The magic is finding the right book

6th February 2009 at 00:00

Brian is a pupil at the City of Edinburgh's Wellington School, which provides education and day and residential care for boys experiencing significant social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Brian (not his real name) is a reluctant reader. At least he was until he met Edinburgh's Reading Champion, Colm Linnane, 18 months ago. It is Mr Linnane's mission to encourage the city's looked-after young people to read for enjoyment, so that books become part of their everyday experience.

Through getting to know Brian, and building trust, Mr Linnane suggested he might enjoy Partners in Crime, a short novel for emerging readers by Nigel Hinton. "He was 12-years-old then and this was the first book he'd read," says Mr Linnane. "He really enjoyed it, so I was able to build on that enthusiasm, get him to read other similar books and then expand his reading to longer books with a wider vocabulary. But the choice was always his."

Brian, now 14, not only sees himself as a reader, and one who reads for pleasure, but he has accompanied Mr Linnane to bookshops to choose books for his school library. Last August, he went to the Edinburgh book festival to hear Terry Pratchett read and have one of his books signed by his favourite author, an experience he still talks about.

"You have to encourage a path to reading that the young person is comfortable with and that means letting them choose books which appeal, which they will enjoy," he says.

As Edinburgh's Reading Champion, Mr Linnane works directly with children, young people and staff in the city's residential schools, secure units, young people's centres and respite centres. He visits each site, sometimes with the Children's Book Bus, to speak to the children and staff, to find out what might interest them and to return with the appropriate reading materials.

"It's important you don't let them down, that they know you will deliver," he says. "And it's also important, when you can, to take them into bookshops - places they don't naturally relate to and can find intimidating at first."

For Mr Linnane, this can also be a learning curve. One teenage girl, ill at ease in a city bookshop, suddenly spotted a biography of American country singer Johnny Cash. "She just grabbed it - and that's important. I'd never have thought that was the one to pick," he says.

The Edinburgh Reading Champion Project, started three years ago and funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, has placed Pounds 3,500 of stock in eight residential centres in the city, including 80 books selected and owned by 45 young people.

Last December, all young people in residential care received a Pounds 10 book token as a Christmas present. "It's crucial to promote book ownership as an entitlement," says Mr Linnane. "It's about making books part of the fabric of their lives."

With under-12s, storytelling and shared book reading are encouraged. All staff are seen as part of a "corporate parenting" strategy and many have been trained by the Scottish

Unsurprisingly, Mr Linnane, a trained librarian and book enthusiast, believes in the magic of books. "I've seen it when delivering books to one centre. 'I dinnae read books,' said a young lad. But then his eye caught a book of magic tricks. That evening, he performed some of those tricks in front of pupils and staff," he says.

"It's about finding the right book for the right person. That's how I define success - the magic moment."

Colm Linnane will hold a seminar on Choice and Interest - getting and keeping teenagers interested in reading, at the Creative Sparks conference in Edinburgh, run by the Scottish Book Trust and sponsored by The TESS, on February 27.


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