The Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford was awarded an MBE in 2020 in recognition of his services to vulnerable children during the pandemic, having twice forced the government to make spectacular U-turns in its free school meals policy. His stark warning in October that the approach of school holidays meant that many children would be facing hunger led to an extraordinary campaign of giving from businesses large and small and from members of the public. Now Rashford is opening two new fronts in the fight to improve the quality of life for all children — boosting self-esteem and self-empowerment, and tackling book poverty.
Saturday’s Guardian newspaper featured a lengthy interview with Rashford ahead of the publication of his children’s book (co-authored with the journalist Carl Anka) You Are a Champion: How to Be the Best You Can Be. Its subject is positive thinking, using illustrative stories from Rashford’s own past to help inspire children. Poverty is often linked to lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. The book aims to help children learn to be comfortable with who they are, set their dreams and aspirations high, and deal with setbacks and adversity.
Encouraging children to read and ending what might be described as ‘book poverty’ — the challenges that disadvantaged children face compared to their non-disadvantaged peers when it comes to reading — is the second of Rashford’s current focuses. In the Guardian interview Rashford reveals that he didn’t start reading properly until the age of 17.
In June he will be launching a book club along with the publisher Macmillan Children’s Books, which will donate 50,000 fiction books to 850 primary schools through the children’s food charity Magic Breakfast. The aim of the book club is to encourage reading for pleasure among children who do not have access to books at home. A survey by the National Literacy Trust in 2019 showed that 383,775 children do not own a single book.
For too long, the joy of reading has been restricted by whether or not a family has the contingency budget to purchase books. The children who often miss out are those on free school meals and users of breakfast clubs, who more than likely need fiction, and non-fiction, to escape reality from time to time. We haven’t been affording these children the option of reading for fun, but that changes today.Marcus Rashford, speaking ahead of the launch of his book club in June
An annual survey found that almost a fifth of the UK’s libraries have closed over the last 10 years and that there has been an almost 30% drop in spending on libraries. Separate research (highlighted by the Labour Party but also using independently produced data) indicates that the number of books borrowed from public libraries in England fell by almost 100m between 2011 and 2018.
Over recent weeks the Forum for Life-based Learning has published several blogs on issues relating to reading and access to books in general. For example, a ‘good news’ story that children read more challenging books during lockdown perhaps overshadowed research indicating that the total number of books read overall in the 2019-20 academic year actually dropped by 17% against 2018-19.
We also wrote about National Literacy Trust research indicating that children born into communities with the most serious literacy challenges have some of the lowest life expectancies in England, and about the unevenness of school library provision across the country, with schools in areas of highest deprivation having the worst provision.
We have also written elsewhere about the many benefits of reading. A few ‘for instances’ are always worth repeating. For instance, it increases educational attainment. It broadens horizons. It promotes tolerance and understanding across cultures. It develops creativity and the imagination. It boosts mental health and wellbeing. And — the biggest ‘for instance’ of all — it correlates with life expectancy.
Ending book poverty is therefore a question of social justice as well as of educational common sense: every child, regardless of their background, should have access to a rich supply of high-quality books and to spaces that make it easy and pleasurable to read. We need to give every encouragement to children to develop the habit of reading for pleasure so that they carry a love of reading with them into adulthood.
The graphic at the head of this article is from the website panmacmillan.com