A collage of portraits of book champions, with red details, and the words "book champions 2020" on the side
A collage of portraits of book champions, with red details, and the words "book champions 2020" on the side

It has been a peculiar year, not least for books. When lockdown started in March, it wasn’t even clear if we’d be able to get hold of them: warehouses shut down, essential goods were prioritised, bookshops were closed and publication dates delayed.

But it soon became clear that reading would keep us going in lockdown: surveys showed people read more than they ever had, that books provided escape and enjoyment in these strange times. We read more, and more widely, than ever before. And some people helped to spur us on. Here are our book champions of the year.

Marcus Rashford

The 23-year-old footballer has achieved more this year than many people do in a lifetime, including working with FareShare to get food to children no longer receiving free school meals, and campaigning to overturn governmental policy which halted free school meals. But Rashford then turned his attention to books.

After using his platform to celebrate World Book Day and judging a poetry competition for children with hearing impairments in March, Rashford launched a book club in November to help vulnerable and underprivileged children access “the escapism of reading”. The club will provide free books to those children whose families can not afford them. "We know there are over 380,000 children across the UK today that have never owned a book, children that are in vulnerable environments,” Rashford said at the time. “That has to change." He’s also been working on his own children’s book, You Are A Champion.

Adele

With an Instagram following of 39.5 million, Adele could change the fortunes of many things by sticking it up on her grid. But in August it was a book that the Grammy-winner decided to sing the praises of. Glennon Doyle’s third book, Untamed, received the vouch an author can only dream of when Adele told the world: “Do it. Read it. Live it. Practice it… Read this book and have a highlighter on hand to make notes because you’ll want to refer back to it.” This has been a difficult year for any new books to be published – even for established authors such as Doyle. In spreading the world, Adele reminded her millions of followers of the power of books.

Maja Antoine-Onikoyi

A portrait of Maja

Image: Tim Lane/Penguin

In the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, people wanted to know how to better engage with anti-racism. Others were helping them learn. Maja Antoine-Onikoyi, a student from Hertfordshire, found herself sending out copies of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I No Longer Talk to White People About Race to strangers on Instagram who couldn’t afford a copy. In the process, Maja’s Education Project was formed. Less than six months later, and Antoine-Onikoyi has raised thousands of pounds in crowdfunding and sent out thousands of books about Black history, race, politics and identity and started to work with schools to improve the diversity of literature in their libraries.

Tony Mortimer

East 17 usually creep back into the public consciousness around Christmas time thanks to their perennial ballad, Stay Another Day. But the former boyband member raised spirits this summer after revealing his new-found lockdown love: reading. In May he announced he had finished a novel for the first time (“such a small yet huge achievement. I’ve already chosen the next nine books”); by the end of June he’d finished 28 books (#literarylunacy). In July he told us he’d started writing his own novel, which had caused him to have “majorly fallen down a huge ‘rabbit hole’ with this new writing lark”. Initially, Mortimer tweeted progress was only enjoyed by those who followed Mortimer. But in October his progress went viral after journalist Jessica Bateman collected his updates. A rare, and much-needed, bit of good news in 2020.

Andrew Faris

When the country locked down in March, those of us who weren’t essential workers were at home getting fed up of endlessly making lunch. But for homeless people, the closure of the supermarkets, cafes and restaurants – not to mention shelters and charities – that helped to provide food and warm drinks was devastating. One man continued to go into central London to offer what he could: Andrew Faris. Faris’s charity Rhythms of Life saw between 120 and 140 people come every night for food, support - and books. Once sandwiches and coffee had been handed out, Faris would offer people a choice of reading material, too. Over the years, he’s come to know his clients’ literary appetites as well as their dietary ones. This year, more than ever, his services proved a vital aid.

Yiyun Li

A photograph of Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li. Image: Roger Turesson / Penguin

Here’s a thing: Chinese-American author Yiyun Li reads War and Peace every year. Impressive stuff. This year, though, she decided to open up her Tolstoy tradition to the world. In March, Li launched #TolstoyTogether, an invitation to an international reading group that would commit to reading the epic Russian novel every day. “It will take us about 30 minutes to read 12-15 pages a day (much less than the time many Americans spend on social media), and we will finish the novel in three months—just in time for summer, and with our spirits restored,” she wrote. More than 3,000 people joined in, and in doing so found an unexpected sense of community at a time when we have never been more separated.

Independent booksellers

It has been a tough year for any business, large or small. But when customers stopped hitting the high streets in 2020, independent bookshops were hit brutally hard. Up and down the country, though, they adapted – building websites and online shops, coming up with clever ways to maintain the crucial connections, conversations and recommendations that make them such valuable resources of reading happiness. If we didn’t appreciate our local bookshop before, their resilience and determination this year has proved how much we need them.

Nicola Sturgeon

A portrait of Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

It’s been a hell of a year for a politician. Yet, even while navigating a pandemic and a modern Civil Rights movement, Scotland’s First Minister found time to support the writing community. In August, she interviewed Bernadine Evaristo as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival and made headlines after stressing the responsibility of readers in demanding a more diverse publishing industry. Later in the year, she participated in Book Week Scotland by sharing her favourite books. Sturgeon has also used social media to share her support of authors and their books.

Kate Middleton

The Duchess of Cambridge put books front-and-centre at the beginning of lockdown when photos were released of the home office set-up at Kensington Palace. Kate Middleton’s desk, located on the opposite side of the room to her husband’s, was neatly lined with a pastel collection of Coralie Bickford-Smith’s clothbound classics. They are undoubtedly beautiful desk decoration, but the Duchess did something else in the process: turned to conversation towards books at a time when many of us where working out how to make the printer work.

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