Overcoming the barriers to reading
Published on: 11 October 2022
Author of the amazing Tyger, S F Said, shares his tips for overcoming barriers to reading.
As a children's author, I've been visiting schools and libraries for nearly twenty years now. Yet I never cease to be amazed and inspired by the work teachers and librarians do every day to help children find books that will light the spark of literacy.
Every child deserves to enjoy the lifelong benefits of reading for pleasure. But this doesn't come easily to many kids. There are so many barriers to overcome.
I was lucky as a child to grow up in a household where everyone loved books. Adults spent a lot of time reading to me, talking about stories, sharing their passion for books. It was easy for me to fall in love with books because they were all around me, constantly celebrated by adults I admired.
If you want children to love reading, I think the most important thing you can do is to show them that you love reading yourself. So all parents and carers should be given every support in helping their children find the love of reading. This should be a national priority, and should include financial as well as practical support. It's extremely troubling that 1 in 5 children in the UK do not own a single book. That's one of the biggest barriers to reading we could face.
But schools and libraries must also be given all the resources they need to do their work, because teachers and librarians can also be the vital adults in a child's life who model the love of reading. I've seen it time and again on my visits. By building a culture of reading for pleasure that makes books absolutely central to everything they do, teachers and librarians really can change children's lives.
My experiences have shown me that there is no one "right" book for every child, or even one right kind of book. Different children come to reading in different ways, depending on their interests. Sometimes, well-intentioned adults can themselves become barriers to a child's reading, especially when they make assumptions about what the child should read, and presume that they know better than the child.
Choice is such a vital part of becoming a reader. Even if we as adults cannot see the value of a book a child loves, I don't believe it's our place to dismiss it. By all means, introduce children to books that you think are good, give them as wide a selection as possible to choose from – but please never dismiss or belittle their own choices. By doing so, you may be crushing an enthusiasm and an identity as a reader that would have led to them reading other books in their own time anyway.
Just as I don't think we should dismiss books as "too young" for children, I don't think we should dismiss books as "too hard" for them, either. Shouldn't they be the ones to decide? Children can cope with complex ideas. In fact, they hunger for them, as long as they're presented in the context of an exciting story.
I remember as a child sometimes being presented with books that adults thought would be good for me, but that I found incredibly boring. Even as a confident reader, I found that dispiriting!
So as someone who now writes for children, my top priority is always to make my books as exciting and page-turning as I can, so that as many readers as possible will be able to enjoy them. That's why I spend years and years making each book the very best it can be, a process that took five years with my first book Varjak Paw, and has just taken nine years with my new book Tyger.
Tyger is a book that includes among its settings a welcoming bookshop, an Underground Library run by Underground Librarians who hold the secrets of the world, and a school run by teachers who believe in education for all, helping every child to do the things they dream of doing.
These aren't entirely fictional. They are inspired by some of the extraordinary teachers, librarians and booksellers I've met over the years, and some of the magical classrooms, libraries and bookshops I've had the privilege and pleasure of visiting.
We authors do our best to create books that will thrill children, filling their minds with big ideas and questions, igniting their imaginations with magic and wonder. But I think the real magic happens in those places where adults bring stories to life for children, in the process changing their lives forever.
The research is very clear on this point. Reading for pleasure has the biggest positive impact of any factor on children's life chances. It counts for more in the long run than anything else, even a child's exam scores, or their parents' socio-economic status.
That's why we need to make sure all children can find books that engage them. And that's why we still need to address the lack of representation, which remains another real barrier to reading. It's vital for there to be books available that reflect all realities and experiences of the world, in all their richness and diversity, with all voices represented, both in terms of creators and characters.
With Tyger, I've written a book with a main character who happens to be Muslim, as I am. I've also filled the book with characters of all sorts of backgrounds, beliefs and identities, in the hope that there will be space for all readers to imagine themselves in the story, to see themselves reflected or to enter other points of view.
It's true that nine years is a very long time to spend on a book. But I believe children's books are too important to give them anything less than your absolute best. And if my books can help children become readers – and if they can enable teachers and librarians to help them on their way – then all the hard work is more than worth it in the end!
Tyger by SF Said, with illustrations by Dave McKean, is available now.