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.


There are few greater gifts for a child than a love of reading

The Famous Five: Still cool.

The Famous Five: Still cool.

In our house ‘storytime’ is special. It’s that half an hour or so before the kids go to bed when me, the missus and our six and eight year olds snuggle up together on the bunk bed and read to each other.

Forget mealtimes: This is proper family time. It is the one time of day when telephones are ignored, the TV is switched off and we all focus on an old-fashioned printed tome.

Guests at chez Tideswell (notably and my mum) will tell you they’re are not immune, either, as very often Lois and Mina will ask them to read a chapter or two of whatever book we’re half way through.

For years now, little ’un has refused to go to sleep without a story. (She doesn’t know that big ’un then reads under the duvet with her Disney Princess torch when the lights go out).

We’ve read to our girls since they were three months old – reinforcing the idea of a quiet time before bed and getting the babies used to sound of our voices.

We began with flap books and the ones with textured pages before graduating to storybooks with tales that could be read in a session.

We started by Going On A Bear Hunt, met The Gruffalo, found Room On The Broom and probably over-stayed our welcome with the Mister Men.

Our readings involve funny voices and as much excitement as we can muster after a long day at work.

More recently we moved on to the offerings of comedian turned-author David Walliams and were thrilled to discover one of them, Mr Stink, was a television special last Christmas starring the excellent Hugh Bonneville.

But it is an author who first entertained children with her tales of adventure and lashings of ginger beer during the dark days of the Second World War who has really grabbed the imagination of my two.

Yes, to live at our house you have to be a fully paid-up member of the Famous Five fan club.

Forget any ideas of the language being out-dated or that dear old Enid Blyton somehow perpetuated sexist stereotypes: My kids absolutely love these stories.

I swear if Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the Dog (that tune will stay with you all day, now) lived next door I wouldn’t see my girls over the summer holidays.

We are currently reading book number 11 of the 21 in the Famous Five series and I genuinely don’t know what we’ll do when we reach the end. Probably turn in desperation for the Secret Seven, I should imagine.

Finishing the series is a matter of such concern to Lois that she’s started rationing the books to holiday periods so that they last longer. I kid you not.

I’m chuffed to bits that my girls love to read and enjoy being read to. I think there are few greater gifts you can bestow on your child than a love of books.

E-readers, game consoles, mobile phones and touch-screen tablets are all well and good but nothing beats the simple pleasure of losing yourself in a book.

What’s more, you aren’t half giving your child a good platform for his or her education if you can nurture in them a love of reading.

This storytime scenario in our house is a scene which is doubtless repeated in homes across the land.

No matter how tired they are or what kind of day they’ve had, many parents make the time to read to their children every day and it makes a hell of a difference.

Ask any teacher. They will tell you it’s easy to spot the children who receive help and support with reading at home and, likewise, those who don’t know one end of a book from the other.

Sadly, Stoke-on-Trent fares extremely poorly when it comes to reading – with 40 per cent of children in the city starting school with literacy levels below the national standard.

Results for seven-year-olds also show Stoke-on-Trent is bottom of the league tables in England for reading, writing and mathematics.

There are no excuses because other cities have the same problems.

We can blame levels of deprivation; We can blame an over-emphasis on computers and modern technology.

In the end it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the generations of children who are growing up without the essential communication tools needed to get a decent education and get on in life.

Given the grim statistics, I welcome news of the Stoke Reads scheme, funded by the city council, which is part of a campaign to boost literacy standards.
It will initially be piloted with 80 parents who will be trained to use fun techniques to get pre-school children excited about reading.

This is just the first of a series of initiatives planned over the next three years – including encouraging better links between primary schools and libraries – but is significant, to me, in that it acknowledges that it is often parents who need assistance in order to be able to help their children.

No-one sets out to be bad parent but the fact is that there are too many mums and dads who have neither the skills nor the inclination, perhaps both, to pass on to their children the simple, free gift of reading.

For some parents it is clearly easier to let their child suck on a dummy for longer than is good for their speech development or use the telly as a babysitter rather than interact with a noisy toddler.

It is this skills vacuum, and – like it or not – an abdication of responsibility by some mums and dads, which is limiting the prospects of generations of youngsters from our neck of the woods.

In my book, anything which stops the rot and better equips parents to support their children’s education is worth supporting.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday