Books on TV? If only…

There are so many things not to like about a pandemic. Not wanting to constantly think about the grim realities, many people have ended up watching far too much TV, and I’ve been one of them. I don’t usually spend a lot of time in front of the box but it’s so easily done when your other options are limited and you’ve read every book in the house.

Of course there are some great programmes and series around, but overall I have found it a depressing experience. Celebrity culture is the main culprit. I can only conclude that there must be an alien intelligence out there controlling the broadcast media – and their plan is simple: to engulf us in a tsunami of emptiness until our lives are so completely superficial that gaining total control of the planet will be a cinch.

When I do sit down and watch TV there’s certainly plenty of choice, what with all the digital channels and web options: lots of sport, films, cookery, chat shows, ‘reality’ (ha), music, DIY, antiques and junk, gardening, kids’ stuff, drama, crime, soaps, quizzes, news, blah, blah – in fact, everything you could ever want. Except books.

No, wait, there are some book review/chat shows buried somewhere in the schedules, I believe. Try finding them on iPlayer etc, though. Some of them are good too, but they really are niche, aren’t they? Not exactly Prime Time with the nation tuning in. And those endless trailers for upcoming content on every channel are another book-free zone too.

This is one of the many reasons that reading is not normalised in the UK. We don’t see books on the box and we don’t see people reading or talking about authors. That’s strange because lots of people do read.

Every parent wants their child to learn to read and to be a good reader. It’s a stupendously important life skill, even in our internet age, and yet not every parent knows it starts at home with babies and toddlers and picture books and talk and reading and telling stories. But again, where are the shows devoted to toddler books and picture stories and early readers? Where’s the programme set in a library?

Oh BBC, I have been a devoted follower over the years, and a big fan of so much that you have done culturally. The spectacular dramas, the Attenborough series, Maid Marion and Her Merry Men… but when it comes to books you have let us down badly.

Books are a hugely important element of our culture, and children’s books are where that element is developed in the next generation. They are very significant. So why are children’s books never taken seriously by broadcasters? Who is recognising their role? Why is our esteemed Auntie not celebrating something at which Britain really does excel? (as opposed to all that ‘world-beating’ tosh spouted by you-know-who). You could wait a long time for an answer…

So what exactly am I seeking? I’m not talking about Jackanory, or the stories featured on CBeebies (which are good) – I mean where is the show about children’s books? For adults. Yes, ordinary grown up people! Because adults buy books for kids, and they want children to read and it would be helpful to know what’s out there. Not a website. Telly. At peak viewing. Featuring real people who know about children’s books talking about them passionately: authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers, editors, parents, reviewers – with NO SLEBS. Not one. Even a little one.

Come on BBC, you can do it, we authors will gently guide you. I suggest a TIME FOR BOOKS season. Oh, and please remember that Roald Dahl died over 30 years ago, and that there are lots of current children’s writers other than David Walliams – really good ones who do it as their proper job and are dedicated experts. And people know about Harry Potter already, yeah?

Here are some proggy ideas:

1) The story of a book

The creation and realisation of an illustrated children’s book from initial conception to children taking it off a shelf and reading it. It’s an epic tale beginning with an idea from the (established) author. We see discussion with an agent, a pitch to editors, then a publisher’s acquisitions meeting leading to an offer and negotiations.

The journey takes us to the Bologna and London Book Fairs, co-edition deals (foreign versions), samples, the search for the right illustrator, contracts and financial dealings, while the author plans and writes and redrafts.

Then on to edits, feedback, changes while we see cover creation, design concepts and the illustrator making glorious pictures. It’s a thrilling team effort but will it sell? Arguments over the title rage while publicity plans are made and the marketing people get involved (do I hear a few coughs from fellow writers?). Layouts are checked.

Eventually it’s printed. Copies arrive at the creators’ homes, to the usual excitement. Social media is pinging and review copies are sent out. There’s a launch event, maybe a festival gig and the author visits a school and a library. We see what happens next. Do bookshops buy it? Do parents know its there? Do kids like it? What does the market say? The bloggers? Awards? Sales? 

I would watch this.

There are millions of wannabe writers out there – let’s show them what it’s really about.

2) Books I Love

Short pieces. Ordinary people who are articulate, passionate readers simply saying why they adore a particular read. An actor reads an excerpt (as we see the text). The author talks about the book’s inspiration and realisation. 

