Saturday, June 07, 2008

Children's books: No to age banding

Philip Pullman had a column in this morning's Guardian protesting about a move by publishers to print age guidance figures on all books:

A month or so ago I had a letter from each of my publishers telling me that they had commissioned some research and that, as a result of the findings, they were going to place an age-guidance figure on all their books, saying that this one was for children of 9+, that one for 7+, and so on.

My immediate response was to say, as vigorously as I could, "Not on my books, you're not." And, to their credit, each of my publishers behaved impeccably - they said, in effect: "We wouldn't do anything without your consent, and if you'd rather not have them there, you don't have to."

However, it soon became clear that other writers hadn't had that sort of understanding, and had been told that it was going to happen, like it or not. Not only writers: one editor was told that she had to put such a figure on all her books in the future, because it was now "an industry standard".

Pullman links to the website set up to protest against the move: No to Age Banding.

This list of reasons they give for opposing the list appears pretty conclusive:
    • Each child is unique, and so is each book. Accurate judgments about age suitability are impossible, and approximate ones are worse than useless.

    • Children easily feel stigmatized, and many will put aside books they might love because of the fear of being called babyish. Other children will feel dismayed that books of their ‘correct’ age-group are too challenging, and will be put off reading even more firmly than before.

    • Age-banding seeks to help adults choose books for children, and we're all in favour of that; but it does so by giving them the wrong information. It’s also likely to encourage over-prescriptive or anxious adults to limit a child's reading in ways that are unnecessary and even damaging.

    • Everything about a book is already rich with clues about the sort of reader it hopes to find – jacket design, typography, cover copy, prose style, illustrations. These are genuine connections with potential readers, because they appeal to individual preference. An age-guidance figure is a false one, because it implies that all children of that age are the same.

    • Children are now taught to look closely at book covers for all the information they convey. The hope that they will not notice the age-guidance figure, or think it unimportant, is unfounded.

    • Writers take great care not to limit their readership unnecessarily. To tell a story as well and inclusively as possible, and then find someone at the door turning readers away, is contrary to everything we value about books, and reading, and literature itself.
Only one thing puzzles me: the claim that "Children are now taught to look closely at book covers for all the information they convey." Surely, children always have done this without needing to be taught?


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more!

And just look at the many thousands of adults who have rediscovered reading through supposed children's books like the Harry Potter stories, Pullman's own Dark Materials trilogy or Terry Pratchett's. Would they have picked them up - or be seen reading them - if the books had been age banded?

Philip Wilkinson said...

I too agree with Pullman. As someone who sometimes writes non-fiction books for children, I'm usually asked by publishers to aim my writing at a specific age-group. That's fine. It helps me to decide what prose style to write in and what level of information to include. But any child should then be able to look at the book and the information it contains and make up their mind whether it's right for them. Labelling books with age-bands erects barriers for some readers; publishing and writing ought to be about taking such barriers down.