The boy with a secret reading habit

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Sue Ashby reports on a wild Friday night in a library where young people have been persuaded to get hooked on fiction.

Friday night in Woking. A group of young people sing along loudly to drums and maracas. But not on the streets. They're in the library - where they've been from just after 6pm - deeply immersed in One World of Reading, a workshop inspired by BOOX, a glossy fiction review magazine which has just celebrated its first birthday.

An Asian boy, one of the group of 13 to 16-year-olds, shyly reveals a secret reading life. His parents strictly monitor when and what he reads, but he raids the library's fiction shelves for horror and graphic novels which he smuggles home to read by torchlight under the duvet. A young Italian boy describes Nigel Hinton's Buddy as "the book that changed his life", saying how torn he was between wanting and not wanting to finish it. His older brother talks about how thrillers allow him to think about deep philosophical issues.

But the evening begins with the teenagers working with a storyteller and a librarian, each re-telling the story of a book they chose a few weeks earlier from a collection which included Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, Claude Gutman's The Empty House and Paul Zindel's The Pigman.

This leads into a discussion about narrative, characters, genre and the essential qualities of the books that hold their interest: good plot, credible characters, issues they identify with, comedy and suspense.

Then they listen to the storytellers and their tales from India, Africa and the Caribbean. After Kevin Graal's tale of a captured bird told to the rhythm of a drum and Amoafi Kwapong's story of thwarted love, they each take a percussion instrument and create the music for Winston Nzinga Lewis's fable of how stinging nettles are made.

At 8.15pm, with the event over-running by 45 minutes, they take their copy of BOOX, happily agreeing to review the novels they've read for the next issue.

One World of Reading shows that libraries' efforts to get teenagers excited about fiction, including the launch of BOOX, have paid off. In 1995, research for the Public Library Review revealed that this age group are the biggest users of libraries, but most think of them as somewhere to study. BOOX - a sophisticated 12-page magazine written almost entirely by teenagers - was launched a year later by Well Worth Reading (Hampshire, Dorset and West Sussex libraries' literature promotion organisation) with sponsorship from Morley Books. In Dorset, book issues to teenagers have increased by 40 per cent in the year in libraries where BOOX has been used.

BOOX Two, launched nationally, includes a leaflet on how to use it to promote literature, plus case studies. Activities based on the second issue are already under way in the BOOX home territory: Isle of Wight pupils are exchanging reviews and author information on the Internet, young people in a secure unit in Hampshire are discussing and extending their range of fiction reading, teenagers in West Sussex are borrowing novels from the Horsham Information Shop - and Woking teenagers are involved in One World of Reading.

Claire Dawe, information service manager for North West Surrey Libraries, has follow-up plans which include displaying the teenagers' reviews in libraries. She is also committed to forming fiction-promoting partnerships with schools in Surrey.

And Woking teenagers? They have their copies of BOOX Two to read when they get home.

The deadline for ordering BOOX Two is February 16. Minimum order Pounds 20 plus pp for 25 copies. For details contact Miranda McKearney, Well Worth Reading, 15 Quarry Road, Winchester, Hampshire, S023 0JF. Fax: 01962 853747

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