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I Saw This Book and Thought of You

May 2, 2016 | Posted in: prison, Reading

I’m often asked what is my favourite book is but the question always throws me. My mind goes blank: what book is in my bag? What did I say last time? But it’s a perfectly logical question to ask the guy spouting off about how people should read and read more. Let’s cut to the quick and see what he likes. But favourite books are wrapped in so much of your life, it’s hard to let them stand on their words alone. Favourite books are where your read-life and your lived-life merge. Favourite books can be the ones that change you, comfort you, shock you, enlighten you, or fill your need for a story.

Being allowed by the lovely people at Give A Book to ramble on about potential favourites, made me realise why I tend to shy away from the question – that it’s just about me and, while I’m happy to talk about ME until the cows come home, reading for me is also about connecting with other people. First with the author, your thoughts swimming together, and then with others. Readers don’t have to like the same books, but it is a special moment when you meet someone who shares with you a love of a particular book or author.
It can happen in the oddest places, and this isn’t the same as someone clocking what you’re reading and feeling they can give you their take on it. As a despatch rider, I was once sitting in the protean-wasteland of the Docklands, where new streets and buildings would appear each week. Another biker stopped, nodded at the cover of the book I was reading, The Anarchist Reader. I was immediately recruited into the anarcho –syndicalist DIWU (Despatch Industries Workers Union), given a key-ring with the apology that the DIWU had disbanded several weeks earlier.
So, no, not that kind of exchange. Nor the kind of prescribed list that publishers or prizes offer.
I have felt that connection twice recently, both times in prison libraries, both about the books of John Connolly. I’ve been reading and rereading Connolly’s Charlie Parker series (do also read his stand alone novels, particularly the magnificent The Book of Lost Things). Initially a serial killer vs. detective narrative, the Parker books have since evolved its supernatural elements, becoming a grand mythology akin to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic whilst losing none of its heart.
The first time was in the stacks of the prison library. I go into the stacks whenever I can, to look at what’s in stock and also to see what other people are interested in. There are some voracious readers in prison. This was a male prison and some of the men clearly thought I was there to offer “good reading choices”. The prisoner in the stacks was working through the Lee Child spines. I saw him slide by the Connollys and mentioned he might like them. Read them all. he said. And he had even the brand new collection of short stories. But we stood there talking over the latest Charlie Parker – connected. Equal for that moment and happy to share that space.

The second time was in a privately-run women’s prison. Privately-run prisons tend to have a smaller choice of books: they can’t refresh through the public library system. In this women’s prison, the prisoner has already chosen five of her six books when she asked me which other I would add. I saw she had a John Connolly in the pile and immediately we were like old friends chatting away about the series.
‘Five minutes left,’ the librarian called.
There weren’t any more Connollys. We were dancing round the stacks chatting about what else we’d read whilst promising the librarian we would be ready soon.
‘Three minutes,’ the librarian sang out, smiling at our search.
No early Clive Barker, Aickman too rare, and James Lee Burke too much on the crime side. Triumphantly I pounced on Peter Straub’s The Throat.
Okay, she should probably read Koko first but The Throat is an amazing novel and has the same strands of crime, thriller, and supernatural as Charlie Parker. We rushed the library counter together, laughing for no other reason than it’s good not to be alone.

Reading Headlines

September 27, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people


Let’s get every child reading widely and well

Another year, another literacy drive. The Daily Telegraph article rather contradicts its message of ‘widely and well’ by giving a list of 50 books that all children should have read by the time they are 16. An inevitably bizarre list offers little to teenagers except The Hunger Games. What fuels these periodic drives to improve literacy in the UK is the need to be seen to be doing something. The more visible the better, and if you can hitch yourself to some celebrity wattage even better.

There have already been two National Years of Reading (1998 & 2008); there is the annual World Book Day, the Read On Get On campaign, and at least a dozen other national and local schemes. It is a cause that no one can argue with. Literacy is going to make a difference in someone’s life, a love of reading does make a difference, and yet there is something that makes my skin crawl when politicians leap on this particular bandwagon – isn’t it their job to put in place the institutions that enable a culture of literacy to thrive in the first place?


Between the two NYOR there was BiblioBraz in Moscow. First Ladies Cherie Blair, Lyudmila Putin, and Laura Bush all attended to showcase their support. The result was world-famous UK children’s authors reading to a room packed with bodyguards, PAs, hangers on, and a couple of rows of children.


