Each night the magical rhythm of children's books enchants kids into slumber all over the world.
In Australia, think Sheena Knowles' Edward the Emu who was sick of the zoo, in New Zealand it's Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy by Lynley Dodd, United States children fall asleep to Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon and in France they adore Madeline, with the picture book's lyrical opening sentence now famous the world over: "In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines." That one sentence by Ludwig Bemelmans catapults the reader, or little listener, on several exotic and potentially dangerous adventures all over the city of love.
Everyone believes, at some point, they have a book in them - particularly a children's book - or so they think. The stories are simple and the words few. But ask any successful children's author and they'll tell you, as a target audience, kids are a tough crowd.
Cracking the code to what makes a family favourite bedtime story is anyone's guess but lots of rhythm, imagination and silly verses seem to do the trick. Add a cheeky monkey, fire-breathing dragon or a cute and cuddly puppy, like Spot (an Eric Hill creation) and you're onto a winner.
Throw a pink boa feather and a strand of white pearls into the mix and Fancy Nancy would agree. So too would Jane O'Connor, the author who dreamed her up.
Early education students at the University of Wollongong experienced the challenges of weaving words into their own gripping tales to help mark International Literacy Day, which is celebrated today.
The UOW students then had a chance to share their stories with some "live and willing subjects" at pre-schools and in infant classrooms across the region.
In Australia almost half the population struggles without the literacy skills they need to meet the most basic demands of everyday life and work. A staggering 46 per cent of Australians find it difficult to read newspapers, follow a recipe or make sense of an information leaflet.
International Literacy Day acknowledges the importance of being good readers, as well as preparing children to be global citizens.
Dr Lisa Kervin, a senior lecturer in language and literacy at UOW, says some Australians still struggle to read because access to a range of different texts varies greatly for each child.
"International Literacy Day is an outreach, a vital part of spreading the message about how crucial literacy is for children and how wonderful it is to be a literate person," she says.
"It's important to get the message out to families that from a young age children should not only get plenty of opportunities to read aloud, but it's also important that they are exposed to a wide variety of books."
UNESCO has run reading programs all over the world for 65 years. While there has been progress worldwide, illiteracy still afflicts more than 780 million of the world's adults, of which almost two-thirds are women. In addition there are about 67 million primary school-aged children and 72 million adolescents who are denied basic education.
The impact of illiteracy on a society is huge. It undermines the democratic process through exclusion and worsens the cycle of poverty. Illiterate people can become isolated, unwell and struggle to get work.
"'The statistics are far from ideal, it's not what we're aiming for," says Kervin. "Every teacher works towards improving the statistics. Every teacher wants to make an impact."
Learning to read can transform lives and societies and is instrumental in improving a person's income, quality of life and relationship to the world.
But advances in technology have widened the gap between those who can read and those who can't, with text messaging and the internet becoming mainstream in the exchange of knowledge and communication.
"Literacy has changed even in my lifetime," explains Kervin.
"I think it's important that we start to prepare children to become global citizens because technology has broken down a lot of barriers. It's much easier now to connect with people internationally."
Part of Kervin's research at the UOW is studying how young children acquire literacy skills and what strategies can be put in place to make it easier for them.
She strongly believes that literacy shouldn't just happen in the classroom but should be embedded in a family and community context.
"Each child comes from a varied and rich experience, so we need to help schools find ways to make connections," Kervin says. "We need to find pathways to what counts as literacy."
The 270 UOW students, who will one day become pre-school and primary teachers, will be at the forefront of technology and how it relates to literacy strategies.
For the project some students made traditional-style picture books, others wrote poetry or created digital text aimed at young audiences.
"This is an exciting project for our students. It gives them the opportunity to be writers and for the children it gives them an additional literacy activity," Kervin says.
Some children will find reading easy, while for others it will be a hard slog.
"To learn to read you've got to be able to decode text and know what the letters and words are," she says.
"But the ultimate aim of reading is to make meaning of the text and we do that by making meaning to ourselves and connections to other texts that we've read in the past."
It's important, Kervin says, that children don't just learn to read but are inspired and motivated to become great readers.
Parents can help by being readers themselves and in so doing demonstrating to their children that reading is a valuable life skill. ■