Where the Potter magic misses

21st July 2000 at 01:00
IS there a child left in the country who hasn't heard of Harry Potter? I think there are lots; many of them are in children's homes.

On the eve of publication of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, while the big chain booksellers braced themselves for midnight pyjama parties and the Hogwarts Express prepared to steam into Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King's Cross, I visited a children's home in the north of England. One of the residents, a 13-year-old girl who is a keen reader, showed me her books: Mills and Boon, poetry anthologies and historical fiction published for adults, dog-eared jumble-sale rejects. Little Women was the most recent children's book in the selection.

The 55,300 children and young people in public care (with foster carers as well as in residential homes, or receiving support from a social worker while they live with their families) need books as badly as they need food, shelter and adults to battle on their behalf.

The right book at the right time can be an emotional lifeline as well as an educational resource. An attractive choice of new books at a formative stage is key to helping children form a reading habit that will sustain them through difficult times ahead. The provision of books for out-of-school reading is part of the local authority's role as corporate parent. This might mean training and supporting parents and foster carers to share books with children; for children in residential homes it means putting the books on the shelves in the living room. The books can and should be as various as children's tastes and abilities, from Goosebumps to Philip Pullman, but they must include the titles that set the playground alight.

The Department for Education and Employment's new guidance on educating young people in public care refers in its introduction to "the personal development of the whole child" and goes on to mention the importance of continuity and high expectations in the child's school career. Provision of a choice of enticing books is crucial to carrying out this guidance.

During the National Year of Reading, the BOOX projects, which linked libraries with youth services, established reading as a tool for tackling social exclusion. The child in the children's home s potentially the most socially excluded of all. Over the past fortnight, any child or adult who hadn't read at least one Harry Potter novel must have occasionally wondered if they were on the right planet. The experience of a nation united over a children's book is unprecedented.

The feel-good effect of a book with a shared child and adult readership, especially one which allows us to escape reality, has been both cause and effect of the recent Hogwarts media frenzy. As long as children barely old enough to pick this doorstopper of a book up can be photographed reading it in their pyjamas, and men in suits can be seen reading about wizards, it seems we can tell ourselves that we've got something right in society - we're all equal in the imaginary world. At least we are if we can afford the pound;14.99 cover price (discounts are available, of course, and a children's author making decent money at last is something to be celebrated).

Some local authorities give the staff who manage children's homes a budget for books and educational resources, including ICT provision. In one otherwise new and well-equipped home, the budget is pound;100 a year for 12 children. In that case, you don't wait for HP and the Goblet of Fire to come out in paperback; you wait until it surfaces in car boot sales.

This home is one of around 40 currently benefiting from the Right to Read project, organised by the Who Cares? Trust and the National Literacy Association and funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Libraries are being set up in children's homes in six pilot local authorities. The books donated by publishers are tailored to the age and tastes of the residents. The project is long-term, so books will be updated and replaced. The children can take them with them when they move, spend as long as they like reading them, drop them in the bath and lose them down the back of the sofa. Just like every other child who loves books.

It is hoped this pilot will lead local authorities to give the children in their care a longed-for happy ending which seems rooted in fantasyland at the moment.

See www.tes.co.uk

for the two-minute

guide to Harry Potter and

the Goblet of Fire

Geraldine Brennan is books editor of The TES

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