Pick ‘n’ mix: Why every child should enjoy the pleasures of a school library

Can you smell it, can you feel the possibilities in your hands as you start to devour what’s inside?

The smell and feel of a book are evocative memories for many of us who enjoy reading for pleasure. Visiting a mobile library, your local library, or the cosy cushioned area in your school library are all key experiences that help fuel the hunger within the reader, transporting them to magical new worlds, opening their eyes to new sources of fascination.

Cressida Cowell has called for money to support primary school libraries. Her call for guaranteed funding for schools is fuelled by the understanding that children cannot discover reading without our help: how can children become readers for pleasure if parents can’t afford to buy books, or if they don’t have access to a quality school library?

We would add that even parents that do have the resources to buy books often can’t keep pace with a child that is an avid reader and that access to a school library is a basic right for all children.

Cowell notes that a library in a prison is a statutory requirement yet in our primary schools 1 in 8 doesn’t have a library. What does this say about how our education system values access to books for young readers?

In our experience, in many schools that do have libraries they are inappropriately used or at risk of disappearing. At our recent Teachers’ Reading Group one student asked, ‘What can I do if the school doesn’t have a suitable stock of books for the class to read?’

This question sparked debate and reflections around accessibility of books and a shared view that books in schools should be high quality, frequently refreshed and reflective of their readers.

School libraries are used best when each child has time to go and wallow in the choice available, a time when they can escape the performative aspects of reading instruction in the curriculum that sometimes starves children of their rights as readers. Children need the opportunity to see and feel books, to browse and actively choose books, to see themselves as agents of choice and power in their reading, and this only comes with opportunities to be with books and to feel a sense of the choice they offer us.

Like a sweet shop, a library entices the reader, laying out its wares, piquing the appetite with books of different colours, shapes and sizes.

It is important that the primary purpose of a school library is as a safe space for reading; children need to feel that it belongs to them and that they can linger there; their library is a space for enjoying books and not simply storing them.

Only when this is true can the real magic of a library be unlocked.

A library is a special place. It can deliver children from reality, be a space to talk, share and enthuse each other about books, and allow children to follow their own interests and questions.

As the Early Years and Primary English team, we would add to Cowell’s call to create and protect school libraries as designated spaces where children are welcome not constrained, and are positively encouraged to enjoy the delights of a wide range of books.

For a library to reach its potential, it needs to be properly invested in. There should be a commitment in time and money to invigorating the books on offer and ensuring that every reader, no matter how voracious or meagre their appetite for reading, finds something to satisfy them.

In those libraries, books are presented in an attractive and enticing way, covers forward facing, at the child’s eye level and alongside displays that highlight authors, different genres, and new releases. A place where old favourites snuggle up with new releases and children see the endless possibilities of what to read next.

A welcoming space for children as young as three to spend both planned time and time to just be.

And alongside those enchanting displays are people, people willing to entice young readers with their recommendations. Be it librarians, class teachers, community volunteers, or child ambassadors, they draw upon their knowledge of children’s literature to help others navigate the treats on offer and bring new texts into their lives. The library becomes more than a space, it becomes a community of readers.

Yes, this type of library takes commitment to bring into fruition and its running may pose challenges in busy schools with various demands on time and resources, but the stakes and rewards of establishing reading for pleasure have never been clearer. Children’s life chances rest on it.

The schools involved in Cowell’s project will form a case study and we wait with anticipation to sample what delights might emerge from her ‘sweet shop’ libraries of books.

The Early Years and Primary English Team: Vicky McEwan, Lizzie Greeley and Katie Willshire.

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