Russia has produced a great body of literature, and enjoyed a high literacy rate. In fact at the time of BiblioBraz (2005) the government was trying to persuade fewer young people to go to university (it used to be 80% of young people went to university).

And yet, that high literacy rate and all those university graduates didn’t always give the expected results.

‘Students were notorious for their lack of interest in how to solve intellectual problems – they only cared what the answer was’
Just before the present UK literacy drive we had another headline. The Observer:
‘Fathers not reading enough to their children, says Book Trust
’ ‘Alarming’ new research says 50% more mothers read to children than fathers, and one in five students leaves primary school with poor reading skills.

At least they put quote marks around ‘alarming’. I’m all for reading more with your kids, but it doesn’t really help to throw around statistics that on closer examination show something else. The headline figures only apply to children below the age of one. After that the figures, though still unbalanced, are hardly headline worthy. At age three it’s71% 62% for mothers and fathers respectively. At five years 75% 65%, still a significant gap but enough to point the finger? Digging a little deeper we find that the actually question fathers were asked was ‘Do you take the lead in reading to your children?’ Not, Do you read with your children.


Lift your head from the relentless succession of crises, run along the timeline, and those children who enjoyed the first National Year of Reading are now adults. Whisper it. One in six people struggles to read.

A crisis? Or a result of a culture that perpetuates inequality? Finland has a more equal society by most estimates (though by no means a utopia), and regularly tops the world charts for literacy. Is it that the Finnish language is so much easier, that the teachers get so much more training, the long dark nights, or a culture that enforces and promotes equality? Discuss.


The successive governments who support one drive or another have also cut adult education; have reduced prison education to 4-week courses. I had an interest in children’s reading and education even before becoming a parent but it’s adult education that pricks my skin. I left school with one O level in English (grade C). I recently went through my old school books and was struck by how appalling my writing was at secondary school. Essay after essay riddled with spelling mistakes, and yet there were no comments by teachers. The thing about being an adult learner is you remember your learning. You remember your tutor at Poly asking why you couldn’t use commas, why you persisted in misspelling ‘challenge’. You remember reading and rereading novels, copying out paragraph after paragraph to drive in the punctuation habits and rules into your thick head. You remember being content reading a tabloid, and it being sneered at by both students and tutors. And you remember the first time you stumbled across a book that articulated your experience of education, and you remember the first time, the very first time, you nailed your thoughts to the page and they stuck. And then what went before no longer mattered.


A matter of choice

September 6, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, prison, Reading, Uncategorized

Now the ban on sending books to prisoners is over, the chatter is about which books to send. Books have always been an important part of prison life. In this Pathe News clip of The Cell of the Future (1959) a selection of books can be glimpsed. It’s a mixture of thrillers, historical novels, and comedy. The only name that sticks out is Edith Pargeter (Holiday with violence) who, as Ellis Peters, wrote the Brother Cadfael series.

A more contemporary cell would probably have Martina Cole, James Patterson, a graphic novel, and something like Sharpe with a bit of true crime and self-help thrown in. It would also be more cramped and there would be a bag of breakfast cereal next to the kettle.

At an event in HMP Grendon a couple of years ago I was asked to bring along a book I’d enjoyed, to give to prisoners. I chose Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog. It had really cast a spell over me when I read it and it has a wide range of characters to empathise with. I handed out a couple of copies to prisoners and thought no more about it. Two years later I’m back at Grendon with Erwin James who talked about how his reading developed and changed during his time in prison. When he was first there he read westerns such as the Edge series (I loved these as a teenager) but it was book called Prisoners of Honour that someone gave him that struck a chord. After the talk I’m standing there giving out dictionaries for those who have completed the Six Book Challenge when a voice says, “You know that book you said we should read?”
I have no idea what the man standing in front of me is talking about. I’m frozen in the act of handing him a dictionary.
‘Already got one.’
He’s waiting for me to pick up the conversation. The men queuing behind wait politely, no fuss. Time stops. I know the staff needs us out in a few minutes and lots of people still want to chat with Erwin
Did I recommend a particular book in the talk with Erwin before? I can never remember what I say my favourite book is: Rumblefish, Seventh Heaven, Winter’s Bone, Game of Thrones?
I must have been still looking blank when he launched into why my recommendation hadn’t come up to scratch. “It started off okay but it went a bit Hollywood at the end.”
And then I’m in the conversation and for the next few minutes as we stand there, my brain is buzzing, trying to remember the points I want to make. It’s clearly all primed in the mind of the reader in front of me. Perhaps when you’re struggling with your own demons, trying to make the rights choices, you don’t want to read about people who deceive themselves, and repeatedly make bad choices.
We talk and it reminds me why I love discussing books, particularly when a discussion pops up unexpectedly like this. I might not have chosen the right book for this particular reader but we are enlivened by the argument. It is a bridge between us. An equalizer.

