22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Miranda McKearney founded The Reading Agency in 2002. She is a fierce advocate of the public library network and wants to make reading more social

What did you hope to achieve by setting up the agency?

Our mission is to get more people reading. We want to create more equal opportunities so that everyone can find pleasure and joy in reading. We believe that tapping into the work of public libraries is key to spreading reading more widely.

What has been the charity's greatest success?

In terms of numbers and reach, our greatest success has probably been the Summer Reading Challenge. In 2009, it inspired 725,000 four to 12-year-olds to read six books over the summer holiday. Like all the best ideas, it is very simple: it is based on personal challenge with a focus on free choice and enjoyment.

We also encourage children to record their experience somehow and talk about what they have read with others, perhaps at their local public library with a teen volunteer. They get a certificate at the end, usually awarded by their school at the start of term. It helps to bring public libraries, schools and families together, which is critical to a holistic approach to reading. It has made a difference to children's reading range and confidence.

What else encourages pupils to read?

We have found that reading groups encourage people to expand their reading horizons. They are not quite the same as book clubs, but they still bring people together from across the community for an enjoyable, sociable occasion. We have a scheme called Chatterbooks for primary-aged pupils that brings together groups of children from different schools into public libraries. It may target gifted and talented pupils or reluctant readers, but it is always a fun environment. So far 8,500 pupils have taken part. From January, we are expanding it into schools.

Aren't young people more interested in gadgets? Shouldn't you be harnessing this?

Absolutely. One of our authors, (former EastEnders actress) Michelle Gayle, has written a novel for mobile phones. Each episode is texted to the pupils' phones. Michelle noticed how many girls she talked to have low aspirations and she wanted to change that through reading. We don't want to be unrealistic - these girls aren't necessarily going to plunge straight into Jane Austen, but there are different ways they can access reading. In Japan, half of novels are published on phones.

Will that improve the image of reading?

I think we have to move away from the image that reading is always a solitary or isolating experience. Twenty-first century reading is more public. People like to talk about what they are reading and turn it into a social event. In the past 10 years, the media has cottoned on to how big reading is as a popular pursuit. People read much more than they go to the theatre. The Richard and Judy book club and the various book awards have really helped to raise its profile.

So are more children reading for pleasure?

There are still huge challenges. Research shows that English children have a less positive attitude to reading than those in other similar countries. It is a profound issue. It is not just nice to read - people's life chances are greatly enhanced if they enjoy reading. It helps them bust out of a bad start in life.

Could reading ever die out?

I think we are hardwired to need some sort of narrative to make sense of the world. That basic need won't ever die out, but it may well change. Even with gaming, there is a narrative. You need to read the instructions and understand the story. There are loads of words in World of Warcraft.

What would you change if you could?

I would invest heavily in the public library network. Their funding is not ring-fenced by the local authority, so they are very vulnerable. There is a real chance that libraries could go the same way as the Post Office. We will only realise how much we have lost when they are gone. There are 4,200 library branches in the UK. It is a gobsmacking network and schools and families should be making better use of it. If pupils aren't members of a library, the school could take them in so they become comfortable in that environment. A library can co-ordinate author visits, book signings and help provide provision for extended schools.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given?

When I started out, someone told me to treat people well because you never know where you will re-encounter them in your working life. It is true that they always seem to pop up in the most unexpected of places.

What are your favourite books?

Right now, I'm obsessed with two great passions: the natural world and reading. I have just finished walking the South Downs Way and have been reading excellent books about the natural world by writers such as Mark Cocker, Richard Mabey and Richard Long. Adam Nicolson's Sea Room, about remote Scottish islands, is also wonderful


2005: Awarded OBE for services to libraries and education

2002: Co-founded The Reading Agency, becoming its director

1987: Went freelance, working in arts-related training and consultancy

Mid to late: 1980s Marketing director, Commonwealth Institute

Early 1980s: Marketing manager at Bonhams, the auctioneers

Late 1970s: Graduate trainee at Masius Wynne Williams, an advertising agency

1976: First-class degree in history, English and philosophy, University of Exeter.

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