I enjoyed growing up when books and libraries were treasured

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

I took assembly at my youngest daughter’s school this week to help celebrate World Book Day.

I printed off a few dozen large pictures of characters from children’s fiction and asked the 180 or so kids if they could name them.

We talked about the importance of reading and the simple pleasure of a good book.

Then I read a Horrid Henry story which had the four to seven-year-olds in hysterics and a chapter of a Famous Five novel which left the children desperate to learn what happened next to Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog.

It’s easy to understand why some kids these days don’t appreciate books – there’s simply so many other distractions.

Game consoles, computers, mobile telephones and umpteen television channels mean that the humble old book may seem a rather dull option.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining the poor literacy levels among pre-school and primary age children.

When I was growing up in the Eighties children’s television was in its infancy and so books were still a hugely important source of entertainment.

As a youngster I was incredibly proud of my collection of ‘fact books’ – Ladybird books on everything from birds of prey to kings and queens of England.

They’re now part of my daughters’ book collection – sitting alongside Horrible Histories.

When I reached high school I genuinely enjoyed my Saturday morning trips to Hanley Library where I would use the leather bound Encyclopaedia Britannica to research everything from the Treaty of Versailles to rise of Benito Mussolini.

But, for me, the real pleasure in books has always been through fiction.

The first book which really made an impression on me was Stig Of The Dump, by Clive King, which was actually written in the Sixties but was first adapted for television in 1981.

That’s when I and my classmates a whole generation of Eighties kids became enthralled by the tale of a boy who finds a caveman living in a rubbish tip.

Around the same time my friends and I were introduced to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Aged 13 and three quarters), by Sue Townsend, which became the best-selling British new fiction book of the decade.

It was funny, occasionally risque, and perfectly pitched at kids like me who were about to become teenagers and could empathise with the pathetic oik that was Adrian.

Roald Dahl was, of course, prolific during the Eighties and produced some of his best-loved works – including George’s Marvellous Medicine (1981), The BFG (1982) and Matilda (1988).

I read all of them but Charlie And The Chocolate Factory remains my favourite simply because I love the idea of the scrawny, poor but ultimately nice and polite kid finding the Golden Ticket.

As a dad with young children I’ve had cause in recent years to bump into two other beloved children’s characters from the Eighties – Spot the dog, created by Eric Hill, and Jill Murphy’s bear family – both of which were first published in 1980.

The simple narrative and beautiful illustrations are a real joy and they have become timeless classics which reinforce wholesome family values.

As an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons in my teens I was captivated by The Dragonlance Chronicles – first published in 1984 an written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman – a sort of Lord of the Rings Trilogy for a new generation.

I’ve actually met Margaret twice since then and always say thank you. I even named by goldfish after one of the key characters.

These books eventually led me to my all-time favourite novel, first published in 1986 by English heroic fantasy author David Gemmell.

I’ve still got my original copy of Waylander – a tale about an assassin seeking redemption in a war-torn land – which was signed by David at a book store in Birmingham a couple of years before his untimely death.

As much as I appreciate what modern technology does for us I’m chuffed to have grown up in an age when books and libraries really were treasured.’

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

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We’ll miss Harry’s kind of magic

A final, tempestuous battle between good and evil – our hero and a soul-less villain.
Thus ended a phenomenon which has transformed the literary landscape for children.
When the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows premiered a few days ago it marked the final bow for a fictional hero who turned writer J.K. Rowling into a household name as well as a multi-millionaire.
But away from the hype and the tears shed by the movie franchise’s stellar cast and its legions of fans, there is a genuine reason to be sad.
Even those of us who don’t know our ‘muggles’ from our ‘horcruxes’ should appreciate what this literary giant has achieved.
The Harry Potter books and the anticipation of new installments in the series were a potent force for good in children’s education. Just ask any teacher.
In the 14 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first hit the shelves, more than 400 million books about “the boy who lived” have been sold.
What’s more, countless other authors have followed the trail blazed by J.K. Rowling and tapped into the reading public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for fantasy fiction.
I was one of those who queued in to the wee small hours on July 21, 2007, after a Sentinel late-shift to grab a copy of the final installment in the series about the bespectacled wizard.
Having been weaned on Roald Dahl stories and C.S. Lewis’s chronicles of Narnia, my only regret is that these books weren’t around when I was about 10 because I would have lapped them up.
They must be good because not only have they tempted boys into reading but grown-ups forked out for them too (hidden behind an adult, non-cartoon cover, of course).
Now that’s what I call magic.
The big question is, however: Who or what will fill the void left by Hogwarts’ finest?
In an age of emails and text-speak, I think there really is a need for this kind of brilliant, innovative literature which will hook our next generation and act as a defence against the dark arts of social networking, video games and mobile telephones.
I say this as someone who is obsessed with encouraging his children to enjoy reading and writing.
I also speak as a 20-year hack who involuntarily sub-edits every leaflet that gets pushed through his door, every shop sign he claps eyes on, every CV he receives and every menu he peruses.
I chunter at the spelling mistakes, the rogue apostrophes and the mangling of the Queen’s English to such an extent that family members think I have some sort of illness.
They’re probably right.
However, like my late colleague John Abberley, I despair at the poor grammar which seems to pervade every aspect of our society and, what’s more, I’m convinced things are getting worse.
According to England’s chief schools inspector, I may have a point.
Head of Ofstead Christine Gilbert reckons standards of literacy among 11-year-olds are falling “stubbornly short” of achievable levels – with too many children leaving primary school unable to read or write well enough.
The experts tell us there are many reasons for this failure in our education system and point to ‘phonics’ – teaching children how to connect the sounds of spoken words with letters or groups of letters – as one possible solution.
Now, I’m all for anything which helps youngsters master our mother tongue but I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the line an appreciation of the importance of reading has been lost.
You only have to visit a school these days and look at the size of its computer suite compared to its library of actual books to see that we’ve got the balance all wrong.
At the risk of sounding like a luddite, there were far fewer options to entertain me when I was growing up in Stoke-on-Trent in the late Seventies and Eighties than there are for youngsters today. Thus I immersed myself in books.
Surely there must be a correlation between the plethora of attractions vying for the attention of children these days and poor literacy standards.
By placing so much emphasis on computers I think we are rather putting the cart before the horse.
We simply must work harder to engage children in one of life’s simple pleasures – reading.
Which means, as far as I’m concerned, the sooner the next J.K Rowling comes along, the better.