The Royal Society of Literature (RSL) has launched a new project to promote the positive effects reading can have on children's lives, as it announced a number of new fellows including Sharmaine Lovegrove, Simon Prosser, Maggie O'Farrell and Reni Eddo-Lodge.
Literature Matters: Reading Together, a three-year initiative, will match prominent RSL fellows and honorary fellows with schoolchildren in Years 8 and 9 in the most deprived areas of the UK. Fellows will select a text that impacted their life when they were a young person, and physical copies will be sent out to every pupil in the class, supported by UK publishers.
The fellows include new appointments such as Emma Thompson, Patrick Gale and S F Said, as well as older members such as Daljit Nagra and Paul Muldoon. Thompson's text will be Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. Nagra has selected "Songs of Innocence and Experience" by William Blake while Muldoon chose Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Edmund De Waal picked The Art Book edited by Phaidon, Kadija Sesay chose Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Said selected A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin and Gale picked Metamorphosis by Kafka.
Alongside the books, each student will receive a goody bag to support them in their reading such as a notebook, pen or bookmark, as well as weekly video updates from their fellow throughout the summer break. On returning to school in the autumn, each school’s fellow will host an informal virtual book club to discuss the text and give the young people the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions. The students and their families will also be offered free spaces at the RSL's events.
Schools taking part in the initiative include Mulberry Schools in Whitechapel and Shoreditch London, Kirkby High School in Merseyside, Q3 Academy Tipton in the West Midlands, Newport High in Newport, Wales, and Malone College in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Thompson said: "I was no less than astonished to be invited to become a fellow of the RSL and thrilled to be taking part in the Reading Together programme which reminded me that reading and then talking about books can be one of life’s greatest pleasures. I shall never stop being grateful for the part books of all kinds have played in my life, for what I’ve learnt from them and what I hope to learn in the future."
Muldoon added: "There are many books we read when we're 10, 11, 12 or 13 that impress us at that age. We come back to them when we're 23 or 33 and, actually, we find they're not quite as good as we remember. We keep changing as people; we move on, our tastes change. We become a little more sophisticated; maybe we become less sophisticated. One way or another, things change. Treasure Island is a book that deepens as I get older — in its depiction of characters, of scenes, of human relations. It's a book that gets better the more one reads it."
The RSL also announced 45 new fellows and honourary fellows. To be nominated as a fellow a writer must have published two works of outstanding literary merit, and nominations must be seconded by an RSL fellow or honorary fellow. The 29 new fellows include Maggie O'Farrell, Anna Burns, Cressida Cowell, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Gary Younge.
O’Farrell said it was "an absolute joy" to be asked to be a fellow, adding: "Being a writer is quite a solitary life: for the most part, it’s just you and your characters, or you and your page, or you and your computer. So, the idea that there’s this fellowship, a group of people who are all joining together with one purpose — to promote and cultivate literary excellence — is wonderful. It’s a really lovely counterbalance to the solitude of being a writer."
There are also 15 new honourary fellows including literary agents Clare Alexander, Jenny Brown and Gill Coleridge, critic and academic Jon Cook, c.e.o of the National Literacy Trust Jonathan Douglas, publishers Kadija Sesay, Simon Prosser and Sharmaine Lovegrove, and director of the Booker Prize Foundation Gaby Wood.
Dialogue publisher Lovegrove said she was "deeply honoured" to be elected, and said her appointment means "there is a true understanding" of the work she has been doing throughout her career to champion underrepresented voices and great literature.