Fathers and stories
Anyone listening to the Today programme this morning may have heard me talking about the sad fact that dads are trailing far behind their partners when it comes to reading to their kids.
The reason I was on the radio talking about this is because of research carried out for Booktrust that reveals only a staggering 13% of fathers are the main reader with their child. In response, Booktrust is launching a campaign to get more Dads involved with bedtime reading.
I think this is a massively important thing. Now, I am a father and yes, I do read to my kids. Not every night, but at least half the time. I don't do this because of political correctness. I do it because I like doing it. I do it because I genuinely can't think of a more wonderful thing to do with my kids than read or invent stories, helping them to slip towards sleep with food for their dreams.
Of course, I work from home so it is quite easy for me to do this. Also, as a writer, I am already well and truly convinced of the value and pleasure of literature and of sharing stories. That is my life.
And it is important to note that, according to this latest research, a quarter of fathers blame working late for not reading to their kids. I'm sure that explains a small part of the picture (though surely a lot of mothers work late too). But a larger part of the picture has to do with cultural perceptions.
More women read books than men. The ratio is around 70:30. And many kids are growing up seeing their mother read and not their father. This may explain why more girls view themselves as book readers than boys.
But with the reading gender divide between boys and girls widening more than ever at the moment, and with boys' literacy levels falling near-continuously, it is time to re-balance the reading culture.
Notice I keep using the word culture. I do this because there is nothing inherently feminine about the concept of books. Storytelling should not be a gendered thing. Homer was a man. Shakespeare was a man. J M Barrie was a man. Hemingway - who definitely read to his children (there is photographic proof) - was the manliest man there has ever been. But somehow, the culture surrounding books and storytelling - and especially as it applies to children - has been, to a degree, feminised.
If a man goes to a parent and child reading group at a library he will very often find himself being the only man there. I know this because I have been that only man. How can this change? Well, libraries could have specific Father and Child reading sessions (Greenwich Library already does this). But it is going to take a lot to persuade some men that being a good Dad can be as much about reading the Gruffalo as taking your child to football practice or swimming lessons.
And I think the answer isn't just at the micro-level of the father-toddler context but at the macro level of men and books generally. We live in a world where marketing drives culture. If marketing minds see that more women are buying books, then more books end up being marketed towards women, and so the gender divide widens and men will end up in a literary ghetto of military history and sport books if we aren't careful.
As with so many things the solution will lie in seeing the human, rather than seeing the gender. Stories are part of all of us. They are universal. There is nothing more wonderfully human than telling a child a story. Fathers were telling children stories long before the invention of football or the X-Box. And so it is not a case of teaching men new tricks, but getting them to practice the oldest trick in the world. The very easy, but very magic trick of sharing stories.