The value of writing and reading when life is very busy…
One of the great things about being an author that writes for young people is visiting schools. But why it’s so special might surprise you…
I frequently find myself in a classroom with seven or eight brilliant emerging writers, who don’t, read the kind of fiction each other write. That’s why I introduced the rainy B&B bath test. ‘If,’ I say, ‘You were in a B&B and it was raining cats and dogs outside, and you picked up a book to take in for a long bath and it was this book (here I wave the manuscript concerned) and you read the first page or so…would you take it into the bathroom or try another?
If you would carry in for your bath, it’s a good book (even if you wouldn’t have bought it yourself). If you’d put it back down, then there’s something either wrong with the book or too narrow about your taste.
This book came to me via a Secret Santa and it was very much that kind of experience. I’d heard nothing about it. I wasn’t sure it was my sort of thing. I looked up 150 pages later.
We find ourselves deep in Early Modern Russia, when Christianity still sits uneasily on traditional belief. Winters are hard and long and hunger is normal…starvation is not unknown. In the dark and cold, when you don’t dare stray far from the stove and pray you have enough wood to keep it fed, your mental resilience can be the difference between life and death.
The book is a fantasy, but a fantasy based on the the various tales and spiritual concepts that the characters need for this mammoth task of survival. The interior lives of the characters – a wild young girl called Vasya and her family, the people in her father’s fiefdom and the golden-haired priest that comes among them – are shaped by their beliefs. When an unusually hard winter hits, for Vasya it is an evil folklore spirit that walks among the benign ones she has befriended. For the priest, it is a sign that the people have sinned. Interior beliefs become a threatening reality, and everyone’s survival depends on Vasya.
There is an evil stepmother, a brutal suitor, gorgeous horses, the sweep of the Russian countryside, the glittering court of late Medieval Moscow…it’s quite a ride. And Vasya is a heroine to adore. It’s beautifully written and terribly atmospheric.
Don’t wait until you find it on the shelves of a remote B&B on a rainy day. Read it now. I understand the sequel will be available soon, so if you end up loving the world, you can live in it even longer than the 456 pages!
If you haven’t visited a library in years, you might think nobody goes to libraries any more. Well, you’re wrong. In the time it takes to read this entire sentence, 40 people have visited a library in the UK.
You might not need a library today, or tomorrow, or for years. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want one in your community. Because like a hospital, or a second bridge over the Bristol Channel to Wales, or the police – one day you might need it. And when you do, just like you’d need those other things, you’ll really, really need a library. Someone else in your community needs one like that today.
Libraries are often used by people who are in transition from one thing to another. People who are in between being born and going to school use the library for stimulation and to begin to understand book-based culture for the world of learning. Older children, learning to work independently, use the library for help finding valid references for essays. People looking for new courses or careers use the resources of the library. People who are in a new town, finding out more about their past, recovering from illness, spending hours alone in old age…all these people regularly use the library.
Where else can you go that costs nothing and always welcomes you? Where you can not only be entertained and distracted from what ever problems you are facing, but also get reliable information on solving those problems? I said in a previous post that a library is the intellectual hub of a community – sometimes people very much need the access to knowledge it contains. And more than that, they need to be physically inside a place that celebrates and collects the fruits of human struggle – they need the companionship that place brings to their own situation. Because a library is also a place personal difficulties are recognised and normalised.
But that’s not to say that libraries are only warm and fluffy. They’re also a good investment. Libraries pay great finaincial dividends. The young people using the wifi and quiet they can’t get at home will get better exam results. People in need will recover from their problems more quickly and contribute once more to the economy. Companies thinking about locating in the area look for libraries as a marker of the quality of potential employees. Children with access to books in the home attain much better in school than children without. In pounds and pence, as well as in hearts and minds, a library has a value that is nearly impossible to overestimate.
That’s why we need to fund libraries.
A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.
If you’re trying to write (or do anything else difficult), you might like to hear my collected wisdom from the A Place in Words project. There’s only a few minutes of it – I think they pretty much got the lot.
(This post has been rewritten after an earlier version was mistakenly deleted.)
A common excuse for not funding libraries is, ‘We don’t need them anymore. We have the internet now.’
We do have the internet now – my parents nearly went broke buying me a spanking set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but during her primary education, my daughter used the wifi instead. The problem with getting your information from a general search engine comes when you need to be sure of the information you get and it needs to be more extensive than a three line entry.
There’s an awful lot of information on the internet and, as we all know, not all of it is useful…or even true. Aliens, I hate to break it to you, did not kill JFK.
Another name for Librarians is Information Scientists. That’s what their special post-graduate degree is in, Information Science. In our generation, we have a great deal MORE information that needs to be managed. So why would we assume that we need FEWER people to manage it?
Some information (broadsheet newspapers, peer-reviewed academic journals, e-books) are only available behind a paywall. This is the kind of information you want a secondary school learner to read for extension work. It’s beyond the ability of most households to subsidise access to enough paywalls for one child, let alone two or or three. However, it’s not just the kids who will sometimes need top-quality, curated information. When you’re making a decision about your future; about a career choice or a business deal or a possible house move or a medical question, you might want some, as well.
Librarians are trained to evaluate, store and discard information – and that means digital information, too. Through your library, you can often access online information that would ordinarily not be freely available. And through a librarian, you will be able to identify the latest and best information on any topic – instead of making an important decision on the basis of what your sister in law’s neighbour saw on Facebook.
And don’t even get me started on the difference between reading on an electronic device and reading a book. I do both, of course, like most avid readers. But a recent study proved that children get more enjoyment from reading paper books . That might be because they learn better from the paper version. Buying a load of paper books is expensive and they’re hard to store (I could show you pictures of my house). They get dusty (achoo!) and… But at a library, you can just borrow them and hand them back again. You get online resources and paper resources at a library, so you can decide what’s best for you and your family.
We’ve got the internet now, I know. Which is why we need properly funded libraries and librarians even more.