Staffordshire Library Service, which runs the Six Book Challenge with all seven prisons in the county, was interested to see that the Quick Reads title by Bernadine Evaristo, Hello Mum, with its estates, postcode gangs and knives, was clearly a hit with young men (all between 15 and 18) at HMYOI Werrington. One took it to the librarian and declared "This is the best book ever, Miss. Everyone should read this."
The library service came up with the idea of sharing the book more widely than just one prison and, working with our project manager David Kendall, introduced Hello Mum to an over 50s reading group in HMP Featherstone and to groups outside prison. These were adult and teenage groups in Codsall public library and another group at Codsall High School. All were asked to share their views on the book.
Views on Hello Mum
Older prisoners took the opportunity very seriously: "It was hard for us to read this book and not worry about how our opinion would affect the younger lads at HMYOI Werrington reading the novel."
A teenage reader at Codsall High School commented: "This book is good for people who have got into trouble with the police. The groups at Werrington and Featherstone may have grown up in a similar situation to Jerome."
A member of the Codsall Library Adult Reading Group found it a revelation: "Before reading this I would have branded all kids in gangs as thugs. I see now that there are stories behind the violence. I also hope that this will have a huge influence on the young offenders at HMYOI Werrington reading it and bring home the truth of the story, which is that crime doesn't pay."
But one of the young offenders concluded: "The influence of the gang lifestyle will always corrupt those who have no better role-models."
Using the same source material all five groups were able to discuss the issues raised by Hello Mum for young people and parents. For some, London as the book described it was a news report, for others it felt like another planet. All the groups said how much they had enjoyed hearing what other people had thought, and voicing their own opinions.
"I genuinely felt that we broke down barriers with this project," said Mel Haywood, Library Supervisor HMYOI Werrington. "One of the main barriers I see everyday with the young offenders at HMYOI Werrington is that they feel ostracised from the wider community, and very often they don't understand how they can contribute in a positive way. With this project we were able to show them that their opinions were not only valid, but were in fact essential for it to work."
This ground-breaking work is set to continue with some of the groups supporting each other through the next Six Book Challenge with book recommendations.
Read about our One Quick Read One Prison project which is bringing together prisoners and prison staff all reading, reviewing and talking about the same book.
If you would like to take part in the Six Book Challenge contact your local public library.