Doctors' Orders

A book a day keeps the blues away, according to a reading campaign by a group of publishing houses, booksellers' organizations - and pediatricians. A winning prescription.

One has to hand it to the Americans. They do not only talk about it; they do something about it. No, not about the weather, and not about international terror: They do something about promoting reading. And not only among all Americans - but among the future readers, the children.

It is a joint action, undertaken by a range of interested parties - the American Association of Booksellers (ABA), Koen Distributors and Simon & Schuster publishing, who also managed to involve in their effort two other types of important partners: local booksellers in various states and towns, and local pediatricians in the same states and towns. Together they created a "reading prescription" to be dispensed to children by the "doctor." The prescription, when presented at the local bookshop, in writing, entitles the bearer to receive one copy of the paperback "A Book for a Honey Bear: Reading Keeps a Sigh Away."

Audrey Wood wrote the book, and it was commissioned by the instigators of the campaign. The book spells out clearly enough that reading 20 minutes a day to and by children is good for them. By the way, the same idea is spelled out on the back cover of a children's book series published by A. Knopf.

Simon & Schuster printed an edition of 100,000 copies of the book. Each bookshop participating in the campaign receives 100 books and publicity material. The campaign is for a limited time only, and books that are not claimed by a certain date are to be donated by the bookshop to a recipient of their choice.

Sooooo American

This is the second reading-promotion campaign launched along the same lines: In 1997, Scholastic Press (who can certainly afford it: they are Harry Potter's publishers in the U.S.) printed an edition of "Read to your Bunny" by Rosemary Wells. The 1997 campaign, organizers say, was a success, although it is rather unclear what is and what is not a success here.

It is crystal clear, however, why a publisher and a book distributor should participate and invest in such a campaign: Investing in children is ensuring their own future. The readers of today will be the buyers of tomorrow. The booksellers have an even better deal, which may be of benefit within short order: Parent-and-child duos lured into a bookshop with a prescription today may come back tomorrow to buy another book of their own free will. There were even bookshops which worked to promote that idea, preparing lists of recommended reading to be attached to the "prescribed" book.

The benefit of the pediatrician in the deal is less evident: The prescription should be sort of a (consolation?) prize that is supposed to ensure the child's good behavior in the doctor's office. But as long as the child has not seen the prescribed book, why should he believe it is a prize - and not a punishment? He expects the doctor to hurt him, doesn't he? And if the prescribed book will bore him, will he willingly go to see the doctor the next time?

But let's assume the child loves the prescribed book, and indeed drags his parents to see the doctor, malingering and faking a tummy ache. The doctor doesn't have a different prescription for a different book. That is the difference, one of many, between a book and a medicine: If you get addicted to books, you will need a "hit" of a different book each time, and not another dose of the same medicine. One thing is that the dosage is clearly indicated: 20 minutes of reading a day. Which are supposed to keep the doctor away, like the apple, and keep your mind open (but not empty), and develop your imagination. It is sooooo American. But it is a good marketing idea.

In Israel, which is a bit smaller than the U.S., there is not much use working on a local - town - scale. Here is a challenge for the Association of Israeli publishers, the various health maintenance organizations, and the book store chains (how many are there in Israel?). It is a too good an idea to miss. And just what the doctor ordered.