A grant of $1 million to Te Puna Foundation will fund a new initiative designed to connect more children and young people to reading, Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin announced last week at the National Library in Wellington.
Led by the National Library of New Zealand, ‘Communities of Readers’ will be funded through Te Puna Foundation, the National Library’s fundraising body. The initiative will focus on each community’s aspirations, priorities and identified needs.
National Librarian, Bill Macnaught, said unlocking the value of knowledge is the aim of the Te Puna Foundation.
Kate de Goldi, Te Puna trustee, kindly shares her speech from the night with Libraries Aotearoa readers below.
For myself, active support of this aspiration feels both a natural – and urgent – part of being a reader and writer and citizen in Aotearoa – because of course, I am, like all of you here, acutely aware of my extreme good fortune in this regard. I was a child comprehensively formed by language and narrative, a child that books built, to borrow Francis Spufford’s words. We’ve known for some time now that a distressing number of the nation’s tamariki, their whanau, and their communities don’t attain this fundamental right and benefit. Recent New Zealand literacy statistics paint a very concerning picture. There is increasing evidence, too, of a decline in reading for pleasure. We’re all aware of the complex interplay of economic, social, and political reasons for this state of affairs and we’ve all in our ways mourned it, knowing as we do – in our hearts – that reading for pleasure is oxygen, nourishment of a high order. But what to do?
What I have found so galvanizing – and what buttresses the National Library’s bold ‘Nation of Readers’ strategy – is the considerable body of research now available that tells us for a fact what we feel we’ve always known:
* Reading for pleasure is absolutely vital to sustain comprehensive literacy – including digital literacy. But the findings go way beyond the attainment of literacy –
* Reading for pleasure, the research tells us, is vital for the development of social and cultural capital, for the economic success of individuals and communities. It is a key element in busting out of the poverty cycle. Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status or their parents’ level of education.
* Reading for pleasure is very important in the development of empathy.
* Reading for pleasure greatly assists the development of personal and community wellbeing.
That sounds to me like the seeds of a reading activist manifesto. A thrilling prospect. If we can now say confidently that it is axiomatic that reading for pleasure helps build a better person and better communities, then tonight’s funding announcement and the work it will enable is a highly significant development. The ‘Communities of Readers’ initiative will build on work that National Library has been doing for decades, both directly supporting literacy and reading in New Zealand schools, and working with partners across the library, education and literature sectors, and the book industry, to increase access to reading opportunities for our young people. National Library knows where the barriers to creating reading rich environments lie; it’s librarians know well that community networking and investment, particularly in the nexus of schools, families, and public libraries is foundational to the Nation of Readers strategy. Thanks to the Minister, this investment and the community-based reading rebuild begins now.
I guess I think of tonight as a rallying of the faithful, those of us who inhabit the reading ‘faith’, those of us who – personally, and through our various organisations – will be able to spread the Word, as it were – commit reading activism. And to stretch the metaphor, if National Library – our library – is the House of Reading, then all of us in the language and narrative ecosystem are potential evangelists in this dauntless Nation of Readers mission.
Like many writers in Aotearoa, I’ve spent a good deal of time in schools over the years, courtesy of the New Zealand Book Council, most often doing writing workshops with students and teachers. Increasingly – as reading has been nudged and displaced by devices – I think of those workshops as an opportunity to focus on reading pleasure; in any case, reading is a sine qua non for writing well. It’s always interesting to ask students – whatever their age and stage – why they think reading’s important, or at least why their teachers think it is. Hilarious how often they say it is to teach you spelling. But actually, every class will find its way to articulating reading’s many benefits, and often they express it with the simple cogency of the young: reading, they say, can describe your world; it tells you things you don’t know, it tells you about others, it shows you how story works, it builds your vocabulary. In one way or another students will tell you that reading is, at its best, both a mirror and a window. For myself, it’s the ‘building vocabulary’ bit that seems increasingly crucial. Gathering and storing language. Naming and therefore enlarging your world and what you might ask of that world.
It is a sorrowful fact that some children in Aotearoa arrive at school with a vanishingly small vocabulary. They haven’t been read to; they may barely have been spoken to. This is an intolerable inequity and the Nation of Readers vision seeks to address it. You could say that at its most fundamental, the Communities of Readers project will begin the process of equipping and empowering our communities with an abundance of language, and therefore, possibilities.
The American children’s writer, EL Kongisburg put it this way: ‘I bring all of my adulthood to my writing for children. I make every effort to help children hear the language of my culture, a culture that reaches into the past and stretches over the present. Because, language not only tells you the shape of a culture but also helps shape it. I make every effort to expand the perimeter of their language, to set a wider limit to it, to give them a vocabulary for alternatives…’
May it be so here, in Aotearoa, too.
Kate De Goldi