2 Jul 2024

The new Children’s Laureate explains why reading out loud is an ‘act of love’

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

The novelist and screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce has been named the new children’s laureate. At a ceremony in Leeds today, the author behind critically acclaimed children’s books like ‘Millions’ and ‘Framed’, was handed the prestigious medal by his predecessor Joseph Coelho.

Mr Cottrell-Boyce has vowed to use his two years in the role to champion the life-changing benefits of reading to children – especially those living in poverty, who he says are being left further and further behind.

Jackie Long spoke to him earlier and began by asking what this appointment means to him.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: Well, it’s terrifying because it’s like being the next Doctor Who or the next Pope or something like that. But, yeah, excited. I feel it’s a good moment to be doing this, actually.

Jackie Long: What will you do?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: For me, this is going to be about lobbying for other laureates that have been child-facing or school-facing. I want to be government-facing because I go to a lot of schools – I probably go to as many schools as a school inspector. On the one hand, I see amazing practice and very creative teachers. But I also see tremendous inequality. I think the time has come to sort this out.

Jackie Long: But what does reading have to do, in a sense, with any of it? We are looking at four million children living in this country in poverty. Fundamentally – what difference will reading and your role make?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: Fundamentally, reading in the early years particularly makes an enormous difference – not just to educational attainment, but to resilience and to happiness. But 50% of our kids are not being read to before school. Their first experience of reading is picking up an alien piece of tech, which is a book, and trying to decode it. That should not be happening.

Jackie Long: Why do you think it is happening? Many people might say, particularly for those families who are living in poverty – the struggle to feed your children, to clothe them, to heat the house – does it make reading a luxury for some families?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: Yes – and I think we can do something about that. Book Trust already delivers books free through health services to lots and lots of families. We need to share how they’re doing this and what is the best practice for giving parents, carers, grandparents, siblings the confidence to read to each other? This is literally not rocket science. We’re not asking to build rockets. We’re asking to promote something that is deep in our culture. This goes back to the beginning of what it is to be a human being. When we lit the first fire, we sat around and told the story of how we did it.

Jackie Long: You make a very big distinction between learning to read yourself as a child, which is what is done for those children you talk about when they get to school. But why is it so important to be read to?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: I think something happens between the reader, the child and the page, that is very magical and powerful.

Jackie Long: Can you remember what it meant to you – being read to?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: Definitely. I had this amazing experience in year six. My friend was off school, and I put all my effort into this piece of work that I would have put into talking to him. At the end of the lesson, the teacher picked it up – and I saw this look on her face – and she went to the front of the class and she read it out loud. Hearing a grownup read my words out was completely transformative for me. It was like, ‘Oh, so words are something you could be good at.’ I never forgot that experience and then I became a screenwriter. I’ve heard Margot Robbie read my words out, and Colin Firth. I helped write that sketch between Paddington and the Queen. Nothing came close to my year six teacher – that moment. That’s the power that we have in our voices.

Jackie Long: You say that whoever wakes up in power on Friday morning has the power to make a revolutionary change in children’s lives. What, in your view, should that revolution look like?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: It should look like – 50% of our children should not be missing out on this moment. It’s very easy to extend this. I think all we need to do is honour the people who are doing it already – notice them, expand it from them. This is doable. It makes an enormous difference for a tiny effort.

Jackie Long: Creating what you call, the apparatus of happiness?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: We can build the apparatus of happiness in our children.

Jackie Long: You must come back in and tell us how it’s going.