imperfect democracy certainly. Indeed, books and literature have played a crucial role over the centuries in creating and preserving our democratic system as well as the freedoms and rights we now so often take for granted; the freedom to speak our mind, to write and read what we will, and our freedom to choose.  

We choose our governments. We are all of us in some way responsible both for the successes and failures of our literacy and our society, for they are, as we know, intimately connected. So when it comes to reading and books, if we have failed to engage and enthuse generations of children, especially those millions from less advantageous backgrounds – and most certainly we have failed far too many of them – then for all of us, even here amongst so many who have striven to create a more literate society, it is mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Indeed, I think it could be said that literacy, or the lack of it, helps divide us, helps define and separate those who have from those who have not; those who feel they belong and those who feel they do not, who feel alienated.  

The truth is that over the years, indeed over the centuries, reading and literacy amongst our children, in our society, has certainly grown, but sadly it is also true it has not been all-inclusive, as it should have been, far from it. And that has been the great failure on our part.

But let me focus a while on the progress that has been made, the positive, on what has been achieved, by many people here today, and others, and not just in our time but over the centuries before us. We should see this progress in some kind of historical perspective, to see where we are, where we have come from. 

This striving for a society which encourages reading and writing, where knowledge and understanding are accepted as important, indeed vital, to our wellbeing as well as our productivity, as well as our cohesion as a tribe, our sense of belonging – all this striving was not entirely down to King Alfred.  But I like to think he helped begin it.

I like good King Alfred because I love a good story. I am one of those sleepy heads inclined to let the toast burn at breakfast, so I feel for the man. He was tired for goodness' sake, busy trying to drive out the dastardly Danes, but not too busy once he had done it to put his mind to the education of the people. He knew education and reading was the way forward. He pointed the way. So thanks for that, good King Alfred.

The Church then held the baton of education and reading and writing for many centuries – I myself went to a school founded by St Augustine. So quite old. But then I was at school a long time ago! So thanks for that, St Augustine.

All right, so there was another agenda here. In reading terms it is true there was predominantly only one best-seller out there, the Bible, a book by the way that is a treasure trove of great stories. But the growth of those early schools and universities slowly spread the notion, through the monks, to the people, that this world of reading was beneficial both to our prospects in this world and the next, as well as to our spiritual wellbeing; and the notion grew that words were power, that we could have our say. There was a growing thirst for law and rights. The written word mattered, framed laws, framed Magna Carta.

And all the while, let us not forget, the old stories were being told aloud, passed around, passed on. Sometimes told and sung and performed in town squares, on village greens; ancient stories from earlier times, stories that had their origins from myths and legends of our own, and from far away too, brought to us from the far off lands of traders, travellers and invaders.

Reading was a giant leap for mankind

Even then we had our stories and our songs. We have always had them, renewed and retold for each generation. They helped make us who we have become, to keep us in touch with who we have been.

Then technology gave us all in this country a huge helping hand, truly a giant leap for mankind, womankind too, childkind as well.

William Caxton thought up the printing press. Now, stories and poems and pamphlets could be printed in their dozens and hundreds and thousands. No longer did everything have to be copied out laboriously, and often beautifully, exquisitely, by monks. No longer could the Church hold such sway over what we wrote and read. The book genie, the story genie, was well and truly out of the bottle.

The book took off, went viral. So thanks for that, Mr Caxton: what an invention. Still going strong, more needed that ever. 

The printed word could now be read by anyone who could read, and because of the printing press more and more people could read, and more and more people wanted to read. This reading thing was spreading like wildfire: knowledge was for everyone. Stories, ideas, were for everyone.  

To feed this yearning for stories, ever more poems and plays were written, too, and performed. Theatres sprang up. Shakespeare happened. And from where did he get the plots for so many of his plays? From the stories he grew up with, passed down to him, learned at school, from books, from history.

The book, the play, was new and exciting, but seriously dangerous to those who wished to control the way we thought. This spread of new ideas through reading and performing was overturning old dried-up myths, revolutionising how we thought, opening up new possibilities, new concepts, raising hopes and aspirations.

The people were discovering that any Emperor's New Clothes were somewhat transparent. The world was round. God did not bestow Divine right on Kings, and he would have found it impossible to create the world in seven days. Darwin ensured, in a book, that other ideas as to how we had evolved as a species seemed to make more sense.

The more we read, the more we realised that we had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the right to speak our minds, express our ideas, the right to strive for greater fairness and equality. We realised we needed books to expand our horizons, make sense of this often dark and difficult world, to make sense of ourselves and our lives on this beautiful tormented and fragile planet.

