Tuesday, 28 December 2010


Anyone remember Jackanory? Someone would pop up during kiddie's TV hour and read a book. I no longer watch kids' TV, haven't for a long long time and rarely watch TV at all now. I'll bet there's no current equivalent to someone sitting there reading from a book.

I'm all in favour of kids reading books. It's a much more leisurely activity than what they do for enjoyment now, things like Xbox and mugging and shooting each other and ADHD. Reading is quiet time and that's missing from a great many kids' lives entirely these days. It's all rush, rush, on to the next thing, getting them ready for the adult career of 24/7 tax slavery or the alternative career of keeping human rights lawyers and State benefit departments employed.

Reading a book involves several hours of sitting and thinking. No easy visual stimulation, no vegetating and watching the colours and shapes move. If you're presented with plain text you have to use your imagination to picture what you're reading about. It takes concentration and thought, which get easier with practice.

So I had mixed feelings about the government cutting the free-books-for-kids idea. It's a fake charity for a start, as evidenced by the cries of 'It will all fall apart without government funding'. I like the idea of making sure kids get books but I don't like the idea of a quango deciding which books they can have. Distributing book tokens would be a better method.

Then again, don't schools have libraries any more? The one I went to had a library and the books weren't all school texts by any means. There was also a local library, free to join and free to borrow books from. Charity shops here have a decent selection of books, very cheap, and including many you'll never see on supermarket shelves. I've picked up The Great Gatsby and a hardcover copy of Moby Dick from local charity shops. They aren't entirely filled with unopened cookbooks and Jeffrey Archer novels.

As a fledgeling writer, I can see the temptation in finding a quango willing to buy many copies of one of my books and pass them around. Unfortunately the stuff I write isn't for children so BookStart will never distribute mine. It comes as no surprise to find that a children's book author is miffed at the loss of easy royalties from association with this quango but it all comes back to choice.

If you give a child a book, he has a book. He might not like that book, he might prefer a different one. If you give a book token, he can choose whatever book he wants. If you sign him up at the library he has access to them all for free. When a government sponsored organisation decides which books children own, the potential for control and indoctrination is immense. Hide your message among bunny rabbits and rainbows and send it to every impressionable young mind in the country. The Climatologists have already tried this, but they are clumsy writers and can't help resorting to death threats. They have produced more objections against their campaigns than they will ever produce against any power company.

On the whole, even though I fully support the book/child combination, I am not comfortable with the idea behind BookStart. So scrapping it was a good decision.

Except, of course, they haven't scrapped it. After a few bleats from authors and perhaps a word or two from Sir Humphrey on the potential of the scheme, BookStart gets to keep its funding.

Thousands of students protest repeatedly about tuition fees and the government stands firm. Smokers inundate Nick Clegg's fake 'great repeal bill' website to no effect. Yet all it takes is a couple of authors complaining that their royalties will be hit and the government cave in at once. What did they see in the BookStart scheme? A noble cause, or a useful future vehicle for indoctrination?

There will be those who will scoff. Have you heard of a book called The Water Babies? It's a children's story. It's also an introduction to evolutionary theory. Many old fairy tales contain moral messages. You might think children don't notice and you'd be right, they don't. The programming is subliminal.

There is nothing wrong with instilling morals in children, of course. Doing that through entertainment rather than lecturing is simply making use of a more efficient method of getting the message across.

The trouble is that the medium can contain any message. It can say 'be wary of strangers', it can say 'be kind to others', or it can say 'the government knows what is best for you'.

BookStart, as a charity, would be a good thing. As a quango, it is a dangerous thing. You would think that Philip Pullman, who refused to be CRB-checked for a supervised school visit, would recognise that government control is not necessarily a great thing. You would think that writers would be the first to realise how the written word can be used to persuade with subtlety.

This government caved in to a few authors when they stood up to hundreds of angry smokers and thousands of furious students. Why?

Could someone have explained to them exactly what they stood to lose?


george said...

Yes God knows why we have to buy books for kids when our libraries are crying out for investment. Thousands of choices for kids in libraries yet we have govt quangos ( ie pro EU, global warming, multiculturalism brain dead morons) deciding what books our children will get. The £15m would be better spent buying a cross section of books by librarians who are slightly less biased than govt.

