“Reading has completely changed who I am”: Nigel Lungenmuss-Ward on championing literacy

We spoke to author and tutor Nigel Lungenmuss-Ward about inspiring a love of reading in young people, and his own personal transformation from factory worker to a champion of literacy.

Nigel is an author, tutor and founder of That Book Guy – Tuition Services. In 2020 he published his first book, Freddie’s Impossible Dream, which was illustrated by his son Robbie. In February, he received the Ruth Rendell Award for his work promoting literacy among young people.

You studied Education at university. Was this something you always wanted to do and what inspired your choice?

To be honest, no! When I was growing up, I didn’t really see education as valuable. I left school without any GCSEs and fell into various low-paid jobs. My ex-wife’s dad was an army Sergeant and he mentioned the military being a great career. So I signed up and passed the training to become a Gunner Reservist in the RAF. After that, they were looking for volunteers to join our sister squadron in Afghanistan, and I put myself forward.

That’s when the paradigm shift happened in my life. Before going to Afghanistan, I worked at a supermarket, I wasn’t really going anywhere in life and had no real aspirations. But when I came back, I was a different guy. I describe it as going through life with blinkers on, and then having them removed and seeing the world as it really is. In that same year, my daughter was born, who was with me at the ALCS Awards ceremony. Suddenly, I had all of these dreams and aspirations. I just thought “I need more”.

So I went on this journey of education. I sat my GCSEs in 2012, then did an access course, then did a three-year degree in English and Psychology, then did a PCGE. Now I can’t imagine my life without education in it. I think back to 15 years ago, I was working in a chicken factory, and now I’ve just won the Ruth Rendell Award promoting literacy!

Can you tell us about That Book Guy – Tuition Services?

Initially, it was my just an Instagram account. I wanted to inspire other adults and give them advice about what to read with their kids. After my first book, Freddie’s Impossible Dream, I was conflicted as I started to get offered work as an author which I couldn’t pursue in the classroom. I started tutoring children online during the pandemic, and it eventually morphed into a tuition business that is now the core of my life. I teach children, predominantly about reading, all over the UK. I help them with their comprehension and teach them the skill of reading. Most of all, I love working with children who say they hate reading and help them find joy in it. If you work on both the skill and the will, you naturally get the thrill! I also teach them that reading isn’t just for school, it’s for life.

What did it mean to you to win the Ruth Rendell Award?

It’s hard to put into words. All I wanted to do was to give children a better start than I had. I grew up quite poor, on a council estate in Leicester. Initially, all I wanted was to give my own children the best possible chance. That feeling has extended out to my students, who I see as my surrogate children. Hopefully, winning the Ruth Rendell will allow me to extend my reach, have more of an impact and reach more children who need it. I’ve done OK so far but I just want to help as many children as possible.

When accepting your award, you spoke about publishing a book that was illustrated by your son. Tell us the story of how that came about, and what the process was like

Since I started my journey, I always thought I could write a book. I’d love to be able to say I’ve written something. My son has always had a love of drawing. One day I asked him what he wanted to be when he was older, and he said an illustrator. Then I heard my words “when you’re older”, and I thought that’s a terrible thing to say. Why should he have to wait to achieve his dreams? I told him that I’m going to publish a book and he’s going to illustrate it. I sought help from a friend who’s an author and publisher, and she helped Robbie and I achieve our dreams.

Now I can stand in front of my students and tell them you can achieve your dreams; my son is an internationally selling author at the age of nine. He just needed someone who believes in him and supports him, and I want to be that for as many children as possible. Children are incredibly capable, and sometimes they just need someone to tell them that.

Why do you think it’s important that children develop a love for reading?

I see what it’s done for my own life. If you had told me “you’re going to be recognised for promoting literacy”, I would have laughed at you. It has almost been like a religious experience; it has just completely changed who I am as an individual. And I see the same impact all the time with the children I work with. The benefits are endless – better vocabulary, better imagination, better sense of self, calmer. It’s even been shown that if you read for pleasure, you do better at maths, which just shows the magic of reading.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline this year?

I’m currently writing a new book, which I’m hoping to have out in the next few months. It’s a picture book about my journey to being a dad. My youngest son is a lot younger than my other two children, and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m older now, but it has been a lot trickier this time round! So my new book is about this tyrannical 2-year-old who terrorises his parents. From my experiences in schools, I know it’s particularly important that young boys find books that they enjoy, so it has a bit of toilet humour in there that young boys tend to like!

You can learn more about That Book Guy – Tuition Services here, and find his published works here.