3) Tales Worth Telling

Some of the best current children’s novelists each tell the story of a classic children’s book (Little Women, Treasure Island, Peter Rabbit etc). They choose one that was significant in their own development as a writer and then explain how the book influenced their own work, moving on to present and contrast the story of their own successful recent work of kids’ fiction. A series of these would be really interesting.

4) Why We Should All Care About Books

Start with some people from tough backgrounds whose lives have been turned around by becoming readers. They show their achievements and tell how books opened up opportunity along the way. The case for reading is powerfully made. Viewers are left in no doubt that research evidence shows clearly that readers reap multiple advantages over non-readers. The importance of libraries is made clear, and myths debunked. We see that in the age of social media and the internet, the humble book still holds remarkable power. This needs to be more than experts and talking heads: real people doing rewarding things because they kept turning the pages.

5) Paper Planet

Reading around the world. Different cultures. Who reads what where and why? Kids and adults. How it affects people. What is being done globally to stem the drop in reading for pleasure, especially among the young. What about gender and reading? Who is understanding that tech, far from being the answer, may really be the problem?

6) Rosen Recommended

If he’s well enough, I would love to see Michael Rosen, as one of the great advocates of children reading for enjoyment, taking us on a tour of great picture books, kids’ poetry, glorious non-fic (or maybe I should do that one!), and more. With lots of illustrators shown working on pictures. OH YES.

7) Something on YA – someone suggest something amazing (it’s not my area, so I’ll leave it to those who know).

Please add your own ideas. Or complain to the broadcasters about their overlooking of children’s books and the debate about reading for pleasure. Or we can just let the evil aliens win.

2 Comments

  1. Absolutely I would watch, and I also don’t see why not but I used to love Jackanory, several of the titles still on my shelves today originated from first hearing them on that. I think it starts with valuing books and part of valuing them is putting great actors at the controls on prime time TV. Story time is not the great institution it once was in some households with parents exhausted and electronic gadgets an easy fix. Equally it’s sidelined in some schools because of the government pressure to teach to test. So it takes a passionate teacher who understands it’s value and joy to go against the tide. Hence especially those children who struggle to read may never enjoy a book as it should be enjoyed, well read and for itself only. No wonder as they struggle through sounding out words to the detriment of comprehension even of a sentence they don’t get why books are wonderful. As to the celebrity culture and reality TV it’s cheaper than anything else to make and that is why they do it. I loathe it with a passion for the most part. But competition from Amazon Prime, Netflix etc have squeezed out the BBC and now pensioners have lost their free license and they are talking about putting the price up to £400 plus. So it’s easy to see why people just watch films on those and don’t bother. The trouble with the celebrity authors too is they have all the front of house advertising built in and we know that publishers just don’t/can’t put anything approaching that kind of advertising behind even the most celebrated children’s book. And hardly anything at all if it’s poetry. It’s really so sad but it’s assumed that school visits alone will sell books. Which of course makes our current situation all the more tragic. On the bright side I believe I have seen of late, an upsurge in interest in poetry, not just reading but writing too. In these dark times people have turned to it for solice both to express the inexpressible and to make sense of the senseless. I think if there’s been anything good about all of this, perhaps that was it. Time for some to take stock, slow down, analyse what is important. Not for everyone of course. Those frontline staff in all their many forms have worked harder than ever, for little thanks and now seemingly not even an inflation related pay rise. And in this I also include all those other low paid services that have quietly carried on keeping us all clean and fed as well as safe at great risk to themselves, as well as the medical staff and school staff who have worked twice as hard and have yet been challenged and criticised. Anyway I have come a long way from the original topic and I hope you will forgive me my rant. But the bottom line is they are talking about not making any new TV programs and just running repeats so I’m not optimistic that the current setup can carry on. I think eventually TV as we knew and accepted it as children won’t exist. So if there’s a hope for putting children’s books at the forefront of technology of any kind it relies on someone such as Netflix or Virgin Media thinking it’s important or more importantly to them that it will be lucrative. So sadly it’s a snake eating its own tail for now.

    Reply
    1. You speak wise words, Sue! I know that Netflix, Disney etc have been on the rise for some time (and some people just watch YouTube) but a lot of people do still watch ‘old school’ TV and the BBC still has an influence and is still trusted by many, despite recent ‘defunding’ campaigns etc. I think as a broadcaster funded by public money they shouldn’t be overlooking this hugely important part of our culture.

      Reply

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