Last month Rose Goddard, World Book Night Project Manager, visited the Homeless Book Club in Shoreditch which uses books donated by the programme for its weekly discussion sessions.
At first glance, Paper & Cup café in Shoreditch could pass for any other hipster hangout in the neighbourhood; it's airy and wood-furnished and its shelves creak with books. There's a point of difference here, though: Paper & Cup is a not-for-profit social enterprise created by the Spitalfields Crypt Trust, a locally based charity organisation, which every Thursday plays host to the Homeless Book Club run by Crisis and World Book Night.
One drizzly evening in August, I turn up to take part and see how our books are being used in this inspiring setting. This week, over 15 homeless and vulnerably housed people from the Hackney area and beyond, some regulars and some new to the group, have gathered to discuss Street Cat Bob by James Bowen. The book is a Quick Reads version of the heartwarming bestseller about the author's time sleeping rough and his redemptive friendship with a ginger tom. Quick Reads are short books by well-known authors, specially written to be easier to read by adults who find reading difficult., This one, like all the books donated to and read at the Homeless Book Club, was given out as part of World Book Night.
It's the second week the group has spent reading the book, after they voted unanimously to continue discussing it the previous week. The book club, run by adult literacy teacher Rosie Allen Jones, works through a successful and innovative 'reverse' format, where attendees aren't required to have read the book before they come to the session. Instead, as a way into the story, Rosie prepares material beforehand including quotes and questions, and sometimes the group listen to an audio version of the book if it's available, or talk about how the cover makes them feel. They can choose to continue reading next week if they feel there's more to say, or take the book away with them.
Prejudice and second chances
After everyone has settled down with a warming cup of tea and a cake, the conversation begins and we discuss passages from the book and the issues they raise. One group member gives an excellent summary of the first three chapters for those who weren't there last week, deftly recapping James's account of his background in Australia, meeting Bob, and deciding to look after him. As one might expect, the subject matter is emotional and difficult for some to talk about, as we cover prejudice against the homeless, the reasons people end up on the streets, and second chances. One man comments that Crisis has given him a second chance through the new opportunities and support it offers.
Each person takes turns to read two pages out loud, and I'm struck by the hush that descends on the room as we all want to hear what happens next. During the break, everyone agrees how much they like the book, finding it both charming and resonant, with a huge amount of emotional clout. One person talked about the idea of cats as potential catalysts (his pun, not mine) for change in a person's life, and even connected this with another World Book Night book the group had read, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher.
At the end of the session, everyone votes to carry on reading Street Cat Bob together next week; it's popular with the Homeless Book Club and it's easy to see why. I come away feeling proud that our books have enabled this evening as well as hundreds of other unique reading experiences. I honestly can't think of a better use for them.
Volunteer applications for World Book Night 2016 will open later this year. Sign up to our mailing list to find out first.
Quick Reads is now part of The Reading Agency. Read about the 2016 titles