In this digital age, the ability of a good book to spark a child’s imagination is under threat – but the power of words continues to fight back

Photographs by Annie Leibovitz; book cover designs by Vivienne Westwood; Japanese Lolita clothing… Three things I was not expecting to see at a celebratory exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. ‘I always wanted visitors to have the chance to both recognise the Alice they know and love and to see her in less familiar guises,’ smiles Kiera Vaclavik. ‘With Tenniel and Disney Alices, but also a male Alice and a Muslim Alice, I think we can safely say the exhibition delivers!’

Ms Vaclavik is the curator of The Alice Look, which has been running at the Museum of Childhood since May (and remains open until 1 November). Exhibits include garments, photographs, rare editions and illustrations to show Alice as both a follower of fashion and a trendsetter – and a reminder of how good a book it actually is. ‘It’s expertly crafted,’ Ms Vaclavik says on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s enduring appeal, ‘both in terms of the text and images. Much of the dialogue is exquisite. The characters Alice encounters are varied and intriguing and she herself is an admirable role model: adventurous, autonomous and increasingly assertive.’


The impact of a good book

The many exhibits on show at The Alice Look show how important a book can be

It’s a reminder of how you can get lost in a good book, but how often does that happen in this day and age of technological gizmos and computer games? Expecting to hear a doom and gloom report, it was uplifting to read a recent survey by the National Literacy Trust that stated an increasing number of UK schoolchildren are choosing to read in their spare time. The NLT questioned 32,000 pupils from the age of eight through to 18 and six in ten have a favourite work of fiction.

One of the books most mentioned was Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon. The author is busy promoting the 12th – and final – book in the series and is heavily involved with the NLT, and she feels that it is a real battle for authors. ‘Books are under threat, so we are doing exceptionally well in getting children reading despite the demand on a child’s attention,’ Mrs Cowell states passionately. ‘There’s something very exciting for an author to rise to that challenge and get children hooked on a story. A key message of the NLT is getting children to read for pleasure, rather than schools telling them to.’

Visiting Sinclair House Pre-Prep and Prep schools, reading play a key role in developing a child’s love for learning and the teachers I spoke to are left in no doubt as to the impact of a good book. ‘Enabling a child to become lost in a good book is priceless,’ says Year 2 teacher Scarlett Theodore. ‘Books help children discover parts of themselves and a world that they never knew existed.’

The impact of a good book

Sinclair House show the power of books throughout their age groups

‘There is nothing more rewarding than using a favourite book as a tool to teach children,’ concurs Year 1 teacher, Candy Harris. ‘It is an amazing way to open their minds and just watch as the imaginative ideas come tumbling out. I have used Where The Wild Things Are on many occasions to inspire children. They once wrote letters to the Wild Things and were delighted when the Wild Things wrote back! Books are like old friends and I know stories they read will be with them for life.’

And, speaking about older children at the school, Head of Key Stage 2 and Year 4 teacher Kira Taylor believes books go far beyond classroom walls. ‘A good book can not only inspire a life-long love of reading, but has the power to guide and inspire dreams, career choices and core values. It enables children to see beyond their current reality and grasp the endless possibilities available to them.’

Yet for all the positivity about books and making sure a whole new generation gets to experience the magical words we all once loved (and never forgot), Kiera Vaclavik feels there’s a place for all instruments that inspire imagination. ‘Children exercise their imaginative faculties and their capacity to empathise and indentify with others,’ she says about the educational benefits of reading. ‘Experiencing other worlds through literature can enable children to see their own world differently, and with more attention. But I don’t think children should spend all their time reading any more than they should spend all their time playing computer games or watching TV. Reading is only one of the incredible and enriching possibilities that life offers.’

Words: Mark Kebble