Anonymous said...

Hold on, who pays for libraries?
Book tokens like school vouchers are a good idea though.

Anonymous said...

What george said.

It would be interesting, though, to know just how much autonomy public librarians have wrt children's books. Was "Little Black Sambo" taken off the market, were librarians instructed not to hold it or did children stop borrowing it and so copies were not renewed?

It would also be interesting to know which authors/books schools set as recommended/set reading at different ages and what differences there are between the state and private ed systems.


Woman on a Raft said...

I put it down to bad timing and lack of foresight; Christmas was not a good point to announce this as it looked mean even though it is analytically irrelevant. The sums involved are relatively small so it wasn't worth having the biff this time - they just didn't spot it coming. This government is still prone to back-of-a-fag-packet calculations, which is why they had to try to make a virtue of the child benefit balls-up.

Had they waited until about late February and slipped it in with a tranch of other cuts, it would not have had headline potential.

Yes, the shouting is from authors rather than consumers and yes, the scheme is irrelevant. Keeping branch libraries warm and open is far more important in terms of giving children access to books in a conducive environment, especially when they are living in villages which may lack cultural aspirations.

I watched this at first hand in an ex-mining village in the midlands. The council blamed 'Maggie' for the cuts when they took out a branch library serving a community which, God help us, needed all the culture it could get.

Really, it was that the central library wanted to rebuild itself in a posh new building rather than a disused department store, and never mind the customers, who were perfectly happy with the old shop.

They lobbied to have all the money centralized on their vanity project while they had somebody handy to blame.

Needless to say literacy dropped in the village until even the grafitti gave up having mis-spellings and settled for obscene scribbles. Getting in to town, while not impossible, was not easy unless you had a car and the money to park it. Even then, the New Library was a hideously inconvenient place to try to take children to, designed to annoy readers of all ages.

Anonymous said...

I stopped using my local library when it sold off/threw out most of what I consider to be 'classic fiction' (and quite a lot of factual books) & installed an 'internet suite' (half a dozen desktop PCs) in place of some bookshelves. Result? All I could find in a large library was large-print Mills & Boon type fiction, whilst 11-14 year olds squealed & growled incessantly amongst themselves whilst surfing in the main reading room.

Funding local libraries is a good idea, but their function appears to have been redefined as social centres rather than (quiet) places of study, as they were when I grew up.

biffo said...

Yes, my senior school had a library which I used extensively & from about the age of about 7 my parents & I used to go to the local library fortnightly to borrow books. In turn I used to bring my kids to the library regularly, either after school or as a Saturday morning 'treat' involving a bus ride, library visit, playing in the park (with a soft drink) and home again. It's all about choices isn't it? Not sure that I'd appreciate an unelected & unaccountable quango deciding what books my kids could/should read.

Dave H. said...

Even though it isn't quite the same experience, aren't most of 'the classics' legally downloadable for nothing anyway? Portable readers are becoming ever cheaper. Sorry if this is stating the obvous.

(There's modern stuff from less well-known authors too. I have about 20 early Hillmans on this thing, for example.)

Leg-iron said...

Anon 04:01 - we all pay for libraries, but we all get to use them. I don't object to paying for a resource I can access that holds more books than I could ever buy, or store.

Although as Anon 10:12 points out, more and more libraries are turning into internet cafes. That's not something taxes should pay for. That's a private sector issue.

Leg-iron said...

Dave H - you can download the PC (or Mac) version of the Kindle Reader for free. It's not the same as a real Kindle which apparently has no screen glare, but it lets you access their Kindle books.

Yes, most of the out-of-copyright classics like Gulliver's Travels, Dracula etc are free and it's worth getting the free Kindle reader just to collect the free books ;)

I'm seriously thinking about a Kindle. I could use it for work too - carrying a load of PDF files is far easier than carrying a load of printed papers around.

Gordon Is a Moron said...

Evening LI, I cannot recommend the kindle enough, best device I have bought in years.

I had never heard of bookstart till this last week or so, and a well as being pointless struck me as being akin to a protection racket for government approved propaganda writers.

As an aside I downloaded and read your short story collection, loved it, especially the realty mental hospital one, which reverses a dream I have had for years where I become to realise that I am the figment of someones imagination and that they are dying.

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