Award-winning novelist Jenn Ashworth shares her experiences of Bookstart
I've been involved with the Bookstart programme in several different guises, and for many years.
I remember the health visitor delivering a canvas bag of picture books to my daughter when she was just a few months old. Later, when I went to work as a librarian, it was my job to take delivery of the bags and boxes and hand them out to preschool children and babies. I won't forget the look of joy and wonder on a child's face who was allowed to come around the library counter to choose his own Bookstart pack.
'And I don't have to bring these ones back?' he said, 'I can keep them forever?'
Later, once I moved from the local rural branch library and started a new job running a library service within a prison, I thought my Bookstart days were over. My clients were men serving long sentences, not young families. But during my first week the prison held a 'family day' - a day-long visit with a barbeque, entertainment and a vital opportunity for these men to develop and maintain relationships with their partners and children.
Maintaining family relationships helps to combat depression and reduces the risk of the men reoffending on their release. There were toys and games for the families to share together - but no books.
Bringing Bookstart to dads in prison
I watched fathers in prison reading to their young children - sometimes for the very first time
It was then that I asked the local library authority to start sending Bookstart packs to the prison. I handed them out on family days and during ordinary visits and watched fathers reading to their young children - sometimes for the very first time. One man heard about the project from a friend and came into the library to ask for help learning to read - he wanted to be able to share the Bookstart packs with his children too.
I'm not naïve. I know families in crisis need much more than a few picture books. I know reading doesn't cure poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse problems and unemployment. But I also know that reading to your children cements a bond that won't ever be forgotten and in some cases fosters a love of reading, of escaping into the world of a story, that can make a real difference.
The gift of reading and storytelling is priceless, and the Bookstart projects helps parents pass it on to their children. Bookstart isn't just about making sure every child owns a few books before their fifth birthday - although that's part of it. It's about starting a habit of reading together, of introducing children to the idea that sitting still with a book in your hands is one of the most exciting kinds of adventures there is.