When I was a child, there were always two or three kids in the class that nobody wanted to sit next to because they were dirty and they smelled.

We didn’t think about the damage that shaming those children caused; there’s not much nuance or empathy around at that age. It’s only later that we think back on that and feel our own shame.

Read more: Introducing our Christmas appeal with Scottish Book Trust

Today in Scotland, a quarter of our children are living in poverty. That’s seven or eight in a class of 30. Imagine what it must feel like to be one of those kids.

Imagine going to bed hungry every night. Imagine never having new clothes. Imagine not being able to keep yourself clean. Imagine looking forward to summer because the house won’t be cold. 

Imagine not being able to imagine. 

The Herald: Val McDermidVal McDermid (Image: Gordon Terris)

That’s what happens when you can’t discover the power of stories. Because, as Judy Collins heart-rendingly sings: "Hearts starve as well as bodies/Give us bread but give us roses."

It’s not just a slogan. Researcher after researcher points to results that show beyond a doubt that there’s a correlation between reading and later life chances. Especially if that reading is shared across the generations.

I still have vivid memories of having measles when I was five. I had to stay in bed in a darkened room. But my mother sat on a stool outside my bedroom door and read The Wind in the Willows.

I loved the companionship between Mole, Ratty and Badger, the bumptious over-reaching of Toad of Toad Hall, and the terrors of the Wild Wood. 

In those moments, I forgot that I felt ill and unhappy. And it remains one of the fondest memories I have of my mother.

Books breed stories too. Only the other evening, my partner and her father were reminiscing about the stories he made up for her, stories that included her and her sister in that imaginary world. Another memory that still shines bright across the years.

The Herald: The Herald and Scottish Book Trust Christmas AppealThe Herald and Scottish Book Trust Christmas Appeal (Image: free)

Stories show us there is a world beyond our own narrow horizon and they teach us how to navigate that world. We learn about possibilities nobody in our immediate circle can show us. We’ve all heard it said that "You can’t be it if you can’t see it," and it’s often those fictional demonstrations of ambition in action that make young people start thinking, "Maybe I could…?"

Nobody in my family was a writer. My grandfathers worked down the pit; my dad was a welder in the shipyard when I was born. I became a writer because my ambition was stoked by something I read in a book.

In the Chalet School series of books I loved, one character grew up to become a writer. In one story, she received a letter from her publisher that contained a cheque! It was a lightbulb moment. Writing books was a job, writers earned proper money! 

I knew then what I wanted to do when I grew up. 

Owning your own book is a powerful tool – no, weapon – for a child. It’s something to enjoy, something to take pride in, something new, something indisputably theirs. Being able to read gives a child confidence to speak out; confidence to apply for jobs; confidence to break free from a life lacking in dignity and decency.

That’s what the Scottish Book Trust Christmas Appeal is all about.

When families are struggling to stay warm or put food on the table, even something as small as a book is a gift beyond their reach. So Scottish Book Trust donations are translated into books that are distributed to the least well off through the food banks that have, depressingly, become a key element of the lives of too many Scots. And a significant number of the people queuing at those food banks have at least one parent in work.

There’s nothing sentimental about this appeal. It’s not just about putting a smile on the face of a child.

It’s about contributing to a prosperous country. Research from Save The Children and the Trussell Trust estimates that child poverty costs the UK £39.5 BILLION a year in lost tax and earnings, unemployment benefits and additional public spending. And that’s before we even start to tot up the lost potential of another generation raised in austerity.

We’ve got an ageing population here in Scotland. We’re going to need imaginative young people to fill our shoes when we retire.

Even if AI does play an increasing part in our lives, we’ll still need flesh and blood bodies to bring that unique human touch to so many of the interactions we take for granted. 

So think of this as paying forward – a donation towards the country you want to grow older in. It’s never too soon to start.

Help ensure disadvantaged children receive a book this Christmas by donating to the Scottish Book Trust and The Herald's Christmas campaign