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The Importance of Shared Reading

Humphrey Carpenter states in his prologue to Secret Gardens that, 'Adult fiction sets out to portray and explain the world as it really is; books for children present it as it should be.' Children’s fiction opens up the infinite, the impossible and the idealistic. Their storylines and plots ignite imagination and remove the restrictions of ordinary life. However, is children’s fiction failing to mirror the realities and diversities of modern day life?

The benefits of shared reading from an early age is well documented. Research into early brain development reveals that the greatest advantage is the number of connections generated in the brain during the first three years of life. These connections are dependent on the amount and types of stimulations infants and toddlers experience. These experiences include every type of sensory stimulation, including being read to, hearing the voice of another, holding books and turning pages.

Reading, when shared, not only encourages this healthy brain development, but it can help foster a secure attachment between parent and child. But is shared reading as accessible and straightforward as we all may assume? Sadly, not all families have access to books in their language, and children are in severe lack of stories which reflect themselves, their families, their cultures, ethnicity, sexuality and lifestyles. 

Independent booksellers have been urging for greater diversity in children’s books. Inclusive Minds, a campaign group, advocates for greater inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature. Their philosophy is about 'Breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes to ensure that every child can access and enjoy great books that are representative of our diverse society'.

When the only books children can access are in a language their parents do not speak, they fail to benefit from the pleasure and gains of shared reading. And when they only see other people in books, other cultures, traditions, and languages, we are effectively telling them that their culture is insignificant or their language is not worthy of being in print. I remember reading Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson as a child and falling in love with the protagonist, Mandy, a shy and mild character, who was bullied at school. At the time I was experiencing some of the very same feelings as Mandy: isolation and crippling insecurities. As I made my way through Secondary school, I suddenly saw myself in another, and I didn’t feel so alone. Reading is about making these types of connections, about finding yourself in books - but what messages do we enforce if we don’t include a wide range of stories which all can relate to?

The result can be devastating on a child’s self-esteem. Perhaps some of us have never noticed the scarcity of diverse books around us. This might be because we’ve never lacked a book in English, about families that look like us - the same colour skin as us, celebrating the same festivals as us, and sharing the same opportunities as us. We’ve always had plenty of mirrors.

It is not just children from diverse families who benefit from broadening our bookshelves - all of us do. Literature should not only provide a mirror to our own lives, but also provide windows into others. There is nothing more refreshing or eye opening than seeing a story through another’s perspective. In this way we are able to encourage appreciation and acceptance in young children.

There needs to be more suppliers such as Letterbox Library, a children’s bookseller which celebrates equality and diversity. We need to ensure that literacy is an activity that embraces every language and culture, and does not just promote one type. There should be no hindrances to the beauty and intimacy of shared reading for any family.

Written by Esther Dark