#CreativeInnovative with Natalie Schneck: Dancing the Bottom Line

Natalie Schneck On Bringing Dance to Every Body, Building a Business, and Achieving Balance

This is the first in a regular series of blog posts in which I speak with exciting artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs exploring how their creative skills have enabled them to do incredible things in their personal and professional lives.

You can find all of these interviews by searching for the tag #CreativeInnovative.

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Natalie Schneck is a performer, dancer, choreographer, teacher, and entrepreneur. She is the Founder and Owner of the dance company 123 Steps Ahead. As 123 Steps Ahead's first American partner, Vibrance is very excited to bring this program to the Atlanta area in 2018. Stay tuned!

F: We first met each other in 2004 and were in the same theatre ensemble at Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts. While we remained friends, our lives have taken us in different paths. However, what is remarkable is how our complementary underlying values have directed our lives. This has led to an exciting new chapter, a partnership allowing us to foster and support each other professionally. 

N: Yes, you and I ended up in quite an eclectic ensemble at SFU and what was great about the group was the collective work ethic we created. I feel like that work ethic combined with a strong inclination for innovation and creativity has absolutely brought us to this new and exciting chapter! 

F: To start with, tell me a little about your training in the arts.

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N: I’ve been involved in creative arts since preschool. I was born in Edmonton, Alberta. As a teenager I performed in several musical theatre shows both in and out of school, and took some dance lessons. I went on to complete a BFA in theatre performance from SFU followed by a year intensive of contemporary dance technique and choreographic training at Concordia University in Montreal. Throughout my training, I was often creating and performing in my own theatre and dance works or in the work of other artists. One of the highlights of my performance career was my very first professional dance contract in French choreographer Jerome Bel’s international hit piece, The Show Must Go On. I also had the pleasure of dancing in a creation by Catherine Gaudet for the 2015 TransFormation program.  I have been lucky to have my own work shown across Canada, in Calgary, Montreal, Edmonton, and Toronto. Recently, I created and performed a show in Vancouver with musician and composer Elliot Vaughan, under Iffy South, his band's name.

F: Has your training taken you to other places? What are some of the most interesting locations you have experienced? 

N: Yes, I took a trip to Berlin and Poznań, Poland a few years ago and spent time in the underground dance clubs moving to industrial music, eurodance, and dubstep. I also saw shows at small theatres and cabarets. I’ll never forget witnessing the woman dancing alone in a park in Poland, the park was idealistic in its landscaping while she was totally disheveled in her movements. These images and experiences continue to be very inspiring and informative for my artistic work. 

More formally, I took dance workshops with Polish and American artists in Portland as part of the TBA festival and I found that city energetic and also soothing, especially during festival time. I also took classes in NYC and that was cool, being taught by former Russian ballet stars in Manhattan and then learning from a contemporary company in Brooklyn, it was a good experience to get both types of work in my body. Then, being chosen to work with Compagnie Marie Chouinard in Montreal for an répertorie intensive of The Rite of Spring. I loved that! So imaginative and open, a lot of release and breath work and you can see this softness and responsiveness in the bodies of her dancers. 

F: You have created some incredible projects, many of which are collaborative and call on your ability to communicate. 

N: Thank you! Yes, communication really is a skill. 

F: What are the benefits and challenges of collaboration? 

N: The benefits are that you are working with people and the challenges are that you are working with people! Haha. But in all seriousness, when you collaborate you are able to work with another perspective, another skill set and another sensibility, this can be such a strength if it aligns well.  The challenge is separating the actual work from one’s own personal projections and what I call “stuff” while still expressing a sensitivity and openness – it is quite delicate and requires a lot of presence. I always think about laying the most fertile and fun ground for someone else to flourish and for his or her ideas to come to fruition - for each person that looks quite different. A good question I like to remember is, “what does this person need right now?” 

F: Yes, I find myself asking the same thing! It’s a totally different mindset when you make it about where the other person is “at” and use that awareness to shape your communication with them.

N: Yes, communication has to be flexible because connecting with other people requires flexibility, people come to the lunch or coffee table with a lot of their own stuff and it’s complicated. Flexibility and knowing when to actively listen is important. 

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"communication has to be flexible because connecting with other people requires flexibility, people come to the lunch or coffee table with a lot of their own stuff and it’s complicated. Flexibility and knowing when to actively listen is important."

 

F: For you, what are some of the accomplishments of which you are most proud?

N: First, I am developing a life for myself that is true to who I am (this is ongoing), I have lived where I want to live, I have allowed myself time and space to become and evolve as an artist, I have met amazing and inspiring people from all walks of life. 

The second is in creating the 123 Steps Ahead program and seeing the positive impact it is having on people, it really is a feeling like no other. 

Third is my education. I think education is so important and I really do have mine to thank as a gateway to a different and beautiful life. 

F: How did you decide to take your art in the direction of creating 123 Steps Ahead? 

N: I started working in education in Montreal and I saw the benefits of physical educational programming. I also Loved the kids and wanted to be able to take my training and experience in the arts into a program that would benefit them long term. 

