Free Books Fest aims to give excluded readers their first ‘journey with a book’ | Books

A campaign set up to make books accessible to all will hold its first literary festival this weekend, including a series of free events and a bookshop where people can “buy” free books.

The Free Books Campaign was founded by cultural historian and researcher Sofia Akel as a fundraiser in July 2020. Her initial goal of £1,000, which would be used to buy books by authors of colour to donate to those who are unable to access them, surpassed expectations.

Akel said: “Then it grew to £4,000, then £7,000, then £10,000, it just kept growing. And then publishers started reaching out saying they [had] got lots of brand new books that they could contribute. It was really organic. I’d just set out to do this fundraiser as a small action.”

Sofia Akel. Photograph: Free Books Fest

Books are given by the campaign, which has now been set up as a community interest company (CIC), to individuals, families, youth clubs, community centres, charities and schools.

“It’s completely built on trust,” said Akel. “No one has to disclose anything personal to us. We have had people reach out to say it’s the first time they have ever owned a book – it can be really transformative. You are on a first journey with that book and that book with you.”

The campaign collaborated in July 2021 with footballer Marcus Rashford through his book club and Macmillan Children’s Books, working to get 400 brand new books to young readers across the UK and Ireland.

The inaugural Free Books Fest will be held at Copeland Gallery in Peckham, London, on 16 and 17 April, in partnership with podcast company Broccoli Productions. The festival will include a free bookshop and lounge, where those attending can pick up books and spend time reading.

“We wanted to make sure our festival caters to people from different backgrounds,” said Akel. “They can all access it equally. No one in that space will have to worry ‘can I afford to take part in any part of this event?’”

She added: “With the bookstore, it’s empowering to be able to go and have a browse and choose a book that you want yourself rather than be told ‘here’s this book that you should read’ and this is the only one you can have.”

Highlights of the event include a reading and drawing workshop for children with award-winning illustrator Dapo Adeola, a talk from historian and author Colin Grant, and a panel on romance and love with Candice Carty-Williams, Jendella Benson and Bolu Babalola, hosted by Danielle Vitalis.

“The traditional format of literary festivals can be quite exclusionary and you can feel like ‘these spaces aren’t for me’,” said Akel. “So what we really had in mind was thinking about those who might be brand new to reading.

Free Books Fest will not be the only festival offering a free programme this year. The Edinburgh international book festival has also announced that its 2022 schools programme – back after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic – will be free, with every child who attends given a book, through its partnership with its lead sponsor Baillie Gifford.

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