Parents at a loss to find activities for their children during COVID lockdowns can encourage them to escape into a book. New research shows how reading books can help young people escape from their sources of stress, find role models in characters and develop empathy.
A lot has been written about the role of regular reading in building literacy skills. Now, my findings from a BUPA Foundation-funded research project on school libraries and well-being provide insight into how books and reading can help young people deal with the well-being challenges of the pandemic.
The findings suggest books can not only be a great escape during this challenging time, but also offer further well-being benefits.
Reading-based interventions have been used successfully to support children who have experienced trauma. In a recent study, around 60% of young people agreed reading during lockdown helped them to feel better.
My research project confirms young people can use books and reading to escape the pressures of their lives. As one student said:
“If you don’t know what to do, or if you’re sad, or if you’re angry, or whatever the case is, you can just read, and it feels like you’re just escaping the world. And you’re going into the world of the book, and you’re just there.”
Connecting with role models in characters
If you enjoy reading, there’s a good chance you have favourite characters who hold a place in your heart. The project found young people can find role models in books to look up to and emulate, which can help to build their resilience. A student described her experience reading the autobiography of young Pakistani activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai:
“I thought it was incredible how no matter what happened to her, even after her horrific injury, she just came back and kept fighting for what she believed in.”
Other research has linked connecting with characters to mental health recovery, partly due to its power to instil hope in the reader. Building relationships with characters in books can also be used as “self-soothing” to decrease anxiety.
Young people also celebrate their affection for book characters in social networking spaces such as TikTok, where they share their enjoyment of the book journey with favourite characters.
Developing empathy through reading
Research supports the idea that reading books builds empathy. Reading fiction can improve social cognition, which helps us to connect with others across our lives. My previous work with adult readers found some people read for the pleasure they get from developing insight into other perspectives, to “see the world through other people’s eyes”.
In the project, a student described how reading books helped him to understand others’ perspectives. He explained:
“You get to see in their input, and then you go, ‘Well, actually, they’re not the bad guy. Really, the other guy is, it’s just their point of view makes it seem like the other guy’s the bad guy.’ ”
Your teacher librarian can help you
If parents are not sure what books will best suit their child’s often ever-changing interests and needs, they can get in touch with the teacher librarians at school. Even during lockdown they are usually only an email or a phone call away.
The library managers in the project played an important role in connecting students with books that could lead to enjoyable and positive reading experiences.
For example, a library manager explained that she specifically built her collection to make sure the books provided role model characters for her students. She based her recommendations to students on their interests as well as their needs. To support a student who had a challenging home life, she said,
“I recommend quite a number of books where we’ve got a very strong female character […] in a number of adverse situations and where she navigates her way through those.”
In challenging times, many parents are looking for an activity that supports their children’s well-being. And as reading is also linked to strong literacy benefits, connecting them with books, with the support of their teacher librarian, is a smart way to go.
As tree scientist, I am fascinated by the magnificent biology of trees. I also find it enthralling and encouraging that trees are being appreciated by writers around the world right now.
Three fresh books (chosen from a wider field of titles on the topic) exemplify how trees can be written about as more than just background or an incidental part of a landscape, but as integral to meaning.
My Forests: Travel with Trees by Janine Burke, The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Tree Story, a collection curated by Charlotte Day and Brian Martin — are mixed in style and content. But all make clear the close relationships between people and trees and the vital importance of those connections.
It is not surprising that at a time of significant climate change, where natural ecosystems around the world are being devastated and after 18 months of a global pandemic, books on trees are proving popular.
There is an air of desperation in these three titles. Things are changing fast, trees and forests grow slowly, we are wasting time.
Books about trees are published every year. Some are beautifully illustrated with photos or hand-drawn images of special trees in large coffee table formats. Some, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, have trees and forests as characters. Tolkien told a fan that his magnificent Ents were “either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else were folk who slowly took the likeness of trees owing to their inborn love of trees”.
Tolkien’s writing, including a story collection called Tree and Leaf, reminds us of the differences between tree time and human time — we humans are hasty folk. This is something I dwell upon often.
The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton was one of the first books I can recall reading where a tree played a major role and it helped set me on a path of lifelong reading and interest in botany.
That childhood favourite connects to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which draws together a disparate fictional band of tree protectors. After his book became a hit, Powers recommended 26 other titles for tree-loving readers.