Back to sending books to prisoners. The best comment I saw was from Russell Webster who simply tweeted Depends on what they want to read. Exactly.

Who are we when we read?

August 4, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, young people

Scan 1
Reading is complicated. Not just the decoding, putting together, joining up all the meanings into a narrative, but the motives that bring us to reading. I once did a project for the new library in Lewes in which I spoke with 100 people about why they read and was surprised by the variety of answers.

THE CHALET MAID “I like writing that bounces around – that isn’t just about real life.”

THE COMMUTER “The book I’m reading now is so stylized it’s quite difficult to follow in places but it’s better than the telly. I have spare time now to read on the train. I like to drift into someone else’s thoughts.”

Rory Stewart gives a great description of this drifting in The Pleasure of Reading:
‘Once you have taken possession of a book, you can inspect a writer’s mind, in all its shades and dimensions. You can establish a relationship, which would be intolerable to a living individual: you can wake the writer at three in the morning, switch her off mid-sentence, insist she continues for six hours unbroken, skip, go back, repeat the same paragraph again and again, impertinently second-guessing her vocabulary, and metaphors, scrutinizing her structure and tricks.’

And who do we think we are when we’re reading? The general assumption is we identify with the protagonist but I often feel it’s more that you look through several characters’ eyes, and also, somehow, you are a part of the narrative, its landscape, the tone. The book comes alive in your head. As an adolescent I loved Robert E Howard. Gloomy, sulky heroes, grimly hacking their way through a world always tottering on invasion, destruction by demons, or treachery. Lost Gods, and melancholic heroes, in an invented past written fifty years before, and yet they chimed with something in me and it became my quest to hunt them down. In rural Yorkshire the Moors were still shadowed by Brady and Hindley, at football matches the police were taunted with their failure to capture the new monster. Long lines of warehouses lay empty, windows broken, the sense of an ending, of armies stirring.


Stories need readers. Millions of stories migrating, drifting, in libraries, on park benches and carriage seats, in birthday wrappings, on market stalls, with the old and abandoned in charity shops, with the new and talked-about in brightly-lit shops, until they meet their reader.

At the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts the aboriginal writer Tony Birch spoke about the book that he had found himself in.

‘No book left the impression on me that Kes did. I was convinced that it had travelled the globe to find me. From the first pages, when Billy wakes in the early morning in his damp, crowded room and is teased and abused by his brother, I felt more than empathy for him. I was sure I was Billy.’

He went on to say that Billy’s world made sense to him and his friends. “Billy gets walloped. His brother wallops him, his teacher wallops him, everybody wallops him. We knew this world. “ This book from Barnsley, in northern dialect, unpublished in America until 2015, was doing the rounds of teenagers literally at the other side of the world, yet it speaks to them. It illuminates their world.

I’m always uncovering new reasons why people read. It’s a subject I find endlessly fascinating. The reasons are probably as many and as varied as human experience.

“I read to find out what’s normal. I look for a Mom and a Dad in the story, see what kinds of things they do. I never had that on the street so I look in books to find these things out.”
Paul, HMP Pentonville

Despite what educators would like to believe there is no magic list of books you should read. Be curious. You are unique and no one can predict which of the books you read will leave their mark.

Scan 2

World Without Libraries II

July 15, 2015 | Posted in: Reading, young people

Our public libraries still amaze me. Even though they’re being hit hard by cuts, challenged to find a place in a world romancing the digital, their very function at odds with a future in love with ‘sharing’ but sniffy about borrowing, they remain a stunning act of generosity. Where else can you wander through thousands of years of thought? It’s all here: dreams, schemes, delusions, and designs for life. What other institution not only allows free access but packages up that knowledge and implores you to live with it for a while.

And while the UK library system is going through a tough time, despite a wealth of ideas, the rest of the world seems to be rocking quite happily on with public libraries. You can have reading nets in Spain, open offices in Sweden, and the drive up window at Cleveland Ohio. Not heard of that one? Me neither until my friend Cath was over from the States and told me. No need to browse, just phone your request through and drive up to the window.


