I have a theory that everyone can remember at least one book that was special to them as a child, whether it’s a one their parents read to them, stories they read at school or ones they shared with friends. And since starting my new role I’ve been posing that as a question a lot, to children, teachers, teaching assistants, cleaners and office staff.
A couple of weeks ago I decided to take this idea a bit further and try an experiment to how well this theory works and whether parents are prepared to take action based on the memory of a special book*. I sent out a letter to all parents at my school and asked them to buy a copy of a book they loved as a child and donate it to the school to put in the library. Each letter I sent out was accompanied by a form the parents could fill in about their choice and what it means to them, which would then be fixed to the inside cover. The idea being children who take that particular book out of the library get a personal story with it, and they would almost become like golden ticket books the children would seek out.
After a few days waiting and watching my in tray and only a couple of books returned by parents I started to think all I had achieved was the misuse of a ream of paper for the letters. And to justify this failure to myself I looked to the area in which the school sits, in between two large council estates just outisde Slough and by no stretch of the imagination an afluent area. However, a couple of days ago, children started appearing at my door with books in their hands, some carrying several and a little later whole bags of books started appearing at my door. And not just any books, really well chosen ones, the sort I have been looking at buying for our new library in the Autumn and the sort I would love all the children at school to have the opportunity to read (Polly Dunbar’s Penguin, Nick Butterworth’s Percy the Park Keeper, Dick King Smith’s Harry’s Mad, and Mary Norton’s The Borrowers to name but a very few). What surprised me was the very personal nature of this particular act of giving: many of the children who have brought in books have insisted on handing them over to me personally, it seems to talk over the particular reason for the giving of that particular book and they have taken great pride in the choices their parents have made. Some children have also started to bring in copies of their favourite books to share with other children in the library and again, each book comes with its own story, that many children seem keen to share personally.
What I hadn’t expected was the amount of interest from teachers and teaching assistants, many of whom wanted to know why they hadn’t been given a letter asking them to bring in their favourite book. Subsequently, every member of staff in school received a letter and my new favourite hobby at school is evesdropping in on the conversations between teachers TAs and office staff about their favourite books, the ones they want to share and the difficulties they have in narrowing down their choices. And everyone has a story to tell about that particular book and why it is important to them.
Thinking back on my assumption of failure after such a small response in the first few days, my strong belief had been the majority of people who will take action on receiving a letter asking them to donate anything will take it quickly or not at all. It seems that thinking was flawed in this case. Perhaps it takes more than a couple of days to consider something so personal, maybe it’s something that can’t be rushed. The teaching and admin staff are clearly taking their time over their decisions too, but in the meantime their conversations about children’s books and the role they have played in their lives, continue. Several have arrived at my door to discuss the pros and cons of different books they would like to donate, really agonising over how to make their choice: should it be a classic favourite and therefore a solid choice but more likely to be chosen by someone else as well, or should it be a bit more left of field, a bit edgier and though provoking and introduce children to something completely new?
And while yes, it will add stock to the library and to the books in classrooms, really the exercise was about getting people to think – and crucially, to talk – about books, about what makes a good story and how important reading was to them as children so they can start to pass some of that enthusiasm they once had (and hopefully still have) to their children or the children in their class. And it seems to have started to achieve that. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by it really and I’m wondering at the moment the best way to celebrate this brilliant exercise with the children.
This feels like the beginning of a conversation to me, the beginning of a dialogue about children’s books which is shared between children, teachers and other adults in school and, crucially, parents. I’m in the process of hatching plans to capitalise on the momentum caused by the small surge in interest, to develop this conversation.
(Oh, and the book I have donated is one I discovered only recently, but which has since turned out to be a bit of a hit with some of the Year 4s: The Great Piratical Rumbustification by Margaret Mahy).
The picture above is a small selection of some of the wonderful books that have been sent in so far.
* though I can’t claim the idea for it was mine – my rather wonderful wife came up with the idea for the letter to parents
Currently reading: Lauren St John’s Kidnap in the Caribbean