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Natalie Haynes: Grannies for all – a scheme that makes kids read and my heart sing


The secret truth about reading aloud to a child is that it is a completely beneficial experience for all involved. The child gets a story read to him or her, and the reader gets to read a book, safe in the knowledge that she is not avoiding work, or cleaning, or anything else, but is, in fact, busy investing in the next generation.

Not only that, but once you have your confidence up, you can do voices and everything. Count Olaf (from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events) is my particular speciality, though I also do a good Hermione, which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me.

So now I am wondering how old you have to be to volunteer for the Granny Cloud: an initiative which pairs grannies or quasi-grannies with schoolchildren in India, via the net. It has been set up by Professor Sugata Mitra, who also set up the Hole-in-the-Wall computer scheme (putting PCs into the poorest parts of India: children with no experience of computers became expert in using them at incredible speed). Mitra realised that children worked best with non-interfering encouragement, and the idea of the Granny Cloud was born.

His scheme means that a virtual granny can be reading the pages of Not Now, Bernard (one of my favourite children's books, since it conclusively proves that your parents don't have your best interests at heart, and indeed don't even notice if a monster eats you) in the UK to a bunch of school children in Pune. The granny invests in the kids, the kids know someone thousands of miles away cares about them: everyone wins.

This whole idea makes my heart sing. I always associate grandparents and reading, because my grandmother worked in the children's department of Hudson's bookshop (now a Waterstones) in Birmingham, and every weekend she would bring me a new book. She never read to me aloud, as her first language was Flemish, and she was always conscious of her accent in English (though Flemish-Brummie is one of the finest accents, to my ear).

The book reps soon found out she had grandchildren, and would bring treats for us: for years, I had a tiny Puffin bookcase filled with my favourite books. As so often with treasured childhood possessions, I have no memory of what happened to it. Perhaps it went to live on a farm, like the hamsters.

Though I don't have children myself, I am now a complete sucker for other people's kids in search of a reader. I am incapable of stopping before the end of a chapter, even when it's past my bedtime, let alone theirs. So here's to the Granny Cloud, fighting the reading drought wherever they go.

A postscript to Operation Bootleg

Is film piracy ever right? My head says no, but last week The New York Times profiled "Big Hy" Strachman, a 5ft 5in, 92-year-old World War II veteran, who developed an unusual hobby after the death of his wife. Big Hy has spent the past eight years copying DVDs for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He is certainly one of America's most prolific pirates: he's winding down his operation now the soldiers are returning home, but he has sent almost 4,000 boxes of DVDs so far. He paid for the postage and discs himself (some $30,000), and accepted no payment. He destroyed the master discs as he went along, to try and limit his lawlessness. He's only come out now, because his operation is coming to an end.

Howard Gantman, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said he thought the studios hadn't known about Big Hy's mass piracy. I hope they do a good thing, rather than the legal thing, and issue a statement saying that while they in no way condone Mr Strachman's behaviour, and will prosecute anything similar, they'd like to cover his postage bills for the past eight years.