I am passionate about dance being for everybody and I fundamentally believe in this. This does not mean that I think “democratizing dance” is better than say training intensively in ballet since the time one was three. Rather, it is a different way of seeing a possible dance training trajectory for someone. I have an innate sense of justice I think the 123 philosophy really is an extension of this.

F: Did this require you to take on additional training/encountered learning curves?

N: I did the additional year of training at Concordia in Montreal as a mature student and then it was many workshops and ordering books on fundamentals of creative movement for children and youth that I would draw from in my research and creation of a curriculum, it was also consulting OT’s such as yourself, Educational Psychologists and RCC’s. All of this was necessary for where I am now. 

F: Are you able to make your creativity an aspect of all of your jobs?

N: My creativity and rigour is always present. Sometimes it comes out in my ability to hyper-focus and concentrate on a task, or in ow I collaborate on a new idea or come out with innovative solutions to problems big or small. Or just dipping into my sensitivity when I see that a colleague is needing something different from me in terms of communication. 

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F: Do you have other (non-creative) work that you engage in? How did you make that choice?

N: Yes – I work in development at The Cultch, a contemporary arts theatre and gallery in the city; I chose this particular job because it required a solid combination of skills I already have along with the opportunity to sharpen new skills such as running campaigns and copywriting. 

F: And that dovetails with your business education, another way to combine that with the arts and support you own business. 

How do you use your performance skills in undertaking “non-creative” jobs?

N: I am an active and present listener with coworkers and clients. I also can read situations quickly and respond appropriately. I am skilled at problem solving quickly, at reading situations and the emotional tone quickly and adjusting. Emotionally intelligence is immensely valuable; reading between the lines of communication and responding appropriately, or knowing that if something seemingly negative happens it is almost always not personal. And also awareness of other cultures, when I am in Montreal I do my best to speak french, stuff like that…it goes a long way.

F: How do you create? From where do you draw inspiration?

N: It really depends. Sometimes ideas come to me quickly and intensely and I have to respond and then sometimes there is nothing for a little while. My inspiration is not consistent but I do know that when I feel inspired I am committed to that feeling and it is almost like I have to respond to it – I have to express something put of it. Lately, it has been music, a lot of music, which aligns well with my program and with my choreographic work; I love how words in a rhythmic form such as a song can fit so well with movements.  

F: What role does communication, performance, and using your voice/body to connect to others, to create an impact have in your life? 

 N: It plays a huge role on a daily basis, my work really only manifests through other people so clarity of communication both physical and verbal is vital and necessary. Also, you can’t do it alone in this world so earning how to connect genuinely and in the present with other people is key. 

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F: You're juggling two jobs and still creating work! How do you prevent burnout? 

N: I take a day off – a true day off and I let myself flow, just do whatever I want in no order and in no set rhythm, this is usually quite nourishing creatively. 

F: Oh my goodness! I do the same I need a day or two that isn’t run on the clock, where my brain can just idle and process as it needs to.

Do you set boundaries with regards to managing your personal from your creative spaces? 

N: Good question. Personally I am actually quite introverted. I need a lot of alone time and I enjoy being alone. So I suppose that’s a boundary in itself. It’s like when I collaborate it’s social time and I enjoy that, but I know at the end of the night or day I am going home alone and I need that. I also work to keep relationships in the context they are in, if it’s work it’s work, if it’s friends and business then it’s friends and business, if it’s intimate then it’s intimate. However, I think adapting and compartmentalizing too much is not good – it means I can’t be my holistic and genuine self. I am aware that my ability to compartmentalize can be an impediment so I practice flexibility with these ideas as things always change.

F: Yes, I like people and I like finding those who collaborate well, but I also find myself “on” around others and know that I recharge alone.

What roles do intuition and aesthetic play in your personal life?

N: Intuition has come more and more into play as I get older. I just have feelings about situations, both work and personal, and I have started to trust those feelings more and respond or make decisions in accordance. I am always drawn to creating a certain aesthetic; I am really sensitive to space so I like things minimal for the most part. Although one of my dreams jobs is doing window displays! I think it would be fun – maybe 123 Steps Ahead will have a window display one day. 

F: Can you give us an idea of what some of the communities with which you are identified?

N: I connect to the artistic community, families and youth, the business community, the philanthropist community, the legal community. I think it informs me in the sense that I take on projects that are both creative and pragmatic. I love meeting new people and I am forever curious about people. Before I go to dinner or coffee with someone I often think “I can’t wait to hear this person’s story!” This excites me. I love people and I am fascinated by where they come from them, all the experiences they’ve had, and how all this has shaped their perspective and what’s important to them. 

F: Has your community activism evolved?  What lessons have you learned along the way?

N: It really has. I am proud of bringing 123 Steps Ahead to so many people so far and leaving a positive and empowering experience with them. What have I learned along the way? To get really comfortable with failure, to make friends with the idea – when you try something new there’s growing pains, there’s iterations, and there’s problem solving, all these things are OK and necessary. 

F: What type of students do you teach?