Make no mistake, it was not simply strife and struggle that achieved all this, it was the written word, the printed word, the book, and the courage of women and men, who so often risked life and limb to write.

Yet even now after all this time there were still millions mired in poverty, hungry and effectively disenfranchised. Despite the spread of education, despite the new libraries being built in towns and cities up and down the country, there were still those children who could not read, who had scarcely ever seen a book, never had one in the house.

Books to buy were expensive, a good education was by no means universally available, and sometimes too minimal to make much difference to the lives people could lead, to their prospects. The elite had to a large extent taken possession of this new world, seeming to want to keep it exclusive, expensive, to manipulate it for their own purposes. For the majority this new world of knowledge and understanding was still unattainable.

How books became 'rampant'

But books and education and the ideas they had sown and nurtured, would not be denied. In this country in the 1930s little orange paperback books appeared on our bookstalls, with a jovial little penguin dancing on the front covers. They were cheap, six pence a copy. Now books became rampant, so, thank you Mr Penguin.

These were books for everyone, all sorts of books, too: crime, mystery, poetry, great classics from all over the world, books you could slip into your pocket, take anywhere, read anywhere. Books were not exclusive any more. Books were on a roll.  

There was the BBC now broadcasting into millions of homes – so thank you, Mr Reith – books being read out, stories new and old, dramatised, there was poetry too and even some programmes for children.

Out of the horrors of war, and the burning pyres of books, came a peace built on hope, and on a determination to extend rights and power to everyone, through education, through knowledge and ideas. There were ever more libraries, and bookshops, and the 1944 Education Act ensured a better education for our young.  

More and more publishers were bringing out children's books, all sorts and kinds, fiction and non-fiction, and more and more people were reading them, writing them and illustrating them, telling them and selling them.

For children, for all of us, it really was going to be the best of all possible worlds. Now we were, all of us, irrespective of income, geography or background, going to be able to enjoy the benefits of reading and enjoying books, and through books to aspire, to follow a pathway to fulfilment.

I was reading these books – not often enough, I was told – and comics too – and listening to children's radio, from about 1948. But there was no library at St Matthias, my Church of England, LCC school on the Warwick Road in west London, no books for enjoyment, just school textbooks, readers.

I had loved stories before I went to that school, because my mother read to us, only her favourite stories and poems, read them with a passion. We loved them with a passion. They were fun, they were exciting, l longed for our storytime with her, loved books, loved stories.

School killed my love of stories

School killed all that, took the wonder of stories, the music and playfulness of language, and turned it all into a "subject", to be used for comprehension tests, handwriting tests, grammar tests, parsing, spelling tests and punctuation tests. In these tests at least as many of us failed as succeeded. That's the point of tests – to separate those who pass from those who fail. Testing is supposed to encourage both. It doesn't. When you fail it brings only a sense of worthlessness and hopelessness. It brings fear and shame and anxiety. It separates from those who have passed, rocks confidence, ruins self-esteem.

You disappoint yourself, disappoint others. You give up. I gave up. To give up on books is to give up on education, and if you give up on education, then you can so easily give up on hope, give up on your future. This way you can so easily turn children away from books and reading, and that can be a life sentence, a life without books. So many avenues are barred, so many possibilities never imagined, so many discoveries never made, so much understanding of yourself, of others, stunted for ever. 

But I was lucky. I was granted a second chance. I had a mother who had sowed the seed early on, passed on to me her love of words and stories and poems. I had enough wonderful teachers in each of my three schools, and then at university, to begin to restore my confidence. They helped grow the seed which had almost died in me. I was fortunate indeed.

I was later to become a teacher, and in a sense, I have never in my adult life not been a teacher. Yet despite my best efforts as a teacher, and the best efforts before me of King Alfred, William Caxton, William  Shakespeare, libraries, paperback books, publishers, great writers and illustrators and thousands upon thousands of talented teachers, and devoted parents, there still exists almost an apartheid system of a kind in this country, between haves and have-not children. 

Between those who read, who through books, through developing an enjoyment of literature, can have the opportunity to access the considerable cultural and material benefits of our society; and those who were made to feel very early on that the world of words, of books, of stories, of ideas, was not for them, that they were not clever enough to join that world, that it was not the world they belonged to, that it was shut off from them for ever. In the country of Shakespeare, of Wordsworth, of Hughes, and Dahl and Pullman and Rowling, the great divide was still there, is still there, maybe not wider still and wider, but shamefully still there.

