Social Justice

New children's laureate Frank Cottrell-Boyce: 'Children need reading now more than ever'

The new Waterstones children’s laureate Frank Cottrell-Boyce has pledged to dedicate his tenure to push children’s reading to the top of the national agenda

Waterstones Children's Laureate 2024-2026 Frank Cottrell-Boyce (c) David Bebber

The cost of living crisis is stopping “a generation” of children from reading, incoming children’s laureate Frank Cottrell-Boyce has warned – but it’s not too late to “fight for a happy ending”.

Do you remember the first book you really loved?

Perhaps it was a classic like Wind in the Willows, or a beautifully illustrated picture book, or Twilight.

For Cottrell-Boyce – author of more than a dozen books including Millions and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again – it might have been the Moomin series.

“A book that you love has this power to point you towards small pleasures, and small pleasures are so fortifying,” he told the Big Issue.

“Whatever is happening in Moominland, whether it’s an earthquake or a volcano or a flood, Moominmamma is there making coffee. To this day, whenever I smell freshly ground coffee, I’m there in these very happy memories that I had as a kid!”

Reading helps children build an “apparatus of happiness within themselves”, the award-winning author added. But the cost of living crisis is depriving millions of this opportunity.

BookTrust statistics released earlier this year show that one in five children aged 0-4 have a book read to them less than once a month. Just two in five (43.4%) children and young people aged eight to 18 said they enjoyed reading in 2023 – the lowest level since BookTrust first asked the question in 2005.

This decline in childhood literacy is contributing to an “unhappiness epidemic” amongst young people, Cottrell-Boyce warned.

“Our children are living through the aftermath of a series of crises, the pandemic, a series of wars and an unfolding environmental crisis,” he said. “The last time children faced disruption on this scale was during the mass evacuation of World War two.”

“They need reading, more than ever.”

Announced today (2 July) as the Waterstones children’s laureate, Cottrell-Boyce has pledged to dedicate his 2024-2026 tenure to push children’s reading to the top of the national agenda.

“Reading isn’t a total fix. It won’t fix broken buildings, and it can’t fix broken families, but it will make a very big difference to individual children,” he added.

The early years are a crucial window in child development. Reading boosts cognitive and emotional skills, a huge body of research shows. It also drives social mobility: A child growing up in poverty who is read to at age five has a significantly higher chance of economic success in their 30s than their peers who are not read to.

With 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK, tackling entrenched disadvantage is an urgent. But literacy can take a back seat while many families struggle to put food on the table.

Almost a quarter of parents and carers from low-income backgrounds (23%) are not sharing books with their children before their first birthday – despite the majority (95%) seeing reading as an important thing to do.

Meanwhile, schools and local councils are having to do more with less.

Spending on libraries has fallen by almost half (47.9%) since 2010. Between 2010 and 2019, more than 800 of the beloved institutions were forced to close across the country.

“We have lost so much,” Frank Cottrell-Boyce said. “As a child, I lived in a really overcrowded flat. Mum was very unhappy – walking over the road to the library was her retreat. It was just an ordinary library in the middle of Liverpool, but it was spacious and quiet, no one was yelling at you. It was beautiful. That place of safety is gone.”

To raise awareness of this funding deficit, outgoing children’s laureate Jason Coelho cycled to one library in every single local authority across the country.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce agrees that funding for libraries is part of the solution, which must include national provision so that every child – from their earliest years – has access to books.

His campaign – which is called Reading Rights: Books Build a Brighter Future – also includes plans for a national summit bringing together expert voices in the political, education, literacy and early years sectors.

The next government has a “huge responsibility” to get all children reading.

“You can see right away kids who are comfortable around books. They’re more confident,” Cottrell-Boyce said. “And that enormous, incalculable advantage shouldn’t be tied to who has money, and who can afford it. We can support families and carers to give the privilege of reading to all the children.”

Cottrell-Boyce’s own work tackles inequality; he wrote The Beautiful Game, the new Netflix film about the Homeless World Cup. Stories, he says, have the power to galvanise us to fight for a more equal world.

“You can be pessimistic when things are going well, but this is a difficult time, and we can’t afford to be pessimistic,” he said. “We need to harness the energy and the optimism to fix things.”

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