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Secret Book Quest on a mission to reverse the literacy gap

Posted on 23 Jun 2022

The Secret Book Quest booklet, library cards in a Libraries Unlimited libraryThe pandemic has had a huge impact on literacy levels in the UK, with 78% of UK schools flagging reading as a concern.*

Libraries Unlimited saw this first hand and became a lifeline as the challenges of homeschooling and working from home took hold. They adapted quickly by adding more children’s books to the digital library service; giving immediate access to non library members. ‘Choose and Collect’ enabled kids to pick up bundles of books they had pre-ordered, or even have them dropped at their door by library staff on their way home! The next stage on their mission to help bridge that gap was creating The Secret Book Quest – aimed at kids aged five and older. The Secret Book Quest has been challenging them to read a total of 50 books to collect all the stickers, decipher the code, and win a special prize. Acclaimed illustrator Emily Fox has brought the quest to life by creating a set of characters; Pip, Zena and Libro the cat who invite kids to depart on a reading adventure through 10 themed worlds.

“It’s great to see children taking part in the Secret Book Quest. Libraries are something to be celebrated, they are a valuable resource providing access to an unlimited number of books and available to everyone. Reading regularly improves children’s literacy, encourages empathy and provides escapism.

When we began planning the reading challenge I loved the idea of Libro the library cat leading the two children Pip and Zena, into another world through a secret portal, like Alice following the white rabbit into Wonderland. We have portals leading into 10 reading zones, each portal has space for a sticker which can be collected after every 5 books, with the goal of reaching 50 books to complete the challenge.  The zones are loosely connected to different areas of the library, hopefully prompting children to seek out different shelves and expand their reading.” Emily Fox, Illustrator

Libraries Unlimited has ambitions to work with specific areas of Torbay and North Devon where some children are more disadvantaged.  Lucy Banks, Libraries Unlimited Reading Development Manager explains; “so far the data suggests that the Secret Book Quest brought the rate of children’s book borrowing back to pre-pandemic levels. It’s a key part of our plans to engage harder to reach families from more deprived neighbourhoods, inviting them into a library perhaps for the first time. We know from the Index of Multiple Deprivation 2019** that in Torbay 30% of its children live in the top 20% most deprived areas in England. GCSE attainment is much worse in North Devon than the national average and one in three children live in poverty in the Forches region of Barnstaple***. This compounded by the fall out from the pandemic highlights how vital it is to get more children and young people back into reading.”

University of Exeter Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for Research in Writing Debra Myhill adds; “Nothing can be more important than encouraging children to read. This is not simply about examination success, but about discovering a lifelong love of the joy of books – how they transport us to other worlds, allow us to learn about other people and places, and help us understand ourselves.  The pandemic has highlighted the educational inequalities that have always been there – and the work of Libraries Unlimited to engage with the many disadvantaged children in Devon is critical.”

Libraries Unlimited is also building relationships with local schools using both Secret Book Quest and Summer Reading Challenge, produced by The Reading Agency and run in partnership with libraries, as fun ways to encourage reading and identify the children who did not already have library cards. They have plans to roll out The Secret Book Quest model for libraries across the country and are continually developing new programmes to boost literacy, leading the sector in tackling this issue. Next up is the Summer Reading Challenge in Devon and Torbay.

*According to recent research conducted by the University of Bedfordshire in partnership with Schoolreaders showed that Covid-19 lockdowns, school closures and the switch to home learning have had a negative effect on the literacy levels of 90% of primary school children across the UK. 78% of the schools flagged reading as an area for concern. Source: The Schoolreaders State of Primary School Reading Survey was conducted in August and September 2021.

Reading continues to support children and young people’s mental wellbeing, with over 2 in 5 (44.6%) children and young people agreeing that reading made them feel better”. Source: National Literacy Trust Research: Children and young people’s reading engagement in 2021. Emerging insight into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on reading. Oct 2021.

**Index of Multiple Deprivation 2019.

GCSE attainment;

Forches data: one in eight Devon children living in poverty in Forches region of Barnstaple

*** One in three children live in poverty in the Forches region of Barnstaple

Case study:
Sarah Duriez is a local resident and mum to Henry, who finds communication and social interaction difficult, but thanks to the patience and encouragement of the friendly library staff he had gained the confidence to chat happily to them.

Sarah said: “Library buildings were forced to close during lockdown, and we had to find a way of adapting so that Henry could continue with his challenge. A pandemic wasn’t about to get in the way of Henry and his books! Laura, Jane and the team of library staff have been so incredibly helpful and proactive in ensuring that Henry has had a continuous supply of books throughout.”

Libraries Unlimited believes…

…in the unlimited potential of library services to make a positive difference to people’s lives and communities through a shared love of reading and access to high quality information and facilities.