• Peter Biggs chairs the New Zealand Book Council, New Zealand's only national agency dedicated to boosting reading.
The Wellington-based poet, Jenny Bornholdt, is one of my favourite writers. In her poem, A Long Way from Home, she writes about her childhood memories of reading: " ... Yes. I slide and remember reading. How, as a child, books were the lens through which I eyed the muddy track to adulthood."
Books and reading open up new worlds and experiences, particularly for children and young adults. They also define and deepen our sense of ourselves.
Unfortunately, almost 400,000 Kiwis (about 10 per cent of us) are not taking the opportunity to use books as a lens through which to view and shape their understanding of the world and themselves. Book Council research last year showed almost half a million Kiwis were not reading, mainly boys and young men, meaning they were unable to function at work and in everyday life.
As well, this indicates many children are not being read to and do not see adults reading around them. This is a national tragedy.
What is also deeply concerning is that, last December, the latest international literacy rankings for children showed New Zealand had dropped eight places, to 33rd of 50 countries, according to the Progress In International Reading and Literacy Study. New Zealand led the world in literacy rankings in 1970.
These days, we are told there are crises everywhere in our country - in housing, child poverty, obesity, the road toll, mental health, to name a few. Strangely, the media has been silent on the reading crisis, despite the results of the Book Council research and the latest International Reading and Literacy Study.
So why does reading matter? And why is the Book Council determined to lead the way in building a nation of readers through initiatives such as Read to Succeed and Writers in Schools?
Firstly, research has shown reading is the most effective poverty buster around. The OCED considers reading for pleasure to be the most important indicator for future success as a child. In fact, research indicates parental involvement in a child's reading and literacy is a more powerful influence on the child's future than other family background variables, such as social class, family size and level of parental education.
Secondly, the lack of a reading culture in a family or community is proven to lead directly to disadvantage and risky behaviour, including truancy, exclusion from school, reduced employment opportunities, increased health risks and a greatly increased risk of involvement in crime later in life.
For example, in our prisons, a recent screening for literacy and numeracy skills indicated that up 90 per cent of prisoners may have literacy skills below those needed to participate fully in our knowledge society.
Additional data reveals 40 per cent of us in Aotearoa New Zealand are functionally illiterate - that is, not able to read at the level needed for day-to-day living.
Lastly, recent scientific studies show reading builds empathy, a crucial life skill. According to the studies, reading fiction is a "social experience", compelling us to move beyond ourselves and enter and understand the consciousness and world view of the characters in the book. This enhances our empathetic ability, a must-have skill in navigating the complex social relationships which make up our modern lives.
Last year, Prime Minister and Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage Jacinda Ardern, said she was in a competition to make "New Zealand the best place in the world to be a kid".
She has also urged us to be a kinder and more generous nation. The most powerful way to achieve both goals is for more of us to read more to our kids and make sure that they regularly get their hands on, and have their imaginations and lives opened up by, a book.