Why I’m proud to be a Pirate

Getting children reading and writing is an issue close to my heart. In this blog I write about why I’m proud to volunteer for the Literacy Pirates, and what the charity is all about.

‘And then the aliens arrived…’

‘Wow! And what happened next?’


It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m listening to a ten-year-old school student tell me his ideas for a short-story. We’re sat in a room that looks like a pirate ship, parrots resting on shelves, waves and treasure chests painted on the walls and excitable children scattered at cosy desks throughout the room. Everywhere you look, there are books. This is the home of the Literacy Pirates, a charity I’ve volunteered with for the past two years. They’re a small organisation that provides extra reading and writing support to children via an after-school learning programme. Volunteering with them has been one of the highlights of the past couple of years for me.

I started volunteering there when my first novel, The Lido, was published. I feel so lucky that I’ve loved reading and writing since I was very young, but I know that not everyone feels the same way. Some children just need a little bit of encouragement to really get into books and stories. But I strongly believe that with the right books and the right support, reading and writing have the power to bring a lifetime of joy and opportunities.

Listening to the children read is one of my favourite parts of volunteering. I love choosing the books together and getting lost in a great story. We chat about what we’re reading and I often leave wanting to search out a particular book at my own local library. It’s always great when the young person decides to borrow the book themselves; seeing them slip the book into their rucksack makes me think about all the hours I spent tucked up in bed reading as a child, and the books from that time that I still think back to with fondness.

It’s also always heartening when you see a child’s confidence growing throughout the afternoon.

‘I NEVER read out loud at school,’ I remember a particularly quiet boy telling me one session.

‘And yet you just read beautifully to me for half an hour!’ I replied, ‘You should be so proud of yourself.’

‘I am,’ he said, a huge grin on his face.

I turn up to volunteer at the sessions with the hope of helping out, by giving a child some one on one time, helping them look up a new word in the dictionary or just by joining them in a very silly but very fun game of ‘splat’. But every time I visit I learn so much too. The students constantly inspire me with their creativity and ability to come up with ideas, something that can sometimes feel daunting when I sit in my home office trying to write. I think every child has a story – usually loads of stories actually – to tell, and it’s such a joy to help them bring those to life. All of the projects lead towards some sort of finished product, be it a published book, a film screened at the local cinema, or an app that the students and their parents can download onto their phones. Being there to celebrate the end of a project is always a wonderfully noisy, happy occasion. To see the students so proud of the (amazing) work they’ve produced is a fantastic feeling.

At the end of the sessions the staff often tell us volunteers a bit more about the impact of the learning programme. Like the fact that children who come along to the sessions improve their reading age over 50% faster than age-related expectations. Or that 100% of parents say they’ve seen a positive impact on their child’s literacy because of the programme. Being part of something like that, even if in a small way, feels pretty amazing. Because the Literacy Pirates after-school sessions are so much fun – they’re moments in the week where aliens really can turn up at any moment, where games and laughter are encouraged – but they also make a real difference too.

That’s what keeps me coming back, and why I feel proud to be a Pirate.

Want to support the Literacy Pirates?

  • The Literacy Pirates are currently raising funds for their World Book Day Campaign and are looking for organisations to get involved and run fundraising events (think book-themed quizes,  pirate-themed office Bake Off). You can find more info and support on their website.
  • If you can’t put on an event but still want to support the work of the Literacy Pirates, you can donate to the campaign.
  • The Literacy Pirates are always looking for volunteers to help run their sessions in North London. If you live nearby and think you can help out, check out their information about volunteering. I can vouch that being a volunteer is great fun!


Kings Cross Skip Garden

Volunteering at the Skip Garden

“What is the purpose of slugs?”

The gardener looked up at my question, her bare hands half buried in the soil of a plant tub.

“I know that worms are our friends in the garden, but what about slugs? What do they do?”

Her eyebrows scrunched up for a moment.

“They must have a purpose,” she replied, “Else they wouldn’t be there. Everything has its place in the garden. I can’t think what that purpose is right now though… Let me Google it.”

With hands still covered in soil she took out her phone and started Googling the purpose of slugs. I continued digging, pushing aside the damp earth to make room for a camomile plant that had up until then been living in a small pot by itself. I was re-homing it among tomatoes, baby chard and cosmos in a new planter at the Kings Cross Skip Garden, a community project not far from where I live. It is hidden behind Granary Square, opposite the Kings Cross swimming pond, and is home to a café, a potting shed, greenhouses and a chicken coup.

“Ok, so I can’t find the answer right now,” the gardener said, putting the phone back into her pocket and going back to planting, “But we’ll ask the Head Gardener later. He’ll know.”

I pushed my hands deeper into the soil. When I arrived to start my evening volunteering in the garden I was offered gloves.

“But I prefer not to use them,” said Robyn the gardener, “They say that there is something in soil that is also in antidepressants. I’m not sure if I believe that, but it certainly feels like it.”

As I felt the damp grit underneath my nails and the cool body of a worm wriggle past my fingers into the soil I felt inclined to agree. Living in London it is very rare that I come in contact with mud – good old-fashioned mud like the kind I made pies out of as a child. The smell made me feel six years old again and I felt flushed with the same sense of joy.

I have no experience as a gardener. Luckily experience wasn’t required when I signed up to volunteer.

“Are you a gardener?” the Head Gardener asked me when I met him later that evening.

“No,” I replied, “I know nothing.”

“Good, we like people like you. You’ll believe anything we tell you.”

And he was right – I was a very eager learner. I learnt the importance of pushing plants into the soil and watering them to settle them into their new home. I discovered how to build a bug hotel for insects and creepy crawlies. And I learned how to gently coax the roots of plants before bedding them in a new pot. At the end of the evening I was muddy and proud.

I never found out the purpose of slugs though.

Find out more about the Skip Garden here: http://www.globalgeneration.org.uk/skip-garden-and-kitchen-1/