Scotland on Sunday: Christmas Campaign - Val McDermid

It’s not news that reading books improves children’s life chances. So it’s not rocket science to work out that putting books in the hands of children is the first step on the road to breaking the cycle of deprivation and poverty.

But for too many children, there are no books at all in their homes. Never mind books of their own to treasure and cherish. No books, full stop.

I grew up in a working class home with almost no books. It wasn’t that my parents saw no value in reading; quite the opposite. Rather, books were a prize, a luxury we couldn’t afford.

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Crime writer Val McDermid. Picture: Lisa Ferguson/JPIMedia
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That wasn’t as frustrating as it might have been for I grew up in a town that was well served by public libraries. The one on our council estate had a few shelves of picture books, and my mum would strap me into my push chair and route-march us to the library. She’d sit me down and entertain me with illustrated stories of fairies and pirates and talking animals.

When I was six, we moved house to live opposite Kirkcaldy Central Library, an imposing neoclassical building behind the Memorial Gardens, a gift of one of the linoleum giants who had made their fortune in the town and who understood the power of books.

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Those early encounters gave me a thirst that has lasted a lifetime – the thirst for stories. And those stories have provided me with inspiration, imagination and information. There have been times when books have been my salvation.

The door into the library was a portal into a thousand different worlds. It opened my eyes to other lives, other places, other times. It showed me that there were other possible roads for me to travel. It allowed me to imagine running towards something rather than simply running away from what I didn’t want.

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It let me be me.

I would not have the privileged life I have now were it not for that access. But all over the country, austerity policies are forcing local authorities to make savage cuts. And libraries are an easy target. Nobody dies if a library closes. Nobody gets beaten up on an unlit street if a library closes. Nobody gets bedsores if a library closes.

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So libraries close their doors and a vital resource disappears.

And there is a secret, hidden cost. For today’s kids like me, growing up in homes where food and fuel are the priorities that render books an indulgence, there is an added deprivation to lives that are already diminished by choices made by politicians who are far, far from them, both literally and metaphorically. Their futures are also curtailed because the alternative possibilities are never revealed to them. And that impoverishes all of us.

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For many of us, there was an upside to the fear and despair of the COVID19 pandemic. Being confined to our homes reminded us of the joys of reading. Whether it was the comforting embrace of old favourites from our shelves, or the excitement of discovering writers new to us, we stepped away from the stress and sadness surrounding us and escaped into the world of books.

But that wasn’t an option available to everyone. As well as illness and mortality, COVID19 placed unimaginable strains on daily life for millions of people. The choice between food and heating was a real dilemma for many. UK Food banks gave out more than 2.5 million food parcels. I’ll say that again. In the fifth-richest country in the world, more than 2.5million food parcels were handed out in a year. Or put it this way. If you added them all together, on any given day half the population of Scotland would have nothing to eat.

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It almost goes without saying that for families reliant on food banks to survive, books are not going to be part of the weekly shop.

It’s not always easy to work out the best way to make beneficial interventions in people’s lives. But this one is a no-brainer. If a family are depending on a food bank, the chances are very high that their kids are not living in a book-rich environment. Not because they don’t care but because they truly can’t afford it.

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So let’s make that no-brainer a reality. Let’s fill the hungry imagination of our children as well as their stomachs. To quote James Oppenheim from a hundred and ten years ago, ‘Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us bread, but give us roses.’

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