N: Right now we teach children, youth and adults from 18 months – no limit …we want to pilot a senior’s program and we are currently looking at PEI as a starting place. At all levels. Just be open and imaginative with a sense of humour. 

F: What values underpin your teaching approach?

N: I believe in the value of 123 Steps Ahead because our program is graded to meet each client, child or adult, at his or level, developing functional and efficient movement in a creative and fun environment. 123 Steps Ahead is about the democratisation of dance, creating opportunities for children and adults regardless of their circumstance, to experience a dance class and to receive dance training. The 123 Steps Ahead kids are not judged on technique or by living up to a coded dance standard; they are nurtured and encouraged to grow from the level they are at. With 123 Steps Ahead, there is space for everybody, and every person is a valuable member of the class. This ideology works to create confidence in each child that his or her presence and ideas are worthwhile, and regardless of background, everybody has a voice and a valuable contribution to make. This way, we build confidence and social skills.

We have grown throughout Canada, offering our program in community centres, schools, and daycares. Recently,  in partnership with March of Dimes Canada, we have been able to offer our program to children who have special needs. This year, we started offering private sessions with children and adults. Now it is time to begin expanding this program into the United States.  

Image used with parental permission

Image used with parental permission

F: What do you say to people who claim to “not be creative”?

N: I just don’t agree! I think creativity is a human quality and yes there are varying levels but I believe that everyone has creative ability, it just comes out in different forms and on different scales and that’s actually really cool. 

 F: What are the moments that reward you as a teacher?

N: When a student take a concept and tries it autonomously; when he or she is able to fully integrate a movement pattern; when we work together to see that “failing” at something actually just created another movement that is more beautiful in it’s authenticity.  

 

F: How did you get into starting your own business? 

N: I was in Montreal. I was lonely, uncomfortable, and felt challenged by being an outsider and at a transitional time in my life. Making art in theatre and dance didn’t hold the same meaning for me anymore. I started leaning towards teaching more so then performing and I found this aligned passion working with kids. I loved seeing the positive impact I could bring to them. This started with teaching a sports program to several public and private groups in Montreal, then, because schools and daycares wanted me to stay on board working with the kids, I proposed a creative movement program that I had begun to create - 123 Steps Ahead. 

F: What was the toughest learning curve that you experienced? How did you tackle this phase? 

N: My very first class of 123 Steps Ahead in Montreal was very difficult, it felt like I was continually failing and it almost caused me to not take a much larger contract which would have been such a mistake! My program ran so well at Garderie Papillon. What got me through was my ability to problem solve and then to incorporate solutions that worked into my next contract. Also being aware that personalizing the situation was not useful. 

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F: It’s all that creation process isn’t it, not everything works out the first time. The wheels fall off and you think either, “Oh now I know what to do” or, “I have no idea what the solution is but that isn’t it!”

Do you feel that there are unique challenges when ones’s business is so personal to you? 

N: Yes I feel highly responsible, which is true – I am, for many things. I think practicing boundaries is crucial. Otherwise it is easy to become overwhelmed. I am also interested in having a business partner; it just needs to be the right fit. I suppose we are doing a sort of model of this, and I like it! It feels right (there’s that intuition!)

F: What are the most useful strategies/tools/devices/programs that support your business and work? 

N: Definitely our lesson plan manual and the website. I am actually in the process of transitioning over to Square Space. And then there are our partners, March of Dimes Canada, CPE terre des Enfants to name a few…Vibrance Center soon as well!

F: As an entrepreneur, what creative skills come in useful?

N: Knowing when to be extroverted, bringing form to the chaos, problem solving, emotional intelligence, sensitivity to other people, also knowing when to let go of an idea or a possible contract or partner

I have a sense of humor. Also personality wise I am innately practical and work with “the bottom line” but I also allow myself space for creativity. When I feel myself becoming severe or falling into the anxiety of the high stakes I practice self care, maybe it’s a movie, maybe a bath or a dance class, this always helps. 

F: How has the landscape of your sector changed? Have customer’s expectations changed? 

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N: I think now more then ever parents are looking for programming that will instill confidence and social skills in their children along with physical literacy that will be with them for the rest of their lives. I can speak to the huge benefits of exercise and physical activity as a healthy regulation and coping tool 

As my program doesn’t teach traditional coded dance such as ballet and some schools really want defined dance programs – hip hop, ballet, etc. That is just not 123, and it’s crucial that we stick with our branding and our value system, even though it means losing some contracts. 

F: Where do you see your business going?

N: Eventually 123 Steps Ahead will be global for children, youth, and families. We will also expand to adults and seniors. It’s really going to open up a “I can do it” attitude in learning dance and break down the notion of elitism. I think we will have a whole new global generation of dancers that are amazing just the way they are. I am excited for this!

You can follow 123 Steps Ahead through the website, Facebook page, and Instagram

Whatever your aims, we can aid you in achieving your goals with our individualised approach and flexible sessions. Contact us:


Neil Gaiman on Why Our Future Depends on Literature

This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14, 2013 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

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It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members’ interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living through my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

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So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

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It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

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It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

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You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

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And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

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If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

 

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Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

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Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

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I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

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We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

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Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

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