Friday, 6 June 2008

Age-ranging rage

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.

Oh please.

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 and sign the petition.


Karen said...

As a librarian I get asked quite a lot for advice from mums who are confused about which books to take out for their children, and I always advise them to do what you a couple of pages themselves. Children are so different. What would be suitable for one of my sons, for instance, wouldn't be right for his twin brother. Having the age-range printed on the front wouldn't alter that, and you're right - he would get made fun of for reading books supposedly aimed at younger readers. Don't do it, is what I say!

Good post.

Lorna F said...

Thanks for this, Karen. Let's hope lots of people are as sensible as we clearly are and go and sign the petition.

Muvva said...

I'm totally with you on this one, Lorna. I remember reading my first 'adult book' at nine - an Agatha Christie. And i read and loved "1984" at 12. Yet my 13, 15 and 17 years old boys still stick religiously to 'children's books'.

Lol, I am not sure what my point is, but it's probably that everyone is different. Great books, I believe, span all age ranges. There are certain children's writers whose books I still genuinely enjoy. "Peter Pan", "The Railway Children" and "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" give me a huge frisson when I read them to the kids. And I think I enjoyed "How I Live Now" every bit as much as they did.

But I also think that one of the downsides of the burgeoning business of children's book writing is that kids can stick to 'age appropriate' books for years, without, it seems, experiencing that yearning I seemed to have when I was young to graduate on to all those books I saw adorning my parent's book shelves.

Lorna F said...

Great to hear from you, Muvva! I was seriously wondering if you'd emigrated or something. Glad to hear your comments - and I agree that even now I'm old and denying grey I still like a good children's book just as when I was a littlie I read grown up books. A good book is a good book is a good book.