During my early work days, I
attended a course to become a Reading Friend. This was held at a local sports
In order to get to the session, we had to notify the front desk and then turn abruptly up an unexpected stairwell. As I ascended, the lights became more artificial and the smell of sweat and chlorine was smothered by lavender carpet cleaner.
When I arrived at the necessary floor, I had to cross a long thin burgundy walkway with windows on the left, looking down on the swimming pool below. Every now and then, I turned to observe a hasty splash of some childish swimmer, hoping to startle an adult who was focusing hard on her butterfly stroke.
At the end of the walkway was a conference room with white tables, at the centre of which sat a man and a woman amid an assortment of board books and picture books. The most important book of all was at the centre: the one in which we signed our attendance.
Throughout the two-hour session, the man and woman held up different books and showed how to coax the interest of a young child, the importance of asking questions about what they think might happen next and drawing attention to the background detail of the consistently impressive illustration. Then, when they both ran out of puff, the man and the woman told us to turn to the person immediately to the right of us and practice. Pretending that another grown-up was a baby was immensely weird until you had to be the baby yourself. I had fun with it until I heard myself actually say, ‘goo-goo ga-ga’.
Then after a quick and energetic feedback, the man and woman brought out the pièce de résistance: a pink fluffy board book. This was to show the tactile nature of reading with babies and how it helps early development. We all got to stroke the woolly cover and flip a couple of fabric pages before hastily passing it on, fearing that a thorough inspection might seem like outright fetishism. It was just a shame that the dyslexic teenagers I would be dealing with wouldn’t benefit from such soft tomes.
Once everyone had tickled their fingertips with book fluff, the man and woman moved the precious touchy-feely book out of sight, never to be used again. When I left the session, I glanced under the table and noticed a thin metal case between them, the kind you expect to carry precious cargo. I imagined the book inside, strawberry-scented wool and feathers pressed between two pads of protective foam.
Years later, after working in libraries, I learnt more about tactile baby books and how well they last. A metal case isn't nearly enough.