The diplomatic guide to book donations

 

If you announce you are going to set up a school library, before long someone will say, “Why don’t  you ask people to donate books?” If you build it, they will come. And if you announce it, they will donate. Oh boy, will they donate.

I have to tread carefully here, because I am truly grateful to many people for their generosity in providing wonderful, high quality books for the school libraries I’ve been associated with. Having said that, let’s look at the nostalgia element a little bit.

I’ve worked primarily with middle class, 30-60 year old donors. Many have fond memories of books they loved in childhood. They want today’s children to have similar experiences. Unfortunately, though, today’s children live in a very different world. I work with a good few high-ability readers but in 15 years I have yet to hear of one making it all the way through the original edition of Winnie the Pooh, let alone Peter Pan or Anne of Green Gables. There are simply too many words, too great a density of text to image, and too great a remove from cultural reality, for most modern children to engage with, especially when a Disney DVD is only a click away.

Please, think carefully before donating classics. It’s sad to say this because I’ve had donations of beautiful, highly-produced books that must have cost a lot of money. But I have one library with four copies of The Wind in the Willows on the shelf. And I suspect that is where they will stay.

Social attitudes have changed beyond recognition since these books were published. Children have a natural suspension of disbelief and I’m sure many of them can enjoy Paddington completely untroubled by the Brown family living in Bloomsbury with a full- time housekeeper. But a book that unquestioningly accepts imperialism, that is condescending towards ethnic minorities, patronises the working classes, or perpetuates unhelpful gender stereotypes may not belong in the modern school library. (Okay, we do have a few Enid Blytons, but the Malory Towers ones have all been rewritten, you may be surprised to hear). You may feel that this amounts to political correctness gone mad, but modern schools have to work within certain ethical and cultural constraints, and the person to argue with about that is not the volunteer who has taken on stocking the library.

I have to confess that occasionally the reluctance of some children to engage with what I consider to be good literature has shocked me – much less so than a few years ago, but I still baulked at being asked to stock World Wrestling Foundation annuals and collections of the world’s 1,000 grossest fart jokes. People like to think their donations will steer children to the heights of edifying reading. Maybe not Kipling, but definitely Michael Morpurgo.

Morpurgo is awesome. He is, however, the kind of writer that people think children should like, rather than the sort they naturally want to read. He doesn’t go in for wacky fonts, fart jokes and comic book illustrations on every page, for one thing. He can be just a little worthy and didactic, and is often best introduced as part of a topic on the Second World War or similar – once discovered in this context, there are some children who will adore and devour his books. But they do tend to be the ones who love reading anyway.

It all boils down to what a school library is actually there to achieve. Is it to provide children who already read with more and better books (a worthy aim, of course) or to break down the resistance to reading that many kids, particularly older boys, instinctively feel? If you can subscribe to the first aim but flinch from the second, then you may feel uneasy at the thought of giving libraries money to spend on those rubbishy Tom Gates or Wimpy Kid books that Theo or Lily would have whizzed through in 45 minutes. Let alone a wrestling annual. I sympathise. I have been there myself. But it might be the latter that sets a reluctant reader, desperate not to look un-cool in front of his mates, on a life-changing reading journey.

Does that mean people shouldn’t donate? Not necessarily. Support is always welcome. And it’s nice to find a home for the books your children have outgrown. But if there’s someone in charge of the library, do ask what’s needed first and try not to take it the wrong way if you find your offering in a local charity shop. If you are leaving carrier bags full of books in the school reception area (or the book return box), thanks but add your name at least because it’s nice to say thank you. And maybe if you are thinking of spending money, how about donating some to pay for the plastic covers that will prolong the life of all those lovely books? Or if you have time, offer to come in and read to the children instead? If you really want them to know the joy of good old fashioned classics, that’s the way to make it happen.

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