WHEN film star and director Jackie Chan received an honorary doctorate from the Baptist University last year he admitted he wasn't much of a reader, and used the occasion to urge children not to follow his example and to read. But for many children, the novel has little place in their lives beyond formal education. There is much concern about poor standards of English and written Chinese in schools, and the fact many children enjoy reading only comics and cartoons for pleasure may be a cause. Local children's author Huang Qing-yun said: 'Children are eager to read cartoons but don't have time for books because they have so much homework to do and want to watch television and play computer games.' Children's reading abilities and knowledge of Chinese culture were worryingly low, she added. 'If they read more, their writing - and thinking - would be better. If they only watch television rather than read they do not use their imagination,' she said. The Education Department has acknowledged that Hong Kong children are less well-read than well-educated children in the West. To promote wider reading, it is launching a scheme in primary schools that will allow older children to spend two periods a week reading a book of their choice. 'Children are not reading enough, especially young children. This is not because teachers don't promote books but because some pupils are not interested, and because the community does not regard reading as practical,' said Sin Chow Dick-yee, the Education Department's principal inspector, Chinese and Chinese History Section. In the West it is accepted the best time to cultivate a love of books is when children are small, with picture books and nursery stories and rhymes to stimulate their interest. But in Hong Kong, picture books sell poorly; most parents regard pictures as a waste of space and bookshops often lack the space to display them effectively. Furthermore, there is no tradition of parents reading stories to the very young, according to authors and publishers. 'Parents don't think it is important to read to children,' said Kimmy K. H. Wai, deputy marketing and promotions manager of Sun Ya Publications, the territory's largest publisher of children's books. 'Parents in Hong Kong are working. They have less time to spend with their children. Sometimes they don't want the children to bother them so they just buy them tapes or videos,' she said. Most children are only introduced to books when they go to kindergarten and school, with parents buying books based on teachers' recommendations. 'Parents see reading as learning, so children don't want to do it, thinking it is just more homework,' said Wai. The limited market for children's fiction outside school texts is very fashion-driven. 'Children normally like books because of films. Books will only sell for a short time, when they tie in with a movie or television programme,' said Wai. As children get older, leisure reading is dominated by comics and cartoons, with books based on Japanese cartoons among the most popular. 'They aren't good for children, because of their content of sex, violence and lavatorial humour,' said author Chau Mat-mat. Wai said: 'Parents don't like story books because they don't think children learn from them. But they are wrong.' 'They think if children do more exercises their language skills will get better. They give them no time to read literature.' That's why supplementary exercises to support schoolwork and reference books such as encyclopedias sell particularly well, but not literature and picture books. There is nothing unique in the fact many children here more readily turn to the television and computers for entertainment than a classic novel. 'Literary culture is declining, not just in Hong Kong but around the world, among adults and children,' said Chau. 'If parents don't read it is very hard for children to read.' Although many children in Britain grow up without books at home, prestigious authors and illustrators, from A. A. Milne to Roald Dahl and Shirley Hughes, are household names for many others. Publishers market books on the basis of author popularity. In Hong Kong there is no such recognition for the author, whether local or foreign. Very few children can name any local authors, according to Huang. The Disney version of Winnie the Pooh was popular here, but few would know the original was written by A. A. Milne, she said. Moreover, only a small number of traditional Chinese stories, such as The Journey to the West and The Dream of the Red Chamber, are well known among children. 'Teachers don't talk about old culture,' said Wai. Local authors enjoy much less status and find it more difficult to make a living from books than their foreign counterparts. As a result, Wai said, the quality of writing did not match that available in the West. Huang said this was a vicious circle. 'I really believe in the magical power of the story. If books are good, children will like them. But there are not enough good books for them,' she said. There are many good books published in China where simplified Chinese characters are used, she said, but few were re-published in Hong Kong which uses the original, more complicated, form. The range of international books translated into Chinese is limited, with the titles dominated by Disney's movie tie-in books. Sun Ya has published some notable exceptions, such as bilingual editions of the Simon series by Canadian author Gilles Tibo. However, Sin said modern parents are beginning to take more interest in children's books, though attitudes still needed changing. The Chinese Extensive Reading Scheme in Primary Schools is being launched for a trial three-year period, beginning in December. Thirty new schools a year will join. Under the scheme, P5 and P6 pupils can opt to spend two periods a week reading books from a list of selected and graded titles. Using $11 million allocated from the Language Fund, schools will be provided with books, bookshelves and worksheets. Teachers will also be specially trained. Most of the books would be by local authors because their stories were more related to the daily lives of students, said Sin. The Education Department has tested the scheme in a pilot project in selected schools and found it improved reading standards and promoted pupils' interest in books. It is also researching into new methods of teaching Chinese that would enable children to read simple books earlier. There is some community support to encourage local authors, too, with an annual writing competition that includes a children's section.