In 2015, I took part in a Youth Libraries Group (SE) conference in Winchester. The keynote speaker, Julia Eccleshare, began by asking the audience comprised of librarians and participating authors to turn to each other and name the book or books that turned us from someone who read into a reader. With the others at our tables, we discussed the seminal books of our youth, and interestingly, could all name the book that did it – for me it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Simply recollecting the stories of our childhoods made every single person in that room feel happy.
Two things struck me about that.
The first is that the books we talked so fondly of we read between the ages of seven and twelve. This is the age children begin their journey of independent reading, one that can last a lifetime. These stories let them travel and explore, understand the wider world and the lives of others, and feel deep empathy – even love for – the characters they come to think of as friends.
The second is that when we read, a mood is created. We feel a certain way as we sojourn through and hang out with a book. Stories can make us rigid with fear, breathless with suspense, feel dark, angry and uncomfortable, or charmed and upbeat. But our childhood stories, and our memories of them, can create a feeling of happiness that lasts a lifetime.
Authors writing for this age group are acutely aware that their stories can have a profound influence; we consider it an honour and a privilege to shape young minds, and hope our stories will be loved, reread, passed on, and remembered fondly later in life. But it’s also a responsibility: a young mind is in our hands. We want to educate as well as entertain, and promote positive change and the empathy needed to fashion a better world. So when I wrote my latest book for 8-12s, How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg, I bore many factors in mind. I wanted to write a story with a message, promote reading and libraries, and hint at the importance of books. I considered the anxiety many young people feel about climate change, the planet they are inheriting and the animals they love: I know because I’m a teacher that children desperately want to make a difference but feel powerless and hopeless, and that’s not the message I wanted to share – quite the opposite, in fact. I thought up lovable characters that I hoped would inspire empathy. And I tried to make it as cheerful as I could to beat the lockdown blues and make readers feel happy – if not for a lifetime, then in the time of reading it, at least.
So although I’ve included facts about pollution, plastic and animals, I’ve made it as positive as possible. Books are tied to our psychological and emotional development, and between 8 -12 many children are still reading (just about) before the world of screens eclipses their attention. I hope it will make readers happy, and if, by some miracle, it also turns a child who reads into a reader, then that would be an amazing achievement indeed.
Emma Shevah is the author of HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD WITH A CHICKEN AND AN EGG (Chicken House)
Find out more at emmashevah.com