Okay, we can sneer at this symbol of American car culture but it’s also a symbol of American attitudes to service. You order it and they will have it ready for you. Reservation costs? Zero. Zero!! I’m paying 80p a shot. Worse, Cath tells me DVDs and CDs are all loaned out for free too. This might seem small beans but these are precisely some of the reasons that families in the UK don’t use public libraries.
Sometimes this great expression of generosity is spoilt by the petty conditions and the need to support a public service by racking up fees from photocopying, DVDs lending etc.

But this weekend the sun was shinning on libraries all over the UK. Even our small library was buzzing, and all over the town you could see children walking around clutching books! The reason? The Summer Reading Challenge. The icing on the cake, the offer that keeps giving, the embodiment of that stunning act of generosity pitched at our futures.

Read Write Imagine III

April 26, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, prison, Reading, young people


As a teenager, watching bands in the local pub was a big influence on my musical taste. With no internet, and only the music press and the top 40, it was hard to expand your knowledge of the music you liked. The bands at The Bay Horse mainly played cover versions but it was only after the third version of Freebird that I got the idea. Covers were, and often are, derided as lesser than an original song. Less authentic, but secretly I love a good cover. It gives us familiarity, whilst still allowing the artist license to rework elements of the song. It seemed a good place to start for a writing workshop. Take something that already existed, that people could put their own stamp on. It would be faster and hopefully less intimidating than a blank page.

Cannongate have their reworked myths but I wanted something more in common knowledge. Shorter. Where you could still hear the original bones underneath.

Fairy stories are perfect for this. They’re familiar to most, not considered ‘literature’, and flexible enough to allow the writer to bend and twist the story whilst still keeping a flavour of the original. To keep the idea tight I decided that these modern reworkings had to be exactly 150 words long. The Grimm150, as it became known, proved an excellent way for writers to learn the value of editing and rewriting.
The idea was tested first in HMYOI Brinsford

Once upon a time in a city called Birmingham there lived two children and their names were Hansel and Gretel. One murky afternoon Hansel was playing on his phone while Gretel danced around her room, when all of a sudden, their mum comes storming in and started to smash up the bedroom, even the house. The children know she is drunk again. While this was happening their dad was working. The dad is working for a zoo. Hours had passed and Hansel and Gretel’s dad had just finished work. He looked at his watch and the watch said 6pm so he could not be bothered to go home. He decided to head for a bar then a brothel. The children were getting scared when the dad bursts in and says to them “We don’t love you anymore. You can’t live here anymore. “ The dad kicks them into the street.
Funded by a Clarrisa Luard Award donated to The Reading Agency by Julian Barnes, I ran 10 workshops in 10 Young Offender Institutes.

Of course, many of the young men never had fairy stories read to them. If they knew them at all it was from Disney DVDs, but they quickly improvised with characters from Toy Story and of course Winnie the Pooh. Two lads did a fabulous performance of a washed up Winnie and Tigger on a park bench. Others created their own totally original stories:

Once upon a time in a city called London there was a small place called Longate. There lived a family who was not very well known to the community because they were new to Longate. They never came out of their house and even if they did, it was as if no one ever saw them. It was like they were invisible, and this made the family very angry. It didn’t feel fair for everyone to act as if they weren’t there. One night they decided to kill everyone in Longate. All those who acted as if they were invisible. They left their house and went out into Longate. They killed everyone and then dragged the bodies into the dark woods. In the woods they turned everyone into werewolves, just like they were. Now all the people they’d killed would live again, and nobody would feel left out again.


The ten workshops produced some great material and, judging by the thanks I got at the end of each workshop, many enjoyed the experience. This would often be as much about group dynamics as the material produced. Some were proud they had produced something, particularly those who had never written anything before. Others loved sense of play and performance in riffing on a well-known story: Goldilocks and the Three Drug Dealers, Little Red in the Hood etc. Some would give the story of their crime, and some would go into a kind of trance and work furiously. Checking and counting their words out loud, uncaring and unknowing of any one else in the room, as they tried to land the story that had ignited in their head.

I need her, I must keep her. Nobody must have her.
I do this not to hurt her but to protect her.
She is my sleeping beauty.

I see how he looked at her, as if to give the impression he
Was her prince Charming, as if his kiss could rescue her but
He just wants to take her from me.
She needs me. I am her father, and she is my sleeping beauty.

She is so peaceful, so still, a thing of absolute beauty. This is
Why I must keep her, she must not be exposed to the cruel way of men. She is too pure, too innocent. She is my sleeping beauty.

