Deprived children are being robbed of a lifetime of reading for pleasure, by governments that are “simply blind” to the benefits of loving literature from an early age, according to the author Michael Morpurgo.
Morpurgo and a coalition of leading authors, including Julia Donaldson, Malorie Blackman and Cressida Cowell, are backing a call by BookTrust to ensure that every child from a low-income family has access to books and reading activities by investing in a programme across schools and nurseries.
“We have to acknowledge the right of every single child in this country to have access, physically, intellectually and emotionally, to reading. And that will not happen unless the books are there, and it will not happen unless books are shared early,” said Morpurgo, the author of well-loved classics such as War Horse and The Butterfly Lion.
Morpurgo said the UK had a “division of opportunity” between children with access to books, whose lives and education were “massively enriched” as a result, and those from deprived backgrounds that did not.
“Any government that doesn’t recognise this is simply blind,” said Morpurgo.
“We do have a hugely divided society, particularly at the moment when we have so many millions living in poverty, and these are the very children who are exposed to this lack of commitment to passing on what is arguably the greatest asset we have in this country, our literature from this remarkable language we have got.
“These are also the most likely children to be suffering from mental health issues, from lack of self-worth and from family problems at home. These are the very children who most need to find the pathway to fulfilment and achievement that books can bring.”
Research by BookTrust has found that only half of children aged between one and two from low-income families are read to every day.
Morpurgo is one of the 12 past and present children’s laureates who have signed the BookTrust’s letter to Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, as well as to the first ministers and opposition leaders in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Library closures by local authorities were particularly likely to affect disadvantaged families, according to Morpurgo, by closing off a vital source of access to books.
“We should never, ever, in this country close down a library again,” he said.
“I live in the middle of Devon, where the nearest library is a long way away, we’re talking about a 35-minute drive if you have a car and a lot of people haven’t. There’s no local bookshop, even if you had the money. The library is the last lifeline to reading.”
Morpurgo also called for government to allow schools more time to encourage reading for pleasure, rather than as tools for passing exams.
“That’s what we have got to get away from, the idea that English literature and books are just something to study. They’re not. They are there to enjoy and become part of your life, not just to be studied and quizzed on,” Morpurgo said.
“That is where governments can help. In schools, teachers complain all the time that there is no room in the curriculum, there’s no room for just sitting and telling and reading a story.
“When I go to schools, time and time again teachers say it’s so important but there isn’t time. Well, the government can provide that time and recognise that the enjoyment of a story when you are five, six or seven is so important, not just for your education but throughout your life.”
Morpurgo said the call by BookTrust and Scottish Book Trust applied across the UK’s national boundaries.
“We are part of the same society, and it’s important for our democracy in all our countries that we understand truth. There is great truth in literature – it sound ridiculous but fiction is rather a wonderful way of accessing truth.
“What do you learn from the plays of Shakespeare or the books of Dickens? You learn about how deceitful and wretched and vile people can be, you learn about the spread of humanity – it’s so important that children are exposed to this, and quite young too, so it means something to them and not just something they study at school.”