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Encouraging book ownership

by Anne Fine

Five years ago, I heard a New York writer talk about visiting schools in the deprived neighbourhood where he grew up. "I tell the kids, 'It doesn't matter how poor you are, everyone needs a home library.' You've got national, state, town, local and school libraries. But you need books of your own. So everywhere you go, look for things you might want in your own home library'."

His words struck home. I was coming across more and more young people who rarely, if ever, used their local library. Often I would meet a child who reminded me of my former reading self until the discussion turned to books. Then out came reasons which he or she had read only what was on the school's (rarely overflowing) shelves. "The library's closed by the time I get there." "Dad hates me crossing that road." "They worry if I don't catch the first bus home."

Equally disquieting was the number of times a teacher mentioned how delighted a child had been to get "a book of their own". Initially, I took this to mean a book signed by an author. Gradually, however, it dawned that the child had been thrilled to have the first book that truly belonged to them. Indeed, a recent survey at a Liverpool high school threw up the miserable statistic that 30 per cent of the pupils had fewer than six books in the entire house.

That's why I decided to use my time as Children's Laureate to launch a scheme I'm calling The Home Library. Studies show that book borrowing and book ownership reinforce, rather than detract from, each other. Where we can't encourage the former, let's try to boost the latter. We should make young people think it as strange to have no books in their bedroom as to have no clothes in their closet or toys in their toybox There have never been so many gloriously inviting books around - new and second-hand. (Oxfam shops sold £4 million children's books last year.) The scheme couldn't be simpler. It also harnesses children's preternatural need, presented with something sticky, to stick it on something.

The basis of the scheme is bookplates. I have persuaded 21 leading children's illustrators to design me a bright, modern bookplate to appeal to the young reader. All it had to say was "This Book Belongs to the Home Library of ..."

I watched as they spilled through the letterbox: weird, cosy, sporty, sophisticated, even deliciously unpleasant. Many of the styles, like Nick Sharratt's, Tony de Saulles' and Philippe Dupasquier's, will be instantly recognisable to juniors. Others, like Raymond Brigg's and Sue Macartney-Snape's, will appeal to sophisticated older readers. Illustrators like Debi Gliori, Shirley Hughes and Penny Dale have covered the younger range.

There's already something for everyone to download from www.myhomelibrary.org . They are completely free and available for limitless photocopying (except for commercial purposes). Bookplates went out of fashion when books became relatively cheaper and decoration on covers became the norm. But children have always loved writing their names on possessions so I'm hoping this simple scheme will encourage children to choose and collect books and encourage others to give them things to read - "Here's something I thought you might like for your home library". That impassioned New York writer's vision that, in this respect, even the poorest child shouldn't be impoverished, will lead to change for everyone.

Anyone - clubs, sports teams, societies - can create their own bookplate. Now authors and illustrators are putting designs on their own websites and the first teachers have got in touch to say they're adapting the idea for classroom projects

The Home Library: a simple thing with infinite possibilities (just like the book!). I'm hoping that teachers and pupils will make it their own, and use it any way they please. Please help to make it happen.

Anne Fine

This article first appeared in The Times Educational Supplement and is reproduced with permission from the author. For more information on how authors can help with the project, see Anne Fine's other article on this site.

 

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