Sometimes it takes nothing more than a shocking statistic to spur you into action. You could see the number in a newspaper, on a bus, on a billboard. No matter the size, shape or length of the platform on which it is displayed; the number jumps out at you, blinding you with it's glare, forcing you to acknowledge it. Some statistics we are used to, so used to them in fact, that we feel almost comfortable around them. We know we don't do enough exercise. We know how many calories lurk and linger in a Katsu curry. We know how many precious minutes of our life we waste on Facebook. Statistics we hear everyday, statistics that are shoved down our throat like diet pills. Statistics that we are not used to, however, are statistics concerning literacy. We think that it's not an issue anymore. We take it for granted. We walk past libraries and bookshops, silently assuming that there will be people inside, reading in them. It seems hard to contemplate that, given the highly literate and prolific nation we have become, that still 35% of people don't actively read.
I saw that statistic; that blazing percentage: 35%. I thought, surely not? All the people I know read. They all own library cards. They all discuss Harry Potter like it's the next Bible. I thought, where are all these people who don't actively read? Then I looked again at the people around me. They are all privileged in some way or other. I don't mean privileged in the monetary sense, but that they all have gone through school, had meaningless alphabet shapes shoved down their throats until they gradually, somewhat reluctantly, grew to learn and love them. They were given a library card and pushed through the glass doors for the first time to an almost unending world of words and pictures. They were introduced to authors like Roald Dahl, J.K Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo... authors that not only shaped the way we read but the way we thought, and acted, and spoke. For many of us, they started our reading journey. Determined the way we would read, write and approach life in the future.
However, there is still the 35%. The people, for whatever reason, who don't actively read. They may have started their reading journey as a child, and abandoned it halfway. They may have never started it at all. That's where World Book Night comes in. This year, in 2015, 20,000 World Book Night volunteers from all over the country handed out 400,000 free books to people to encourage them to read more for pleasure. As soon as I heard about World Book Night, I was determined to support this project. This year saw a sensational and diverse line up designed to bring reading and books into people's lives. The list covers a range of genres including crime, poetry, non-fiction, Quick Reads, fantasy and sci-fi, historical and contemporary fiction, and fiction in translation. Appearing on the list are bestselling favourites, including Lynda La Plante's Prime Suspect, David Almond's Skellig, and Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The incredible Roddy Doyle is also featured with his first Quick Read title, the spooky comedy Dead Man Talking. Also on the list this year was TV and radio personality Karl Pilkington's hilarious comedy, The Moaning of Life. As well as these amazing books, World Book Night this year included a wonderful anthology of poetry on the list for the first time, Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy edited by Neil Astley.
World Book Night 2015 focused on reaching out to as many readers as possible from all parts of the country and many public participation events through partnerships with libraries, bookshops, communities and charities. The Flagship event at the Shaw Theatre in London was one of the most magical events I have ever attended. My favourite part of the evening was seeing David Almond, who gave a thoroughly enjoyable and inspirational talk. The passion he felt for books, reading and writing came across so powerfully. It was so wonderful to hear him explain what an honour it is for him to write for young people. There were only a handful of young people in the audience (including me) and the way he addressed criticisms he hears every day for example young people don't read anymore, teenagers don't enjoy books, they don't care about literature was very emotional.
David Almond also spoke about his own reading journey and the part imagination has played in both his reading and writing throughout the years. He made some incredibly interesting points about how reading and writing can be merged to be seen as one entity; how imagination has not only affected his writing but his reading also. The continued importance and unfortunate dismissal of libraries was also discussed, and there were several murmurs of approval from the audience as we all concurrently agreed that libraries are an invaluable part of all of our reading lives. David Almond called libraries one of the most important human institutions, and writing a product of humanity's desire to 'create something beautiful'. The event was the perfect demonstration not only of the importance of World Book Night but of authors like David Almond who care so passionately about what he does.
Elizabeth Fremantle, author of World Book Night title Queen's Gambit, spoke to me about how she first got involved with World Book Night. I asked her about the importance of projects such as these, and if the government should do more to get people reading and boost the literacy of the country. Her reply was:
'I used to volunteer in my local primary school, helping children who struggled with reading, working with them one-on-one. What always made me sad was the level to which volunteers were relied upon, making the help they needed inconsistent. When work made it difficult for me to continue with it, it was devastating to think that the children I'd been working with might no longer continue to get the help they needed.
Some children, for whatever reason, have parents who are unable to read with them at home. So I suppose I'd like to see increased funding to help those children and their parents.'
Before becoming involved with World Book Night, and speaking to authors about their own reading journey, I never realised how lucky I was, how much I have been handed on a plate. Books were a comfortable constancy throughout my childhood, and still are. I have never had to fight to read, or to get my hands on any book I wanted. They have all been there. And it cannot be denied that books have played a huge part in the person I have become. There has never been a moment in my childhood where I have not been reading. I can think of a few hundred books that I can say that I have loved. There have been books that have challenged my way of thinking, books that have made me cry, made me laugh, made me look at myself a little differently. There have been books that have actually changed me as a person.
More than anything, World Book Night teaches people why books, and reading, are so integral to our society and to humanity as a whole. It doesn't bear thinking about what our world would be like without literature. In the 21st century, ignorance is no longer acceptable, and we cannot let the people who do not share in the universal love of reading to be pushed to the edge of society, cast aside, or ignored. All it takes is just one book. One book is enough to start a reading journey, and to set the path for a future filled with the love of literature, authors that will change your mindset about everything, and stories that will make life just that little bit more bearable.