Thursday, July 10, 2008

What Do Authors Know?

I've been doing my best to keep quiet about this, because generally I think authors are best off if we stick together, but I've finally been moved to express an opinion on 'age banding' on children's books.

For the back story, here's a snippet from the Guardian:

"Plans were announced earlier this summer for new titles and reprints to feature a graphic on the back cover indicating "suitable" ages of 5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+/teen. Due to be implemented this autumn, the scheme has provoked widespread opposition from some of the biggest names in children's writing including JK Rowling and all four children's laureates. Philip Pullman has started a website petition,, that has attracted some 3,000 signatures."

You can see the rest of that article here.

When Jimmy Coates: Power comes out on October 1st, it's going to have 'age banding' on it. It will say '9+' somewhere on the back. I know there are 8 year-olds who read the series, as well as 18 year-olds and, who knows, there might even be 28 year-olds who read my books too.

But I'm very happy about my books carrying clear guidance about the age at which most people will most enjoy them. I'm also quite perturbed that so many authors are putting up this passionate protest.

I'm not going to go into detail about all of the pros and cons. I just want to say one thing about why all these esteemed children's authors are protesting and why I don't like it.

What seems to provoke strongest feeling among these other authors is the possibility that a child won't be allowed access to books which are recommended for older readers. So a bright ten year-old who's read everything aimed at ten year-olds will find a new section in the library with some great books that he'd love, but the librarian (or his teacher or his parents or whoever) will take a book off him because it says '11+' or even '13+' on the back.

I think a lot of authors are worried about this because it happened to them when they were growing up. It won't come as a shock to hear that authors tend to have been the more bookish types when they were kids, and often they'll have been keen to move on to books supposedly for older children. I'm sure sometimes they weren't allowed to do that, and that's a tragedy.

But what they don't seem to realise is that they are in a minority. They were when they were children, and they still are. Age banding isn't for children like them.

First of all, they were stopped from reading books aimed at older children in a world before age banding. So there are obviously already criteria which librarians, teachers and parents use to judge the 'reading age' of a book: the cover, the type-face, the title, the author... hey, they might even have read the book themselves. Books are already divided up by age group in bookshops and libraries. Age banding of a sort already exists.

Also, the authors' view of the world is quite out of date. These days most children who read above their age are not stopped. I've met many of them in schools I've visited. They are loved by librarians, treasured by teachers and marvelled at by their parents. OK, there probably are still some kids who have to fight to read older books, and that's a fight that will continue. Age banding will not make it harder. It will in fact make it easier for them to choose books for themselves, because once they find the age range of books at their level, they'll know what to look out for.

But, again, those children are in the minority. Age banding will have the greatest benefit for kids who would otherwise not be given a book at all. It's much easier for a parent to give a child a DVD or a game or a CD (even if sometimes the content might be unsuitable). And those are the products that now compete with books - not just other books.

What's more, these choices are now made in supermarkets, not libraries. And even if you're in a bookshop, the sort of guidance that some deluded authors think still comes from staff doesn't exist any more except in the very best independent stores. Even there, the staff can't be expected to have read everything, and age guidance on the back of the book will give them an extra clue, along with all those other factors: cover, title, type-face, author etc.

I suppose what upsets me about the protest of all these authors is that it shows two things

1. They are wildly out of touch with the experience of most children. The authors were bookish, so they think everybody else is too. At best they're deluded, at worst they're trying, consciously or subconsciously, to keep books for the bookish and not allow anybody else into their elite little club. I was never bookish. I would not be an author today if their attitude had prevailed.

2. They don't realise what choosing a book involves now. Things were different when they were kids, they were different ten or fifteen years ago. Perhaps they were better, I don't know (and as it happens, I doubt it). Now, the chain of decisions that has to take place in order for a kid to end up with a book involves supermarkets, computer games and confused parents who don't have the guidance of booksellers or experienced librarians, nor do they have the expertise of being able to interpret the signals of book cover, title, type-face, author etc. They certainly don't have time to read the book themselves, or the money to just 'risk it'.

I am pleased that publishers are doing their best to reach families and children who wouldn't otherwise 'do' books. Age banding is one way to bring children's publishing into the 21st century.


Anonymous said...

As a 44 year old Gnome, who is constantly told he has a mental age of 8, I find the issue of age banding interesting.
For me it comes down to the question of is it recommended age or age restriction? On computer games you have the age restrictions due to violence or sexual content, in a book all the imagery is in the readers head.
I’m a big fan of Shakespeare but I would have to think hard about recommending his work to an 8 year old. Mostly because the style of writing can be a bit archaic but there are a number of translations into modern English that would be fine.

For people finding an interest in reading an age guide could be useful but what happens if the guide is considered a target: e.g. 44 year old Gnomes should be reading books for 40+ Gnomes not 28 year old Smirfs?

NutmegAngel said...

At my school library, I had to get special permission from the head librarian if I wanted to take out a book from the sixth form shelf, even though I was in year ten already. If these ratings turn into censorship, then I'd completely disagree with them. I admit that sometimes having books in different sections helps, and you wouldn't necessarily want an eight year old reading various things in the adult section, but it's not the same as tv. Usually, I'd think children were quite capable of making their own decisions about what does and doesn't interest them. Plus there's always the possibility that publishers would put an unsuitable rating on them, just to try and get more readers. I have a lot of books aimed at people younger than me, in some cases aimed at primary school children, which I still really enjoy, and I have plenty of adult books too. You can't say something is or isn't suitable based on someone else's opinion of it. Having said that, when I see Cherub books plonked in the 8-11 section, I do start to worry a bit, as they quite often have swearing and violence in...