Bookstart. I am about to make myself very unpopular, but the following is based on my personal experiences, experiences entirely linked to where I grew up. Empirical evidence may be dodgy ground from which to shoot arrows but I think it's important so I'm going to shoot and be damned.
Bookstart on paper is a very lovely thing. There is evidence to suggest that reading books is a good thing (tm) and I'd be the first in line to defend to the absolute death the worth of books to people who want to learn and are bored to tears in school lessons. They are sanity giving escape portals, mind blowing many world thought provokers, they are laugher and light providers for people stuck, for whatever reason, in one place for a long period of time. I love books. Let me make this abundantly clear. I own 500 of the damn things, I collect them (feeble attempts aside), and I still loan books from libraries.
Where does this love of books come from?
My father loved words. He owned a home printing press and I learnt to spell using the tiny little metal sets of letters. My mothers attitude to learning consists of 'I left school at 15 because I had to, not because I wanted to, so books shall be where I make up the lost time, oh yes!' as she sails forth into the local library and systematically drains each section of every worthwhile book while consuming an amount of data which frankly terrifies me, before coming out the other side having taught herself psychology, neurology, astro-physics, German, French, Russian and shorthand. For fun.
If I hadn't grown up with a fierce love of books, there would have been something wrong. Really quite wrong. And in the grand scheme of things very many things were wrong but this was not one of them and for that I am actually seriously grateful. I'm proud to be retro in my love of books.
The respect for books as precious things, things to be taken very great care of was also imbued from an early age. Knowledge is precious, therefore the things which convey that knowledge are, by association, also precious. I didn't manage to mark a page by turning the corner of the paper down until I was at least 25, out of pure guilt. Books. An intrinsic and inseperable part of me, as a human being.
To give some quick context, the village I grew up in had 400 people in it. No girls were the same age as me, the closest was 3 years older than me. We lived in a row of Council houses, and the families to our right were not the families to our left, but the ones to our left were older, grandparents, and the ones to our right were young families. So to the right was where I spent all my time. The line, by the way, was real, but only 1pt. For the purposes of this post I am drawing it in 5pt.
I am trying to very hard to leave the dreaded c word out of this.
The children of the families to our right were my friends. I grew up with them, I roamed across endless corn fields on adventures to find the abandoned castle with them (yes it's real, yes, it's on a map, yes I could map read at 8, I am not making any of this up, we're talking about fiction, not creating it), I played on hay bales, fell out of trees with them, and generally caused utter havoc with them (the worst thing we ever did was steal some apples. Once. We got caught. There ended my criminal career). It sounds idyllic I suppose. It wasn't.
The children I hung out with didn't own books. They had no interest in owning books. They didn't bother with the mobile library which came to the village even though it got around the problem of having no car - the parents walked the 10 mile round trip to the local supermarket each Saturday. Their life was reduced down to very little. Earn money somehow, doing the odd bits of gardening and farmhand work, pay the bills, feed the family. We didn't have any money either, but my parents, because of their background, put a massive amount of focus on making sure our education was also right at the top of the priority list and so, as a result, books were acquired from charity shops and loaned from school and nabbed from the mobile library. And here is the fundamental problem that I have with the Bookstart programme. It makes an assumption of priorities of the parents of the children the books are actually aimed at. It assumes literacy of the parents - the link above to the Bookstart website is deliberately to their FAQ section which makes no mention of filtering recipients on that. It is quite clear to me that the programme is entirely well meaning, that on paper it's motivations are good, that behind that organisation are people who care passionately about sharing their own values of love for knowledge and books and reading.
But I wonder. I wonder how many of the distributed books actually get read. I wonder what the outcomes are and how they're measured. I wonder about the return on investment, because I have changed on some fundamental level and no longer believe that simply wanting to help people and do good things is enough. I hope I have built a post entirely on wrong assumptions. I hope someone can come and prove me wrong, tell me that these packs change lives, change priorities, encourage parents living day to day, on very little money, to push their childrens education right up to the top of the list. But I've got a horrible suspicion that they don't and they wont.
When you're too busy surviving, your field of vision narrows to the very essentials. Maslows hierarchy of needs seems to be coming in for some bashing of late. My personal experience means I will never be so bold as to dismiss. It is hard to care about things which looks like luxuries when the next bill has come through the door and all your focus is suddenly, by necessity, switched to how you're going to pay this one and what must be sold or given up or cancelled in order to do so. At times like that, books get sold, Christmas presents get returned and priorities are ground down to simply one.