If only she knew my reasons why, I know she would understand. He is not right for her. He only wants to take her away but no one can have her. She is my sleeping beauty.

Ginge HMYOI Glen Parva


A World Without Libraries

March 28, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people


This week we got the news that Shropshire are going the way of so many authorities and sliding their public funded libraries into volunteer control. I don’t think my son would be so much of a reader without access to public libraries. Sure, he would be able to read, and read well, but I’m not sure the compulsion to read for pleasure would be there. I know some kids who will pick up a dog-eared Enid Blyton just to have something to read but I don’t think he’s like that. He’s been brought up in a world where the presentation of narrative and knowledge is constantly updating. My childhood world was of repeats, rigid schedules, and limited choice; rereading books and comics came as naturally as watching TV repeats. Now the narrative world presents endless choices, and being able to select 10 new titles a week from the local library was a gift. No other word for it. It was a beautiful, heady, absorbing, and delightful gift. Ten titles every week for the first decade of his life. Hundreds of books every year – that experience would never have been possible without a public library.
Sometimes we got the same book out again and again. We went through whole series: Elmer, The Little Princess, Amazing Machines, Blue Kangaroo, Horrid Henry, Beast Quest, Scream Street, Harry Potter, Alex Rider, Skulduggery, and many that I have forgotten until I see them in a bookshop or sale and I smile when the words slip into my head. Round the Corner, Not Far Away. Bing begins another Day.

I remember the delight on his face when he saw Fizz the Fire Engine, the book he knew so well from the library, in a bookshop, and we had to buy it because he wouldn’t let it go. Not just endless storybooks; in those pre literate years, we had ‘looking at books,’ generally of vehicles; emergency, space and military being the most popular. So much knowledge that you absorb at your own pace, as your own mind grew, without fear of being monitored.

Public libraries should be more than branded coffee and free Wi-Fi. At our beloved library in Bishops Castle, we were always made welcome. Generally we had ordered our books online beforehand, and after a while it became normal for my son to rush in, drop off the books he’d finished with, and dart behind the library counter to see if any books for him had arrived. We would go in the early evenings, so we could go to the pub afterwards to look/read at our books. Another family would often come in at the same time. They would drive down in a mud-spattered Landy; Dad still in wellies and work clothes, the little one in pyjamas complete with teddy bear, and the two other children in school uniform. The Dad would usher them in, it was never a long stop, they knew what they wanted: books for bedtime, books for school, books for adventure and books for reading together. The nearest bookshop was an hour drive away and might as well have been on the moon. We all knew the library was the place we could dip into knowledge and dreams. Choose ten. Every week.

337 public libraries have closed since 2010

Read Write Imagine Part I

February 27, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading, schools, young people


I stole the title for this post from an essay by Phillip Pullman.


We writers ought to make it clear too that the arts – not just learning about them, but doing them, actually writing and painting and playing music – have a vital part to play in the lives of our children. They have to do with enlarging and clarifying experience, in opening new worlds of possibility and delight and understanding and emotion.


Pullman talks eloquently about the need to keep books and the arts around children because you don’t really know when their imagination, as opposed to their skill level, will take off.


In workshops I aim for100% participation, and so I often need a structure to coax in the more reluctant students. With disaffected students, they’re generally bored, and the longer I take before we get to the actual content the less chance I have of getting anything out of them. Sure, I can go into my groups of able and willing students, run a few ice-breakers, riff on what they’re currently reading and off we go. Some will produce excellent writing, some middling, and some very little but what to do with the less able, the less willing?


When I was at school we would be given a choice of titles and then told to get on with writing a story. The creativity was in pulling an innocuous looking title around to what you wanted it to be. But you had to want to write in the first place. The structure has to offer scaffolding, but also an invitation to play and experiment within/on/outside the given boundaries. I look at my son’s planning notes for his stories written at school; the mind maps, the drilling on punctuation, the push for complex sentences etc. All of which are useful but I wonder how he summons up the energy to write anything in the tiny bit of time left.



I find that the structure of making a book works well with primary school age students. The book is a simple folded construction but on every page there was a different shaped flap cut into the paper. The challenge was for the young people to incorporate those shapes into their stories.   The books shown come from a class of years 3-6 of differing abilities but all managed to complete the exercise. Planning was 5 minutes explaining the idea and showing an example I’d prepared earlier. The ideal structure is one that all can use. They only have to Read Write Imagine.




“They loved this. Really got into it. I let them carry on through afternoon so they could finish their books to show you.” Richard Langford, Head teacher.


