How reading helps and inspires military families to connect
Published on: 09 November 2015 Author: Lucy Mason
As the country remembers those who sacrificed their lives in conflict this Remembrance Day, one charity is supporting British military families by inspiring and encouraging a love of reading books.
Life in the military can be incredibly tough on family life. Parents are often deployed overseas, families are regularly relocated away from grandparents and close friends, and children can be sent to boarding schools far away from their siblings and parents.
Reading Force is a charity that is passionate about bringing these families closer together through sharing and reading books. Service families are sent a free book and encouraged to read it together, wherever they may be, discussing and sharing ideas as they go along. They can then put all their thoughts and ideas about the book into a scrapbook, which often becomes a treasured family keepsake.
It's a simple idea that's had a huge impact on Karen Blakesley and her family. Karen's husband Paul is an officer in the army and they have two sons, Maxwell, 10 and Nathaniel, eight.
'Paul and I have moved 11 times in 16 years, sometimes staying just a year before being moved on again, and our two boys don't know any different. Reading Force appealed to us because Maxwell was starting boarding school and we didn't want him to feel isolated from the family. We also thought it would be good to maintain links with his grandparents who don't always know what to talk about with a 10 year-old.'
Connecting from the front line
Karen also thinks Reading Force is a great way for parents to connect with their children while they are deployed in conflict zones overseas.
'When you're talking to your family back at home, you can't say 'today I shot someone', so books are a common subject you can talk about. Lines of communication when you're away can be strained, so a book is an easy topic to share and discuss.'
Ian Boyd-Wallis served in the Navy in Afghanistan, Dubai and the Gulf, and understands the huge strain this separation has placed on his six-year-old son, George.
'I've been away for quite a bit of his life and it's been difficult for him. We were recommended to try Reading Force by the forces liaison officer at George's school. My wife and mum read with George every night, his favourite book is George's Marvellous Medicine, and we'd talk about it together on the phone. We even made our own medicine afterwards.'
Ian credits Reading Force with improving George's reading - he's been told by his teacher that he's now a free reader - and strengthening their relationship.
'George and I did the scrapbook together when I was home on leave. I'd draw bits I liked and remembered and George would do the same. It's something I like us to do together and it's given me a reason to spend more time with him doing something we both enjoy.'
Reading Force was founded by author and publisher Dr Alison Baverstock in Aldershot in 2011. As an army wife of 30 years and a mother of four children, she understands the ups and downs of military life and the strains it places on families. She is passionate that reading books together can connect families and help overcome the stresses of separation - a belief shared by authors Dame Jaqueline Wilson and Anthony Browne who have both given their support to the charity.
Last year 26,000 scrapbooks were sent out to service families via schools, libraries and military welfare officers. The charity aims to engage with as many service families as possible, and recently organised the Reading Force Roadshow with award-winning children's author Tom Palmer, and Blue Peter Book Awards's judge Jim Sells. Together they visited 10 primary schools that had a majority of forces children to encourage and inspire a love of reading with over 1,700 children and their families.