If I can just get one kid to pick up a book, or give school another chance when otherwise they wouldn’t, then I feel that it was all worth it. ~Andy McNab
The winner of the inaugural Ruth Rendell Award for the writer who has done the most to raise literacy levels in the UK, tells us why adult literacy is a cause very close to his heart.
1. Did you have any idea you were in contention for the Ruth Rendell Award, or was it a complete surprise? What does it mean to you to win it?
The first I knew was when I was told I was on the shortlist. I felt incredibly proud and also grateful to all the people who had suggested and supported my nomination. I never for a second thought I’d win, though. It was enough to just be nominated.
2. Why is literacy a cause so close to your heart, and in what ways do you see yourself as most effective in championing it?
It is something I feel really passionate about because it changed my life. As a child I was in and out of schools, never engaging and never switching on and bothering. When I joined the army (straight out of Borstal as a nearly 17-year-old) I had the reading age of an 11-year-old. It was the army that taught me to read and write, and just as importantly, showed me the power of education as an enabler, an enhancer and a launchpad. I go into schools, workplaces and prisons as often as I can and the message I want to give them is simple: You just need to switch on and start taking advantage of all the educational opportunities being offered to you. What education does is give you knowledge, and knowledge is power, power to make your own decisions and do what you want with your life. Frankly if I can do it, anyone can.
3. Would you share with us a recent project or a case history you have been involved with which has particularly gladdened your heart?
There are plenty of these. But one that has stuck with me was going to a youth referral centre in Yorkshire, for kids who had been excluded from mainstream schools and to a great extent been ‘given up on’. They had also pretty much given up on themselves. They weren’t the easiest audience, that’s for sure, but I’ve been there, I know what they are fighting against, I know what support they need and aren’t getting at home or in the community, and perhaps no one had talked to them before who had stood in their shoes. So we chatted about a few war stories, but also about my experiences of education and what reading has allowed me to do with my life, I signed a few books for them and left. A few weeks later I had an email to say that they had started their own book club. Not set up by the staff, but instigated and organised by them. That really made it all worthwhile. But the thing is, it’s not a numbers game, I’m not in it to convert the masses. If I can just get one kid to pick up a book, or give school another chance when otherwise they wouldn’t, then I feel that it was all worth it.
4. What particular projects will you be championing this year, and where will your work take you?
I’m off to the North Pole quite soon. I did a 100 nautical mile trek to the South Pole last year to raise money and awareness for the Reading Agency, and I think I’ve got the polar bug. Either that or it’s messed with my mind! That will be taking up a fair bit of the first part of this year, and then there is a bit of writing to do (my editor will start hyperventilating at that – he’s expecting the book to be finished by Easter!). By the end of the summer I hope to be back on the road doing a bit of promotion for the book but equally importantly getting back to schools, juvenile detention centres, prisons etc. to start bending some ears again. I am an ambassador for the Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead programme (formerly Six Book Challenge) and I do as much as I can getting into places on their behalf as that is a fantastic way to get people engaged. For people who have never had any kind of accreditation, fulfilling the requirements to receive that kind of certificate means a lot. And it really can change lives.
5. ALCS News is read by a broad spectrum of published writers: is there anything we can all do as writers to help to support the cause of adult literacy?
I think supporting organisations such as the Reading Agency and the National Literacy Trust with their campaigns is incredibly important. We are in a privileged position as authors. One practical way is the Quick Reads series, which are short (around 15,000 words) novellas or non-fiction books written for ‘emerging’ readers. There is a specific style sheet and strict rules on how to write, and the hope is that they are a platform for readers to then go on and read more challenging works. That is definitely something worth getting involved with if the opportunity arises. Then of course there is supporting places like local libraries and also local independent bookshops. We have influence and the ability to engage people. Let’s use it!