This library of tree books has served a wide and varied readership well and sustained those of us who despair at the wholesale clearing of forests and trees in our cities and suburbs.
In most Australian cities we are losing trees and canopy cover at a rate of about 1-1.5% per year. I’m still saddened by the loss of a lemon scented gum (Corymbia citriodora) that grew at the city end of the Tullamarine Freeway in Melbourne. I miss its shade in summer but also the delicious scent that wafted through the car window at certain times of the year.
In October last year, protesters mourned a sacred 350-year-old Djab Wurrung Directions Tree, cut down along Victoria’s Western Highway.
There has been a growing disconnect between people and trees and vegetated spaces, particularly for those living in cities. Many people have become so focused on urban survival they have become distanced from the essential and intimate dependence that human beings have on plant life.
Earth as we know it, and the lifeforms it sustains, depend upon and have been shaped by plants and their evolution. Human beings can only survive on our planet because of the ecosystems made possible by plants and trees. If these systems are put in jeopardy because people fail to appreciate the importance of plants, then entire ecosystems are put in peril with profound consequences for humankind.
Climate change is giving us a glimpse of how these important relationships are affected by bushfires, stronger winds from unusual directions and more frequent storms with heavy rainfall that can lead of the loss of grand old trees that have stood as silent sentinels for decades and centuries.
All plants in an ecosystem are important to its function, but the large size and long lives of trees explain why they are often focused upon as representatives of their communities. Their size makes them obvious and contributes to the ambience of any landscape, but can also inspire a sense of awe and in some urban-dwellers, fear.
Their long life spans provide a sense of certainly and continuity in uncertain times of rapid change — their presence can link several human generations, when other connections have been lost. They also provide a tangible prospect, if they are left alone or are properly managed, for links to future generations. All of this can be very reassuring for people who feel vulnerable and oppressed by rapid change.
All three of the new books selected tend to anthropomorphise trees and aspects of their biology, attributing to them distinctly human qualities. Sometimes they are described by a mood, such as an upbeat growth in spring or by a willingness to share resources with other species. While this may be annoying to some scientists, it allows many people to relate or even identify more closely with trees, especially when there is complex biology and ecology involved.
Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling 2016 book The Hidden life of Trees, took readers on a voyage of discovery with a blend of science, philosophy and spiritualism.
Like that first book, his latest — The Heartbeat of Trees — can be enthralling and annoying almost in equal measure. But the author clearly relates the importance of using our senses when we are in forests to explore the complexity of tree biology. By doing so not only will we achieve a better understanding of trees, but also of ourselves and the importance of trees and vegetated places for human development, our physical and mental health and the sustainability of our societies. It will surely resonate strongly with readers after the pandemic lockdowns of the past year, which saw people flocking to parks, gardens and forests.
A personal and professional travelogue woven together by trees is the framework of My Forests: Travel with Trees, by Janine Burke. As an art historian Burke weaves her own experiences with trees with those depicted in paintings, ancient mythology and historic and literary texts.
It is a set of idiosyncratic connections that may not resonate with all readers, but the strong cultural links between trees and ancient human history are undeniable. The reader can learn a great deal about people but relatively little about trees themselves — they remain illusory, almost furtive.
Tree Story, curated by Charlotte Day and Brian Martin catalogues a recent exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art. It is an eclectic mix of style, content, form and media. Some of the images and text do not do justice to the works, but the book does provide a permanent and curated record of what was offered.
The book makes it clear that people see and connect with trees in different, varied and curious ways. While the works may look at the past, there are clear implications, messages and lessons for the present and importantly for the future. Indigenous voices and perspectives speak loudly, longingly and desperately. The works plead that we cannot go on treating trees in this way: for our own health and sustainable futures we must recognise that ultimately all earthly life is essentially one.
Strengthening the bond
The three books, in their own and different ways, challenge how we think about and interact with trees. They broaden the relationship that exists between trees and people and encourage an active and positive interaction. There is a unifying theme that healthy relationships will benefit both people and trees.
Authors and artists recount their personal stories of trees benefiting their own physical and mental well-being. Research shows that trees along streets and roadways have a traffic calming effect that results in slower speeds and more courteous driver behaviour. In a huge study of women’s health in the United States it was shown that green spaces (parks, gardens and trees) significantly correlated with many aspects of improved health.
