Alice Beazer speaks to the CEO of the Reading Agency, Sue Wilkinson MBE, to find out more about the wonderful work carried out by the organisation, and to learn about her own reading habits!

What is the main aim the Reading Agency?
At The Reading Agency, we tackle life’s big challenges through the proven power of reading. We work with people of all ages including those who struggle with reading and more confident readers.. Our vision is for a world where everyone is reading their way to a better life. 
We’ve done the research: regular readers for pleasure report lower levels of stress and depression, with stronger feelings of relaxation from reading than from watching television or engaging with technology-intensive activities. Reading for pleasure is also a more powerful factor in life achievement than socio-economic background. Reading should be accessible to everyone, which is why we encourage everyone to read in a way that feels right for them.
We reach 1.4 million people across the UK every year and their responses to the evaluations we carry out on our programmes prove the differences our programmes make. From stories of Reading Ahead participants whose reading confidence has improved, to the 95% of organisational givers for World Book Night 2018 who thought the books given by publishers encouraged people to read more, we can see the widespread success and impact of our work.  

How and when was The Reading Agency created? 
During the 1990s, Miranda McKearney OBE, Anne Sarrag and Debbie Hicks worked with librarians to create three small organisations which explored new solutions to social issues caused by literacy problems. They felt there was potential for partnership with public libraries around the shared agenda of helping people become confident readers. The organisations were called Well Worth Reading, LaunchPad and The Reading Partnership.
Around Miranda’s kitchen table they brainstormed new approaches and started new programmes like the Summer Reading Challenge. The work grew, and the three small organisations were merged to form a charity called The Reading Agency, launched at the British Library in 2002.
That was 16 years ago. Since then the remit and scale of the organisation has grown. We have become an Arts Council England National Portfolio holder; expanded our reach; developed partnerships with public libraries, schools, prisons, colleges, workplaces, community centres, health professionals, and other organisations and charities who share our values and ambitions and identified ways of using reading to tackle challenges like health and well-being, social isolation and loneliness. Our co-creation model means our programmes are developed and delivered with participants and with our partners. Thanks to this collaborative approach, we reach 1.4 million people across the UK every year. 

Many of your projects involve working closely with libraries- why, in your opinion, is it important to defend and promote libraries during current (very difficult) times?
Working with public libraries underpins all that we do. As the safe, trusted spaces, located in every community they ensure that everyone has access to the joys and benefits of reading. 
We acknowledge that it is a difficult time for local authorities, who are trying to balance budgets while providing vital services for communities. We work closely with our library partners to demonstrate how important libraries are, support their work to diversify the services they offer, and to deliver reading programmes across the country. 

Jojo Moyes recently helped fund QuickReads to ensure its survival- can you tell us something about the future of this fantastic project?
This year, after announcing we had been unable to secure financial support to keep the scheme going, we were stunned to receive an incredible gift from best-selling author Jojo Moyes (Me Before You), who generously offered us three years of funding for Quick Reads. The money will allow us to continue the scheme and relaunch a new and improved list of Quick Reads in 2020.
We are now in the process of commissioning a new list and a re-launch of the programme in 2020. In the meantime the backlist continues to be used by prisons, colleges, NHS hospitals, adult learning organisations, trade unions and other partners, and publishers continue to make titles available for purchase in bulk quantities to learning providers. It also remains available for anyone to borrow from public libraries.
Watch this space for more news on the 2020 list. 

Can you tell us something about the volunteering opportunities available through The Reading Agency? 
Volunteers are integral to our programmes, especially the Summer Reading Challenge. Young people aged 13-24 help out in libraries by running activities and workshops for children, talking to them about what books they’re reading and encouraging them to read more.  What we have seen from the OPM evaluation of our work with young people is that, as well as helping young people to develop their own skills and confidence, they are also powerful role models for younger children.
Our new Reading Friends programme has been developed in partnership with other charities and public libraries and with funding from the Big Lottery Fund. We have been testing the programme for the past year with local delivery partners across the UK and have just started the pilot phase.  It is all about working with volunteers and using reading to start conversations with isolated and vulnerable older people and people with dementia. 

Which book made you fall in love with reading?
An avid reader from childhood, I spent several evenings a week in Barnsley library working my way through the children’s books then pestering my parents to go to the adult library so I could access their collections as well. I loved a series of books which were about the childhoods of famous people (I only read the ones which were about women –  the young Elizabeth Barrett browning for example and the young Elizabeth Fry) and  I also read my way through a series called The Young Traveller which described two siblings going to live in another country for a year. I have ended up in a bus depot because I was too deeply immersed in my book to hear the driver tell everyone to get off or to see everyone leaving. So, given my own love of reading, what could be better than leading an organisation which wants everyone to become confident and enthusiastic readers? 

What is your favourite book(s) of all time? 
I have a list of my top 200 books and have a rule that I have to give away any fiction books I haven’t re-read. It’s a different matter for my history books though, which are allowed to stay however long I’ve had them. I find it very hard to just pick one book. I have a shelf of books written in the 1940s which I love and which includes Pamela Frankau’s The Willow Cabin and Sarah Gainham’s Night Falls on the City. If you want my favourites for this year then I think, if I really have to, I can get it down to about 6: Susan Black All That Remains;  Small Country by Gael Faye, The Weather Experiment by Peter Moore; The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker and Thomas Cromwell A Life by Diarmaid Macculloch.  However we still have 3 months to go and I have a huge pile of new books by my bed all waiting to be read. 

Which books will you be giving this Christmas? Which books will you be hoping to receive?
I have the new Ben McIntyre under the bed ready for my husband and a book on shells and stones ready for a friend who loves them. I think I will be giving David Cannadine’s Victorious Century to my eldest step son and the Pat Barker to one of my sisters. I am already stocking up for my granddaughters of course.  Cressida Cowell’s The Wizard of Once is in their pile (as you can imagine books are their main presents) and Martin Jenkin’s book on Endangered Animals. And for me? I have Kate William’s The Rival Queens on my list along with Ordinary People by Diana Evans  – always supposing of course that I don’t just succumb and get them before December.  

To find out more, https://readingagency.org.uk/