The Monthly talks to Liz Canning from BookTrust NI

What is your background?

I did a glorious degree in European Literature and the History of Ideas which I loved. In fact I wish I could go back and do it again as I don’t think I was fully able to appreciate what was on offer because I was too young and inexperienced. Like many people at that time I went on to do a PGCE, became a teacher and taught for 5 years.

And after that?

I got a job in educational publishing promoting a new reading scheme in schools. I did an MBA and then moved into management in the voluntary sector working for Early Years, the organisation for young children.

Do you write?

No. If there is a golden thread, it is education with a particular focus on young children and encouraging a love of books. I have always been an avid reader and books have always been an important part of my life.

Liz Canning – BookTrust NI – Top Right

You then move to BookTrust?

I loved teaching, I was teaching primary school children in Yorkshire, England, and my specialty was literacy. After I finished teaching, my husband and I moved to Northern Ireland and my working life changed.

With regards to BookTrust, I saw the job advertised and knew it was for me.  BookTrust are a national charity but they had never had a staff member in Northern Ireland. So my job was the first ever local BookTrust post.

And what does BookTrust do?

It is quite simple, we aim to get children reading for pleasure. That is what we want from the earliest age; children reading for pleasure.

Is there a theoretical underpinning to that approach?

We appreciate that there has to be a structured process in schools to teach reading and writing. However all the evidence suggests that sharing books and regular bedtime stories gives children a head start when they begin the formal process of learning to read.  Books have so much to offer young children; they open so many doors, introduce children to new characters, develop the imagination, the sense of adventure, of being transported to other worlds and other paces.  They also develop empathy and resilience in young children.

Our research shows that there is a vast improvement when reading for pleasure is part of a child’s life. There is an improvement in speech, language, communication skills, health and well-being, all of this is improved by children being read to, being encouraged to read and developing a love of books.

Your organisation encourages parents to read to children?

We want to encourage parents to spend time reading to their children. We particularly focus on children from birth to 5 years old as we know this is where we can make the most impact. We encourage parents to find time to share picture books with babies, read bedtime stories, find time just to read for ten minutes a day with their children.

For families we have a programme called Bookstart which are parcels of books, rhymes and parental guidance.  These are handed out by health visitors who are trusted professionals and very well placed to give them out with the right message about the importance of reading and bedtime routines.

There is an idea that children get taught to read at schools; that somehow teaching reading is a job for an educational professional, but it is vital that parents are part of the process and enjoy sharing books with their children at home.

We also understand that people now have very busy lives and with the digital world there is a lot of competition for time, but reading is a key element in children’s lives.

What about schools or nurseries?

Again we advocate story time, periods where books are shared with children. That is essential and we would like that kind of activity maintained in schools or nurseries.

How do you find the books?

The digital age compliments what we do. We have a search mechanism called the book finder.

Parents can search for any theme or idea that their children might be interested in and find a book that complements that. They can then get that book from the library or from a bookseller.

We have an expert book team who work closely with authors and illustrators. We have a Great Books Guide and we produce that every year so that parents can find the kind of books that their children will like.

Inclusivity is a key theme for your organisation?

We are doing a lot of work to support and promote authors of colour. We are concerned about the level of inclusivity in book publishing. It is really important that children regardless of race, colour, ability and type of family see themselves represented in books.

And what does that look like?

We have books which feature young people who might have a disability, and they are simply reflected as part of the story, rather than the story being specifically about life with a disability. We have books which look at different lifestyles, different family arrangements, different ethnicities because books allow you to explore other worlds, other ideas, they open up the space for that discussion. We want to see stories which reflect society as a whole rather than just one aspect of society.

You work with young people in care?

Yes, we have a programme called Letterbox Club especially for children in care. We send parcels of books, once a month, to looked after children. We make sure that the parcel has the child’s name on it; that is very important. The parcel contains books, maths games and stationary items and a letter often from an author.  We know that these are very well received by the children and carers.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We are a national reading charity and contribute to government policy outcomes on arts, education and well being.  We aim to give young children the best start in life through a love of books and reading because we know that reading can change lives.

We bring books and the reading process to life through author and illustrator visits in schools.  This encourages children to learn about the writing process, bringing that process to life, showing that authors are people we can relate to.

Everything we do is connected to our central aim of getting children reading and specifically reading for pleasure.

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.