My new book actually has an age recommendation on the cover. See? My publishers were tentative when they first suggested it. They are obviously well aware of the sensitivities around this issue. But I said…go ahead. It's actually very subtle.
For those not familiar with this topic, it kicked off a few years back, when publishers found, having surveyed their customers, that most would welcome some guidance on the covers of children’s books. There are, after all, a vast amount of titles in print. It’s not always clear from a cursory glance how “kiddish” a Wimpy Kid may be, how “little” a Little Woman or how “wild” a Wild Thing (in case you’d like to know, she’s a wild five year old, but her adventures are narrated by her older sister, and my publisher expects her adventures to appeal to 8 plus.)
Often the same author and illustrator produce books that look similar but are actually for different age-groups. These books by Jacqueline Wilson are for different age groups, but can you tell the difference?
When publishers first suggested that it might be a good idea to put a discreet piece of age guidance on back covers (very discreet indeed) a tirade of author anger was let forth. A campaign was started. Prestigious authors protested. You can see their statement of opposition here and author Philip Pullman’s particularly resounding condemnation here.
I will say straight off that I’m absolutely in agreement with all those authors and librarians who have a desire to see children have as much access to books as possible. It’s something I feel passionately about (as any friend who has heard me rant on about this subject will attest.) I so much want children to find books they enjoy. I despair when I hear about another library closure…visit a school with shelves virtually devoid of books…or read studies like this, with its grim findings about the negative attitudes of children to books. (My heart lifts when I meet those inspiring teachers and librarians that are doing wonderful work to bring books and children together.) I desperately want children to have access to books, and to find the books that appeal to them – and I think it’s a massive tragedy that so many don’t.
If I could have three wishes, one would be for every primary school to have a librarian – somebody well read in children’s books, able to maintain a well-stocked library, to keep up with new releases and to guide children to the books likely to interest them. The Society of Authors is campaigning for exactly that, and I think it would have a massive, positive impact on children’s reading – and their wider well being.
What I don’t understand is why an age recommendation on a book is somehow seen as being contrary to these ideals.
The trouble I think is in some people’s minds, age guidance of any kind seems to mean only one thing: censorship. Now censorship can be an issue in children’s books: every year, for example, the list is published of most banned books from US libraries. Then there is the more implicit kind of censorship – the worry that publishers might perhaps feel that a gay character will prove less popular than a straight character in YA fiction, or should be of a certain race to maximize sales. But neither of these issues have anything to do with age-banding. And especially not here in the UK, where I’ve seen little evidence that (the sadly increasingly few) children’s librarians out there are interested in limiting children’s access to books in any way. As for parents, I’d argue that they are more concerned about what kids see on the screen, than what they might find between the pages of a book.
Having an age guidance figure on a book does not mean a child can’t or shouldn’t read it. It’s not a legal limit. It’s guidance. Guidance. That’s all. Last time the issue hit the news, I remember reading an article where the journalist explained he’d been reading Balzac at age nine. (Or was it Voltaire at eight? I can’t remember.) Nobody is setting out to rein in Balzac-reading nine year olds. I’m not especially worried how many swear words adolescents read either. (Though some are – see the recent debates following this article about a new YA novel, which sparked off the age-banding debate again.) What I do care about is that more books should reach more children – and I think that some kind of well-meaning indicators for the adults choosing books (it is mostly adults who buy children’s books) helps that goal.
One thing we do know for sure is that many parents almost never buy books for their children. Surveys show that almost one in three children in the UK did not own a single book. Research in the UK and USA has also shown that book ownership is strongly correlated with children’s enjoyment of, and ability in, reading. Children who owned more books were significantly more likely to have positive attitudes to reading. And there is now strong evidence that children who read for pleasure do significantly better educationally in all areas than those who don’t – even in mathematics - see here. Have a look at this overview to see the many important benefits reading for pleasure brings.
For me, all of the above is strong evidence that we should do whatever we can to help parents in getting books to their children. As a parent buying books, I know I’m regularly confused about who a book is aimed at. I inspect the cover…the blurb…I flick through. And some of the time, I’m still confused. But the cover and blurb are “rich in clues” the anti-age banding lobby tells me. Well, guess what. I can’t always read the clues. And if I can’t read them – and I’m a children’s writer – then why should any other parent be able to either? And do you know what happens when parents can’t tell? They buy a copy of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, because they can remember exactly what it was like and who it was for, or they buy a copy of Roald Dahl for the same reason. Now, I’ve got nothing against either author. Or the tables and tables of rereleased classics – Stig of the Dump, Tom’s Midnight Garden – that seem to be mushrooming in my local Waterstones. But I think it is a shame if it means that children are less likely to discover contemporary authors, the ones that are writing specifically for them, about their lives, right now.
