Monday, 4 February 2013

Why it’s a bad idea to try to champion books by discrediting other media

Evangelists for children's books are not doing themselves or books any favours by attacking children's TV or films 

(I wrote this post for my boys' literacy blog, COOL not CUTE!, but since most of it applies to books generally, I thought I'd post it here too.)

I’ve attended several children’s book events where speakers have tried to champion books to a young audience by discrediting other media and my heart always sinks when I hear them doing it. More often than not, films and television are the targets.

The oft repeated line that “the pictures are better in books than in films or television because you have to create them in your imagination,” is fine when presented as a subjective opinion.  However it's often presented as an objective statement, in which case it won’t ring true with many children brought up in an age when TV and film-makers compete to outdo each other with increasingly imaginative visuals. If a film is adapted from a book a child has read, sometimes the images on the screen will be disappointing in comparison to what that child has imagined, but on other occasions the screen versions will be more vivid, characterful and spectacular. I re-read all the Lord of the Rings books to my son around the time that Peter Jackson’s films were released in the cinema. Much as I admire the scope of Tolkien’s imagination, his prose is often pedestrian and his dialogue perfunctory and I much prefer watching the film adaptations, with Alan Lee’s masterful production designs, to reading the original books.

And the claim that “the pictures in your imagination are better” feels even more inappropriate and misjudged if there are picture book authors, illustrators and readers attending the event. I don’t think any of my picture books would have been improved by removing the pictures and leaving the readers to imagine them for themselves; the illustrations are a crucial part of a picture book’s appeal.

Worse still are the ambassadors for books who go one step further by claiming that watching TV will rot your brains. On two occasions I’ve heard such statements accompanied by readings of the song the Oompa-Loompas sing on Mike Teavee’s exit from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Here’s what the Oompa-Loompas have to sing on the subject of television (the capitalisation is Dahl’s):
IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY A  FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK - HE ONLY SEES!
Having denigrated television in this way, the Oompa-Loompas go on to sing the praises (literally) of books. Much as I adore Roald Dahl's work generally, I feel that this song crosses the line from amusing satire into prejudiced propaganda in a way that the other Oompah-Loompas songs don’t. Mike Teavee’s vice is one of overindulgence; he overindulges in television in the same way that Augustus Gloop overindulges in chocolate.  Both things are bad in excess, but Dahl does not have the Oompa-Loompas denigrate chocolate in Gloop's exit song.

I don’t think that ambassadors for books are doing themselves or books any favours by attacking TV, films or video games in this way. Most children listening will know from first hand experience how appealing and satisfying these other media can be.  So, by attempting to discredit them, an ambassador undermines their own credibility. If an ambassador says they hate something that a child knows and loves, why should a child trust that ambassador’s judgment when he or she proclaims that books are something that ought to be loved?

I think it’s nearly always better to work with the grain of a child’s enthusiasm rather than against it when promoting books. If a child tells you they don’t like books, ask them what they do like. If it’s TV, ask them about their favourite programmes and why they like them.  Try to engage with and understand their enthusiasm — this is easy if you like the same programmes yourself. Then, when you understand what it is the child likes about the programme and, perhaps more importantly, when the child has understood that you understand this, tell them about a book they might like that contains the same sort of content.

This approach can be made to work for most children of most ages – but not all. If a child of picture book age says they like a film like Star Wars or a TV show like Ben 10, there’s little an ambassador for books can do because, as I’ve argued in COOL not CUTE, there are no picture books that match the content of Star Wars or Ben 10.  Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of picture book age children that like this sort of content  — and most of them are boys.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...