What do Caitlin Moran and Nicky Morgan have in common?

Reading.   Reading books, not Reading Berkshire.

This unlikely pairing dawned on me as I watched Raised by Wolves by Caitlin and Caroline Moran and realised that every episode has books in it. Every one. Books on shelves, books on tables and floors, and critically books in libraries, being chosen, taken out, read and studied. Books are props and support the comedy. This family love and devour books. If you have read any Caitlin Moran you will know that her formal schooling was sporadic and would give most teachers palpitations. Caitlin’s love is summed up in this way “a library in the middle of the community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination”.

Likewise Nicky Morgan has said that we need “to introduce every child from every background to our incredibly rich heritage of world-famous children’s literature. Then we can trust books to do the rest.” Morgan’s take on this is to get Penguin to publish large sets of classics to sell to schools.

Now, I have played devil’s advocate in suggesting these stances are the same. Essentially they both say children should read books, but beyond this the contrasts are the critical issue here. Apart from the eloquence of the statements, there are a number of further differences: Moran is telling us that reading is a salve, a joy akin to a religious experience, an escape. Morgan’s quote suggests that if you give children a book that you deem suitable for them, it will perform a feat of magic.

This is strange given that the Department for Education document Reading for Pleasure is clear that research shows that pleasurable, purposeful reading stems from having greater access to a wide range of books. Also that this access and allowing children to choose what they read is more crucial than socio-economic group. It is this breadth and choice in reading not the “classic-ness” of the books that is impactful. The study of books in school is not choice. It can lead children to books that they learn to love and might not otherwise have read (I will always be glad I read Gulliver’s Travels and have not spent my life referring to film versions of the story). However, it can also create unhappiness (I am still scarred by The Old Man and the Sea). By this I do not mean book study should be stopped, changed or criticised. I am saying that early in their reading experience children need to learn about libraries and be encouraged to dip in and discover, at their own pace, in their own way.

This is not something that most children can do alone. It needs to be a joint venture between schools and parents. Schools have the information to educate about this, the enthusiasm to engage and the relationship with parents and children to get this message across. But libraries have the books. Local libraries have books for everyone, at any age, free, with almost anything in print. They have the books, schools have the relationship, together they have the recipe for engaged readers.

Teaching children and parents about these amazing places will improve their chances of forming a relationship with books that will bear fruit for many years to come. It is not a chore or a distraction. In fact the more I read, talk and think about it, the more sure I become that it is essential and worth fighting for, for as long as there are still libraries to join. The issue is not about access in the way Morgan frames it, but about informing people about the resources available; not about the physical book but about feeling the love in the way that Moran conveys through her writing.

In the end reading is their common factor but the question “What are the differences between Caitlin Moran and Nicky Morgan?” is the more important question.  I suspect it would take more than 700 words to answer that one….