Write On! interviews Karen Napier, Director of The Reading Agency
Karen Napier joined The Reading Agency as CEO in September 2019. An experienced leader in the arts, cultural and education sectors, she also has non-executive roles on the Board of Kiln Theatre and Mousetrap Productions. She is currently completing her Master’s degree in Philanthropic Studies at Canterbury, University of Kent.
“As an only child growing up in Yorkshire, I loved getting lost in books such as Anne Of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Although so much of my current reading is based around my MA academic textbooks, which I love, David Walliams’ The Boy In The Dress is a real favourite and captures the same wonderful childhood experiences of not being able to close the pages and put the book down. I read it with my daughter when it first came out and have recently read it again (twice) and loved it even more with my seven-year-old son! It’s everything reading should be about! Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring is also an all-time favourite for its beautiful and evocative writing – another book I just couldn’t put down!”
WO: Can you tell us about The Reading Agency and how/why it was set up?
AN: The Reading Agency’s origins lie in the vision of a small group of reading development activists Miranda McKearney, Debbie Hicks and Anne Sarrag, working around a kitchen table and passionate about the value of reading. They were equally committed to the importance of public libraries as centres of reading expertise and community outreach, providing democratic access to a treasure trove of free reading content. They were also driven by the awareness that, while public libraries provided an unrivalled network of community reading hubs, it was difficult for external partners to work impactfully with 200-plus individual authorities and that partnership working could be amplified by having a single access point to help deliver national advocacy and programmes.
The Charity was created by bringing together three development agencies/programmes in which McKearney, Hicks and Sarrag were involved and whose work was already having an impact on amplifying and joining up reading development in the library sector.
- Well Worth Reading – a marketing and promotions programme delivering off-the-shelf national reading promotions to public libraries.
- Launch Pad – spearheading a joined-up approach to summer reading activity through the development of a national summer reading programme.
- The Reading Partnership – delivering library advocacy, research and stakeholder development. Its research The Next Issue: Reading Partnerships For Libraries published in 1998 and delivered at a national library conference that year, led the call for a national reading agency to support partnership working in libraries.
Development work led by McKearney and Hicks, supported by Arts Council England, led to these three agencies being incorporated into a single company using the legal status of Well Worth Reading in January 2000. The name was changed to The Reading Agency For Libraries Ltd in 2002 and, following a further rebranding, to Read – The Reading Agency Ltd in 2008. Miranda McKearney was appointed as the first director, supported by Debbie Hicks on strategy, research and development, with Anne Sarrag leading on children’s reading.
In 2019, I was delighted to join The Reading Agency as CEO, following on from Sue Wilkinson MBE, who had led The Reading Agency since January 2014, building on all the great work and history.
WO: The Reading Agency runs a number of programmes. Can you tell us about a few of them?
AN: At The Reading Agency, we believe everyone can benefit from the proven power of reading, and our programmes reflect the inclusivity we are always striving for.
For children, we have programmes such as our annual Summer Reading Challenge, which we run in partnership with public libraries. Each year, the Challenge encourages children aged 4 – 11 to set themselves a reading challenge to help prevent the summer reading ‘dip’, helping to motivate over 700,000 children to keep reading in order to build their skills and conﬁdence.
For young people and emerging readers, we have our Reading Ahead programme, which is run through public libraries, adult learning organisations, colleges, workplaces and prisons. The programme invites participants to pick six reads and record, rate and review them in a personal reading diary. After completing their diary, they receive a certificate and can enter a national prize draw. The programme isn’t just about books: it’s about newspapers, magazines and websites, too. The aim is for participants to challenge themselves to try something new, discovering that reading can be a pleasure in the process.
We also have our Quick Reads programme. Each year, we work with bestselling authors to produce six short and engaging books for adult readers. We work with public libraries, prisons, colleges, hospitals and adult learning organisations to ensure these books are accessed by those who may find reading difficult, as they are a perfect entry point to reading for pleasure. You can also buy them in bookshops and online.
Our Reading Well programme is delivered in partnership with Libraries Connected, as part of the Libraries Connected Universal Health Offer. It helps support people to manage their health and wellbeing, using helpful reading materials and providing booklists for children, young people and those with mental health, dementia, and long-term conditions. The books are all recommended by health experts, as well as people with ‘lived experience’ of the conditions and topics covered and their relatives and carers. Ninety-nine per cent of English library authorities run a Reading Well scheme as part of the Universal Public Library Health Offer. The Welsh Government has also funded every library authority in Wales to deliver the scheme bilingually in Welsh and English.
