Unlocking the reader inside

24th February 2006 at 00:00
CHICKENFEED. By Minette Walters. Pan pound;2.99

THE THIEF. By Ruth Rendell. Arrow pound;2.99

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE IN 7 STEPS. By John Bird. Vermilion pound;2.99

STAR SULLIVAN. By Maeve Binchy. Orion pound;2.99

SOMEONE LIKE ME. By Tom Holt. Orbit pound;2.99

THE TEAM: BEHIND THE SCENES OF PREMIER LEAGUE FOOTBALL. By Mick Dennis with a foreword by Eric Cantona. Corgi pound;2.99

WOMAN WALKS INTO A BAR. By Rowan Coleman. Arrow pound;2.99

BLACKWATER. By Conn Iggulden. HarperCollins pound;2.99

THE BOOK BOY. By Joanna Trollope. Bloomsbury pound;2.99. www.worldbookday.comquickreads

My first attempt at starting a book club in a prison was greeted with bemusement by the prisoners I'd coralled into the library. "We can't read,"

they chorused. After the initial sinking of my heart - I'd brought several copies of Catcher in the Rye to the meeting - I rallied. They couldn't read, but they had turned up. This could only mean one thing: they wanted to read.

Around 80 per cent of prisoners in the UK are unable to read or write due to dyslexia or alienation from conventional education. I see my job - I'm writer-in-residence in a category B prison - as encouraging them into the world of literature. There is a lot of talent and creative energy locked up in the offenders I work with. Reading is the key to letting it out in a way that is, let us say, socially acceptable. Just as reading Agatha Christie and Jane Austen has got me through many a bad patch - they're my stalwarts in times of trouble - for a prisoner to get through his "bird", or sentence, reading has to be a way out. But Catcher in the Rye wasn't going to do it for these guys.

They get by with thrillers, true crime and adventure. They may not understand all the words, but the adrenalin-fuelled plots compel them forwards. The problem is these books aren't exactly challenging.

That's why Quick Reads, to be launched on World Book Day next Thursday, is a godsend to prison libraries. It's a series of short, fast-paced books by best-selling authors from a variety of leading publishers; they are written in an enticingly dynamic style that will not patronise their target audience. The action is there in the stories but there's depth in the characterisation. Importantly, the price has been kept low. Once the readers recruited in prison are back on the street (or the outside world, as we call it), pound;2.99 will be less off-putting than the usual tenner demanded for a paperback by authors of this ilk. That publishers have clubbed together with booksellers - with support from typesetters, printers and paper suppliers - in an initiative to encourage people to read who would not ordinarily be attracted to books, is an encouraging move for the literary world as a whole; not only a great marketing idea, but socially responsible. Moreover, and unusually for projects such as this, it actually works.

Of the current batch, Minette Walters's Chickenfeed stands out for me. As a crime writer, she will have cachet in a prison. There's more to her than that, though - it's just that she delivers it by stealth.

The real-life story of a dubious conviction and subsequent execution energises a fascinating meditation on mental illness, and the nature of guilt. I'm always telling the more literate prisoners who are writing their own stuff that character propels action. As a reader, you have to care about the protagonists. You have to want to understand. It's no good merely relating incidents, shocking though they may be; your hero or heroine has to appeal to some extent. I shall be recommending Chickenfeed as a textbook example of psychological complexity.

Ruth Rendell's The Thief delves similarly deeply into motivation. I can see all kinds of debate being provoked by this book. Literature is the gateway for understanding yourself and others. Since empathy is thin on the ground for offenders, especially the repeating variety, Rendell's offering should have more effect than even she bargained for.

The male writers have wisely stuck to action plots. Even the most reluctant reader will now be able to tackle Tom Holt, best known for comic fantasy.

I'm hoping to invite another Quick Reads author, John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, into prison to talk to some of the inmates. His book, How to Change Your Life in 7 Steps, is an inspiration. But it's practical, too.

Prisoners need to know that there are people, successful people, on the outside, who have shared some of their life experience, who have overcome disadvantage, drug or alcohol abuse, and dodgy career moves, to take responsibility for themselves. Bird does this in his book.

The teachers I've spoken to at HMP Chelmsford all rate Quick Reads as a way of getting learners out of inarticulate apathy and into discussion and introspection. "They start asking for more books by the same author," one basic-skills teacher told me. That's progress. We have our own quick reads shelf in the prison library. Now there'll be 10 more titles to add to the tally. In May there'll be another 10. More choice in books leads to more choices in life.

Lilian Pizzichini is writer in residence at HMP Chelmsford. She is the author of Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, and winner of the 2002 Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction

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