Black and White and Read All Over
is a new series about children’s books on Channel 4.
It’s not your usual square-shaped book programme for kiddies so you won’t be surprised to hear that the Brain Behind It is Michael Rosen.
He was a bit breathless in September but found the time and the typewriter to send us this despatch from Despatch.
Now read on…
…halfway through rehearsals for Black and White and Read all over. I find myself running round and round the rehearsal room in an old brown warehouse coat yelling at someone called Bozo. There is a woman called Dona who is calling me things like Wallybrains, Glumbum, Miserylegs and Birdbrain. I keep lifting up a telephone and talking to someone called Sadie in the Ice Cream Bar and every now and then we lift up a cardboard box and say, ‘We’re going to the library now,’ and we’re supposed to disappear into the cardboard box. ‘Who is responsible for this lunacy?’ I ask myself.
The answer is, in part, me.
Some eighteen months ago, I suggested to Telekation, (the independent film company that made ‘Everybody Here’) that we could make a children’s book programme – perhaps for Channel 4. Naomi Sargent, a commissioning editor at Channel 4 accepted the idea and we were away. The company took on researcher Billy McQueen, designer Andrew Franks and between us we came up with a format. This book programme would take place in the dispatch department of a big store. The boss, Mr Bozo does not want a children’s bookshop in his store, but Mike and Dona do. So they start an illicit bookshop by putting books into the boxes going to people who ‘shop from home’. They’ve told the children of the area all about it and they’re coming in to see Sadie in the Ice Cream bar with videos and all sorts. There is a lift that comes down into the basement where Mike and Dona work and who knows who or what might come out of the lift?
The key question in many people’s minds is, I guess, what books? and how did you choose them?
Here are some criteria: none of the books would contain things in it that are offensive to people on account of their culture, nationality, gender. That is to say I could not put my hand on my heart and recommend a joke book with racist jokes in; I could not recommend the brilliantly written ‘BFG‘ with its mad zenophobic abuse of people and countries all over the world. We would look for books that gave positive characterisation to a variety of cultures; we would look for books that showed that girls or women could do more than service boys and men; we would look for books that present non-fiction in a lively accessible way, most of the books would be paperbacks, we would include ‘classics’ as and where they came up to the other criteria. Ploughing through hundreds of books I found myself wondering about all sorts of things. Why is it that in some science books the only people doing the experiments are white boys? Why do animal books say that the animal is ‘he’? (‘it’, ‘she and he’ and ‘they’ being other possibilities). But then, with all these criteria satisfied you might have a deadly dull book? Yes, in some cases, no in others.
We’ve looked for books that are available to self-supporting readers of 7-11, books with humour and/or high quality illustration and/or an imaginative world that the child can enter and/or realistic, practical suggestions of things to do.
A word about the presenters: one of them is Dona Croll, an actress with a lot of stage experience, a lot of humour and verve and someone who has a lot of sympathy with the way we have chosen the books. And me. No comment. In the scripts that we have written, the two characters that we play, argue, shout at each other, break off into various fantasies and mad acts, break into ‘rap’ sessions and song. The result is something hectic, nutty, and slightly bizarre. I tell myself that there is no point in working in television unless you try out something new. I don’t think children’s books have been presented in this way before – in fact I don’t think anything has been presented quite like this before. All you children’s book lovers out there – do ask your children to watch? the very least the programme shows is that children’s books are good fun and often useful. We would quite like to know what you and they think.
At the end of every programme we give an address to write to for a list of all the books and an entry form for a competition. The prizes are quite nice as well, book tokens, books and a chance to meet me (maybe not so nice?!) and Dona and go for a trip down the river. And who knows? you might meet the book monster as well. Who is the Book Monster?…
Mike Rosen has two new books out in the new year. Hairy Tales and Nursery Crimes (Deutsch) plays outrageous verbal variations on well-known tales and rhymes. ‘Once upon a tyre’, for instance, in Jack and the Tinstalk, Jack climbs out of his ‘breadroom windbag’, goes up the tinstalk and ‘at the pop’ finds ‘a huge Car Sale.’ Alan Baker, a new illustrative partner for Mike, provides an exact commentary with a series of splendidly bizarre black and white drawings.
That’d be Telling (Cambridge Educational) is a compilation with Joan Griffiths of material arising from the BBC Schools Radio programme of the same name. The aim, like that of the original programme is to encourage and develop spoken language through the sharing of jokes, riddles and stories from the oral tradition of different cultural communities – Caribbean, Irish, West African etc. There will be an audio cassette available to accompany the book.