Bird's song: Viv Bird bids farewell to Book Trust
Published on: 18 March 2015 Author: Viv Bird
BookTrust is an amazing organisation that I have been privileged to lead over the last seven years.
It inspires people to read through universal book packs for children across the UK, it champions programmes in deprived communities and schools, and it works in partnership with prestigious prizes and awards such as the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, BBC National Short Story Award, Blue Peter Book Awards, the Children's Laureate and other campaigns to raise the profile of great books, writers and illustrators.
I have been fortunate to have enjoyed a long and fascinating career in education, literacy and the charity sector. I spent 27 years as a school governor, including 11 years as Chair of Governors of an extremely challenging secondary school. Through these experiences I understood the challenges faced by schools, and the vital importance of partnerships with health and libraries to the success of the Bookstart programme. Suffice to say that all of these influenced my thinking and priorities when I came to BookTrust as CEO in 2007.
One particular influence on me was my first student when I was a volunteer adult literacy tutor. His name was Jim and he was 63-years-old.He had recently become Chairman of his tenants' association and he wanted to be able to read the minutes of tenants' meetings. He decided to seek help and I taught Jim one evening a week for two years. Jim improved his literacy skills and wrote his life story. I learned many things from Jim; including how restricted a life was without good literacy skills, and the empowerment that comes from reading.
This is why the work that BookTrust does - along with the other charities, publishers, booksellers and schools - to get children and young people reading is so important in increasing life chances through access and inspiration to read. This needs to start early on, which is why parents need to read with their children for ten minutes a day to give them the best start in life.
Recently, I came across a book published in1942, Britain Needs Books. Commissioned by the National Book League, the former name for Book Trust, author and editor John Brophy wrote this short book during the upheavals of the Second World War. In it, he expressed concern that the number of books being published had declined - from 17,000 p.a. in 1937 to 7,000 p.a. in 1941, with testimonials from the then President of the Publisher's Association, the Library Association, the National Book Council and even President Roosevelt.
Even during those testing times, Brophy was making the case that books cannot be dispensed with, books being a critical factor in the fight against all the hard-won heritage of freedom of thought and speech. It was a message to the people and to the government, a plea to the future of civilization.
BookTrust, libraries and publishers still work closely together. Today, despite all the efforts of Book Trust and the other reading charities - the National Literacy Trust, The Reading Agency, World Book Day, publishers and booksellers - we still need to make the case for reading and books. There may be more books being published today than there were in 1941 but there is still a massive reading challenge and complacency. You would be surprised to know (as our local partners remind us frequently) that middle class parents do not necessarily read to their children. There is real poverty with children growing up without books, parents who don't read to their children, and children and young people who choose not to read - with all the consequences for life chances. BookTrust's work is as vital as ever.
When I was a judge on the Read For My School competition last year, I was struck by the comments of one 9-year-old boy who said, quite honestly he didn't read much as he found books quite boring, but through the competition he discovered different books that he'd enjoyed so now he's keen to read lots more. Which I consider a great success!
The reading challenge is also an international one and it has been my privilege to debate and work with professionals in countries across the world on how we best engage our young people in reading. Thanks to BookTrust, the importance of books for babies is now globally recognised, and the universal Bookstart programme has been adopted in over 24 countries across the world. The model of working with health professionals and libraries has been emulated, and evidence shared. Some Bookstart projects are large scale and government funded; some are just small projects, for example, the one run by volunteers in a deprived district of Mexico. Bookstart is a genuine UK export success story.
I would like to thank everyone I've worked with over the years, especially the wonderful staff at BookTrust who have worked tirelessly to achieve our mission. I am very excited about the future of Book Trust, and I know that my successor, Diana Gerald, will take it from strength to strength.
For my final words, I would like to quote BookTrust's President Michael Morpurgo:
'Book Trust is the organisation that is out there batting for literature in all its forms. It doesn't just promote reading but enthuses teachers, parents, children and I hope governments with the joy and wonder of the world of books and the understanding that comes with it.'
I am looking forward to taking time out, for reflection, for writing perhaps, more reading of course and perfecting my tennis...
I wish BookTrust every success for the future.