Force for good

Reading Force, the shared reading initiative for Service families, has received a £5,000 award from reading charity the Siobhan Dowd Trust. The award is to buy books for Forces families who are taking part in the scheme in 2013-14.

Reading Force got the grant because the charity’s trustees particularly liked the idea of books being used to unite families. We will be spending it on HMS Heroes children in Plymouth and North Yorkshire. HMS Heroes is a national child advocacy group which organises regular meetings to support Services families and give voice to their unique experiences.

Launched in 2011, Reading Force encourages individual Service families (Army, Navy, Air Force, Reservists) to read the same book, even when separated by deployments and training—either at home if together, or over Skype if a parent is away—and talk about it. Every participating family is given a scrapbook which they can fill with their thoughts about the book they choose, and if they wish they can submit their finished scrapbook to the Reading Force Scrapbook Competition.

It has been an immense pleasure to choose the books to be distributed amongst the HMS Heroes – there were no strings attached, no pressure from publishers, authors or committees. What guided us was our past experience, and understanding of the likely recipients. So how did we go about spending the money?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Taking part in Reading Force should be enjoyable and improve communication within families, particularly during times of stress. Our aim is not to challenge literacy levels, rather to use books as a vehicle for bonding, escapism, or light relief. 

The most popular book in our 2012 scrapbook competition was Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, so we’ve opted for more Jeff Kinney with The Ugly Truth. David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy was a hit with our 2011 participants, and we’ve chosen Gangsta Granny this time, especially as we try to encourage grandparents of Service families to get involved in Reading Force; they can feel particularly isolated when their children are in a place of danger and they are no longer the next of kin.

Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates: Genius Ideas (Mostly) was chosen for its hilarity and accessibility. We encourage all family members to get involved in Reading Force, and so we like to recommend titles which appeal to a range of ages within a single family.

In 2011 one soldier took Horrid Henry in his backpack to Afghanistan while his children in Aldershot happily read the same book at home. With a nod to him we’ve picked Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry’s Nightmare.  

We’ve included the new edition of Anthony Browne’s A Walk in the Park and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a family ticket to the new musical is one of our 2013 competition prizes and Puffin’s new jacket swayed us).

We’ve also chosen books which take readers on adventures and transport them with fantastical story-telling, Julia Lee’s The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth, Michaela Clarke’s Tiger Thief, Michelle Paver’s Gods and Warriors and Katherine Rundell’s The Rooftoppers.

Coming of age stories, and tales of great friendships also go down very well, and we’ve picked C.J. Flood’s beautiful debut Infinite Sky, Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water, Dave Shelton’s A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, Rachel Carter’s Ethan’s Voice and Gill Lewis’ White Dolphin (one of 2012’s prize-winning scrapbooks was on Lewis’ Sky Hawk).   

Because we suggest families use varied media in their scrapbooks and draw, write and stick materials in, we wanted titles with plenty of visual inspiration—David Almond and Oliver Jeffers' The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, Chris Mould’s Pirates and Pistols and Wendy Meddour and Mina May’s Wendy Quill is a Crocodile's Bottom

For young adults our fantasy picks are Marcus Sedgewick’s cross-over Midwinterblood, Sarah J Maas’ rip-roaring Crown of Midnight and Annabel Pitcher’s moving Ketchup Clouds.

In this golden age of children’s books, our only difficulty has been has been how to stop choosing books. We just hope HMS Heroes and their families agree.

Hattie Gordon completed an MA in Publishing at Kingston University with a prizewinning dissertation on boys’ reading habits. She has been involved with Reading Force since it began and is now Communications Manager for the project.