Oxford University Press (OUP) has launched a campaign to highlight the inspiring power of words, involving authors and illustrators such as Anthony McGowan and Lauren Child sharing the quotes they would "gift" to children at Christmas.
It comes as OUP’s recent Oxford Language Report: Bridging the Word Gap in Transition identified a growing shortfall in young people’s vocabulary, especially at the point of transition from primary to secondary school. Around 92% of teachers surveyed believed that the "word gap" – where a child’s vocabulary is below expectations for their age – had widened because of Covid-related school closures. Additionally, Oxford Language’s recent Words of an Unprecedented Year report highlighted how people have used language to help them navigate and define the uncertainty of 2020.
Authors, illustrators, TV personalities, and public figures have come together to share their literature and favourite phrases, including: former Waterstones Children’s Laureate and illustrator of Pippi Longstocking and Charlie and Lola, Lauren Child; Carnegie prize-winning author Anthony McGowan; Roopa Farooki, junior doctor; adult novelist and children’s author of The Cure for a Crime; and Harriet Muncaster, author and illustrator of the Isadora Moon series.
Child's suggestion was a quote from poet Mary Oliver, asking: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" McGowan recommended Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice", while Farooki advocated an exchange between Winnie the Pooh and Piglet from Us Two. Munster shared her love of The Borrowers and the Brambly Hedge series. Actress, singer, playwright and author Cerrie Burnell, shared a quote from Emily Dickinson: "Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul."
Several MPs and peers also shared words, books and phrases that they hope could provide inspiration for young people. Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, suggested either The Hobbit by J R R Tolkein or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis because they were "tales of heroism, leadership, fighting against the odds, evil villains, and of course, featuring three breakfasts and Turkish delight."
Dr Lisa Cameron MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Disability and member of the APPG for Health, provided this quote from The Diary of Anne Frank: "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." Lord Paul Boateng of Akyem and Wembley, who is also the chair of Book Aid International, said he would give Ananse the Spider and Braer Rabbit because "brave, kind hearted, mischievous and fun, they overcome all not by force but by words driven home by deeds".
Elliot Colburn MP, who sits on the Women & Equalities Committee, recommended the Harry Potter series because "Harry’s story of overcoming adversity, the importance of friendship, and seeing the bigger picture in life still resonates with [him] today."
Other contributors to the campaign were restaurant critic and columnist Giles Coren, who said he would give young people "any Snoopy book, because all human life is there…it will seed a hunger for literature that will last their whole life". Author and TV wordsmith Susie Dent recommended Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Estate) by Alain-Fournier, which is all about "first love and a magical lost house, set in the twilight world between childhood adolescence".
Fellow author and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth suggested Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass, because young people will "meet some of the most amazing (and amusing) characters ever created and will discover what fun words can be".
Commenting on the initiative, Nigel Portwood, chief executive officer of OUP, said: "We know that words and language can be a powerful force for good. They inspire creativity, feed the imagination, broaden our perspectives, open the door to opportunities in education, and in later life—and play a valuable role in helping people to make sense of the world around them. This year has been a confusing, uncomfortable year. Our research has emphasised the impact of the pandemic on young people’s education, and indeed on all of us. It’s more important than ever that we encourage everyone—particularly children who have their whole futures ahead of them—to access, use, and appreciate words and language. That’s why we believe that the best gift we can give right now is the gift of words."