Plants and trees are not passive participants in ecosystems. They actively contribute to the complexity, resilience and survival of these systems and while the environment affects and changes them, they also modify the environment. Shade from trees cools the understorey and soils, making it possible for a more diverse range of species to thrive. Shade on creeks and rivers helps native fish survive and breed.
These books highlight the complexity of the relationships that many of us have with trees – relationships that can bring change to both us and the trees.
Wohlleben asks that we use all our senses when we interact with trees and forests. There is more going on than meets the eye. Burke reminds us that culture and tradition influence our perception of trees and forests. The works exhibited in Tree Story help us to explore these influences and their meaning.
We are far from knowing all there is to know about plants, trees, forests and ecosystems. The scientific approach is but one method of questing for truth. The open-minded approaches explored in these books could stimulate new discoveries.
The books remind us of the pace of change being wrought on trees and forests by climate change and that the stakes, if we don’t reverse this decline, are very high.
Scientists should never dismiss what they don’t understand. Neither should readers. As climates change, the presence of trees and green space will be recognised as a priority. Trees will be a part of our futures no matter where we live because we cannot have economically viable, environmentally sustainable or liveable places without them.
Review: John Bell, Some Achieve Greatness: Lessons on leadership from Shakespeare and one of his greatest admirers. With illustrations by Cathy Wilcox. Pantera Press, 2021.
John Bell’s new book Some Achieve Greatness is but the latest to use Shakespeare’s works to inspire and teach would-be leaders in the modern world.
In 2000 alone, two books appeared aimed at business management students: Power Plays and Shakespeare on Management. In perhaps the best of the genre, Shakespeare the Coach (2004), Australian Olympian, medical graduate, politician and hockey coach Ric Charlesworth applies the dramatist’s words to the sporting arena and people management. Naturally he devotes a chapter to motivational leadership, headed “Purpose and Persuasion”.
The new book from Bell, the actor and renowned theatre director, is both more, and less, than these. More, because it is as much a pithy “business autobiography” as instructional manual, from a man who has devoted his career to bringing Shakespeare to Australian audiences.
Bell has not only performed most of the major characters, learning their words by heart and internalising the subtleties and plural meanings, he has also directed the plays. He has shown business acumen in administering two successful theatre companies, co-founding Nimrod in 1970 (dedicated to producing Australian plays as well as Shakespeare’s), and of course, the Bell Shakespeare Company.
His name has become almost synonymous with the bard’s in our cultural life through this company and a series of scholarly editions of plays named after him. He also authored a substantial book titled On Shakespeare (2011), full of insights: the fruit of a practised actor-director’s rich and detailed experience.
And, as one of Australia’s Living Treasures, Bell has cemented his reputation by “dying” hundreds of times onstage in Shakespearean roles — like Cleopatra, he “hath such a celerity in dying”.
Reflecting on his multifaceted career, Bell applies his accumulated knowledge to recount his own leadership style as it evolved through experience. Sage advice is offered, enlivened and illustrated with pertinent quotations from speeches, which no doubt Bell can enviably recite from memory.
The book offers lessons gleaned from a Shakespeare who is seen as a natural “collaborator never a one-man band”. We find chapters on “Courage, or how to be a leader in times of crisis”, “Decisiveness, timing and tough decisions”, “Charisma, confidence and humility”, and other virtues such as integrity and humanity. These are set against dangerous managerial vices like ambition, arrogance and entitlement.
Along the way are sprinkled inspirational quotations about leadership from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy and Michelle Obama, alongside cautionary reminders of a less savoury, more recent American president .
However, Bell offers less than Charlesworth (my benchmark), in that the latter dwells more on applicable quotations than characters and dramatic context. This allows him to skirt the problem Bell faces: there are, in fact, no unflawed or ideal leaders in Shakespeare.
Although Bell ranges across the complete works, his major examples of good or bad leadership are surprisingly few in number. All are, to some extent flawed. Bell readily concedes this, since their failures are instructive. The figure who recurs in most detail is Henry V. For all his faults as a ruthless, likely war criminal, he seems to come closest to Bell’s ideal leader, at least in his rousing speeches.
Julius Caesar and Brutus emerge as ambiguous and lacking in strategical competence. Antony for all his brilliant oratory is too much the playboy who believes in his own “celebrity”, while King Lear is easy prey for sycophants and flatterers.