Our Reading Friends programme works to tackle loneliness through the proven power of reading. Delivered by volunteers and co-produced with our participants, Reading Friends meet regularly to chat and share stories in groups or one-to-one sessions. Reading Friends aims to empower, engage and connect people who are vulnerable, isolated and at risk of loneliness. Our programme has a particular focus on older people who are isolated, people with dementia, and carers.
WO: Why do you believe an organisation such as The Reading Agency is important?
AN: We believe passionately in the proven power of reading and its ability to change lives. In 2019-20, we reached over 1.8 million people across the UK, including more than 950,000 children and over 900,000 adults and young people. Reading builds skills and learning, improves our life chances, helps us manage our health and wellbeing and connects us up socially. It empowers us to be the best we can be as individuals and as part of wider social networks.
We know from research that reading for pleasure also enhances empathy, understanding of the self, and the ability to understand one’s own and others’ identities. People who read regularly for pleasure report fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers, and stronger feelings of relaxation from reading than from watching television or engaging with technology-intensive activities. Reading allows us to explore the world from our own homes and connects us with the lives and experiences of others. Reading offers so many benefits, and we want to ensure they are enjoyed by everyone! In these recent days, due to the terrible impact of COVID, our mission and work are more important than ever. We are committed to playing our part in the recovery of the country.
WO: The last issue of Write On! explores the theme of ‘A Kaleidoscope Of Colours’. The idea is that life at the moment is like looking through a kaleidoscope: ever-changing, ever-swirling patterns we must interpret and adapt to. Can you tell us a bit about how you have been adapting to the shifting landscape of this fairly challenging present?
AN: The power of reading and its ability to change lives feels particularly relevant at the moment. Lockdown has proved particularly challenging for many, with both adults and children across the country reporting feeling isolated. Studies show that 19% of readers say that reading stops them from feeling lonely. This is backed up by a study analysing social connectedness, which found that reading books significantly reduces feelings of loneliness for people aged 18-64.
People are turning to books for escapism and relief, relaxation and distraction. In difficult times, when you can’t see family and friends easily, travel or mix socially, reading offers a ticket to another world without leaving your armchair. In a recent survey we conducted for World Book Night in April, nearly a third of people said they were reading more than before lockdown, with the ratio rising to almost half of young people.
At The Reading Agency, we have been working to adapt to this changing landscape as swiftly as possible. We pivoted our annual Summer Reading Challenge programme for children, ordinarily run in libraries, to a totally digital model in June, in order to support parents and carers at a particularly difficult time. We have also run several virtual launch events and panels over the last few months, and, as we adapt, we are looking into other ways of using the digital landscape to continue to deliver our programmes effectively.
WO: What one piece of advice would you give someone to encourage others to read? Say, for example, a parent and their child/ren?
AN: We recently co-ordinated a national campaign for a Reading Together Day, encouraging families across the country to read together. I think sharing a love of reading is key. Children respond so well to being read to, and it can help them develop a ‘reading for pleasure’ habit early on that will stay with them for life. Taking the time to share the books you loved to read as a child can have a wonderful impact.
WO: Can you tell us anything about future projects?
AN: Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of our annual World Book Night event – and we’ve already started planning! World Book Night brings people from all backgrounds together for one reason: to inspire others to read more. Organisations and individuals hold events up and down the country to celebrate the difference that reading makes to our lives, from book-themed parties at home to book swaps in offices. Keep an eye on our website, as we announce more about the celebrations!
We also have two exciting new projects coming up in 2021. Get Islington Reading will focus on the local borough where The Reading Agency is based, working with libraries to support developing literacy skills in young people based throughout the borough, and Reading Sparks will see us working with major science institutions across the country, such as the Science Museum, to support the growth of science capital among young people in the UK through the proven power of reading.
We’ll also be publishing the 2021 Quick Reads – bitesize novels from some of our finest writing talent: Oyinkan Braithwaite, Louise Candlish, Katie Fforde, Peter James, Caitlin Moran and Khurrum Rahman.
WO: Lastly, just for fun, if you could choose one fictional animal/creature to be a pet or companion, who would it be and why?
AN: Not for fun at all – but for animals in fiction – the one that remains deeply embedded in my heart is Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles Of Narnia. I had never read the books as a child, but when babysitting for friends’ children we watched the film and I sobbed at his sacrifice for Edward. It meant I was hooked and read The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and the others in the series.
For fun… Snoopy! From the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. I loved him as a teenager and still love him for his cheeky adventures, cool persona and fab friends!
In difficult times, when you can’t see family and friends easily, travel or mix socially, reading offers a ticket to another world without leaving your armchair.