Author Anne Fine wants television to switch children on to print, reports Geraldine Brennan
The Government's literacy drive is not enough - reading needs the Comic Relief treatment, and television companies have a moral duty to help provide it, argues one of Britain's top children's authors.
Anne Fine suggests broadcasters should devote the equivalent of Red Nose Day's celebrity-studded coverage to luring children away from the screen and into books. "We need to drag back Rowan Atkinson and the Spice Girls to promote reading," she told a seminar on "Books and the Box" at St Anne's College, Oxford, this week.
Ms Fine, whose latest novel, The Tulip Touch, has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, believes that television has the power to create a reading culture in the same way that Delia Smith's cookery programmes have led to a run on limes and cranberries and Oprah Winfrey's chat show book club turned unknown United States authors into best-sellers. But the opportunity is being lost, she said.
"Television is an absolutely stunning medium, but books provide something essential to a child's emotional and intellectual growth which television cannot provide. Yet television has much more power in terms of the number of children it reaches and the ease of access. It should be helping books to do what it can't do."
Instead, she argued, young viewers on the brink of discovering books are being distracted by "the obsession with celebrity and the terror of attributing the power of intelligent listening to children". Even the children's programmes which did include references to books, she added, "set a shocking example of what is an acceptable level of knowledge".
She also referred to the "poverty-stricken" language in both TV adaptations of novels and original series such as Grange Hill. "The practical problems of filming have a pernicious effect. The value of books, the workings of the mind and the conscious and unconscious feelings can't be got over.
"Telly is king and it lets its people starve. But it could redeem itself cheaply and easily."
Authors, broadcasters and publishers joined former college members to discuss the future of children's books and children's television - and their enforced competition for children's attention - in the influential series of St Anne's Gaudy Seminars, which in past years have focused on education, law and Europe.
Jan Mark, another children's novelist, pointed out the uniqueness of the act of reading which a mass media cannot reproduce. "It is a one-to-one experience - nobody reads the same book. You cannot demand a mass response when you are addressing individuals. Yet we make assumptions about children and plan for them and organise them as if they were a conglomerate."
Anna Home, the head of BBC children's drama who commissioned Grange Hill, said the role of children's TV was to supply "a window on the world" rather than try to duplicate the book experience.
"We are walking a tightrope between giving children what they want and love and giving them what adults think they need and should have. It's better that they are watching something that relates to their culture such as Grange Hill or Byker Grove rather than endless Neighbours."
A public service children's channel might fill some gaps, she said. "But whether that is a business proposition is another thing."
Anne Fine argues that final reponsibility for helping children to develop critical faculties lies with parents. "We have to have a switch-off-the-drivel movement. We have to say, 'You may not have a television in your bedroom - I would prefer you to have a childhood.'" Children's books and reading, TES2, pages 6-11