The Reading Agency – how the gift of a book can change a life

Contributed by Ellie Mayes

Corporate partnerships manager

Fri 6 Aug 2021

The Reading Agency strives for a world where everyone reads their way to a better life. We tackle life’s big challenges through the proven power of reading1, focusing on three areas: life skills and learning, health and wellbeing, and loneliness and social isolation.

With our partners, we deliver and develop programmes in consultation with the various audiences we serve, including public libraries, schools, prisons and health centres. Two programme examples are: Reading Well to help people understand and manage their health and wellbeing and the Summer Reading Challenge to support children’s reading through the summer holiday dip.

Book gifting has never been more important

Research by the National Literacy Trust reveals that more than 380,000 children in the UK have no books of their own at home, but children who do have their own books are almost three times more likely to enjoy reading2. In response to that statistic, we run several nationwide book gifting programmes to change lives for the better.

Although book gifting encourages people to read for pleasure, providing a ‘nudge’ into a reading habit3, it’s not always enough to start someone’s reading journey. We produce branded book bags and boxes containing reading materials, activities and resources to support all readers including the less confident to discover the joy of reading.

Since 2020, we have gifted over 400,000 books, reading resources and activity packs. In summer 2020, when libraries were closed due to the pandemic, we gifted over 300,000 books and themed activity packs to families across the UK whose children could not access the online platform to participate in the Summer Reading Challenge.

Last Christmas, The Reading Agency teamed up with Costa Coffee to share the joy of reading by gifting 100,000 books to families and communities hit hardest by the pandemic. Inspired by the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, where families exchange books with loved ones, we distributed 50,000 book and coffee packages, each containing one adult book and one children’s book, plus Costa treats, to several food banks, community hubs, hospitals and care homes countrywide.

Books2All blog - The Reading Agency — how the gift of a book can change a life by Ellie Mayes
The Reading Agency and Costa Coffee partnered for Christmas 2020 gift-a-book campaign

From surveys completed after the event, we recorded an overwhelmingly positive response from our partners to the donations received during that very challenging period. Gifters enjoyed improved relationships with the community, while those who had never been given a new book before reported a special feeling of pride in receiving this gift.

To support the nation’s mental health and wellbeing this year, we worked with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to place three Reading Well mental health recommended book collections into every library across England. Feedback from librarians, community partners and book users showed that the books helped people better understand and manage their mental health and wellbeing during a challenging period. Readers feel more connected to others, knowing they’re not alone.

World Book Night The Reading Agency’s key annual event

Since 2011, we have held our annual celebration of reading and book gifting World Book Night on 23 April. Passionate volunteer organisations distribute thousands of books to share the love of reading with people in their communities who don’t read regularly for pleasure or have their own books. To date, we have donated almost three million books through World Book Night.

For our 10th anniversary this year, we partnered with Specsavers to ‘make people smile’ through World Book Night. We commissioned a collection of short stories Stories to Make you Smile with authors including Mark Watson, Vaseem Khan and Jenny Eclair. As well as printed copies being distributed across the country through organisations, the book was also available as a free e-book and audiobook download.

Books2All blog - The Reading Agency — how the gift of a book can change a life by Ellie Mayes
Stories To Make You Smile, published by Simon & Schuster UK (2021)

We encourage our partner organisations to host World Book Night events, such as quizzes, parties and readathons. Many hold book club meetings after the event to bring book recipients together to create a reading community. This year, we teamed with The British Library to host online events that reached people worldwide. Curated events like these inspire readers and non-readers alike, provide book recommendations and show that reading is for everyone.

Our World Book Night 2021 evaluation, which will be published later this summer, showed that 96% of responding recipients were pleased to receive a World Book Night gifted book. Just weeks after World Book Night,92% of survey respondents said they were talking to others about books and reading more or the same as before. And 97% had maintained or increased their reading frequency due to being gifted a book.

Over time, those who read their gifted book began to view themselves as readers, and this change in identity motivated many to adopt new reading habits. These quotes, taken from our evaluation, show how much the gift of a book impacts both givers and receivers:

“It was such a heartwarming feeling to be gifted a book. It felt like a real human connection and a sense of being valued.” World Book Night 2021 recipient.

“Having received books to share made me really excited and happy as many of our students rarely read for pleasure, especially the vulnerable students. I feel I have made a real difference in their lives.”   World Book Night 2021 giver.

Quick Reads provide an easy introduction to books

Our Quick Reads programme provides a route into reading via a shorter, more accessible format that boosts reading skills, confidence and enjoyment. Quick Reads books act as entry points to different authors and genres such as Caitlin Moran, Benjamin Zephaniah and Ian Rankin.

Books2All blog - The Reading Agency — how the gift of a book can change a life by Ellie Mayes
A selection of Quick Read titles published in May 2021

This year we announced our ‘Buy One, Gift One’ campaign to help tackle the UK literacy crisis. For every book bought before 31 July, our six Quick Reads publishers will donate a matching copy to an individual struggling with reading or who has limited access to books through community hubs, food banks, prisons, colleges and public libraries. ‘Buy One, Gift One’ aims to enhance the proven benefits of Quick Reads by giving those who struggle to read direct, free access to the books.

Our 2020 evaluation shows that Quick Reads users read more frequently or planned to do so and enjoyed reading more4. They also used the books to forge meaningful connections with other people during a time of intense personal and national challenges due to the pandemic. After reading their chosen Quick Reads title, many noticed that they talked about books and reading more frequently with friends, family or colleagues. Learning practitioners using Quick Reads in the classroom reported that their students had increased self-confidence and reading confidence from using the books.

Reading Sparks brings STEM to hard-to-reach groups

Reading Sparks uses the summer to bridge the science gap for families from lower socio-economic groups, teenage girls and ethnic minority communities. We facilitate this in partnership with libraries, the British Science Association, the Science and Technology Council and NUSTEM.

This week we launched our book gifting scheme to get STEM books to families experiencing hardship across the UK this summer. The gift bags include fantastic books for children of all ages with STEM activities for families to complete over the holidays.

Through research and evaluation, the Reading Agency is gaining a valuable understanding of the impact of our book gifting programmes. We continue to seek ways to incorporate book gifting and reading support into other activity streams. While the contribution book gifting makes to wellbeing, reading habits and education is clear, perhaps more striking is the sense of community that our programmes provide for those involved.

It is a privilege to see book gifting encourage people from different backgrounds to support each other and come together to enjoy the benefits of reading for pleasure. Time and again, we witness the transformational power of reading from the gift of a book. 

Thank you for visiting our blog. Our vision here at Books2All is a world where every child finds the books that help them reach their true potential. If you have spare books in good condition at home that you think might be appropriate for school children, please sign up for our app’s pre-release waiting list. If you represent a school, please register to receive books for your students.

1 S Hilhorst, et al. (2018), A Society of Readers, Demos; The Reading Agency (2021), Reading Facts
2 NLT (2019), Children’s book ownership in 2019
3 M de Bondt, I Willenberg, A Bus (2020), ‘Do Book Giveaway Programs Promote the Home Literacy Environment and Children’s literacy-related Behavior and Skills?’, Review of Educational Research, 90:3, 349-75
4 The Reading Agency (2021), Quick Reads evaluation report, 2020-21

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