A GROUP of teenagers huddle together, hushed and engrossed in the drama that’s unfolding before their eyes.
While they lose track of time, back at one of their homes mum Susan Cooper is wondering when son Daniel might be coming back.
The 13-year-old disappeared earlier, he’s been out for hours. “Last Wednesday he got up, got dressed and disappeared for the day,” she recalls. “I had to phone around to track him down.
“He’d be there 24/7 if he got the chance,” she adds, explaining where she finally found him. “He’d live there.”
In a modern world of apps and Xbox games, Snapchat and Instagram, 13-year-old Daniel is a fully fledged member of the internet generation. If not glued to a screen, he might well be expected to be found hanging around a street corner, mooching around.
But in his case – along with a group of other Wester Hailes teenagers – it’s not the latest Call of Duty or social media app that’s snared his attention. It’s something far more “old fashioned” than that.
For Daniel is among a growing number of youngsters hooked on the latest craze to sweep their corner of Wester Hailes – going to the local library to read a good book.
“I love reading and I really enjoy going to the library,” says Daniel, a second year pupil at Wester Hailes Education Centre.
“Right now I’m halfway through reading The Hobbit and I’m enjoying it.
“I read at night in bed until I fall asleep. And I go to the school library at lunchtime too.”
For many parents of teenage boys who prefer the fast action of video games or an evening slumped in front of the television, the idea of getting them to read a book feels like mission impossible. Teenage boys are among the group least likely to be found with their noses in a novel – research from the National Literacy Trust showed only one in four boys read outside of the classroom with around three quarters of schools reporting boys falling behind girls in reading skills.
However thanks to a ground-breaking reading group which combines the challenge of an Xbox game with the simple pleasures of a good book, the once reluctant readers from Wester Hailes have become among the most avid bookworms around.
Devised by library services officer Tony Stewart, the scheme encourages young readers to power through books with the lure of “achievement points” and rewards.
And it’s proved so successful that it is now likely to be rolled out to other libraries around Edinburgh.
“We found we had a lot of teenage boys coming in to the library to use the computers or play on the Xbox,” says Tony, who has seen the scheme grow in success over the past year.
“I’m a big gamer and I know from talking to the kids how much they are into their games. When they play, they get rewards – not tangible things, just something that appears on the screen to show they’ve achieved something or unlocked another level.
“And I thought that could apply to reading and books.”
The result is Level-UP, a reading initiative which originally focused on boys but has also gained interest from an increasing number of girls. Designed for youths aged 11 to 14, it is aimed at encouraging those who normally would rarely, if at all, read for pleasure to dive into a good book.
Each participant, explains Tony, is given a “gamertag” of their own. They then work their way through books which have a points value called XP, racking up “achievements” as if they were playing their favourite video game.
As their tally of achievements grows, the teenagers unlock the chance to enjoy a special reward – anything from a Minecraft tournament to a pizza night or Nerf gun session.
And they are encouraged to discuss the books they read, keep a reading journal, review novels and interact with authors if possible on Twitter.
“It’s a simple idea but it is working,” nods Tony, who regularly sees more than a dozen boys and several girls at weekly Level-UP sessions.
“When we started, it was me saying to them to try reading this or have a look at that book. Now the guys come in and take out books regularly because they really want to. And they talk to each other and recommend books that they loved.
“Now we’re at the point where they are asking me to get them particular books.”
For mum Susan, of Westburn Park, herself a keen reader, Daniel’s obsession with books is good news on many levels. “I know that when he’s out, he’s at the library, so he’s safe and he’s doing something that’s positive,” she says. “And it’s also helping him at school.”
Indeed, according to research from the Institute of Education, children who read for pleasure do “significantly better at school than their peers”, and progressed better in maths, vocabulary and spelling than those who rarely read.
Like Daniel, Tynecastle High pupil Alex Adams, 13, of Morvenside, is also hooked on books thanks to Level:UP.
“I go to the library every day now,” he nods.
“I used to go just to play games but then we started to read and I thought it was good. I like reading anything really. You get a good book and don’t want to put it down, I don’t want it to end.
“And I think reading a lot helps me with my schoolwork.”
Tony believes the seeds have now been sown for a lifetime of reading ahead. “It is very hard to get teenage boys to read – and as a library we want to get everyone to read,” he adds. “They come to the meetings, take part in activities and leave with a few books under their arms.
“Even if they read a few, it makes a difference. We are making progress.”