As a children’s author I am often asked what books I read as a child. I always answer, library books. There was no money in our house for any other books. But there was an extremely good library nearby where I could have access to all the world’s literature simply by filling in a reservation slip.
I found out about books by reading about them in other books. This sometimes led to unlikely choices. For example, at the age of ten I filled out a reservation slip for Burton’s Anatomy Of Melancholy. The librarian may have raised an eyebrow but she certainly didn’t raise any objections. Of course when it came, I found it to be utterly impenetrable.
A few weeks later I came across a reference to another book that sounded intriguing. I clearly remember asking the librarian whether they had a copy of The Lord Of The Rings. ‘It’s by J. R…’I began. ‘Yes, I know who it’s by,’ she said with just a trace of exasperation.
For some time now libraries in the UK have been in a state of decline. In many cases they have been starved of funds; or money has been spent on computers instead of books. Of course computers are important but I firmly believe that an established reading habit is more important than any other factor in educational achievement.
I have worked a great deal in schools both as a teacher and as a children’s writer. I have seen so many children who do not read books at all, boys in particular. Nevertheless they spend hours playing computer games because their parents happily swallowed the sales-pitch that this is somehow educational.
Now with the Credit Crunch impacting on local authorities, libraries look like soft targets for spending cuts. My own local library is on the list for possible closure. Yet at the same time the government insists that increasing social mobility is one of its top priorities.
I am an example of social mobility. My parents came to this country with nothing but the clothes they stood up in. My father had no secondary education. He worked as a scaffolder, a welder and finally a boiler operator in a power station.
Yet I was able to go to university, to work firstly as a teacher and then from my own home as a writer. My life has been vastly more comfortable than that of my parents because I have climbed society’s ladder. And it was in my local library that I first set foot upon its rungs.
There are plenty of children today who are in the position that I was then, growing up in houses with no books, with parents who do not read themselves, who may not even speak English well. We need those children to achieve, to have a stake in our society and our developing culture. Let’s not take the ladder away from them.