Back of the net

Back of the net

The age-old issue around what can be done to encourage boys to read has been brought into sharper focus over recent weeks with the announcement that Marcus Rashford, supported by MacMillan, is launching a book club.

Rashford’s use of his twin position as one of English football’s brightest stars and an increasingly prominent campaigner for wider social reform will hopefully result in a reversal of what is a worrying downward trend. Research from the National Literacy Trust published in March 2020 found that only 26% of under-18s spend time reading every day – the lowest level recorded since the charity began its annual reading surveys in 2005. What’s more, this is a self-perpetuating problem, with Nielsen research finding that the proportion of toddlers being read to every day has dropped by over a fifth in the last few years.

Ultimately, the engagement of adults is the most important factor in encouraging change in children’s reading habits. The above all rings true with Rashford’s own experiences; he admitted that he only discovered the joys of reading on the very cusp of adulthood. “I only started reading at 17,” he said. “It completely changed my outlook and mentality. I just wish I was offered the opportunity to really engage with reading more as a child.”

The first book to be released under Rashford and MacMillan’s joint venture is an exploration of Rashford’s own experiences within the world of football, underpinned by contextual discussion of topics such as the importance of education, positive mentality and female role models. This particular treatment, a biographical approach, highlights the chief difficulty facing publishers and their approach to sports-based books for children – that of authenticity. With so many children fully engrossed in the world of football, the ubiquity of the Premier League and its marketing efforts, as well as the trickle-down industry that props it up, it is clear that the influence of elite football is immense for many boys and young men in the UK.

Consequently, products that wish to compete for attention of this audience – of which children’s books are one – do so in a brutal marketplace. For example, EA Sports’ ever-popular FIFA video game series offers children engaged with the sport the opportunity to play as their heroes, for the clubs they love, in a hyper-realistic extension of elite football. FIFA’s "The Journey" mode gives players the chance to build their own narrative arc, controlling the on-and-off pitch fortunes of fictional youth player Alex Hunter as he tries to establish himself in professional football. Layered on top of such games console offerings are vast amounts of YouTube channels, TV shows and social media accounts, all targeting young males who love football.

It is of little surprise, therefore, that children’s books on sport often struggle to compete for attention or credibility; they fail to fully grip their audience. Particularly when output can tend towards unfashionable, fictional characters and situations, stuck in a sort of 1970s Roy Of The Rovers-style setup.

Of course, there are books which buck this trend. Tom and Matt Oldfield’s extensive and popular Ultimate Football Heroes series also draws on biography to bring to life truly unforgettable stories. For example, the devout Muslim boy from a village in Senegal who, through sheer will power and hard graft, became a key part of the team that became European and world Champions (Liverpool FC’s Sadio Mane). Or the skinny lad from Madeira, the subject of much derision in his early career, who became the world’s best player through unshakeable work ethic and self-belief (Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo). The books are all the better for the positive messages on perseverance, aspiration and diversity that underpin them. Indeed, it would be impossible to concoct more inspirational characters than the ones that already exist in real life.

This is a factor that I am trying to address through Still Nil Nil Books, the independent publisher I launched in November 2020. My collection of three children’s picture books focuses on famous footballing achievements from recent history – namely, Manchester United’s Treble winning season; Arsenal’s unbeaten ‘Invincibles’ campaign; and Liverpool’s unforgettable comeback from 3-0 down in the Champions League Final. A key factor was not just to tie the books to real-life occurrences, but to trigger a level of nostalgia in adult football fans sufficient enough to encourage a change in behaviour within a demographic less inclined to read to children. The aim is to create a unique reading experience based on shared passion.

Of course, such an approach has its own challenges with regard to creatively sidestepping copyright and trademark issues; but the outcome is a product with a keen sense of authenticity and one that football fans are already showing a desire to engage with in large numbers. Over the next few months, and with luck, Marcus Rashford’s admirable endeavours with regard to getting kids reading will begin to bear fruit. 

Josh Clarke is the founder and director of Still Nil Nil, a new independent publisher founded in east London in November 2020, with a desire to publish a collection of books that enable a truly unique reading experience between football-mad adults and children. Still Nil Nil books are unofficial products, which make no use of trademarked terms or items and are in no way affiliated with any football clubs.