Joseph Coelho has been promoting the value of libraries since doing so became his first Saturday job as a teenager - helping people take out books and access the services provided by his local one in Wandsworth, the London borough where he grew up. 

Now, as Waterstones Children’s Laureate, Coelho is travelling across the UK on a mission to get more children visiting their local libraries. So far he has visited 178 British libraries, including in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with the goal of registering at one in every local authority in the country. This week it was Shetland's turn to host the award winning performance poet, playwright, and children’s author. 

“I was very lucky that I always lived within walking distance from a library. If it wasn’t walking distance I wouldn’t have gone - we didn’t have a car, we didn’t have money,” Coelho admits. 

Having libraries so accessible to him throughout his upbringing in various areas of London meant they have always been a huge part of his life, Coelho says - joining summer book clubs, studying through exams and then working in his local library have all shaped him into becoming the Children’s Laureate.

This upbringing in London seems a world away from growing up on Shetland, one of the most remote parts of the UK compared to its metropolitan capital. Libraries are less likely to be found within walking distance in Shetland, and I ask whether Coelho thinks they play the same role for children in both rural and inner city areas across the country: “Libraries are vital as that connection to the wider world for all children, but especially in rural communities where you’ve got less access to museums, galleries, theatres - if you’ve a library on your doorstep then books can be a window to those worlds.”

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Shetland did not mark the children’s author’s first trip to the north of Scotland - he visited Orkney with the Scottish Book Trust, then Lewis and Harris, back in May of this year. 

“The main difference I notice is a huge amount of gratitude in the rural areas. Because I’ve been told so many times both in libraries and in schools by both teachers and librarians that no one ever comes here, it’s rare that they get author visits. 

“So that’s been really encouraging, and makes me feel like I’m coming to the right places, because it’s really sad. I understand that it’s hard for people to get to and it's difficult for libraries and schools to arrange author visits, so that gratitude really shines through. And the excitement, because they haven’t had an author visit before, is something to behold,” says Coelho.

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Libraries are more than just catalysts for a love of the written word amongst generation after generation, according to Coelho - they are also a “safe community space”. He references schemes he has come across in libraries where people can access computing lessons to blood pressure monitors and come in to weigh their new born babies.

“I think libraries have always been ahead of the curve and been really good at adapting,” Coelho says. I wonder whether in the digital age, with children more likely to be seen with an iPad in hand scrolling TikTok than a book, this has become more difficult. 

“There is a huge amount of competition for eyeballs in the world at the moment, we see that with social media and parents struggling to get kids to read and off computer games. Libraries have so much to offer in terms of summer reading schemes during the holidays, book bug sessions, board game clubs, lego clubs - they offer so much for people to be able to come together and interact in person,” the Children’s Laureate responds. 

Coelho says the kids he has met across the country have been engaged with their reading and enthusiastic. What comes of the poet’s visits tends to depend on the relationship the children and their schools had with their local library beforehand.

“Sometimes libraries have used my visits as an excuse to invite schools down or to reconnect with schools they’ve lost contact with - especially since the pandemic, teachers change, so that contact that a librarian might have had with a school has gone. Because there’s an event - a live event, a free event - they can invite the school down and make a new connection. In those instances, it's sometimes children who’ve never been to the library before, who don’t have a library card - but they get one that day,” Coelho explains, while other children are already waving their library cards at him when he arrives.

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The idea of a tour around the UK, stopping at a library in every local authority, came to Coelho while he was in a library in Birmingham back in 2018. “The collector in me really liked the idea of having a library card for every local authority in the UK - if I’m totally honest that really appealed to the young Joe in me who collected phone cards,” he says. 

Lockdown hitting slowed the plans down, but by the time restrictions eased, Coelho had been made Children’s Laureate and only had 70 authorities left to visit - which seemed a reasonable number to achieve during his tenure.

The tour is scheduled to be complete in October with months to spare - Coelho's tenure as children's laureate runs until 2024.