Last week, I got the chance to go back to my old high school in Saffron Walden and give a talk about the importance of reading.
It was all part of a fantastic night put on by the school and the library staff to celebrate the success of Year 7’s best readers – a select group of students who have accomplished goals set by their teachers throughout the year.
There was a red carpet, there were videos the students had created based on books they’ve enjoyed, there were art projects lined up against the walls and all manner of creations all born from an enjoyment of books. You could genuinely feel the excitement in the air as the Year 7s and their parents filtered into the auditorium.
I sat at the front, smiling and waving and feeling quite strange as almost 300 people found their seats. I hadn’t set foot in the building in eight years, and everything was so different, but still so much was the same. So many new facilities. A whole new look. And yet the moment I set foot in C corridor, I saw one of my old teachers.
I must admit, after I agreed to talk at the event, I did feel a bit nervous. I mean, the list of previous speakers includes local maestro Marcus Sedgwick, an author I greatly admire. How could I fill those enormous shoes? My book isn’t even out yet. It’s still just a Word document on the computer.
But then I realised I didn’t have to try and fill Marcus’s shoes. I just had to talk about the magic of books, because to me it’s a very real thing.
Not so long ago, I was just like my audience. Well, they are no doubt better students than I was. After all, I never received an award for reading when I was in Year 7. But I did go to their school, and before that I went to Great Chesterford Primary, just down the road – a school that quite a few in the crowd had recently moved on from.
So I told them about that. And I told them that I never really liked reading, that I wasn’t much of a reader at all until Harry Potter came along and opened my eyes. I told them how the right book can change your life in impossible ways. I told them to keep reading, because the books they are reading now are the books that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Then I handed out their certificates, celebrating their very great success, and signed for those who wanted theirs signing, before everyone rushed back to watch England play in the World Cup.
They say that children are reading less, and everyone always asks why. But standing there, seeing excitement and the wonder and the passion, I don’t think that’s the right question to ask.
We shouldn’t be asking Why are children reading less? – What we should be asking is How do we get them to read more?
And the answer is to write good books. Because good books will always find their audience.