Books

War Horse author Michael Morpurgo warns cost of living crisis is denying kids the 'right to read'

Literature doesn’t belong “to the middle class,” Sir Michael Morpurgo has urged, calling on the government to invest in youth literacy

Children have the 'right to read,' Sir Michael Morpurgo has urged.

Literature doesn’t belong “to the middle class” Sir Michael Morpurgo has insisted – but the cost of living crisis is depriving too many children of the “right to read”.

The author’s warning comes after the release of alarming new youth literacy statistics. Less than half of children are read a bedtime story, BookTrust research has revealed, and only 50% of kids aged between one and two from low-income families are read to daily.

“We have a right to our literature. It’s not for middle class people. It’s for all of us,” Sir Michael told The Big Issue. “[But] too many children don’t have access to books… And then this assumption creeps in, that ‘reading is for other people, it’s not for me.’ That’s a tragedy.”

The author – whose back catalogue of 150 books includes War Horse and Private Peaceful – has signed an open letter urging politicians to help “all families become reading families.” Other signatories include current laureate Joseph Coelho, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Sir Quentin Blake, Cressida Cowell and Michael Rosen.

“For our children and for us, reading is the great pathway to knowledge and understanding and empathy,” the letter, addressed to prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, declares. “Sadly in this country there are still millions of young children who never have the opportunity of finding this pathway.”

Why is reading so important for young people?

The open letter is part of BookTrust Get Reading campaign. Speaking to The Big Issue, Sir Michael Morpurgo – president of BookTrust – said that all children deserve the “magic” of reading, and the earlier they are introduced the better.

“To give you an example: when kids are very young, how do you stop them being frightened of water? You put them in the bath, they splash around, and suddenly water becomes this thing which is fun,” he said.

“The next thing, you’ll go to the seaside, you’ll carry them into the sea, the fear of water starts disappearing, their connection with it grows. It’s the same with books.”

But too many children are deprived of this opportunity. Despite 95% of parents with children under seven knowing how crucial reading is, new statistics conducted this year for BookTrust show that one in five children aged 0-4 have a book read to them less than once a month. Around a quarter of parents (26%) with children aged 0-7 find reading with their child challenging.

Establishing ‘parent reading clubs’ at schools would help fix this problem, Sir Michael said – but widespread government investment is needed.

“In many millions of homes around this country, there are no books. But people are still closing down libraries – shame on them,” Sir Michael said. “In my neck of the woods, in Devon, for example, they’re closing down the mobile library. The children who need it most are being deprived of books.”

Some 4.2 million UK children live in destitution. BookTrust is calling on the government to provide books and resources to low income and vulnerable families – and to support teachers, librarians, family support workers and early years teachers advocate reading.

The early years are a crucial window in child development, said Diana Gerald, CEO of BookTrust.

“Children who missed out on critical development opportunities during the pandemic have fallen behind in terms of language development, literacy and communication skills,” she said. ”We know reading can help address these issues.”

A 2023 study by the National Literacy Trust found that more than half of children and young people surveyed said they did not enjoy reading in their free time.

Urgent action is needed to put this right, Sir Michael Morpurgo said – and to introduce children to the joys of stories.

Books will put them in touch with the world, and with themselves,” he said. “We don’t want to endlessly witter on about literacy, about passing exams, who gives a whatever about a semi-colon. We’re really interested in stories. That’s what they’re going to be attracted to for the rest of their lives.”

“We live in difficult times. I don’t see how young people can begin to comprehend the world they grow up in if they don’t have stories.“

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