Tuesday, June 10, 2008

No To Age Banding on Books

On last Saturday's Guardian Books Online Phillip Pullman wrote a piece regarding his concerns over age banding books. Specifically it detailed his complete objection to the idea that the publisher puts a suggested reading age on any of his books.

When I sit down to write a book, I know several things about it: I know roughly how long it will be, I know some of the events in the story, I know a little about some of the characters, I know - without knowing quite how I’ll get to it - what tone of voice I want the narrative to be cast in.

But there are several things I don’t know, and one of those is who will read it. You simply can’t decide who your readership will be. Nor do I want to, because declaring that it’s for any group in particular means excluding every other group, and I don’t want to exclude anybody. Every reader is welcome, and I want my books to say so. Like some other writers, I avoid giving the age of my characters for that reason. I want every child to feel they can befriend them.”

In fact, his objection is so strong that he's joined with Anne Fine and Adèle Geras to set up NoToAgeBanding.org. I've signed up for it and I'd encourage you to do the same.

As an ex-retailer, as a parent and as a reader I object to being told by the publisher what is suitable for my reading pleasure. I'd rather be the judge of that. And when it comes to Molly, I'd rather the pair of us decided what is suitable for her to read. She does it very easily and very simply. She makes a reasoned, informed decision and tries things out. And critically, we talk about books, about what she's reading, about the world and about anything she's interested in.

I was involved a little while ago in a debate at my Teaching assistant's course when the tutor expected us to decide which books were suitable. I was not pleased and made my point quite forcibly. This is just the same.

When I was young I devoured the shelves of Dudley children library, emptying them of everything I wanted to read. So it was onto the adult section and the delights of the Science Fiction, crime, thriller and fiction shelves I found there. There was just one incident when I was challenged over it. One librarian decided I was too young to be in the adult library and refused to check out my pile of books. Luckily I was meeting Dad there. Even more lucky was the fact that my dad believed in reading. And he believed, just as I do today, that age is no indicator of reading level. He complained and I was immediately given an adult library card, signed by us both. But if these horrible age banding proposals were in place it may have been different. All it takes is one librarian or bookseller having a bad day, one manager getting too officious, one edict from head office following some stupid complaint from a parent and I could have been turned away. And why? Because some committee somewhere has decided that this book is suitable for this age and unsuitable for that age.

The more I think about this, the more it annoys me. It's so blatantly wrong to force children's reading habits into nice age categories at the point of contact. Like Pullman said, it's one thing for a bookseller or Librarian to suggest, to selectively shelve, to discuss with a child or their parents about what book choices they may have. This is an informed and sensible way of doing it. A poor reader aged 12 may be perfectly happy with a book that a better reader may have read at age 6. Similarly an intelligent, literate, mature 10 year old could easily be reading books that many 16 year olds or even adults would be usually reading. It has nothing to do with age ratings. It has everything to do with a child given a suitable book after a reasoned decision is made. And it doesn't have to be someone making it for the child either. I've seen Molly do exactly the same thing. She'll pick up a book or graphic novel and she'll make a reasoned decision on it's suitability. Because we talk to her, because we educate her, because we trust her, because of all of these things we're fostering a love of reading that will hopefully stay with her for life.


  1. I was a child that had full access to my parents library which included De Sade(confused me), Proust (didn't try till much later), Zola, Pynchon (got some, missed a lot)--never hurt me to take a book off the self and try it--some stuck and even became clear much later. None of this stopped me from carting home huge stacks of science fiction from the local library.
    I also read lots of childrens books.
    It was all good.

  2. Anonymous1:01 AM

    Couldn't agree more.

    I'm just now re-reading Tove Jansson's Moomintroll series of children's books. As an adult, I'm seeing a lot of layers to these stories that I simply didn't as a child.