Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been a staunch supporter of the book trade and arts overall since she began her role in 2014. After first launching a reading challenge for primary schools with Scottish BookTrust in 2016, this year the initiative is expanding to include secondary schools. With much of her days spent dealing with governmental issues, the First Minister still finds time to participate in the book trade, from visiting schools and libraries to interviewing high-profile authors and sharing book recommendations on Twitter. We spoke to her about her involvement in the trade, Brexit and her reading tastes.
Why did you launch the First Minister’s Reading Challenge, and how is it going?
I launched the First Minister’s Reading Challenge to encourage children to read for pleasure and instil a love of reading from an early age. Reading is a true passion of mine but it’s also essential for learning. Raising attainment is a key commitment of the Scottish government’s work, and reading for pleasure can play a huge role in improving children’s attainment in a fun way.
I am incredibly proud of the success the Reading Challenge has had. One of our priorities in setting it up was to ensure it was as flexible as possible so schools can tailor it to suit their needs and interests, and I love hearing about the many creative ways in which they have shaped it. I’m so impressed with the enthusiasm and hard work both children and teachers put into the challenge.
Almost 1,000 primary schools across every local authority in Scotland participated last year. One of my very favourite events I attend as First Minister is the annual Reading Challenge celebration day at the end of the school year—there aren’t many greater feelings than talking to hundreds of young people about our shared love of books.
Why have you decided to launch the challenge in secondary schools?
The Reading Challenge received really positive feedback when it launched in primary schools, so we wanted to build on that success and ensure as many young people as possible could take part. When we set up the programme we also appointed an advisory group to ensure it was achieving its aims. They recommended the challenge should be expanded to secondary schools, so we piloted it in six schools, where it was well received. As a result of the pilots, we decided to roll it out to all secondary schools to encourage young people to continue reading for pleasure as they progress through their education from primary into secondary school.
What is the status of the Scottish library sector at the moment?
There are challenges in the library sector but it’s important to highlight that Scotland’s public library services are doing some outstanding work, which has rightly been recognised beyond Scotland. For example, Glasgow Libraries was recognised with a prestigious 2018 CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award for its inspirational work supporting people in Glasgow. It developed a project in partnership with Glasgow Central Citizens Advice Bureau which used the city’s Mitchell Library to provide counselling, support and advice to people affected by homelessness.
We recognise how important libraries are to communities and how essential the many services they offer are. Since 2014, the Scottish government has provided more than £4.7m to support the development and delivery of Scotland’s first national public library strategy and invest in innovative ways for people to use public libraries. We also support non-national libraries through the Scottish Library & Information Council, and continue to invest £450,000 in the Public Library Improvement Fund.
If we are to encourage a love of reading, we can’t overlook school provision. Last September we published a strategy which aims to ensure that every child in Scotland will have access to a school library—the first of its kind in the UK. Vibrant Libraries, Thriving Schools: A National Strategy for School Libraries in Scotland 2018–2023 will help support the improvement of literacy and numeracy, boost attainment across the curriculum, and enable opportunities for family learning.
Could you outline your Involvement in the Scottish book scene?
We are so lucky to have such a wealth of literature talent in Scotland, and I like to try and champion Scottish writers—past and present—when I can. I’ll always make a point of recommending the latest books I’ve read on Twitter and I’ve received some great suggestions on there too. I’ve actually found Twitter has become an unofficial book club!
You’ve participated in a number of book events, which have been your favourites?
We have some of the world’s best book festivals and events in Scotland, and I’m so lucky many of them have allowed me to indulge my love of reading by inviting me to take part—often letting me suggest the author to be interviewed, which is a dream come true! I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Val McDermid, Jackie Kay, Ali Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Edinburgh International Book Festival—they were definite highlights. I also interviewed Maggie O’Farrell at Stirling Castle for Book Week Scotland, and last April I did an event with Louise Welsh in Beijing. I’d happily talk with authors every day if I could!
How has reading contributed to your wider identity?
Reading helps you see the world from a different perspective. It develops an empathy and understanding of things you might not otherwise experience in your day to day life. From an early age, reading fiction has taught me about different people, circumstances and parts of the world—and it continues to do so even now.
What are your thoughts on the Scottish publishing scene and the impact it has internationally and nationally?
We have a lot of great independent publishers in Scotland, and I’ve been discovering new authors through them. Charco Press and 404 Ink are particularly inspiring and doing some really exciting things.
The Scottish Government funds organisations which support and promote writing—like Scottish BookTrust, which supports organisations to provide first-class development opportunities for Scottish writers. Creative Scotland also supports the publishing sector across Scotland and beyond, including through organisations like Publishing Scotland, whose plans include the further development of its highly successful international programme and continued representation of Scottish publishers at trade fairs domestically and internationally.
Our EXPO funding also supports major literary events like the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, which is integral in promoting Scottish talent. Through all of this our aim is to support Scottish and international authors and storytellers, to celebrate and showcase their creative writing to new audiences of all ages in Scotland and abroad.
Why do you think the international outlook of Scottish publishers is important in this day and age?
I am truly proud of the outward-looking country Scotland is—it’s ingrained in our culture and it’s a central part of my politics and my government’s policies. You can see that in the work of our authors and publishers. As a leader, I think it’s essential to ensure you are constantly questioning and challenging yourself and I can’t think of a better way to do that than to read. I’ve said many times that books are integral in helping to open minds to other cultures and ways of thinking, and challenge preconceptions, all of which are particularly important in such a turbulent time in world politics.
What effect will Brexit have on the book trade?
The people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, so it is entirely understandable that many in business, including the books and publishing sector, are concerned about the current uncertainty around Brexit, particularly with the ending of single market membership and freedom of movement.
It’s not just business which will be adversely affected by Brexit. It will affect our main literary events, like the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which has previously said it will struggle to recruit staff and is having to make contingency plans to cancel some projects due to the uncertainty of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. The threat of Brexit on the book trade should not be underestimated. No industry is protected from the damage it will cause which is why I and my government will continue to fight for Scotland’s interests to be protected.
Who are your literary inspirations, and which books are you looking forward to in 2019?
I have so many literary inspirations, it’s difficult to single out just one. However, re-reading Muriel Spark last year, as part of her centenary celebration, reminded me just how inspiring she is—intellectually, as a storyteller, entertainer, and as a literary commentator on some of the biggest moral and political questions of our times.
The book I am most looking forward to is Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.