My childhood hobby meant I was one of the ‘uncool kids’ – but it was the making of me

Children’s author Sir Michael Morpurgo has urged the government to make reading more accessible to young people from deprived communities. Great idea, says Ryan Coogan – I paid dearly for my love of books, but it was still worth it

Thursday 18 January 2024 13:20 GMT
Being a voracious reading from a young age had an invaluable knock-on effect into my adult life
Being a voracious reading from a young age had an invaluable knock-on effect into my adult life (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

As a poor kid from a council estate, I didn’t have much to look forward to growing up – but my mum made sure we always had books to read, at the very least.

I was an avid reader. In a time before smartphones and a ubiquitous internet, I’d often be told off for having my nose buried in a book when I should have been eating dinner, or paying attention to an adult, or playing with the other kids. In many ways books helped me have a very rich and fulfilling inner life.

But in another, much more immediate and practical way, it got me beaten up a lot.

Authors including Michael Morpurgo and Malorie Blackman have signed an open letter to prime minister Rishi Sunak urging the government to invest more in books and reading programmes for under-7s, particularly those from working-class backgrounds. The letter was co-signed by all children’s laureates of the past 25 years.

It’s a nice gesture on its face, but I don’t think they’ve considered just how many kids they’ve consigned to a childhood of wet willies and vicious name-calling. Are they trying to make these kids social pariahs?

I grew up in an area where reading was regarded with suspicion at best and punitive action at worse, so I paid the price for my hobby all through high school and most of college. On a good day I was “that quiet kid”. On a bad day I was… actually I don’t think you’re allowed to print some of those words.

The important question, though, is: was it worth it in the end? Well, I got a bunch of scholarships to study English, I did a PhD, I’ve been published in books, magazines and newspapers literally hundreds of times, I taught English at a university level, and now I write for a living, so… no, not really. Between social media, AI and global anti-intellectual movements there’s no money in being literate anymore. I should have done maths instead.

I’m kidding, obviously. Not about the bullying – that part was very real, and in many ways ongoing – but kids in my area didn’t really need an excuse to throw a punch. If it wasn’t the books, it would have been something else. (I’m also not kidding about the maths thing – AI will probably end up replacing all us writers in the next 10 years, that’s just something I’ve come to accept.)

But reading at a young age had an invaluable knock-on effect right into my adult life. It’s helped shape me as a person, not just in terms of my career, but in terms of my inner imaginative life too.

That’s something that should be available to all kids, no matter their background or parents’ level of income. Whether it’s Shakespeare or Goosebumps, the act of reading has value in itself, and can help prepare children for the future in ways that little else can.

Even if it does get you picked on a little.

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