Surrounding your child with books in the home for free

1024 683 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

I posted recently about my experience of raising my son as a passionate reader. One of the things I did to help foster that love of reading was surround him with books as much as possible from the day he was born (okay, I was a zombie the day he was born so maybe, like, a week later?).

But I know that not everybody can afford to fill their home with stories. Books aren’t cheap (understandably – a heck of a lot of work goes into them!) and buying just ten gorgeous new picture books for your baby or child could set you back £100. Not everyone has that sort of money to spend on anything that isn’t an absolute necessity. 

Half a million children in the UK alone don’t own a single book and one in five children receiving school means said that the book they got with their World Book Day voucher (more on that in a minute!) was the first book they ever owned. 

For some families, books are a luxury they just can’t afford. But we know that reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator for a child’s future success so how do you get those books in front of your children without breaking the bank? Here are a few ideas to explore. 

1. Swap books

There are several ways to get hold of new books by swapping old ones, so if you have any around the house you don’t need anymore – novels, travel guides, cookbooks, anything at all – consider bringing them along to a book swap and exchanging them for a children’s book. In the UK, lots of train stations have book swap shelves, either at the entrance near the ticket office or on the platform in the waiting room. You won’t always find suitable titles but check every time you walk past. Don’t have a book with you to swap? Don’t worry. Take the one you need and drop off a swap next time. When I moved to my current house I donated about 50 books to the book swap at our local tube station once I’d finished unpacking but didn’t take anything in return at the time. Now, whenever I see something I want to read I just grab it without feeling too guilty. I figure they owe me!

Some schools have book swaps, too. My son’s school has two book swap sheds where children can take a book and leave a book. If you have board books or picture books your child has outgrown, why not exchange them for something a bit more grown-up?

You could even host your own book swap or book exchange party

2. Visit the library

It’s wonderful for children to have books of their own at home but borrowing them is a terrific way to bolster (or start) their collection. I know it sounds obvious but so many children don’t have library cards and have never visited a library (not helped by the fact that one in seven UK primary schools doesn’t have a library space) so this is a great place to start building a collection for your child! Yes, you have to return them, but if you swap over your books every time you visit (and max out your card like I always do) you could have a permanent pile of books at home all year round. Across our four library cards, my family is able to borrow 80 books between us at any one time and we’re almost always at the limit. 

My suggestion, if you’re new to the library, is to not be too discerning on your first few visits. Just grab a few books that look good to you, whether they’ve got pretty covers or funny titles or an author’s name you recognise. If your child is old enough to choose their own books, let them run free and go wild! My son comes to me with enormous piles of books every time we visit the library and we sit down and go through them, narrowing them down until we’re within our borrowing limit. Sometimes he’s picked books we’ve read before and I remember that he didn’t really like them so I’ll double check if he really wants it again. 

If you need help, ask a librarian. Never feel embarrassed about being new to the library or unfamiliar with how things work. The staff are almost always utterly lovely and keen to make suggestions and point you in the right direction. 

You can also look up books you want in advance or while you’re there. If there’s a title you’d like but your local library doesn’t have it, you can usually request to have it sent to your library for free or a small fee (my borough charges 60p). Again, ask a librarian to help you with the computers if you’re not too tech savvy. 

3. Find your nearest Little Free Library

Have you ever spotted a little box of books at the end of somebody’s driveway or on a street corner? Little Free Libraries are non-profit collections of books that passers-by can peruse and borrow or swap whenever they like.

4. World Book Day Vouchers (UK only)

World Book Day is a charity that promotes reading for pleasure. Each year, every school child in the UK receives a token which they can spend on exclusive World Book Day books (or they can buy the books for £1 each). The books are included in McDonald’s Happy Meals, too. There’s always a range of books to choose from featuring picture books for very young children up to middle grade and YA. The 2024 selection includes Elmer and the Patchwork Story, Marv and the Ultimate Superpower, Onyeka and the Secret Superhero and Dreadwood: Creepy Creations. When your child comes home with a WBD voucher, don’t lose it! Take them to a participating retailer (most supermarkets plus bookshops) and swap it for a book of their choice!

5. Make a birthday wish list

Set up a wish list for your child so friends and family can buy them books as gifts on birthdays, Christmas or other holidays you celebrate. You can do this easily through Amazon but lots of bookshops have wish list functionality, too.

6. Bookstart (UK only)

Bookstart is a campaign run by BookTrust that supplies all babies with a free reading starter pack before they turn one. It typically includes at least one book (the 2023 book is Axel Scheffler’s Who’s Hiding on the Farm?), a small toy and tips for reading with your child (dual language and additional needs book packs can be requested). If you haven’t received this, speak to your health visitor.


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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes