One of the current topics of debate in the world of children's books is whether publishers should print intended age-groups on the covers. There was a fairly heated spat on this morning's BBC Breakfast programme between authors Meg Rosoff (in favour) and Graham Marks (against). In my copy of The Bookseller this week there is a full page statement by famous children's authors putting the case against and asking us to support them.
So what are the arguments? Publishers (and not all have signed up for this, by the way: Walker and Bloomsbury, I believe, are reluctant) argue that people who are buying books for the children in their lives need guidance, otherwise they just don't know what would be appropriate for little Melanie or Johnny.
I have a suggestion here - how about they look at the jacket design or try opening the covers and reading a few pages? If they are in the habit of having any contact with the children they're purchasing for, they must have some idea of their interests and vocabulary level.
Meg Rosoff argued that people are genuinely bewildered. Graham Marks, showing signs of being seriously exercised by this, pointed out that in bookshops there is already age-ranging going on: 8-12, 12+ and so on. Meg countered that in supermarkets this is not the case, and that it's really hard, apparently, to find a bookseller who can give you that kind of information and guidance.
You may have twigged by now which side I take on this debate. I think the idea is hideous. Once of the strongest arguments against it is that kids will judge other kids and sneer at them if they see them reading something marked beneath their chronological age. God knows, it's hard enough to get kids to read in the first place, let's not age-ghettoise them.
When I was a child, my criterion for reading a book was this: 'Is it a good story?' Never mind age-appropriateness. I hated those books that had been bowdlerised and watered down to suit a nominal age group: 'Kidnapped' with a simpler vocabulary, and so on. I liked to be tested. I often didn't understand words and concepts (I used to wonder why so many 'divers' appeared in old books, for instance) - but that didn't matter. Reading those words in the context of a story that gripped me led me towards an understanding of them, simply because of that context, that setting - and helped me to develop my own powers of expression.
Neither publishers nor bookshops seem to have a clear sense of age-banding anyway: younger reading can stop at 7. Or 8. The middle ground goes from 8-11. Or 9-12, depending on the bookstore. Older readers are 12+. Or they have to be teens. At some point they segue into young adults. When are you a young adult? 14? 15? 16?
To fix these ages on the backs of books, as opposed to shelf-edges or display stands is the worst of options as this is a signal not left behind after purchase. Every time the child opens the book they're making a declaration to the world, to their peers: 'This book is, like Goldilocks' porridge, just right for me. At least, so the publisher is telling me - even though I'm bored stupid'. Or 'This book shows the world I'm punching above my weight. I'm a clever-clogs. Actually, though, I don't understand the half of it.' Or 'This book confirms what you all thought: I'm a thicko and I can only cope with something written for littlies - I'm so embarrassed. But I really like the story.'
Stop patronising kids - start stretching them. Let them find their own level. Encourage them to read everything, from the old picture books that bring back the feeling of being cherished and safe, to the bewildering complexity of a story that gives them challenge and satisfaction.
If you feel as I do, take yourself off to www.notoagebanding.org and sign the petition.