At last, a book club with a global reach, a noble aim – and absolutely no chardonnay: Reading Force launches on Friday in Aldershot. Set up by Alison Baverstock, a lecturer in publishing and herself an Army wife, the scheme will use scrapbooks to encourage forces families to communicate about their concurrent reading of the same book. "When your husband rings up from Afghanistan or Iraq, you have a very limited time to talk, but sometimes you just don't know what to talk about," she says. "Being able to talk about a book we're both reading is great because it gives us some common ground."
Starting on Friday, Reading Force will circulate pre-printed scrapbooks through schools, libraries and forces information centres, and also provide them for download at www.readingforce.org. The idea is that everyone in the extended reading group, wherever they are in the world, fills in the scrapbook with their reactions to the book, by letter, email, picture, line drawing, news report, phonecall record, cartoon, story, essay or text message. Those who want to can return their completed scrapbook by 15 July, for a chance to win prizes – including three family tickets to Thorpe Park.
According to the Literary Trust, when fathers engage with their children's education, they significantly boost their performance at school. The Trust quotes the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which says that positive father involvement is associated with better exam results, better school attendance, less criminality, better quality interpersonal relationships and good mental health.
A similar scheme is Storybook Soldier, which has servicemen and women record stories on to CDs for their children. The top six bedtime stories are: The Gruffalo; The Snail and the Whale; Room on the Broom; The Tiger Who Came to Tea; The Night Before Christmas; and The Gigantic Turnip. Similarly, the US forces' United Through Reading scheme films the serving parent reading a book, and then returns a film of the child watching that film, reinforcing family bonds. One "spouse at home" says: "This program has had an incredible impact on our lives. Our daughter watches her videos every day .... It has helped to keep him [her father] in her life and greatly eases the transition of his coming home. Without this program, many children would not know their deployed parent upon their return."
Storybook Soldier was inspired by Storybook Dads. Ninety prisons (and 10 women's prisons) are involved in the scheme, which fosters links between prisoners and their children, and teaches IT and sound and audio skills to prisoners. Each year, 160,000 children suffer the imprisonment of a parent. This project is shown to reduce re-offending by up to six times. "I miss my dad so much. When I feel lonely I listen to my CD and hearing his voice makes me feel better," says Chloe, age seven. For the Daily Mail, however, it's "the latest example of prisoners being pampered at public expense".
Friday's launch of Reading Force will star the author for young adults Meg Rosoff, but many high profile authors have lent their support. Jacqueline Wilson and Charlie Higson have sent messages of encouragement, and the Children's Laureate Anthony Browne says: "I think this is a brilliant way of bringing together forces families through the shared joy of reading. I am pleased to be able to add my support, as Children's Laureate and as a father of two (now grown up) children."