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On the road with author Tom Palmer and Reading Force


Alison Baverstock is the founder and director of Reading Force, and Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Publishing at Kingston University. Fresh from the Reading Force Road Show, she’s stopped by the Barrington Stoke blog to talk about the scrapbook scheme, how books have brought her family together, and spreading a love of reading in schools.

Reading Force began in Aldershot, home of the British Army, in 2010. It was born of my firm belief that life is better with a book, and that shared reading can play a significant part in the lives of Services families. By 2010 I had been an Army wife for over 25 years and we were embarking on our final posting (and our sixteenth move). Throughout our Forces life, whenever my husband has been away, or yet another move has beckoned, talking about what we are reading has been a way of keeping everyone in touch ”“ and also a way of involving our wider family who, given our mobile lifestyle, we have not been able to see as often as we would like. When it’s just too difficult to talk about what’s really going on, discussing a shared book can be a big comfort.

Scrapbooks keep families connected
The basics of the Reading Force scheme are very simple. Families are encouraged to choose a book they would all like to read, share it with as many of their family and friends as they can involve, and then pool their thoughts in a special scrapbook. They can either keep the scrapbook or return it to us for feedback, a certificate and a free book (all scrapbooks are then returned via registered post).

Early demonstrations of Reading Force took place largely in schools and libraries. Hampshire County Council’s Deputy Education Officer was a great support, and we had a series of meetings in schools, talking to teachers, librarians and nurseries to encourage them to get involved. We had a fabulous launch in The Wavell School in Aldershot, where visiting children from nearby Marlborough Infants encouraged their more sophisticated ”“ and frankly less inclined to volunteer ”“ fellow pupils to say why they liked reading. Author Meg Rosoff was wonderfully supportive and talked about ”˜What if?’ being the kernel of every story. Everyone went away feeling empowered by thinking about ”˜What if?’ they had taken other paths in life.

But as Reading Force grew, and began to spread over a wider geographical area, we had to become more reliant on sending materials through the post; the excitement ”“ and sheer pleasure ”“ of hearing direct responses about reading was reduced. Then we were approached by children’s author Tom Palmer ”“ Tom wanted to visit schools for us, and so we decided it was time to take Reading Force on the road again!

Reaching and supporting military families
We have become convinced of the value of collaborating and sharing enthusiasm with those meeting similar goals, and have already worked with a range of charities, Forces agencies and community support services to reach military families. For the Reading Force Road Show we’ve linked with Tom Palmer (author and dedicated encourager of reading for young people), Jim Sells (from the National Literacy Trust’s Premier League Reading Stars) and a range of schools with a high population of Services Families. The Arts Council of England kindly funded the visits, and Tom’s publisher Barrington Stoke helped us make his books available in schools. We also shared out the responsibility of going with them, as Reading Force now has a staff of three; I took the leg in Plymouth and Dorset, my colleague Elaine Boorman headed for Hampshire and Yorkshire two weeks later, and Hattie Gordon went to Oxfordshire.

Each day we ran a Road Show in a school, with a winning talk about reading, a quiz and a penalty shoot-out (for all those who got a quiz question right). We then ran an after-school fete just for Services families, where they could receive a copy of a book by Tom Palmer, sign-up to read more often ”“ and find out how to take part in Reading Force.

I had a great week in Devon and Dorset. Looking back, what stands out most is:

  • The great enthusiasm for books and reading that we experienced from the schools (children and staff): It’s become popular to sound defeatist; to assume that no children like to read any more. That’s not what we’ve experienced, as hall after hall responded to Tom’s questions, queued to have books signed and talked about who in their family might join in Reading Force.
  • The positive responses to Reading Force material: We showed families how other Services families have shared books and talked about them while filling in their scrapbooks. We talked about the benefits, long-term and short-term, and we were really moved by the enthusiasm of those taking part.
  • The support to our own reading: There’s nothing like someone talking about reading to make me want to get back to a book! While away with Tom and Jim in Devon, I not only read Tom’s book Over the Line, I read another book too!

The Reading Force Road Show will, we hope, be running in other areas of the country. If you would like your school to be part of this, please contact hattie@readingforce.org.uk

To learn more about Reading Force, have a listen to the BFBS Aldershot Radio podcast, where Jim Sells and Tom Palmer talk about the scheme and the 1,600 Tom Palmer books given away free to Forces children.

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