Sunday, June 8, 2008

Age-Banding Children's Books

I had not heard of the plan in the UK to "age band" books for children until today. It seems that the protests of children's book authors are now really starting to ramp up, with no less a luminary than Philip Pullman leading the charge. Or at least leading the online petition. The list of signatories to the petition also includes Quentin Blake, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. But how can the opinions of the likes of these authors and illustrators be considered important when we have marketing statistics to weigh them against. Apparently, the Children's Book Group of the Publishers' Association found that 86% of "consumers" favoured some form of age guidance.

The "No to Age Banding" petition states the case against age-banding so eloquently and logically that it is no use my competing with it. Nevertheless, I cannot help but want to add that the very suggestion of putting books in age-appropriate categories like this, which would necessarily dissuade some child readers, is consumerism gone mad. There are already age indicators on books for children learning to read, picture books, or titles available through school bookclubs, but we don't need to tell parents or children themselves at what age they should read Harry Potter, or the His Dark Materials trilogy, or even Jane Eyre.

If all children acquired reading skills at a standard pace then we could set a universal Western course of study that began with The Cat in the Hat and ended with Are You There God, It's Me Margaret? The reading ability and interests of children are better reflected by their individual maturity and development rather than the arbitrary application of age appropriate banding.

One online comment blamed "helicopter parents", and I thought that was a great explanation for the responses of the "consumers" in the Publishers' Association survey. Is it too hard to know your child enough to know what book they might be ready to read? Couldn't you try out a public library if you're still not sure? Test 'em out on a few free titles and then make your buying decisions from there. How about talking with them and finding out what books they've enjoyed at school? Even take a peek in their library bag and see what they chose when they had to pick something in class?

At the base of this, however, seems to be some kind of parental fear of children being exposed to "age-inappropriate" content. A novel is not a computer game or a film. The imagery generated by a book stems from the child's own mind and imagination and can only be triggered if they possess the literary ability and knowledge in order to create it. As such, it's quite hard, I believe, for a child to read anything that will cause any lasting damage, whereas an age-inappropriate film or game could scare the hell out of a child at night for months afterward because the imagery is external and out of their control. This is within the realm of children's books, of course. I'm not talking about leaving American Psycho or Tropic of Capricorn around with copies of Lemony Snicket.

And perhaps we can entirely phase out interaction with booksellers and librarians if all literature comes in a neatly branded package that tells us who should be reading it and when?

As a precocious child reader, I find this proposal as upsetting as Mr Pullman does. And thankfully he has enough sway with his publisher to be able to demand that age-banding does not appear on his own books. Only a hundred years ago children would read many of the same canonical novels that are confined to university literary studies courses today. The last thing we need is to tell voracious child readers that they can't read particular novels because they must only read books someone in a marketing department deems acceptable for their age-group.

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