I may, I hope, have helped some of the children I taught on their way; I may have, through my writing, encouraged some children to become readers for life. But not enough, not enough. There are far too many children I failed, as a teacher, as a writer and campaigner too. Our prisons are full of them, full of those we have failed. Many remain lonely and marginalised all their lives.

The right book, the right author, the right parent, the right teacher, the right librarian, at the right time, might have saved some of them at least, made the difference, shone a light into a dark life, turned that life around.

Children still feel excluded

So, in spite of our best intentions – yes, of politicians, writers, illustrators, storytellers, the whole publishing and bookselling world, libraries, theatres, parents, all of us – to reach out and include, millions of our children still feel excluded and alienated. What are we to do? Where have we gone wrong?

Well, it's obvious. It's the story, stupid! We know what works and it really is simple. Mum and Dad telling stories, reading stories they love, too; teachers given the time and space within school time to do the same; a good library in every school, and in the community; writers and storytellers and illustrators, visiting schools, telling their tales, drawing their pictures, singing their songs, theatres reaching out to family audiences and coming into schools with their productions, as many do, shows being put on at prices families can afford.

So what more can we do? Most certainly we have to go on singing the song, blowing the trumpet, banging the drum, but not always louder, more tunefully perhaps. Just talking about it, giving lectures about it amongst ourselves certainly doesn't put it right. 

Here are a few notions that cost very little or nothing. 

1. Do not ever close libraries, in or out of school: make them better. Librarians, teachers, parents, need the tools to do the job.  
2. Read a story to every child at bedtime every night. 
3. Let there be half an hour of storytime at the end of school in primary schools up and down the country. Choose an author the children love. Call that half hour, "Philip Pullman time", or "Quentin Blake time", "David Walliams time", '"Roald Dahl time", "Julia Donaldson time", "David Almond time", "Shirley Hughes time", "JK Rowling time", "Judith Kerr time", "Michael Rosen time", "Michael Morpingo time", if you're desperate, whoever you like. But make this the half hour they all long for, that they don't want to be over.
4. Invite parents and grandparents in, people from the local community, from the world community to come in to tell their own stories, pass them on.

Make storytime at the end of the day a special time, a fun time, devoted entirely to reading, to writing, to storytelling, to drama. No testing, no comprehension, no analysis, no interrogation. Let the children go home dreaming of the story, reliving it, wondering.  

All that matters at that early age is that they learn to love it, that they want to listen to more stories, read them, tell them, write them, act them out, sing them, dance them. All the rest will come later, the literacy side of things, which is important, once that seed is sown. 

Sow seed on stony ground, try to make it grow with no sun and no rain, it won't happen. You cannot force-feed children with literacy. Metaphors are better mixed! Encourage parents, unchain the teachers, take away the fear. Children have to want to learn. So give them the love of story first, the rest will follow. Horse before cart, horse before cart.

All of us here live in this world of making books, or loving books, all of us need no reminding of the power of books to transform the lives of children, to release their own creative energy and genius. We do not need convincing of this. But I can, I hope, try to remind us of the power of stories, for all of us, child or grown-up child, by reading a story, to finish.

So imagine now your grandpa is sitting by your bed, and you are waiting for a story. You know grandpa, he'll even read two stories if you pester him, because he can't say no to you.  That's what you like about grandpa, but you really wish he wouldn't grow hair in his ears. He says it's to catch flies. He hasn't got much hair on his head, so how come he grows hair in his ears?  Anyway, here comes his first story.  

"It's a story about stories, Michael," he says.

"Wot no witches or wild things?"

"It's about a man called Stephan Zweig, who loved stories, loved listening to them, telling them." 

(Read from Volker Weidermann's 
Summer before the Dark pp. 140 to I42)

"To be honest I thought that was a bit boring, grandpa. Have you got another one?  A better one?"

"Yes, I have, it's a story about stories," he says.

"But I just had one of those. I want a unicorn story. I like unicorns."

"All right. Unicorns it is," he says. "By a fellow called Morpingo"

"Never heard of him," you tell him.  

"Nor me," he says, "but don't be picky. it's about unicorns. And that's what you wanted, right?

(Read I believe in
Unicorns from Singing for Mrs Pettigrew)

We began with Bertold Brecht, if you remember, with a question.  Let's end with him.

'In the dark times, will there be singing?'  

"Yes, Mr Brecht," I tell him. "There will be singing, and storytelling and reading too, and writing too maybe, Mr Brecht.  That's maybe the only way we can come one day out of the darkness and into the light."

Michael Morpurgo is a writer and bestselling children’s author

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