In praise of school libraries, and all who pass through them

25 November 2016

I have just been delighted to help open a new Learning Centre and library at Saffron Walden County High School, in my voluntary role as the school’s Patron of Reading. It has been brilliant meeting so many of the students over the last year when giving book talks or hosting events by author friends at the school, or helping out on World Book Day and at the annual reading awards. Once I took some sixth formers to our local literary festival to hear the inspiring John McCarthy, the British journalist held captive in Lebanon for over five years, talking – among other things – about the importance of empathy and imagination. I must do more events like that. Just last week however, all past and present British children’s laureates have written a passionate open letter to the Department of Education urging an end to the cost-cutting that has led to the loss of hundreds of school librarians, so opening a new, well supported library now felt like a particular privilege and cause for celebration. 

The amazing new space, with four ‘reading pods’ down the middle. 
The amazing new space, with four ‘reading pods’ down the middle. 

Having been asked to prepare a few words for the opening event, I was delighted to hear author Frank Cottrell-Boyce talking about the importance of reading on a Radio 4 ‘Open Book’ podcast as I jogged around the park pondering what to say. ‘We’re living at a time when public life is being completely polluted by incredibly over-simplified narratives about who we are and what we can become’, Cottrell-Boyce said, arguing that ‘the more narratives you can have in your head’ the better. I could not agree more. When I was at school I read books to find out about the world beyond my reach, what people did, what they thought, and how they felt. Arguably film, TV and the internet are now the dominant story-telling mediums in our lives. I love all three but there is something essentially passive about the process of watching, when compared to that of reading. Film and television director Ken Loach, among others, has recently criticized the trend for TV nostalgia, and it is certainly true that, there being much more space on shelves than air-time on TV, books will always be able to offer a greater diversity of voices. And Britain’s current children’s laureate, Chris Riddell, has stressed the importance of simply ‘reading for pleasure’, while calling school libraries ‘a vital resource that must be nurtured’. 

So I said this at the school, and I talked about how reading can transport you into other countries, times and contexts (the new library does look rather like a spaceship), and even into other people’s minds. As the historical author Manda Scott has said, ‘reading is the best way we have of expanding our sense of self, beyond who we are just now, of seeing who we might be, and seeing who everyone else might be as well’. Reading not only comforts and entertains us, it teaches us about the world, and it teaches us empathy – which made me think of John McCarthy once again.

In the pod with books in hand: School librarians Alex Smith and Ruth Parsons, and former headteacher John Hartley
Behind: me with current headteacher Caroline Derbyshire. Copyright: The Walden Local

The morning after the new Hartley Learning Centre (named after the school’s last headteacher), opened its doors, I ran my usual route around the park. This time I listened to John McCarthy’s fellow-hostage, Brian Keenan, talk through his ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1990, not long after his release. I thought I knew what luxury he might request after his eight records. I remember McCarthy saying that occasionally, if required to ask for some ‘luxury’ in his cell, Keenan would never request the possible, such as more food or cigarettes, but always a grand piano. It was a joke and degree of defiance that gave the men more strength than any token from their guards. But when Sue Lawley asked whether there was ‘anything, in those four and a half years, that you really craved?’ and I smiled, anticipating the piano, Keenan answered, ‘the one thing I did crave, and it was driving me to distraction, but they would not give me it, was a pencil. I just wanted to fill those walls that I’d looked at for so long, with something, and just a pencil can take you so far…’

I feel very lucky to write and review books for a living, traveling across time, place and page daily at my desk. I am also delighted to be staying on as Patron of Reading at Saffron Walden County High School for another year. As well as providing a quiet place for reading, the new Learning Centre is going to host many more author talks and events, and a student Book Club at lunchtimes. Children at this school are lucky to have such a fantastic space – yet having a library run by a professional librarian should not be question of luck, but a basic resource for every school, required and supported by the Department of Education. So here’s a shout out for school libraries; librarians, teachers and students; children’s laureates and volunteer Patrons of Reading; multiple narratives and diverse voices; the importance of empathy… and the power of pencils.

Staff and student-volunteers with me, right, at the launch.
  • If you are a writer interested in becoming a Patron of Reading at a local school, get in touch with the scheme here.
  • To read Chris Riddell’s beautifully illustrated open letter to the Department of Education, click here.