Though it is nearly two years on from the first pandemic lockdown of March 2020, I’m sure that strange moment remains firmly etched in all of our minds. We will recall the mad scramble to reorganise our businesses and working lives online, with little or no time to adjust, and the myriad professional, family and personal challenges that lockdown brought in its wake.
All of this was played out, moreover, against the eerie backdrop of utterly deserted streets and cities, increasing our sense of sudden and tremendous isolation.
At Scottish Book Trust, our attention naturally turned towards this issue. Driven by the social and economic crisis unfolding before us, we thought of what lockdown would mean for the 300,000 families in Scotland who were already so desperate that they were having to use foodbanks to survive.
When we looked into it, we discovered that, according to The Trussell Trust, since 2016 the need for food banks had increased 128%. (It is also salutary to know that between April 2020 and March 2021 demand for food banks rose a further 33%). What this means in absolute numbers is that, in 2021, 2.5 million food parcels were given out across Britain – and this in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Given that schools, libraries and other common amenities were all closed, further isolating these already isolated — and for the most part invisible — families, we decided that, as champions of the book and the power of reading, we would have to do something about it. That was when we launched a fundraising appeal and started talking to publishers about making donations of books, so that we could supply them to families across 300 food banks in Scotland.
Of course, publishers, like everyone else, had by this stage taken a battering. But British publishing proved, as ever, a highly resilient and creative industry. And it turns out, it is also one with a huge heart.
Over the past two years we have been truly astonished to have received and distributed well over 200,000 top quality books donated by British publishers, all of whom immediately recognised what we were trying to do, and who provided outstanding support to us – and, more importantly, to destitute families in Scotland.
As far as I know, this collaboration is unique in the world. Certainly, when I spoke of this initiative at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, everyone was rightly astonished. I hope other countries will copy what we have been able to achieve by working together in a great cause.
As our patron, the writer Val McDermid, recently reflected: “I grew up in a working-class home with almost no books. It wasn’t that my parents saw no value in reading; quite the opposite. Rather, books were a prize, a luxury we couldn’t afford… It almost goes without saying that for families reliant on food banks to survive, books are not going to be part of the weekly shop… It’s not news that reading books improves children’s life chances. So it’s not rocket science to work out that putting books in the hands of children is the first step on the road to breaking the cycle of deprivation and poverty. It’s not always easy to work out the best way to make beneficial interventions in people’s lives. But this one is a no-brainer.”
Given the sheer scale of what has been achieved, in placing this incredible volume of books in the hands of children and families who most need them, heartfelt recognition of all the publishers who responded so generously and enthusiastically is long overdue: Macmillan, Hachette, Harper Collins, Bloomsbury, Penguin Random House, Faber & Faber, Chicken House, Little Tiger, Nosy Crow, Scholastic, Sandstone, Diamondsteel Comics, Canongate, Barrington Stoke, Flying Eye comics, Luath, Blue Fox comics, Simon & Schuster, Egmont, Collins, Walker Books and Bounce Marketing, please all take a bow.
While we were proud in 2020 to have managed to supply books in the midst of all the complications of lockdown, in 2021 we decided to up the ante by handling distribution directly ourselves. This has enabled us, with outstanding help from Spring Distribution, to respond to orders from food banks for books by specific age range, making the gifting more precise and appropriate. This year, we also added a selection of books for adults into the mix, and developed a more sophisticated campaign to alert people across Scotland to what we are doing and why.
In this we were helped massively by Macmillan Children’s Books, and author and illustrator Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Their response to our idea of using artwork from The Gruffalo for our campaign was immediate and remarkable. Julia put it this way: “I have seen first-hand how books can light up a child, catch an imagination and change a life… I couldn't be more pleased that The Gruffalo is now leading a fundraising campaign for the charity at a time when families need books and support more than ever.”
To further illustrate the impact of the campaign, we have made a short film tracing the journey of a donated book, which will be available shortly. In the meanwhile, a huge thanks to British publishing from all of us at The Scottish Book Trust.
Marc Lambert is c.e.o. of The Scottish Book Trust. To find out more about the campaign visit www.scottishbooktrust.com/donate.