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?