“Age banding” – just lazy, or worse?

09Jun08

Authors in the UK are up in arms over proposals by publishers to label all children’s books with “age bands” from later this year. The proposals to label books as being suitable for ages 5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+/teen are causing a storm of objections from a vast number of people involved in children’s literature, including Phillip Pullman, Quentin Blake and Jacqueline Wilson.

As well they should. The proposals seem poorly-thought out, aimed at purchasers rather than readers and designed purely to increase sales. Books aren’t like films – an unsuspecting five year old could well stumble across a disturbing film on television if viewing wasn’t restricted to evenings, but has considerably less chance of accidentally reading Stephen King.

The argument in favour of the labels is that they will make it easier for parents to select books for their children. But there are many other sources that are much better. Ask a teacher, or other parents. Tell a bookshop worker what the child likes, and ask for recommendations. Read the blurb of the book! If you’re really stuck for ideas, and concerned that the wrong choice might have some terrible effect on the child, perhaps you should consider a different purchase. Buying books isn’t rocket science.

Some of the main objections to the plans are detailed here. One of the most important ones is that labelling books as suitable for a particular age range is likely to stigmatise children reading at below their age range. These children are likely to be the least enthusiastic readers anyway, and anything that turns them away from books should rightfully be deplored. Anyone who does not believe that reading books aimed at people younger than them can carry a stigma should ask themselves just why the Harry Potter books come in two cover designs.

It isn’t clear what will be the criteria for banding here either. Content? Vocabulary? Illustrations? Children are all different, and there is a huge spectrum of different types of books to cover. What may be too difficult for one twelve year old might be devoured happily by a nine year old.

I was always a voracious reader, working my way through any and all books that came to hand. At the age of around four or five, I loved Roald Dahl’s books, and read them all. His stories, should anyone need reminding, are as gruesome as they come. Should they be restricted to over-nines, on the basis that they depict gruesome deaths, twisted versions of favourite nursery rhymes and episodes of what can only be termed child abuse?

On the other hand, the content of the Chronicles of Narnia is really quite innocent. Even the ‘battle scenes’ are presented in an almost historical, rather than descriptive, way. And while rather too rooted in Christian morality for some tastes, they are good stories well told. I read them all in early junior school. But my copy of the final book, the Last Battle (circa early 1960s, previously owned by my mother and held together by love and sellotape) contained an illustration that until I was about 10, I had to cover with one hand while I read the facing page as quickly as possible. Rereading the book more than a decade later, I still know exactly when that page is approaching. So, perhaps these stories should be rated 11+, just to be on the safe side?

There is also often a distinction between adult themes and adult writing. I read and really enjoyed Behind the Scenes at the Museum in Year 6 (I still recall relating dialogue to my friends in the school canteen), the same year I made yet another failed attempt to read Lord of the Rings. (I finally succeeded in that at the age of 15, long after many of my contemporaries). Would Tolkien be less suitable for children than Atkinson? Are the elves and orcs less accessible than a troubled family in 1960s York? The answer is yes for some children, no for others.

The great thing about books is that they are self-selecting. You can’t force a child to read a book that she has no interest in, whether it is too hard or too easy. Equally, it’s hard to keep children away from books that they want to read. My mother declared that Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory was not suitable for twelve-year-old me, and hid it somewhere. I borrowed my friend Sarah’s copy, and discussed it at length a few days later. The rest of his books (my father, it turned out, was a fan) reappeared on the family bookshelves a few days later. Some years earlier, I remember being somewhat confused by finding a Roald Dahl book I hadn’t read tucked away on a shelf in my parents’ room. Funny, I thought, Switch Bitch wasn’t listed in the “by the same author” lists at the front of Matilda and James and the Giant Peach. I decided, somewhat uncharacteristically, to leave it where it was, on the offchance that one day I discovered what “bitch” actually meant.

I should go back and find out what that book’s actually about.

These proposals are too narrow for the younger ages, because children’s reading abilities vary so much in junior school. But they are just as restricting for older children. When I was just starting senior school, the “teen” sections of local bookshops were half Point Horror and half Babysitters’ Club, neither of which appealed to me. There is more decent fiction aimed at that age-group now, but there are, I am certain, still children who don’t feel drawn to any of it. Labelling of books as “teen” by the publishers will further alienate those kids, and possibly put them off reading if they find they don’t like any of ‘their’ books.

My senior school displayed both the good and bad effects of age banding. English lessons partly involved reading at least one book in class every term, involving reading in class, homework reading, essays on the topics, and occasional acting out of key scenes. Fair enough, but of course the intent was to get everyone reading, and so those of us who saw school as an interruption to useful reading time were a little unenthused. I remember being accused of not having done my reading homework, and having to defend myself by saying that I had read Watership Down a few years previously, re-read it at the start of term, and didn’t really relish the thought of reading a fairly dull chapter again. I believe I offered to tell the class how it ended, and my teacher backed down.

Another memorable incident was the “book box” – a collection of books on a theme, in this case on the Second World War from children’s points of view. We were supposed to pick one, read it, and review it. But I had already read all six of the options, and none of them had been particularly exciting. Almost everyone in the class had already read at least one. To the teacher’s credit, the lacklustre response meant no more “book boxes”. Shakespeare might have been more challenging, but at least it was new.

The other end of the spectrum was the school library. The librarian was not well liked by the pupils for a variety of reasons, but in her favour, she did her best to stock the library with what people wanted. On the rare occasion when she deemed a request a little inappropriate for some readers, it was placed in the “Sixth Form Section” – a bookcase tucked away behind the librarian’s desk. Ostensibly for the over-sixteens, in actual fact the only criteria required for borrowing a book from that section was expressing an interest in it. The librarian, for all her failings, recognised that some thirteen year olds will want to read Paolo Coehlo, just to see what it’s like. And the ones who do will be old enough to understand it, at least in part.

And that is how people – of all ages – should choose books to read. Based on what they want to read. Whether it’s from a friend’s recommendation, or a compelling blurb, or simply an intriguing cover.

I still read as much as I can, and I still read everything I can. That includes rereading children’s books I used to enjoy, and reading new children’s books that I’ve never read. It’s relaxing and undemanding to read Anthony Horowitz, precisely because I’m in some sense “too old” for it. I enjoy his books just as much as I do books that win awards and praise for adult writing. Sometimes more so. But it wasn’t until His Dark Materials and Harry Potter that this sort of behaviour became acceptable. Why should we go back to restricting what it’s ‘suitable’ for people to read, by labelling books in a way that is at best patronising and at worst potentially discouraging, for the benefit of adults who can’t seem to be bothered to even read the backs of books to decide if they’re suitable for the intended recipients?

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One Response to ““Age banding” – just lazy, or worse?”

  1. If you want to read a new Christian Fantasy book visit this site:
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    There’s an ebook written by a woman who turned her painful childhood (being separated by her father) into a fantasy / fiction novel. Beware…it’s a ROUGH draft!


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