Viewpoint: “May the force be with you”

Our challenge, school library colleagues, is already upon us. Time for story reading is disappearing. Before our very eyes the special, almost holy ‘story at bedtime’ ritual is slowly but surely being obliterated. So I say to you in school libraries everywhere “May the force be with you”. May we rise to meet the challenge that is facing us and may we emerge victorious.

For me reading is magic! Reading can provide inspiration, solace and hope. A good read is so much a part of my life I cannot imagine a life without it. How is it then possible that so many young people today are able to say “No thanks – reading isn’t my thing” or “I don’t DO reading”! Not only do young people freely express such thoughts with impunity but seemingly without the slightest hesitation or twinge of remorse. How is this possible?

Somewhere, at some time in the not too distant past, an adult has missed an opportunity or indeed missed many opportunities, to open the magic door. Adults who failed to reveal the wonders of reading for a child who then grows into a young person who says that they don’t ‘do’ reading.

An adult, even many adults have let magic moments go by without ever stopping to think how it will be for this child as they grow up without the wonders of a shared book: shared warmth, shared laughter and shared tears after having read a truly wonderful story. Never to know the overwhelming sadness felt when the very last sentence of a wonderfully exciting story is read.

It happens. Opportunities ignored and children missed because there is no longer time. Now adults are too busy to read a story. Fifteen minutes a day without a telephone or being connected electronically to anything or anybody is just not possible. Sorry.

To cuddle an ipad

I am often asked to speak at parent evenings and with me I have an arsenal of astounding and convincing arguments as to why reading in the home is important and I try very hard to convey the wonder of sharing a story together with a child. They listen, applaud and then we all drink coffee.

On one occasion quite recently a young mother spoke to me very seriously during coffee time. The conversation went a bit like this:

“Thank you for your talk. It was very interesting. However, I don’t think you really understand the situation for young families today.”

“Really”, I replied – genuinely interested in her reasoning.

“It may have been different when you were home with your children in the 80’s. (It was the 90’s but perhaps this isn’t the point and I don’t argue.) It is 2016 now and we simply don’t have the time to lie down with our children or read every night. There are so many other things that have to be done.”

“It need only be 15 minutes”, I replied. “I think it is so very important for your children to have your undivided attention at least once a day. It is often not the book that is important but the warmth of a cuddle and the talk.”

“Yes”, she replied. “I understand that it would be lovely but our lives just aren’t like that anymore. My daughter loves to listen to a story on her Ipad and that is also language development…isn’t it?”

Other parents had gathered to listen and my adversary had their support. No one indicated that she was wrong. I was the one who was misinformed, out of date and irrelevant.

I was so saddened by this conversation I had difficulty to hold back tears. This young mother was in earnest. She loves her children and wants to do what is best and yet is on the road to missing the opportunity to open the magic door.

She and her partner have a list of priorities and reading stories is not high enough on the list and I even found myself wondering if it was on the list at all. Ipad stories have taken their place and yet you cannot cuddle an ipad.

There are of course many, many mums and dads that do read for their children and who have completely understood the reasons for it and the joy to be found there. But times are changing and we, who love books and everything a children’s library stands for, need to be seen and to be heard and to inform. We need to shout louder.

We need men! 

In our school library we believe that a beginning reader needs the support of many adults. All the adults in a child’s reading life have a role to play. Mums and Dads and their families and friends, teachers, day care staff, sports coaches, neighbours and the list can go on and on.

However what we really need are men. Male reading models are in short supply  and if a little boy doesn’t have a dad who reads and there aren’t any male teachers in his school it can well be that he never sees a man reading for pleasure. 

It is possible, maybe even likely, that Mum reads, Grandma reads and all his female teachers and librarians read and encourage him to read too. This however fails to convey the message that reading is also fun for boys. For that we need to show this little boy that men also read because they want to and because they really, really enjoy it. 

Find reading models 

To go on a hunt for men who read may not be everybody’s idea of a fun evening out so it is fortunate that there are many websites available with reading men – just to print out and decorate the walls in your classroom or library. Pictures of men who read – famous sportsmen, famous authors and men who like to read on their way to work on the New York underground.

One of the most popular sites in our school is the Premier League Reading Stars (PLRS). It doesn’t have to be big stars either. Policemen, firemen, ambulance drivers – anyone in a uniform can be pretty impressive. The best reading models are men who genuinely love to read and do so whenever they can.

We need a force 

It was a good thing that Måns Zelmerlöw won the Eurovision Song Contest 2015. He is an avid reader and was only too happy to allow us to photograph a quiet time on stage while waiting for all sound checks to be completed. It makes a difference. It isn’t as if children say “Oh Måns reads – I think I will too”. It is more subtle than that.

Photographs of readers on the walls just show everyone that it is OK to read. Possibly even more than OK. Maybe it is a really good thing to read. The best reading model of them all is, without question, Dad and maybe even Grandpa.

If we can motivate all the adults in children’s reading lives to read for, in front of and beside their children – every evening – a great deal of the pseudo opposition to the activity will disappear and that can only be a very good thing.

We need a force – maybe even THE force to make this happen and I sincerely hope that it is with you!The Swedish singer and last year’s winner of the Eurovision song contest, Måns Zelmerlöw takes a reading break. Photo: Therese Andersson/Blick bildbyrå

School librarian Ytternäs school Mariehamn, Finland.
Elspeth Randelin is school librarian at Ytternäs skola in Mariehamn, Finland. She is well known as a passionate promoter of a wide variety of ideas designed to inspire children and young people to read. Unwilling readers are a special challenge and many of the methods Elspeth promotes are aimed at just these readers, particularly boys, in the hope of luring them into the wonderful world of literature. She lectures often in Finland and Sweden and has been awarded several prizes and scholarships for her work.