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The role of school librarians in encouraging reading for pleasure

Claire Marris

By school librarian, Terri McCargar

Reading for pleasure is a reward in itself, but there are other benefits as evidenced by many studies, including higher academic attainment, fostering empathy and emotional intelligence, and supporting well-being. The librarian’s role in promoting reading is not primarily about text comprehension and analysis or even literacy (important though those are). School librarians are uniquely placed to help students to discover the joy of reading, because both our role and the breadth of our book knowledge extends beyond the curriculum. We haven’t read every book in the library (and you’d be amazed how often we get asked this), but we know enough of contemporary and classic works to champion a selection to suit all tastes, levels of literacy and emotional maturity.

My preference is to have a one-to-one conversation, where I try to ask non-judgmental, non-leading questions about what books a student has enjoyed, and/or what sort of feel (genre or otherwise) they are in the mood for. I take them round the shelves, talk up and hand over a few suggestions, then give them the space to choose for themselves (including the choice to reject all my suggestions). This last point is crucial: you have to remove any hint of an agenda or ego; this is about their choice.

Every school librarian can tell you heart-breaking stories of a moment when they’ve seen a teacher or a parent dismiss a book a child has excitedly chosen for themselves as “inappropriate” – too young/old, not “literary” or serious enough. Choice is so empowering, and the beauty of choosing a book for yourself in a library is that it comes with zero risk. You don’t like the book? No problem – you can stop reading it. It hasn’t cost you anything and you can exchange it for something else! How many things in life are like that? This sense of agency, of discovery and liberation, is something that many writers remember vividly from their own childhoods. One of my favourite quotes about the power of libraries is by Raymond Chandler and is displayed on our library door: “I went to find me in the library. I discovered me in the library.”

However, even the most well-read, passionate school librarian will not always have the opportunity to offer a bespoke book recommendation. In our library, we’ve worked to improve the “discoverability” of books through eye-catching displays and through our library system (Oliver), including developing recommended reading lists for different genres and ages to help children find a good fit. We also encourage peer-to-peer recommendation: students can add star ratings and their own reviews to books in the catalogue. In the past year, we’ve started hanging packs of genre cards for different year groups near the entrance: these show the cover on one side and a short, exciting blurb on the other so that the student can flick through quickly if they are in a rush or where the prospect of browsing the shelves or looking at the catalogue might feel too daunting.

Of course, running a book group and hosting author visits are core activities for a school library for promoting reading for pleasure. Look for opportunities to link these to other departments and school events to captivate the greatest number of students, including those who are less frequent library visitors. Having introduced virtual author visits last year, we’ve discovered that they offer some advantages – the author’s location is no barrier, costs are lower, and they can feel more intimate than a live event in some cases. We plan to keep virtual visits in the mix, alongside in-person events.

I also think it’s important to normalise a reading culture by regularly showcasing what you and other staff (not just teaching staff) are reading. Why not encourage staff to include an “I am reading” line in their email signature? We’ve also done “Get Caught Reading” displays showing staff pictured with what they’re reading; Surprise Summer Reads, where staff sign up to have a teen/YA book selected for them and are then asked to review it over the summer holiday; and staff recommendations for National Non-Fiction November. Of course, remember that Reading for Pleasure doesn’t necessarily mean Reading Novels for Pleasure – graphic novels and non-fiction are all valid and worthy of celebration.

A school librarian can work with teachers to help suggest specific books for particular needs. I have liaised with learning support colleagues to recommend some of the many brilliant titles available from dyslexic-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke, for example. I’ve also worked with staff to find graphic novels that are age-appropriate but with simpler text, to help EAL students develop their English.

There are other ways to promote reading for fun with classes, including book talks, where the librarian provides a taster of different books. Reading aloud is such a simple but effective way to engage students – we plan to do much more of this. We also run a “Blind Date with a Book” event annually through Year 8 English classes: the books are wrapped in brown paper with only a few key words on the wrapper to give a flavour. In our version, students initially get given a book at random; they have 10 minutes to “pitch” theirs to someone else and swap if they want to – in this way, there’s still an element of personal choice and still zero risk. In another recent collaboration, English teachers assigned as homework reading one book of each student’s choosing over the Easter holidays. We provided leaf templates to record the title, author and a star rating; completed leaves were passed to us to create a forest of giant reading “trees” – one for each class, so that all passers-by could see what Year 10 were reading. The diversity of their choices was inspiring!

Almost all of these ideas came from others who were kind enough to share: some of my favourite sources of ideas for promoting reading for pleasure are:

Terri’s top books for encouraging children to read for pleasure

The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson
ISBN: 9781782504900

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
ISBN: 9781913311056

The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson ISBN: 9781474974042

When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten
ISBN: 9781782692645

The Bubble Boy by Stewart Foster
ISBN: 9781471145407

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