Alan Johnson: 'We must get books into children's hands'

Published on: 19 November 2013 Author: Alan Johnson

In an exclusive interview for Book Trust, former Education Secretary and bookworm Alan Johnson describes how books changed his life.

Alan Johnson is no ordinary politician, reader, or author. Raised in the grinding poverty of pre-trendy 1950's Notting Hill, he went on to hold five Cabinet positions - including Education Secretary. This Boy, an autobiography charting his early years, reads as a touching tribute to his mother Lily, who died when Johnson was only twelve, and to his older sister Linda, who subsequently cared for him.

Johnson is passionate about literacy skills and encouraging a love of books from an early age. As Education Secretary, he championed reading through new Government programmes such as 'Every Child a Reader' and says that as a politician he has always considered the plight of those from a similar background to him.

As a child his mother signed him and his sister up at Ladbroke Grove Library before he was even able to read. From that point on, books were destined to play an essential role in his life story, and became a crucial tool in surviving an impoverished upbringing. Johnson says that 'being able to escape into a book is just a marvellous means of coping'.

He is emphatic about the difference between borrowing and owning books; 'I struggle now to remember the books I borrowed. To actually possess your own books was different. Being able to pick them up and dip into them or re-read them whenever you liked lifted the pleasure of reading on to another plane.'

He supports early years bookgifting, and the work of Book Trust as critical in establishing a lifelong love of reading. He feels that bookgifting is what marks Book Trust's work out as unique - 'the important thing is getting books into children's hands as early as possible'. For Johnson, the potential of reading knows no bounds - as his own life has shown, 'I can't imagine my life would have turned out the way it did without books.'

Unique amongst Labour politicians of his generation, he doesn't cite Clement Attlee or Nye Bevan as sources of early inspiration. In fact, his ambitions were more Western than Westminster. Johnson is categorical; 'I badly wanted to be Shane' - the mysterious character featured in the novel of the same name, written by Jack Schaefer, published a year before his birth.

But the man who had to settle for being a politician turned author has a stark yet hopeful message about reading for the nation. 'The tragedy is that they [children] go through life missing something that could have given them so much pleasure, but which they never had the opportunity to indulge'.

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