Opinion

A child's first book brings joy, wonder – and social mobility

"It’s a national scandal that one in eight kids from disadvantaged backgrounds doesn’t own a book." Damian Barr recalls the impact of the first book he owned

Boy reading a book

What was your first book? Not the first ‘once upon a time’ you remember. Not the first story you got a gold star for getting all the way through. But the first book that belonged to you. The book with your name in the front that lived on a shelf by your bed – the book whose pages knew only your fingers. A book of one’s own.

Mine was a children’s encyclopaedia called KNOWLEDGE. It was bigger than a school jotter and a rich-looking red. On the front it had close-up pictures of a bumblebee, hieroglyphics and an equally indecipherable green circuit board (because computers were the future in 1986). The tagline was: ‘Discover amazing facts about our world’. And I did. I learned all about the Industrial Revolution and the water cycle and the Commonwealth. Because it was a hardback, the facts felt even weightier. I could be surer of them, and myself, because it took some effort to hold up in bed.

My mum couldn’t afford books, but she knew stories were fuel just as vital as gas and electricity

Facts are now alternative, fewer bumblebees buzz and our amazing world is governed by those circuit boards. But I still have that book. I am only a writer now because I was a reader then. And not just a devourer of books but an owner of them. KNOWLEDGE was power.

I was given that first vital book by Social Services along with The Chronicles of Narnia. There was no way my mum could afford books when she was struggling with bills. But she knew stories were fuel just as vital as gas and electricity, so she registered us for that scheme.

At first, I was embarrassed getting books from the council but got over it when I went through the back of the wardrobe. Just because we couldn’t afford books doesn’t mean we didn’t deserve them. In fact, we needed them all the more. Books are a pleasure not a luxury. They are that rarest of things: a joy that is also improving! Like some delicious magical chocolate dreamed up by Roald Dahl that also makes you slim.

Yet books are still seen as the province of the middle class. There are no bookshops on council estates. Hay-on-Wye, home of one of Britain’s biggest literary festivals, is next door to Merthyr Tydfil, which has one of the highest populations of people lacking basic literacy. Let the poor eat reality TV.

Boy reading a book under the bed covers
Knowledge is power: a book gives a child "a passport to new places, real or imagined"

“Children who own books enjoy reading more, read more and more frequently and have higher attainment,” says a report from the National Literacy Trust. It shows that children who own a book are 15 times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than peers who don’t own a book.

Book ownership boosts reading power and pleasure, which drives attainment, which is the engine of social mobility. It’s a national scandal that one in eight children from disadvantaged backgrounds doesn’t own a book. According to the Trust, boys are less likely than girls to own a book and more white than mixed-race, Asian and black children own at least one book.

So how many books makes a difference?

One. Soon after my gift from Social Services I won a book token and got lost in Middle Earth for a summer. Give a child a book and they might devour it or shun it for a screen. But books are patient. They’re happy to wait. Your first stories stay with you. Give a child a book and you’re not just giving them joy, you’re giving them a ladder, a passport to new places, real and imagined.

Over the last 15 years, The National Literacy Trust’s projects have provided books to more than 331,000 children across the UK. They say: “Although other factors such as socio-economic status and gender may have a part to play […] the relationship between book ownership and reading attitudes and abilities is consistently strong.”

Everybody deserves the unique comfort and joy that books offer

Why? Do we enjoy reading more when we can just pick up a paperback or does access foster enjoyment? Does it really matter? No. Whenever I had a question, KNOWLEDGE was there. I didn’t have to go to a library or ask an adult.

“Everybody deserves the unique comfort and joy that books offer,” says Nash Robbins of Much Ado Books in Sussex. Nash and his partner, Cate Olson, are pioneering a new social enterprise called Prospero’s Project to distribute books via food banks.

“The intent is to provide pleasure,” says Cate. “Rather than what people might think of as improvement. For adults we’ve chosen thrillers, mysteries and literary fiction. We tried cookbooks but the response was not very positive – we’re trying to respond to feedback. One volunteer said that while some adults might not take a book, no adult would choose not to take a book for a child.”

“Reading is entertaining first – the rest comes after,” says Nash. “Publishers struggle to get books to people not already inclined to read so we think this is incredibly important.”

With support from small publishers including Myriad and Phaidon, Prospero’s Project has given out more than 500 books via food banks in Hailsham and Eastbourne. Our minds need nourishing just as much as our bodies. Every food bank should get involved and every publisher should support Prospero’s Projects to roll out nationwide. Because everybody needs their first book.

@MuchAdoBooks

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