We all know that reading is good, and I've seen many studies showing the benefits for children who go on to develop a life-long love of reading. So why does BBC television ban people from holding actual books?
I recently watched one of CBeebies Bedtime Stories, with Mark Ronson, who was reading Jon Burgerman's picture book, Rhyme Crime. Except he wasn't reading, he was speaking to the screen, interspersed with formatted-for-telly graphics from the book. We never saw the actual book itself.
I think this is a big problem. Why? From doing events, I've seen how children don't seem to make the mental jump from hearing a story and seeing on-screen images to realising a book is a thing they could hold, and read from. When I do events, I put the picture book pages on screen, so everyone can see even from the back row. But I've noticed that when I only refer to the screen images as I read the story, and don't hold the book, there's very little uptake at the end, the kids don't ask their parents for their own copy of the book, or ask their teacher if they can find the book in their school library. So I learned to hold the book during my events, read from it even when the images are on-screen, and the children seem much more able to make the connection.
The BBC has good reasons for not allowing product placement on its shows; it's a publicly-funded channel and we don't want children subjected to endless adverts that make them want things they can't have, or are bad for them, such as sugar cereal or sweets. On their Frequently Asked Questions page, CBeebies addresses queries about toys, books, CDs and DVDS, saying these fall 'under a "commercial activity" and we're not allowed to be commercial'. I've experienced this myself, going on television to talk about one of my books but being told to leave the book behind, with reassurances that they'll have images from the book on screen.
But why can't books be an exception to this rule? Would it really be so harmful if children watched a storytime show, and then wanted books to hold and read for themselves?
The BBC wouldn't have to push the commercial angle of reading, they could encourage children to go and check out the book at the library. It's not only about author self-interest. Encouraging children to read on their own only seems like a win in terms of children's well-being. And a boost to libraries, who could use a boost in this time of library cuts, when they need to show people are still using their services. I know there are many homes that have televisions but no books at all. Many children have no idea that they can go to a library and check out a book without having to pay anything. The thought of going to the library doesn't even occur to them or their parents or carers. Why wouldn't the BBC want to give libraries and reading that extra boost? In Leicester, there was such a problem with children not reading or having any books that the School Development Support Agency set up a scheme called 'Whatever It Takes', saying that they would do whatever it takes to get children reading. This led to an annual Author Week, when schoolchildren are taken on buses to the Tiger Rugby Club to hear talks and take part in workshops led by children's book writers and illustrators. Each child gets to take home their own signed copy of the featured book, and for many children, it's the first book they own. The SDSA knew owning physical books was a good thing. Why doesn't the BBC?
In yesterday's The One Show with writer Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler, the BBC team surrounded their discussion with pictures Axel had created for their new book, The Smeds and the Smoos. It was wonderful to see both writer and illustrator together on telly! Unlike on CBeebies Storytime with Ronson, they did show a graphic of the actual book cover. But it was on a screen, and one that was markedly cold and a considerable physical distance from the cosy grouping of creators chatting. How different could this have been, if Donaldson and Scheffler could have been proudly holding, touching and looking at the actual object they made, lit in the warm companionable light between them? The BBC (@BBCTheOneShow) even tweeted about the book: 'The new book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler sounds out of this world!'
So it's obvious that the BBC are pro-book. But I think they're missing something vital; tweets and screens and mentions are not ways that children will necessarily connect with the concept of the book itself. I understand that reading from a book at length might not work well for the format of telly. But even if Ronson, or Donaldson or Scheffler could have come on holding a physical copy of the book, that would have meant so much more to any child watching: It's a book! That famous person is holding a book. I could hold a book, too! Maybe I could even read it. Even without reading a book in full, an episode could start with the reader opening the book, and finish with them closing the book, as they did back in the days of Jackanory. And the BBC wouldn't have to splash out money for their own copies of the book; there's no author or publisher who wouldn't be more than happy to provide a book when they appear on a BBC programme.
Last year my agent, Jodie Hodges, queried @CBeebiesHQ about this on Twitter, to which they replied, 'All the animations featured in each story are directly from the book but thanks for your feeback'. Writer-illustrator Chris Priestley noted, 'They are just missing your point. They think you're saying the programme isn't really about the content, when what you're saying is the programme should be about the PHYSICAL book. I think a lot of people don't see the importance of that. But I'm with you on this.'
Lydia Monks, who also illustrates Julia Donaldson books, tweeted, 'It would be great to see them reading from the actual book. Children do notice what grown-ups do, and what a great opportunity to show an adult reading a book!'
Writer Philip Ardagh tweeted, 'I once saw an author do an event where he'd memorised his text so he didn't read from his book. The result? It didn't feel like a book event at all.'
Actor Colin Salmon tweeted, 'That is a fantastic point. The joy I had watching adults read as a child was my opportunity to study their faces as they uncovered secrets for us.' The BBC is a huge monolith and my small voice won't make much difference. But if the whole book community starts asking questions about this, and looking into what exactly is allowed and not allowed at the BBC. And I would urge reading charities to take up this issue, since television has an enormous influence on how children perceive books. And they don't perceive any books on telly, because actual books are banned. If the BBC can promote reading with actual books, it might be just as influential as expensive reading schemes and it will get into the homes that most need exposure to books.
BBC, please, can you make an exception for children's books and allow physical copies of books on your programmes?