Star Opal sent me a thought provoking article on age banding – you know, the 11+ or 14-and-over age markers on books. Seems Philip Pullman wrote a piece in the Guardian about his experience with his publisher wishing to “age band” his books for 11+. He said no, and they refrained from marking the books. He acknowledges that “it soon became clear that other writers hadn’t had that sort of understanding, and had been told that it was going to happen, like it or not.”
Pullman is set against age banding (why is it that this phrase makes me think of the rings on trees?) because he sees it not as a guide, but as an exclusion:
[W]hen the book itself says 9+, or 11+, that figure has quite a different status. It looks as if the author is assenting to it; it looks as if I’m saying: “I wrote this for 11-year-olds. Everyone else can keep out.”
And I did not. 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.
Barb Ferrer told me once about finding her book It’s Not About the Accent shelved within the children’s books at her local store, and demanding that the manager look it up because it was unmistakably mis-shelved. Her problem? The book is, in part, about rape. When the manager looked up the book, it was indeed a YA book, not a children’s book, and it was reshelved immediately.
But her book doesn’t necessarily have an age range on it, and I don’t know that it, or any book, should. The folks doing the shelving had a clear indication where it ought to be – the YA shelves, not over with the children’s books – but should the books themselves be marked to directly state what age range their readers should be? Pullman acknowledges that there certainly ought to be some guidance for children looking for suitable books, but that that guidance ought not come from a stamp on the book cover. He’s started an organization with a pretty clear statement of principle:
* Each child is unique, and so is each book. Accurate judgments about age suitability are impossible, and approximate ones are worse than useless.
* Children easily feel stigmatized, and many will put aside books they might love because of the fear of being called babyish. Other children will feel dismayed that books of their ‘correct’ age-group are too challenging, and will be put off reading even more firmly than before.
* Age-banding seeks to help adults choose books for children, and we’re all in favour of that; but it does so by giving them the wrong information. It’s also likely to encourage over-prescriptive or anxious adults to limit a child’s reading in ways that are unnecessary and even damaging.
* Everything about a book is already rich with clues about the sort of reader it hopes to find – jacket design, typography, cover copy, prose style, illustrations. These are genuine connections with potential readers, because they appeal to individual preference. An age-guidance figure is a false one, because it implies that all children of that age are the same.
* Children are now taught to look closely at book covers for all the information they convey. The hope that they will not notice the age-guidance figure, or think it unimportant, is unfounded.
* Writers take great care not to limit their readership unnecessarily. To tell a story as well and inclusively as possible, and then find someone at the door turning readers away, is contrary to everything we value about books, and reading, and literature itself.
The reasons are as much a statement of parenting as they are about marketing – that the individual needs and interests of reading children should be of more account than the age stamped on the cover. Which leads me to wonder, would I have picked up romance novels if they’d been marked “18+?” “NC-17?” I was reading Sweet Valley High in middle school, I think, and I thought those were books meant for high school kids (not so much now that I look back). I was a late reader, but once I did figure it out, I moved quickly through anything I read, and moved up in reading level as fast as I could. Joe at Forbidden Planet agrees:
Well before I hit my early teens I had gone through everything that interested me in the children’s part of the library and wanted into the adult section. The librarians, once my parents gave their assent, were quite supportive because they could see I was understanding and enjoying the books I was picking out (my first exposure to writers like Bradbury and Moorcock) and I’ve been devouring any book or comic on any subject that I think looks interesting ever since. It could have been very different – if I’d been knocked back from moving on to more mature books when I knew I was ready for them I could have been put off reading.
What’s your take on that one? Should publishers try to mark books by age range? Or does that, as Pullman states, advocate limiting and excluding the readership of a book far beyond the intention of the author who wrote it?