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National Literacy Trust Young Readers Programme, Cressida Cowell and an auction

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In the UK, one in six people struggles with literacy. The National Literacy Trust is an independent charity working to ensure that everyone has the literacy skills they need to lead a successful and happy life.

Last week, I was invited, as a member of the Trust’s Advisory Committee, to an inspiring event that was part of the Trust’s Young Readers Programme. The Young Readers Programme (formerly known as Reading Is Fundamental, which is the name the sister US programme continues to use) aims to bring reading for pleasure to 200 communities of children – children in schools, children in refuges, children in care – that need reading support. In the course of the programme, children are introduced to the skills they need to choose books (the children learn to “decode” a cover, to read a blurb, and to check inside to see if a book is at an appropriate reading level). The emphasis is entirely on reading for pleasure, and the programme is based on OECD research that suggests that reading for pleasure by the age of 15 is a powerful indicator of future life chances, even when parental socio-economic and education levels are taken into account. These skills are taught by specially-trained people within or familiar with the community, who are often, but not always, librarians. The children receive three free books in the course of the programme which lasts at least 12 weeks. Wherever possible, children meet authors or storytellers who bring their own passion to the storytelling and book-choosing process.

The event I went to was at the Barbican Library. Cressida Cowell (pictured above at the event) was reading and talking to children from a nearby school.

She began the event by talking about a book she loved as a child: Peter Pan by J M Barrie. She read aloud the shockingly violent and very compelling first description of Captain Hook in which he eviscerates another pirate with his hook without taking the cigar from his mouth. She spoke about being a London-born child who longed for something extraordinary to happen – longed for the kind of adventure that the Darling children have in Peter Pan. In fact, for her, the real life childhood adventure was going on holiday year after year to the same small Scottish island: her own equivalent of Barrie’s Neverland. She said she used to sit at the top of the island, and imagine a Viking invasion. She described, too, the face she could see in the cliffs on the island’s beach, with two caves for eye-sockets. She said she used to imagine what might live in those caves: dragons, perhaps…

Peter Pan, islands, Vikings, dragons and caves, of course, all combine in her brilliant Hiccup books. She read – dropping her voice to a whisper at times, while the children held their breath – from the first novel in the series, How To Train Your Dragon about Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III’s journey with his friends into a cave used by dragons as a nursery (not, she said, unlike the left eye socket cave in the face in the cliffs on the island on which she’d spent her holidays) to catch his own dragon.

It was a stellar performance and one that really engaged the children. Here she is afterwards, surrounded by fans:

The National Literacy Trust campaigns for the recognition of the impact of literacy issues; runs projects and initiatives such as the Young Readers Programme; and is a the most fantastic source of information and research on literacy in the UK.

There are lots of ways to support it.

One is to participate in the auction
it’s recently set up (closing date for bids February 24 June), auctioning favourite books belonging to favourite authors. You could, for example, get a copy of Shrek by William Steig from Axel Scheffler’s bookcase:

The book has a message and a sketch from Axel inside it:

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