But what would work with older students?

The most powerful book in prison

January 23, 2015 | Posted in: prison, Reading



Martina Cole is certainly the most popular author amongst UK prisoners. In the prison library true crime, urban fiction, and self –help are the most popular genres, but the single most sought after book in prison is a dictionary. Prison librarians despair of ever being able to keep them on the shelves so often are they stolen, or never returned. Knowledge is indeed power. In our spell-checked world, with a thesaurus at our fingertips, it is easy to forget the power of the book of words, their meanings, and their usage. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 wasn’t the first but it became the most prevalent as he imposed order on the ‘unruly mess’ of the English language. His desire to capture, order, and define is beautifully punctured in Blackadder the Third.


The Oxford English Dictionary had taken fifty years to complete by the time it was finally published in 1928. It is still the major reference work updated each year. One of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the original OED was William Chester Minor, a convicted murderer confined to Broadmoor.


In 2015 prison is still a world of pen and paper, and it’s not always easy to get hold of either. Prison issue pens look like they came in Christmas crackers. According to the Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, 47% of prisoners in England & Wales have no qualifications at all, and 21% reported needing help with reading and writing. Prisoners have often told me that they will study a dictionary to increase their vocabulary. Without access to the right words how can you describe your feelings? You need the right words to make sense of an argument and to nail a fact. Words are bandages, shields, daggers and shotgun blasts. Young offenders love the rhyming dictionary for their lyrics. A dictionary is essential for understanding legal documents, and keeping in touch with family. Foreign language dictionaries are even more sought after. In England and Wales 12% of prisoners are foreign nationals. There is one lady who has made it her mission to comb London charity shops for foreign language dictionaries that she then donates to the local prison.


Being given a dictionary often marks a rite of passage. I can remember being given the bible and an Oxford Pocket Dictionary when I left primary school. The bible was the smaller of the two. Over the last two years the charity Give A Book has given over 5000 mini dictionaries to prisoners who have completed The Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge (now known as Reading Ahead). It is without doubt the best incentive to take up the challenge to read, and to read more.


Even on the out the dictionary, electronic or paper, is essential. How many of us would confidently expose ourselves with words if we couldn’t trust that we had used them correctly?

The book at the beginning of it all

January 10, 2015 | Posted in: literacy, Reading

Janet and John



I imagine a lot of us can remember the first book that we read and enjoyed but most of us will have forgotten the first book we ever read. It’s more likely to have been part of some generic reading scheme rather than any literary masterpiece. The first time we read something and really ‘get it’ is a fanfare moment.


‘The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.’ Ursula K. Le Guin


In the case of my son it was a games handbook.

‘The Grim Reaper comes to everyone when it is time to die. He does not speak, and the air around him is as cold as ice”.’


Which is a long way from either Roger Red hat or Chip and Biff and the Oxford Reading Tree! That was his entry into the world of reading.


But what, and this is what this post is about, if you only start reading as an adult or teenager? What about Chip and Biff then?


ExSAS soldier and author Andy McNab tells how it was Janet and John Book 10 that opened the world of reading to him. In the army as a young solider he quickly realised that he would have to improve his literacy and Janet and John book 10 was the first one he finished.

‘I had the book for a couple of days to get to grips with it, then stood in front of the captain and read it to him [McNab was 17 at the time and fresh out of Borstal]. When I had finished, he said, ‘Now close it.’

I did as he told me.

‘McNab, remember this moment. The moment you closed the cover of the very first book you had ever read.’


This is what I’m interested in – what books do you give an adult who is struggling to read more than a few sentences? When even a Quick Read such as McNab’s will still be too hard. Do we offer children’s books? Or photocopies of short articles from newspapers? But remember what McNab’s Captain said. He wanted him to remember that feeling of having succeeded. As McNab says, ‘It wasn’t until I sat down that I felt the thrill of having read a book. I had actually read a book!’


Teenagers will have Barrington Stoke’s excellent range of books for reluctant and non-readers but the thousands of adults with poor literacy in this country don’t have a great choice in getting that feeling of actually completing a book. My favourites are The Dark Man series, or Brinsford Books (written and read by offenders). The recent parliamentary report on adult literacy and numeracy quotes an OECD survey that ranks England and Northern Ireland at 22nd out of the 24 countries surveyed.


Dark Man series by Peter Lancett


We spend so much time making reading attractive to children it only seems fair we should spend a similar amount on the adults who fell through the net. Do let me know if you have any suggestions.