Books for everyone – my first visit to Hay

On 26th May, I made my first visit to the Hay Festival to join Bettany Hughes and John Vidal for a joint event on the power of books to transform lives, ‘It all Starts with a Book’.

It was not only my first time on stage at the festival, but also my first visit to Hay and my first time representing Book Aid International at such a high profile event. As someone who is more used to spending time behind the scenes, I was very nervous on the drive down from London. But as soon as I arrived, I realised that those nerves were unfounded.

The festival was vibrant and welcoming and I immediately felt at home amongst fellow book lovers. Seeing everyone’s passion for the written word and the power of stories, I knew they would be just as inspired by the story I had come to tell as I was when I first heard it. I couldn’t wait to share it.

Our charity, Book Aid International, works to ensure that everyone has access to the books that will enrich, improve and change their lives. Every year, we send around one million brand new, carefully selected books a year to thousands of libraries, schools, hospitals, refugee camps and prisons around the world. Last year, one of the libraries which received those books was built by John Vidal’s wonderful organisation, the Gumbi Education Fund.

The fund pays secondary school fees for local young people, many of whom would otherwise be unable to attend secondary school, while also investing in schools by building teacher accommodation and investing in communities by building libraries. The fund even pays all university fees for any pupil who gains a place at university. For people in Gumbi village and the surrounding area, purchasing books and paying school fees is simply not possible. Most struggle to make a living from subsistence farming, and even if they had disposable income, there are no book shops or libraries anywhere nearby. This means that the libraries the Gumbi Education Fund has built offer something truly unique and new – access to brand new, carefully selected books.

Those books offer the chance to continue an interrupted education, gain a new skill or bring a life-time of reading even for those not receiving scholarships - and that is why the library’s opening was such a cause for celebration.

John, Bettany and I were so happy to share that celebration at one of the world’s biggest and most vibrant festivals celebrating all that books make possible at the Hay festival. We were so warmly received by our fellow book lovers – and we were so pleased to make Gumbi part of the global celebration that takes place at Hay.

Our event was a discussion between myself, John and Bettany about the role of books and education in helping vulnerable communities become stronger in the long-term. The 45 minute conversation was over in a flash, and it was time for questions. This was the stage of the event that I had been most nervous about – would there be questions? Would there be awkward silences?

But I needn’t have worried – hands shot straight up with thoughtful, engaging questions about how we select the most appropriate books, how the community has changed now that it has books and how we manage to send so many brand new books around the world.

Even when the event finished, many stayed to talk to us about their own experiences of how books helped them expand their horizons and of how shocked they were to find out that around the world, millions of people do not have books. The audience’s reaction to our event reminded me of how many people know, as we do, that people’s lives can be transformed through books.

Many in the audiences clearly shared our vision of a world where everyone has access to books, and give £6 a month ( ) so that we can send three more books every month to someone who would otherwise have few books, or even no books at all.

It was a wonderful day, and I would like to thank Hay Festival for the opportunity to share our story, Bettany for being such an outstanding chair and John for all of his wonderful work both at the festival and in Malawi, where the Gumbi Educational Fund is changing lives through education. I certainly hope it won’t be my last visit to the festival and look forward to many more visits!

Emma Taylor is Head of Commucations at Book Aid International. Listen to her Hay Festival 2018 talk with John Vidal and Bettany Hughes over on Hay Player now.