Naturally enough, Richard III and Macbeth as leaders are definitely not to be emulated, though there is somehow a touch of unintended humour in the homily-like way Bell warns us against using murder as a career move:
Watching the downfall of the Macbeths we have to ask ourselves: What am I prepared to pay to make it to the top of the pile? Is the reward worth my sanity, my self-respect, my relationship, my reputation, my friendships?
Who would answer yes to such a piously phrased question?
What about the women?
We have to wait for the final chapter before some women make an appearance, exemplifying such admirable qualities as adaptability and negotiating skills (Portia), integrity and plain-speaking honesty (Cordelia), and playfulness (Rosalind), although Bell sees their agency as qualified in a man’s world:
In the Comedies, women find a voice and authority by adopting a false male persona and using their wit, charm and female tenderness to lead the menfolk to an awareness of their follies and a better understanding of successful male/female coexistence and interdependence.
This book is very readable and can probably be devoured in a single sitting, though Bell might prefer us to take our time and savour at leisure the lessons taught. It also features witty and pertinent cartoons by Cathy Wilcox.
We know COVID-19 and its associated changes to our work and learning habits caused a marked increase in the use of technology. More surprising, perhaps, is the impact these lockdowns have had on children’s and young people’s self-reported enjoyment of books and the overall positive impact this has made on reading rates.
A recent survey from the UK, for example, showed children were spending 34.5% more time reading than they were before lockdown. Their perceived enjoyment of reading had increased by 8%.
This seems logical — locked down with less to do means more time for other activities. But with the increase in other distractions, especially the digital kind, it’s encouraging to see many young people still gravitate towards reading, given the opportunity.
In general, most children still read physical books, but the survey showed a small increase in their use of audiobooks and digital devices. Audiobooks were particularly popular with boys and contributed to an overall increase in their interest in reading and writing.
There is no doubt, however, that digital texts are becoming more commonplace in schools, and there is a growing body of research exploring their influence. One such study showed no direct relationship between how often teachers used digital reading instruction and activities and their students’ actual engagement or reading confidence.
What the study did show, however, was a direct, negative relationship between how often teachers had their students use computers or tablets for reading activities and how much the students liked reading.
These findings suggest physical books continue to play a critical role in fostering young children’s love of reading and learning. At a time when technology is clearly influencing reading habits and teaching practices, can we really expect the love of reading to be fostered by sitting alone on a digital device?
The limitations of eBooks
In schools and homes we often see eBooks being used to support independent reading. As teachers and parents, we have started to rely on these tools to support our emerging readers. But over-reliance has meant losing the potential for engagement and conversation.
Studies have shown children perform better when reading with an adult, and this is often a richer experience with a print book than with an eBook.
Reading when we’re young is still a communal experience. My own seven-year-old is at the age when reading to me at night is a crucial part of his development as a reader. Relying on him to sit on his own and read from his device will never work.
This is not to deny the usefulness of eBooks. Their adoption in schools has been led by the desire to better support learners. They provide teachers with an extensive library of titles and features designed to entice and motivate.
These embedded features provide new ways of helping children decode language and also offer vital support for children with special needs, such as dyslexia and impaired vision.
Real books may lack these interactive features but their visual and tactile nature plays a strong role in engaging the reader.
Because books exist in the same physical space as their readers — scattered and found objects rather than apps on a screen — they introduce the role of choice, one of the big influences on engagement.
While generally a reluctant reader, my child loves to flick through books and look at the pictures. He might not necessarily read every word, but books such as Dog Man, Captain Underpants and Bad Guys have provided a fantastic opportunity to engage him.
We have even managed to link reading with our children’s favourite online games. Their Minecraft manuals have become valuable resources and are even taken to friends’ houses on play-dates.
Many of our books are not in the best shape, evidence they are lived with and loved. Second hand shops and school fairs provide a cheap option for adding variety, and libraries are also valuable for supplementing the home shelves.
Keeping it real
But cuts to library budgets and collections, such as have been announced recently by Wellington Central Library, threaten to further undermine the role of the physical book in children’s lives.
School libraries, too, are often the first space to be sacrificed when budgets and space restrictions tighten. This encourages the uptake of digital books and further reinforces a reliance on technological alternatives.