Reading Activists: on the march!  

‘I’ve read the whole library,’ said one teenager as we discussed how libraries could be made more attractive to young people.  The debate led us into a full-blown literary discussion about the merits of The Hunger Games (then sweeping through young hands) versus the Twilight series. The depth and the passion of their viewpoints were a revelation.  I never knew teenagers could be so bothered. This girl had signed up to the Reading Activists programme (then called My Voice).  This Big Lottery-funded scheme run by the Reading Agency, aims to give 11 to 19-year-olds new skills through reading and writing which might help them improve their chances in the job market (a quarter of all 16 to 24-year-olds are unemployed).

Now in its third and final year, thousands of young people have joined in.  Working in their local libraries, they have organised events around reading and writing from starting a teen book club in Gateshead Central Library through to a day-long Word Fest in Croydon including manga, hip hop Shakespeare and creative writing workshops.

The programme is running in four regions, involving 18 local authorities. More than 16,400 young people have been involved in 969 events that are mind-boggling in their variety: a fashion show (Gateshead), rapid reviews (Kent), and social reporting inspired by Charles Dickens (London).  Budding writers have been supported in the mentoring scheme through, among other things, an intense Arvon residential, and youngsters have been able to support youth-orientated campaigns including reverse riots, which aims to show the positive impact young people make to society.

The work is being run from libraries across the country.  In Kent it is delivered by future creative, a creative learning company, and this is where I came in.  Using my skills as a writer, I’ve worked with librarians and other artists to support the young people through their projects.

In the first year we worked at Thamesview School in Gravesend, which has a fantastic librarian, Vanda Fox, who, with her keen school library users, created an Alice in Wonderland storytelling event at Gravesend public library.  Students dressed up in characters from the book and entertained young children with a dramatised reading.  It was brilliant. This project had huge benefits for the pupils, not least working with unfamiliar adults on a real event that encouraged them to grow in confidence and make a positive contribution to their library, school and wider community.

In year 2 I worked alongside film maker Femi Oneyiran with students from Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate who made a music video.  During the project Femi was working on his new film It’s A Lot, which was released this autumn. He was able to give the students a rich experience of expertise, guiding them through creating a storyboard and supporting the song-writing and filming. To celebrate, we held a red carpet movie screening.  The students learned lots of new skills around project planning – designing posters, creating press releases, publicising the event on the local radio, which happens to have a base in school – as well as dealing with different departments to support the event like food technology, who helped with refreshments on the celebration event. In this hub – which was very large, consisting of about 30 young people – they were really keen readers who contributed reviews to the Reading Agency showcase pages, as well as one in Ink Pellet.  Young Bradley Hewitt was flushed with pride.

This year we’re working in a youth club in Dover.  There is a lot of musicianship in our group so we’re working with musician Ollie Seager and the plans are still taking shape.  Sarah Bottle is the community development librarian for Coast Libraries in Kent.  She said: ‘Through Reading Activists it has been wonderful to see how a little empowerment and autonomy can inspire young people to join in reading and writing activities. The emerging talent at Dover Youth HQ enthuses peers and the group is evolving as each Reading Activists session takes place.’

Claire Styles, Reading Agency’s programme manager for young people, said: ‘Reading Activists has given young people the skills and confidence they need to get ahead in life. By putting young people’s interests first, and building their confidence to take on leading roles in their community spaces, we’ve seen big successes with young people who otherwise wouldn’t engage with reading.

‘One young person who was disruptive in their library went on to become a Reading Activist, and subsequently their council representative for UK Youth Parliament.’

Fourteen-year-old Reading Activist Tom from Warrington said: ‘Reading Activists has changed my life in lots of ways. It’s definitely something I’ve enjoyed. It’s been an inspiration for me. Before being involved, I would never have dreamed I could help organise author events or interview people. I’ve learnt so many skills and I’m much better at reading, and more confident all round.’

There are still plenty of opportunities for young people to get involved. Visit