'Bookstart is the thing I am most proud of': Wendy Cooling on how it all began 25 years ago

Published on: 19 October 2017 Author: Wendy Cooling

BookTrust’s universal programme Bookstart gets books into the hands of 1.4 million babies and children every year and has sparked similar gifting schemes across the globe. But how did it all get started 25 years ago? Wendy Cooling, the founder of the Bookstart project, tells us.

Wendy Cooling receives her award at the Bookstart 25th Anniversary celebration event in October 2017

I taught for 20 years in inner city London before taking the job of head of the Children’s Book Foundation, as the children’s books arm of BookTrust was then known, in 1990. The job description was simply defined as ‘promote reading for children’, so I had a pretty clean slate to do what I wanted to achieve that aim.

I began to visit many schools and a real crunch point for me was when I met a child just starting school who obviously had never held a book in his life. His teacher’s lack of surprise did shock me. I started doing a lot of research, my ambition became wanting to get books into the hands of all children. In a way it was a fairly obvious idea, if children haven’t got books, we must give them books. Like in wartime, if they weren’t getting oranges, we gave them vitamin C!

Learn more about Bookstart

Universal gifting - books for every child

I discovered a charity in the US called Beginning with Books which gave books out to ‘needy’ children which I found exciting and inspiring. But other experiences triggered my feeling that we should have a different approach in the UK.

I was struck with what I found at a very wealthy school. It turned out many of the children were almost brought up by the au pair. These children weren’t being read to at bedtime because their working parents were busy and they thought the school would cover everything to do with reading. So having an impoverished reading life is not just to do with money.

It was a really difficult thing to persuade people that we shouldn’t select who gets the books on the basis of their income. I found relatively well-off families who had no experience or understanding of the importance of shared reading for pleasure.

This convinced me that Bookstart needed to be a universal programme giving books to all babies - a very beautiful and worthwhile thing indeed.

Wendy Cooling is honoured with an Outstanding Contribution award

The pilot project

I bored everyone with my plans. The wonderful Margaret Meek from the London Institute of Education stressed the importance of a pilot project and an independent evaluation. She put me in touch with Professor Barrie Wade, then at Birmingham University, and he and his colleague Maggie Moore took on the project with gusto and co-authored the research.

One of my directors, Keith Barker, the then Chair of the Youth Libraries Group, was really enthusiastic and introduced me to four amazing librarians in Birmingham: Annie Everall, Theresa Scragg, Linda Saunders and Jo Heaton, who were really excited. They chose diverse areas in the city, packed the packs - bright yellow folders at that stage, bags were too expensive - and did everything that needed to be done, not least getting the local health visitors on board. Three hundred babies were identified to receive the packs when they were nine months old… and we were off!

Barrie and Maggie, armed with questionnaires and interviews, set about finding out how the book-gifting impacted on these babies’ reading for pleasure as they grew up. The first report was published in 1993, the second in 1998, when the 300 babies started school. They were compared with a control group and the results were positive.

Bookstart children outscored their peers in all word and number-based tests, more of them owned books, belonged to the library and had let books and reading into their lives.

We ran an influential conference on the project, which was attended by interested folk from as far afield as Japan. There was no funding at this time but attendees were inspired to start Bookstart in their local area, finding local funding. Soon there were 60 projects - and one, now flourishing and very well established, being planned by the delegates from Japan.

By the time the second report was published I had moved on from BookTrust (I left in 1993 and became a freelance consultant and editor, continuing until this year as Bookstart Senior Consultant). The 60 local Bookstart projects were running, results were good and the project was ready to grow.

Wendy Cooling is honoured with an Outstanding Contribution award

A team effort

Of course, it was never just me. The programme has always been a hugely collaborative project with many people having faith in it and working so hard to make it happen over the years. Alex Strick and Rosemary Clarke OBE (who sadly died in 2013) must get very special mentions for their unshakeable belief in the project and for moving it on at a time when funding was tough. And the teams at BookTrust over the years and now who have kept the programme charging forward into new territory.

The big breakthrough

The real breakthrough moment for Bookstart was in 1999 when Sainsbury’s staff voted for Bookstart as their Millennium charity project. For the first time, a universal programme across England and Wales was possible. Always there was support from many publishers, including an important partnership between BookTrust, Macmillan publishers and Redhouse bookclub.

At last, in 2004, the government stepped in and said they would fund three universal book-gifting programmes: Bookstart Baby for under ones, Bookstart Plus for 18 months (now discontinued) and Bookstart Treasure for 3 to 4-year-olds. Gordon Brown had come to give out the one millionth Bookstart bag to a baby and loved the project.

When I heard Gordon Brown on my car radio announce that the government was backing every child’s entitlement to receive books I nearly lost control of the wheel and crashed the car!

Bookstart is the thing I am most proud of in my whole career. I’ve been an advocate for Bookstart since the start and I’ve travelled all over the world to talk about the importance of children’s books. We’ve never tried to sell Bookstart to other countries but many have taken up the idea. Now Bookstart flourishes here and in distant lands and moves on into an exciting future.

On 19 October 2017 Wendy Cooling received a BookTrust Outstanding Achievement Award for her incredible work for Bookstart at the programme’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Check out all the photos from the event

In 2009 Wendy was awarded an MBE and in 2006 won the Eleanor Farjeon award for her services to children’s literature.

Find out more about the Bookstart programme and the current Bookstart packs 

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