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NessBookFest reading challenge shows strength in numbers

By Barbara Henderson

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Cromarty Primary children taking part in the reading challenge on the beach.
Cromarty Primary children taking part in the reading challenge on the beach.

As many of you know, NessBookFest, the Inverness book festival, would have taken place this month. Covid robbed us of that, along with so much else. However, one event went ahead – just one!

Once again, the volunteers behind the Highland book festival invited schools to be part of an annual reading record attempt. The idea is that pupils should read for at least 20 minutes of a specified half-hour timeslot to be counted.

It began small, with just a handful of Inverness schools signed up. But soon word spread and schools further afield wanted to be part of it. Twenty-eight schools two years ago, 42 schools last year and on October 2, 2020, in excess of 100 schools from Shetland to the Borders and Arran to Aberdeen took part in NessBookFest’s reading record.

It is no mean feat to get a class of children reading simultaneously, but 14,200 children? That’s another league altogether.

It really warmed my heart to see the highlights video the festival organisers shared on social media. Children in dens, in playgrounds, on beaches and in classrooms, all engaging in reading (or in the case of younger participants, being read to).

There was talk of e-books and audiobooks and even of pupils reading to dogs – the variety was staggering. Simpson Primary School in Bathgate may have been the biggest school to take part, but tiny schools like Inverie and Elgol with their four or five pupils were just as important to generate the new record, more than doubling the number on the previous year.

Why was school engagement so high this year, I wonder. Once you think about it though, it is not surprising at all. No school trips and no visitors into schools, no festivals, no panto to take the children to. Surely it is no wonder that teachers were keen on joining into an initiative which was uplifting and positive and which created the buzz of being part of something bigger.

No concert mosh-pit for young people right now, no joint theatre experience, but by losing themselves in a book, they have found a place in a digital crowd and achieved a joint success worth shouting about.

I was engaged in my own cross-country gig the same weekend.

Like many other festivals, Wigtown Book Festival and its children’s arm, the Big Wig, have gone online. I have long wished to attend, but geography makes that very tricky. We’re at opposite ends of Scotland after all. When they asked me to be part of the festival this year for a medieval story workshop, I was thrilled – finally I’d have a reason to travel down and experience the place I’d read about in Diary of a Bookseller for myself.

But then the dreaded update – everything was to be online this year. I rushed off to buy a proper headset and before long my living room resembled Cape Canaveral with cables and speakers, props and papers. I have rarely had as much fun as I did in that hour, particularly when playing Zoom castle charades with anonymous children who may have hailed from anywhere in the country.

Yes, these restrictions have closed many doors.

But they have opened doors too – to the ends of the earth!

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