When Book Trust asked Firefly to support the UK Children’s Laureate campaign to increase funding for primary school libraries, I was delighted. Not just because I went to a school with a library, and sneaking off there on a rainy break-time was one of the treats of my school day! I also hoped the campaign – which focuses just on English primary schools – might provoke a louder conversation about children’s literacy, reading for pleasure and school libraries in Wales too.
Information is scarce, but the Great School Libraries survey 2019 found that: "Provision differs significantly across England, Northern Ireland and Wales; pupils in schools in England are up to a third more likely to have access to a school library, with 90% of English schools indicating they have one. This drops to 67% in Wales, and, even further, to 57% in Northern Ireland. This disparity indicates the inequality of access and opportunities that pupils and teachers face across the nation."
The reading attainment figures for Wales in recent PISA reports highlight the need for Wales to be part of the literacy debate. Since the stats for 15-year-olds in the 79 OECD countries were first broken down by UK country in 2006, Wales has consistently come out well below its counterparts in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. This improved in 2018, bringing Wales close to the OECD average. But The Achievement of 15-year-olds in Wales: PISA 2018 National report, NFER, still found that:
"The mean score for reading in Wales (483) was significantly lower than that of the other countries of the UK, but not significantly different from the OECD average (487). There were no significant differences between mean scores for reading in England (505), Northern Ireland (501) and Scotland (504) and all three were significantly above the OECD average … There has been a significant increase in the scores of higher achieving pupils in Wales since 2015 but the scores of lower achieving pupils have not changed significantly in that time."
PISA offers many more insights into variations between the different UK nations, which could be used to inform our campaigns. But still, more UK-based data relating to literacy, library provision and reading for pleasure would be useful. For example the CLPE Reading for Pleasure report in 2021 was based on England only, as are a fair number of other reports and literacy programmes led by UK organisations. In the case of the latest CLPE report, the response from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was so low that it was decided it couldn’t be used. Hopefully the National Literacy Trust’s new survey of school libraries announced in The Bookseller last week will look at ways to encourage a strong response from all parts of the UK.
The Welsh Government recently consulted on an ambitious and holistic new curriculum for Wales, expected to be implemented from 2022. In October 2020 Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams said: "Taken together, our reforms and new curriculum will support young people to develop higher standards of literacy and numeracy, to become more digitally and bilingually competent, and to be confident, capable and compassionate citizens…"
The new curriculum is also exciting because it will encourage pupils "to experience and respond to literature that gives them insight into the culture, people and history of Wales as well as the wider world."
Could this be one key to closing the gap? One of the drivers for Firefly’s creation in 2013 was a small pot of money from the Welsh Government, via BCW, to publish five stories for children aged 7-9 set in Wales, so that children could read stories featuring characters they might recognise, who have adventures down the road or round the corner – and see themselves reflected in the books they read. Many organisations also quote such stories as a crucial factor in nurturing a love of reading.
But there is another side to this. Early in the days of Firefly we secured a five-minute meeting with a London-based head-office buyer for England and Wales at the London Book Fair. He liked our books apparently, but commented that the one with the dragon on was ‘too Welsh’ for his shops.
The dragon wasn’t a Welsh green but yes, it was red. For the record the author was English with an established reputation, and as for the story, we weren’t asked about it. Apparently the younger generation of UK readers, so happily training their own fire-breathing dragons, competing for goblets of fire or perhaps tiptoeing into Smaug’s mountain stronghold just wouldn’t be interested in this particular baby dragon from Wales.
It wasn’t the only time we were to meet this reaction. But a good story will bring pleasure to any reader regardless of location, and that location can be enticing whether familiar or new.
More uncomfortably there appears to be an undercurrent in the book trade that actively looks to move books out of Welsh settings to appeal across the borders. An aspiring YA writer with significant potential was told by an agent to try shifting her contemporary ghost story, rooted in Welsh history, to Ireland, to make it more appealing. Romance writers have been advised to transfer the scene of their protagonists’ passion to balmy West country pastures, and a novelist writing about a Welsh mining tragedy was advised it might work better set in Yorkshire. Really. ‘Be less Welsh’ is a message some young Welsh writers seem to have been given.
Writers from Wales are of course successful in UK publishing, and talent will out. Think Horatio Clare, Nicola Davies, Tessa Hadley, Jo Dunthorne, Lucy Christopher, Giancarlo Gemin, Cynan Jones, Catherine Fisher, Eloise Williams, Sophie Anderson, Zillah Bethell, P.J. Bell, Claire Fayers to name a very few.
So why can’t I forget the story of the bright young writer told that if things went well, he could one day become the Welsh Jo Dunthorne … think about it.
Does any of this matter? Of course it does. What price identity, empathy and regional diversity for starters? Might it not be an idea in this disunited age for children to read stories set in other parts of the UK from their own now and again? Just as it might well encourage children in Wales to read for pleasure if they sometimes met children recognisably like themselves having amazing adventures in their stories.
There are some innovative projects going on in Wales, for example the Welsh Government and the Books Council of Wales are working with schools on the Iechyd Da (Good Health) scheme which is delivering a package of 41 books to Welsh primaries, and also with The Reading Agency and libraries on the Reading Well Books on Prescription scheme for KS2 children. And charities such as Book Trust and The Reading Agency are strong at including books from Wales in their school and library programmes.
Then there are the two Wales-based members of the UK Literacy Association – Lecturer and Associate Dean at Cardiff Met, Jo Bowers, and primary school teacher and book blogger Simon Fisher – who have been doing sterling work championing children’s literature with a Welsh setting and written by authors based in Wales for teachers, students and people they work with. They’ve also worked to shadow the Tir na n-Og Award, which recognises children’s literature with an authentic Welsh background.
The response was overwhelmingly positive; both teachers and children reported that they could connect to books and locations that have personal relevance to them.
We all know the importance of literate children reading widely and reading for pleasure and its impact on their future life chances. Let’s make sure we see all parts of the story, and have the data, the books, and the libraries, to make this happen right across the UK.
Penny Thomas is a co-founder and publisher at children’s and YA publisher Firefly Press, which was the winner of the British Book Awards' Wales Small Press of the Year Award in 2020 and 2021. Born and brought up in Hertfordshire, she moved to Wales in 1988.