Behind the best-sellers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 October, 2002, 12:00am

A groundswell against child sedative Ritalin has attracted some unusual flag-bearers. Lisa Marie Presley has emerged as one of its poster girls, standing before American Congress this month to tell senators that children are being overdosed with the drug by doctors looking for quick fixes to behavioural problems.

Bart Simpson is another, thanks to an episode of The Simpsons in which he was prescribed a similar drug that results in more trouble than it was supposed to cure.

Neither of them, however, are as potent a force in the effort to take drugs out of child development as a quiet, unassuming paediatrician called Dr Mel Levine.

The professor of paediatrics and director of the Clinical Centre for the Study of Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine is a guru in the field of child learning. Condemning drug administration to children as a cop-out, for 30 years he has advocated a proactive approach to raising youngsters. Parents, teachers and physicians, he says, must do more than look for band-aid solutions.

The culmination of this is A Mind At A Time, in which Levine stresses that each child is different, and one-size-fits-all remedies could worsen behaviour.

The response to the book has been incredible, proving that his philosophy is striking a chord with the American public, says Levine's agent Lane Zachary. 'It shows that parents are alarmed by the sorts of things that physicians are prescribing to their children,' she says from her Boston office, where she is helping put together Levine's next book, The Myth Of Laziness.

'There is a real thirst among parents to get their children the help they really need.'

Within weeks of its launch in the spring, the book went into the top five in the hardback listings. A spot on Oprah Winfrey's television show ensured it remained there for weeks. At one point, a link to the author's Web site on Oprah's portal garnered two million visits a week, double the average, a Winfrey spokesman said at the time.

The book recently dipped from the list only to return when interest in the debate rose as the Congressional hearings on Ritalin approached and also after Levine appeared on the influential National Public Radio Fresh Air arts show.

To date, A Mind At A Time has sold an estimated 300,000 copies in the United States. Levine is more than just a guru to parents around the country; he is also well-respected among his peers. As well as his practice in North Carolina, he is the president of All Kinds Of Minds, a nationwide non-profit foundation dedicated to promoting his philosophy of diversified teaching in schools and institutes throughout the US. His Schools Attuned, a teacher-training programme, sends support teachers versed in Levine's principles to classrooms all over the country. Such projects have afforded his name enormous reach throughout the US.

'He is very popular and well-known through his involvements in various organisations,' says Zachary. 'So there has been a groundswell of interest in his work.' His popularity has enabled Levine to practically dictate his own advance and royalty terms. After proposing the book just over a year ago, he submitted a detailed synopsis to auction. After four days of offers and counteroffers, he finally settled with Simon & Schuster for a six-figure sum, says Zachary.

Levine has been surprised by his success, she says.

'This was not an ego project for him, he's not that kind of a person - he just believes very strongly in what he does.'

Currently touring the country promoting his book, Levine, ironically has no children of his own and spends his leisure time tending the gaggle of 500 geese on his farm. The Myth Of Laziness is due out next year, also through Simon & Schuster, and will challenge the belief that children are lazy.

'There is no such thing, he believes,' says Zachary. 'Instead he thinks there are simply lazy adults.'

A Mind At A Time by Mal Levine

Simon & Schuster $266