Penguin Random House Children's author Cathy Cassidy spoke passionately about the importance of reading for pleasure and public libraries at the launch event for Read North East, and you can now read her speech in its entirety below.
Thanks to Read North East for inviting me, and to Northern Children’s Book Festival, the first book festival that made me feel welcome and helped me to grow a following, and the wonderful libraries and librarians of the NE for their support.
The love of stories began early for me, with ghost stories told on dark nights by my Irish grandmother and daydreams of imaginary characters and happenings that would randomly unfold in my imagination. When I learned to read, I found another way to access stories and fell in love with the magic of the book. I think we all know that power – the book that glues itself to your hands, the book you can’t put down, the book you read under the covers at night by torchlight, the book that thrills and scares and delights you, the book that opens your eyes and opens your heart and spreads a thousand possibilities out before you. Everybody should have access to this magic.
Sadly, three out of every ten children in the UK do not own a book, and back in the dark ages of my childhood, I was one of them. I had lovely, hard working parents who wanted the best for me – but that ‘best’ did not include books.
Things changed one day when I was seven, when a brave class teacher marched my class of forty-four unruly children along several main roads to the local library. We listened to a story and were given a library card, and at tea time that day, when I told my parents about the trip, my dad’s eyes lit up. He took me back to the library that same evening, and we came away with armfuls of books. It was the start of a serious library habit that I have never quite been able to kick.
I loved the freedom of choice that the library offered, its shelves filled with new worlds of opportunity. One book at a time, I pushed past the confines of my childhood. I pictured it as a kind of ladder made from books, leading me to a future where anything was possible.
We hear a lot these days about reading for pleasure, and of course huge efforts are made to help young people read with confidence. Once you have that skill and that love f reading, though, what then? You need a regular supply of books to feed and nurture it, and nothing does that better than a library.
Reading for pleasure makes us smart, opens our minds, gives us a quiet confidence that no reading scheme can do alone. We need free choice, the option to choose a picture book on pink unicorns one day and a book on engineering or world politics the next.
Not long ago we read of the British head teacher who – I’m sure with the best of intentions – has removed numerous popular children’s books from his school library in favour of the classics and books he considers to be more educational. This is a worrying step. Censorship of children’s books is a backwards step when what we want is to encourage and enable reading for pleasure.If that love of reading begins with thrillers or fantasies or graphic novels… well, who are we to judge?
Libraries give us power, as the popular Manic Street Preachers song says, yet almost every library I have loved as a child or an adult is or has been under threat of closure. I know that things are just the same here in Sunderland. For the past six years I have been proud to speak up and campaign for libraries – it has taken me way outside of my comfort zone, but I have no choice, because libraries matter too much for me to stay silent.
If we stand by and watch them close, our country – and our children – will suffer. Where will our creatives, our innovators, our dreamers, our rule-breakers come from in the future? How will a child climb out of a difficult childhood and into a brighter future without books?
Libraries treat us all as equals. They level the playing field, give everyone, whatever their background, a chance to follow their dreams. We cannot allow that to be taken away.
So why do we need books? To help us connect; to help us understand; to open up our hearts and minds; to help us make sense of the world and see that in spite of our differences, our uniqueness, we are all linked, that we all have so much in common. Books help us to SEE, and see beyond the surface, and we need that empathy more than ever in a world that can seem increasingly unfair, confusing, frightening.
With cuts to public libraries, school libraries are a vital lifeline to our young people, yet some schools have downsized their library, removing fiction books in favour of banks of computers. Some have closed their libraries altogether, and many new build schools have no library at all. These are the schools that ask me, as a visiting author, ‘What can we do to improve reading in our school?’ The answer is plain. Love your library. Use your library. HAVE a library.
Each of us here understand the power of reading for pleasure and work in our own small ways to promote and protect it. We are fuelled by a love of books and reading, a passion for fairness and equality of opportunity for out children. Initiatives such as this seek to plant the seed early, to grow a love of books and a future filled with possibilities. There is a lovely Margaret Atwood quote – ‘In the end, we will all become stories.’ Let’s make sure that our stories and those of the young people we teach, parent and work with are inspiring ones.
Cathy Cassidy is one of the UK’s top-selling children’s authors including the popular Chocolate Box Girls series and Looking Glass Girl, a retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Cathy was an art teacher, a magazine editor and an agony aunt before becoming a full-time writer. She tours extensively around the UK – meeting thousands of young readers every year. She is a passionate and vocal advocate for the importance of reading for pleasure and public libraries, commenting in The Guardian that “Libraries are building communities, weaving them together, helping people climb the ladder towards their own potential, one book at a time.” Cathy lives in Merseyside with her husband, two dogs and a cat. Love from Lexie, the first novel in a brand new Cathy Cassidy series, The Lost & Found will be published by Puffin in June.