of Bradford

With books costing as much as a day’s food for some on Bradford’s Canterbury estate, a scheme to get children reading has brought delight

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Jaydon, who is four, loves hearing the clatter of the letterbox and the slap of mail on the mat at the home he shares with his dad James Lawlor on Bradford’s Canterbury estate.

“He gets really excited when the postman comes,” says James. “And when there’s an envelope addressed to him he goes mad.”

“I can see how they connect with characters in the stories, how they relate things to their own situations.”

There is a package for Jaydon once a month, and each time it contains a book. He’s not alone; in August nearly 1,300 children in the area will receive one as part of the Canterbury Imagine initiative.

The Canterbury estate regularly has the dubious honour of featuring in lists and indices of the most poverty-stricken wards in Bradford and sometimes in the country. Built in the 1940s, its tight streets wind in on themselves to the south west of Bradford city centre. The Canterbury Nursery and Children’s Centre sits on the edge of the estate, close to Horton Park, where I meet parents who want to sing the praises of Canterbury Imagine.

“This is a deprived area,” says resident Jane Wootton. “Books might not be top of the list for most people here. Some of these books are £5, £10. That’s a day’s food for some families. That’s why this scheme is so brilliant.”

Parents of children who live in the area covered by the scheme simply register and then, every month, between birth and their fifth birthday, they get sent an age-appropriate book in the post, addressed to the child. The scheme has been running for almost four years, and the number of children registered is growing month by month.

Kay Raistrick signed her son Lucian up when she attended a baby massage session at the centre and was told about Canterbury Imagine. “I thought it was fab,” she says. “I’d never heard anything like it before. I’ve got another son now, Cory, and we’ve got a shelf-and-a-half of children’s books. They go to the shelf and look at their books, and they bring them to me to read with me.”

Such engagement with books is no mean feat. The district has very poor literacy levels – and it isn’t something that improves with age. According to the National Literacy Trust, almost half of Bradford’s adults – 47.2 per cent – have literacy levels that “make everyday life difficult”.

According to Kelly Sharp, family support worker at the Canterbury Nursery and Children’s Centre, it’s clear when children come to them which ones are signed up to the Imagine scheme. “They know how to treat books, they are respectful, they have greater understanding of them,” she says.

While the books dropping through the letterbox are a magical moment for the children, there’s no sorcery at work with the Canterbury Imagine scheme – just a lot of hard work, and most of it down to Jan Winter.

James Lawlor and Jaydon
James Lawlor and his son Jaydon

She is a former journalist with the Bradford Telegraph & Argus and now a media lecturer. She was inspired by seeing a BBC documentary in 2011, Poor Kids, which featured a girl on the Canterbury estate.

“It really struck home,” she says. “This was practically round the corner from me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But I wasn’t sure what I could do.”

Then, while driving to work, Winter had what she calls her “lightbulb moment” – she listened to an interview with the country singer Dolly Parton and heard mention of her Imagine Library.

Funded by Parton’s charitable foundation, the Imagine Library affiliates with schemes just like the Canterbury one, in 1,700 communities across the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Since its inception in 1996 it has delivered 40 million books to more than 675,000 children.

Winter got in touch with the Children’s Centre on Canterbury who agreed it was a great idea, and once the scheme was registered with the Imagine Library they started to sign up parents.

“It just blossomed from there,” says Winter. “It’s a small thing, really, I suppose. But big things are made up of lots of small things, aren’t they? And instilling that joy of reading in children does make a tangible difference to their lives.”

Although it is the Imagine Library that sends out the books, the hard work is done on the ground in Bradford. The local schemes are billed for the books – they come at a good price, and the book plus postage amounts to a little over £2, which is a great deal.

But across the Canterbury scheme – which also includes the nearby Midland Road area and 120 looked-after children – that amounts to more than £2,500 a month Winter and her team of volunteers (it’s now a registered charity) have to find.

“We are constantly trying to get funding,” she says. “I apply for grants and to charitable trusts, and there are fundraising events being held. But it’s a constant battle.”

And there is no help from the local authority. “Councils are really struggling, we all know that. But you can easily see the impact that this has on people’s lives.”

There is some help from local organisations – Sovereign Healthcare is a large Bradford company with a strong charitable wing that donates to the project. But there could be more – and it doesn’t take much to make a difference.

“Two pounds a month is basically sponsoring a child to get books,” says Winter. “It’s just £125 to provide books for a child for a whole five years.”

Were the scheme not in operation, how would the Canterbury parents get books? Would they go into Waterstone’s in Bradford city centre? What about the library?

“There is a library near here,” says Raistrick. “But usually the shutters are down and you never know whether it’s open.”

And if it is open, it might not be for long. Bradford Council is in the process of withdrawing from running 14 libraries, including the one nearest the Canterbury estate. Invitations have gone out for community groups to bid to run them on a voluntary basis; if no bids are forthcoming, or they’re not deemed suitable, the shutters will come down on them for good.

Many of the parents admit that books, whether bought or borrowed, were not seen as a priority before the advent of the Imagine project. Raistrick says: “I’m dyslexic and was never really encouraged to read as a child. It was quite late when I started reading for myself, and I want to make sure my kids don’t do that. I want them to start reading from as young an age as possible.”

For Cavell Darrington though, whose daughters Millie, three, and Ruby, four, are both signed up to the scheme, books are vital.

She says: “I read a lot as a kid. I didn’t have toys but I had a lot of books. A neighbour used to give them to me. My favourite was The Twits by Roald Dahl, I used it as an escape. Reading pulls your mind away from all the crap.

“And for my two, it’s not just about getting good at reading for when they start school. It’s about emotional development as well. I can see how they connect with the characters in the stories, how they relate things to their own situations. My daughters had fallen out and Millie asked me if Ruby would make friends with her again, just like the sisters in a book she’d been reading.”

Winter says: “Those first years reading are crucial. If they get used to having books around from as soon as they’re born, it creates a lifelong habit for children.

“There’s something special about receiving books at the house, addressed to the children. It gives them a moment of pleasure, of enjoyment, of expectation.”

James Lawlor says: “I never read as a child but I wish I had, I can see how important it is. I want things to be different for Jaydon, I want him to have as many chances as he can.”

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