Every evening, just before 7pm, Oscar Mallett’s alarm goes off. The 14-year-old stops whatever he’s doing and grabs a book.
He opens his laptop, logs into Zoom, and soon the eager faces of children from across the country pop up, waiting for their bedtime story. In the background their parents can be seen heaving a sigh of relief, knowing that for the next half an hour at least, there will be some respite.
Since the start of the pandemic the Cheltenham schoolboy has been running his own social enterprise, reading stories to the bored children of exhausted adults so that everyone can get a momentary break from each other.
“It is nice because I like reading normally, and I like reading out loud,” he says. “To know that people are watching and listening and actually taking it all in … it’s just a really nice feeling.”
Oscar started the venture during England’s first lockdown to help his neighbours. The couple both caught Covid and had seven-year-old twins to look after, so Oscar offered to read to the girls for half an hour each night.
Since the start of the third lockdown he’s branched out, offering the service to any family that might want a calm half-hour – for the bargain price of £2 a month. Around 17 families have subscribed, enjoying Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant and Matilda, and now moving on to Clare Balding’s The Girl Who Thought She was a Dog.
Half of the subscription fee goes to the charity WaterAid and the rest is pocket money. Does he think featuring in the Guardian could make him millions? “That’d be great,” he jokes. “I’ll never have to work another day in my life.”
Oscar’s mother, Jane Mallett, a weight loss adviser, says her son is very aware that while he’s coping pretty well during the pandemic, many other children are not. In October the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, raised the alarm about young people’s mental health, as a Guardian investigation revealed a sharp increase in the prescribing of sleeping pills for under-18s, growing demand for eating disorder services, and a rise in school safeguarding reports.
“He knows what the children are going through,” says Jane, who is helping Oscar connect with new listeners via her Facebook page. “One of the parents said to me that their child doesn’t see another child all day long, so really looks forward to the story.” She says that under her supervision, before the story starts, the children interact, showing Oscar pictures they have drawn or telling him about their day. “It’s a really lovely sort of group atmosphere going on,” she says. “One of the little ones fell asleep at the end of the story last night, it was so cute and perfect for the parents.”
And while Oscar has coped incredibly well with homeschooling and isolation – he credits his school, Balcarras, for “amazing” support – the calls help break up the monotony of his days, too.
“I have it pretty good. But I imagine for some kids it is really hard right now, especially if their parents are perhaps not exactly all that perfect,” he says, before acknowledging that it’s probably also “quite hard” for adults too. “I think for some kids homeschooling, it’s definitely affecting their mental health, they’re getting lonely. Being an only child I have a bit of that, but I imagine it’s times a billion for some people.”
Perhaps most importantly, the bedtime stories are an opportunity to do what he loves best: read. “The thing I love about reading the most is if you have a really good author that’s written a really good book, they kind of just transport you to that world,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t even realise I’m reading. I’m just kind of watching it happen.”
That escapism is more important than ever right now, he adds. “I mean, the characters in the books aren’t all wearing masks.”