It’s even more of a shame - more of a mini-tragedy - if that parent (or aunty, granddad, friend) gives up on the idea of buying a book for fear of getting it wrong and decides it would be much easier to buy something else instead.
Not everybody is familiar with the language of book covers. Not everyone has even heard of Roald Dahl, Horrid Henry or Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s true. The most striking example I can think of is the woman I know who gave a ten year old an explicitly erotic bodyripper as a present. She gave it in genuine good faith, and would have been mortified to know of its content. But she didn’t read the clues. (In fact she had worked out it was historical, and she knew this particular child liked history. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be bothered trying to find the right book.) She was a member of an immigrant community, and English was not her first language. There are many parents in this category. There are also people who are unfamiliar with libraries and bookstores, or who struggle to read themselves. Many still want to buy books for their children. They may not, however, have easy access to advice, or be able to easily afford to write off the price of a book if they “get it wrong”.
I can’t help feeling there’s a kind of intellectual snobbery in the idea that everyone should be able to deduce the nature of a children’s books – (or even, as sometimes helpfully suggested, that they should read the book first themselves. Maybe a parent of a book hungry child doesn’t have the time? Maybe they don’t have the ability? A voracious reader will be reading far more at eight, nine or ten years old than even the most interested adult will have time to keep up with.) I also find it rather ironic that children’s authors – generally a liberal and leftward-leaning lot – have been so keen to embrace a line which I feel can make it harder for many to enter and explore the world of children’s literature.
So why else are people opposed? These seem to be the main arguments:
Slower readers will feel embarrassed about reading books with younger age-ranges on the cover
I put this one first, because it may be true and certainly does concern me. But I’d be interested to see the evidence that age ranges on covers puts off readers – or that kids even notice them. (They are pretty discreet – look at the photo.) When I asked high school librarians recently about the accelerated reader scheme – which assigns a “level” to books, and then encourages children to progress through the levels – they denied that having “levels” humiliated or embarrassed less able readers. On the contrary, they claimed that the scheme appealed most to exactly those kids (less able boys) that form the much worried about “reluctant reader” category.
You can’t choose an age-range – every child is different.
They are. And they may develop at different rates. But it’s surely daft to say that because individual children vary, age is irrelevant. A child will most likely enjoy The Gruffalo before they start reading Horrid Henry before they read Harry Potter… Even if there is no explicit age band given, there is still an audience in mind.
Expert librarians and booksellers can guide children to the right books.
Sadly, both are becoming almost as rare as hen’s teeth. (And likely to remain so unless the political and economic climate changes.) Libraries and bookshops are closing at an alarming rate.
So can teachers.
Another lovely thought, but until children’s literature is a much more prominent part of teacher training, and every primary school has a designated school librarian (and well-stocked library) most children will not get this kind of expert guidance. Primary teachers are generalists, not book specialists, and have 30 plus children in their class.
Bookshops already categorise by age.
Yes. So why shouldn’t publishers help them? After all publishers and authors know the books best. And what about those buyers (likely to have the lowest incomes) who can only access charity shops or supermarkets?
Good books are for everyone. Age is irrelevant.
Yes – and no. Sorry. Yes, I might enjoy curling up with Alice or Winnie-the-Pooh or Jennings or The Church Mouse or The Ogre Downstairs or a zillion other favourite children’s books, but the art of writing for children, I’d argue, is that the writer is able to craft something that appeals (in language, theme or content) primarily to a child at a particular stage of development, with a particular level of experience. The very few genuine crossovers (Harry Potter perhaps) remain the exception, not the rule. I love reading children’s books, but I read them on those terms – I feel privileged to return to a child’s view when I read them, and I don’t expect to find an adult perspective or theme suddenly appear. (Some children’s books, especially picture books, may include jokes for their adult readers. That’s great. But they mustn’t lose sight of their child reader. And even the most universal of material – say, Greek mythology – will be presented in different ways appropriate for different age-groups.)
In conclusion, I’m glad that my book has an age-band on it. I hope it won’t put off those six or seven year olds who might enjoy it, or much older readers too. I don’t believe that it will. And if it helps those people, parents in particular, that I’ve met at schools and signings, and whose first question is always: “What age is it for?” then I’ll be more than happy.
Emma's new book, Wild Thing, about the naughtiest little sister ever, is out now from Scholastic. It is the first of a series for readers 8+.
Wolfie is published by Strident. Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf.
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