Children don’t read enough. They have too little experience of story – through books, theatre or whatever. It leads to diminished imaginative capacity, short concentration span, low performance across the curriculum and lots of other alarming outcomes. It’s a hideous form of deprivation.
OK, so I’m generalising. Of course such doom and gloom doesn’t apply to every child but it’s worth remembering that a study last week found that 13% of British homes are completely bookless. That means not even a Bible, Koran, cookery book or copy of the Yellow Pages. And, presumably there’s another percentage which has hardly any – fewer than ten, say – books. So there really is a problem.
Enter the gloriously eclectic Imagine – a festival at the South Bank Centre next month. For 10 days from February 9-19 there will be child-centred theatre, story telling, music and activities with the emphasis firmly on story. The 2017 programme includes Michael Morpurgo’s beloved tale Why The Whales Came by multi-award-winning performer and storyteller Danyah Miller and a storytelling workshop inspired by Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. Then there’s Ready Steady GO! which is an interactive theatre show for 3-9 year olds allowing the audience to create, decorate and race cardboard cars. Neverland, is a new immersive show for 1-3 year olds and their parents which uses 360 video projections, music and performance to tell the story of a child’s imagination. Acclaimed Swedish Theatre Company Pero Theatre is bringing Aston’s Stones, a touching story for 3-6 year olds exploring empathy. And world-renowned Danish theatre company Gruppe 38 is presenting an interactive theatre piece called Hans Christian, You Must Be an Angel for over 8s.
There’s a great deal going on and more than half of the Imagine programme is free, with a range of no-cost activities for the whole family to enjoy on each day of the festival. Visitors can join in a free pedal-powered screening of The Little Mermaid with prizes for the best underwater-themed costumes, for example. There will be an inclusive dance workshop led by Candoco Dance Company, an afternoon of family fun at the PJ Party and free poetry readings in the Poetry Library. Each day of the festival will end with a bedtime story in the Clore Ballroom.
It’s terrific stuff and I know thousands of families will, as usual, flock to the South Bank to take part. The trouble is – and it gives me no pleasure to sound a negative note – is that almost all the attendees will be from families in which stories, narratives books and theatre are already valued and a key prat of everyday life. That’s why they will go. However hard Imagine’s organisers try to be “inclusive” it is very unlikely that will attract many of those “hard-to-reach” children as they are gently termed these days. Families which own no – or few books – are pretty unlikely to turn up at the Festival Hall for an afternoon of drawing and story with Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell or to buy tickets for Neverland.
I’d really like to be wrong and oh how I wish I had a solution – but, of course, Imagine is splendid news for all the lucky children who will be there.
Neverland. Credit: SBC