The Booker Prize Foundation undertakes important activities linking the promotion of the art of literature and improvement in literacy skills. It has collaborated with the National Literacy Trust (NLT) on two major projects.
The first NLT project saw the Foundation contribute £150,000 over the period 2012 to 2014 to enable the NLT to establish its first ‘Literacy Action Hub’ in Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough was identified as an area where literacy levels and the demand for literacy skills are amongst the lowest in the country. The aim of the project was to promote reading and increase access to books across Middlesbrough by bringing together ‘Hub’ partners at strategic, operational and community levels. The activities include involving authors associated with the Booker Prize in community and public library reading programmes. The project forged links with the public library service in Middlesbrough to plan how local volunteers can be used to deliver library reading activities in community locations, thereby increasing the library service’s capacity to become a local leader in community literacy linked literature activities. With the Foundation’s funding over a 3 year period from June 2012, the Hub created a network of organisations (private, public and voluntary sector) committed to working together over a number of years to realise sustainable improvement in literacy skills to promote reading.
The Foundation’s funding acted as a catalyst for access to other funding streams, and, the NLT has identified that The Booker Prize Foundation helped the Hub project to reach over 310,000 people in Middlesbrough. The Foundation was delighted to be instrumental in establishing what continues to be such an important model, now drawing in other funding and being replicated in other areas.
The Foundation believes that visual impairment should not be a barrier either to enjoying contemporary fiction of the highest standard or joining in the debates and discussions which surround each year’s prize. An annual donation by The Foundation enables the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to produce braille and Talking Books of each year’s prize shortlist.
Its university initiative encourages first year students at universities across the UK to appreciate and engage with the very best contemporary literary fiction. Regardless of their chosen field of study, students are given a winning or shortlisted Booker Prize novel to read and discuss followed by a visit from the author who takes part in a combination of workshops, lectures and reading groups.
The initiative was launched in 2009 and has expanded year on year. Participating universities have seen visits from: Julian Barnes; Sebastian Barry; Anna Burns; Jim Crace; Emma Donoghue; Tan Twan Eng; Anne Enright; Karen Joy Fowler; Linda Grant; Mohsin Hamid; Kazuo Ishiguro; Daisy Johnson; Lloyd Jones; Andrea Levy; Deborah Levy; Stephen Kelman; Hilary Mantel; Yann Martel; Graeme Macrae Burnett; Hisham Matar; Simon Mawer; Ian McEwan; A.D. Miller; Fiona Mozley; D.B.C. Pierre; Robin Robertson; Ali Smith and Sarah Waters. The scheme is jointly funded by the Booker Prize Foundation and the individual universities.
The Foundation has worked with libraries across Britain for many years, promoting the prize, especially the shortlist, to library users. In recent years school sixth forms have become involved in our libraries project.
The second, ongoing project the Foundation undertook with the NLT is known as Books Unlocked. Its aim is to promote greater engagement with literature, increased awareness of the importance of literacy, improved self-esteem, empathy and an enhanced sense of social inclusion.
Established with the Foundation’s funding in 2012, it involves reading in prisons in conjunction with prison libraries. Focussed on novels from The Booker Prize shortlists, it has forged a link with National Prison Radio enabling prisoners throughout UK to hear and read outstanding contemporary fiction. In 2014 the Foundation also supported the commissioning of a new work by Roddy Doyle in the Quick Reads series, which seeks to engage and encourage readers to improve literacy skills. The new title, Dead Man Talking, was introduced into the 2014/15 Books Unlocked project to encourage participation by emergent or lapsed readers, so increasing the potential for participation. Another important development in 2014 was the introduction of a community model (since adopted elsewhere) by Staffordshire Prisons Library Service. Dead Man Talking was read in 11 selected settings in Staffordshire, including prisons, young offender institutions, secondary schools and public library groups. The prison librarians facilitated the sharing of responses.
Although each year’s Booker Prize is all about the here and now, with the judges identifying what is for them the best novel of the year, the Foundation is well aware of the importance which is attached to the books and authors which have been recognised by the annual prize throughout all the years since it started (as the Booker Prize) in 1968. A partnership with the Life Stories sound archive at the British Library has seen the Foundation give financial support for the recording of interviews with authors who have been associated with The Booker Prizes as part of the Library’s ‘Authors’ Lives’ project.
The Booker Prize Foundation’s support is important to literary awards other than its own prizes. It has offered guidance in the setting up in 2007 of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; given financial support to the internationally acclaimed Caine Prize for African Writing; and provided vital core funding to the less high profile, but nonetheless powerful, Asham Award for women’s short story writing. It also supports events linked to The Booker Prizes at a number of literary festivals, in recent years notably at Hay, Cheltenham and Edinburgh.