Gimme Your Opinion: Age Banding

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?


General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    Rachel says:

    I for one would absolutely hate that kind of thing – it’s already (mildly) embarrassing to walk out of a library with an armful of YA fantasy/romance books with glittery covers.  If every single one loudly proclaimed “I’M WRITTEN FOR A 14-YEAR-OLD” on the spine, it’d be much, much worse.

    Pullman’s points are all pretty solid, too.

  2. 2
    DS says:

    Until I reached college and met other advanced readers I thought I was pretty unusual because I was reading adult books at 12.  My cousin left a stash of paperbacks at my house when he went off to Viet Nam and I became fascinated by Angelique.  But I also read Andre Norton (YA, I guess it would be now) and continued to do so as long as she wrote—and Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books although I haven’t tried to reread him—and anything else I thought interesting.  No one at the library asked for a permission slip from my parents either. 

    I think a hands off approach is best when it comes to labeling books.

  3. 3

    I frequently endured shame and mockery in late elementary and middle school for liking things that my peers considered babyish. Not books, mostly; they really didn’t notice or care much what I was reading, and I actually was mostly reading above my supposed age range. But it was bad enough when they teased me about my taste in music, and television, and toys. If they put those bands on books, I can only imagine what fresh Hells they’ll be creating for kids.

  4. 4
    Deirdre says:

    I work in a library and we have age recommendations on the childrens’ books in the branch where I work.  Mostly because I have no kids and I kept getting parents going “what’s a suitable book for my x year old” and when I would ask what the kid was reading they would have NO IDEA!  I assume it’s the same questions that are driving this with publishers.
    The sign up says “suggested ages”.  How we decided on the ages was pretty simple.  The other woman working with me had a 12/13 year old daughter.  Mature themes for her went into YA, just right, 11-14; a little young but she might read it; 8-11; too young 5-8.  The parents are quite happy with it.  I wouldn’t restrict kids from any section but I do say to parents with youngish kids that the YA section may deal with issues that they might want to read up on first.
    We had a huge issue here in Ireland last year about a parent who went berserk over Set in Stone by Linda Newbury which won the Costa award and had some pretty serious themes.  She rang up a radio show and complained.  I think a lot of this is to protect the shops from irate parents.

  5. 5
    Erastes says:

    I can see both sides of it – some authors are saying that kids will be put off, and yet some are saying that the adults will be able to guage better what to buy the kids. 

    It’s not a new thing, I remember reading “Dragon” books as a child and they were age rated, differing colour dragons on the spine showed which age range the books were for. I think I vaguely remember thinking that I was insulted if an adult bought me a book under my age group, but all in all I didn’t really care that much. I was lucky enough to have a head-mistress mother who bought me just about any book that I asked for, other than Enid Blyton because she thought the writing was bad. I had all the children’s classics starting from Pooh and going up to R L Stevenson and other great adventures.

    Perhaps a removable sticker would be a better answer, good for the parents, which can be removed before the child gets it.

    I still don’t consider any book to be too young, I regularly read children’s books and in fact have spent years tracking down books from my childhood to have in my library again.

    As Deirdre says, I think it’s the adults who need the guidance – children will find their own level, like water.

  6. 6

    I never read YA books, or at least none that I recall. When I’m shopping for books for my little guy I pick stuff that I think he’ll be interested in hearing about. He’s four, but he really likes adventure stories. And of course, the grosser the better. Right now I’m reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to him. I think it’s for older children, but he really likes that story.

    Of course, he has all the usual books for a child his age, but he’s really enjoying the Dahl books also. I think age-banding at best is a guideline. Personally, as he gets older I can’t imagine any themes I wouldn’t want him reading. If he wants to read it I’d probably okay it, as long as it’s not full of gratuitous violence. I’m not particularly worried about sex, but I put a kabosh on as much violence as possible.

  7. 7
    closetcrafter says:

    I am going to go out on a limb and say Age banding is for lazy parents/consumers

    I’m all about shelving childrens’ vs. YA and last time I checked, people work at bookstores and libraries so that they can be queried about books and their content for those purchasing /borrowing books for children. So it is the customer/patron’s resposibility to do their homework.

    The people who comment on this board are discriminating readers, do you remember when you were 13? The weirdist shit I knew about came from the things I read about, not witnessed or experienced. Mostly because my Mom was lazy about checking content. Because I read at a high level, she never paid attention.

    I will not be making that mistake. My 4th grader wants to read Twilight REALLY BAD.  She found out about it from a 5th grader at school who has read them all.  I bought it and read it and loved it(crackalicious), but my 10 year old is not going to read it for maybe 2 or 3 more years.

  8. 8
    ev says:

    Parents need to step up and take some responsibility about what their kids are reading. I get so many kids and parents at the store who come in and say my kid is looking for something to read that will interest them but since i don’t read I have no idea what they should be reading. Then I start to question the kid, who hopefully, isn’t too embarrassed or shy to tell me what THEY want to read. Half the time the parent has no idea what reading level they actually are, or what their interests are or where they even should start.

    In a way I enjoy that because it lets me guide the poor kid to something that they will enjoy, not what the parent thinks they should be interested in.

    On the other hand the banding, which ranges from Kindergarten to YA, does allow parents who are trying to interest their kids in reading, or grandparents who want to buy a gift, to have a guideline. Many times the kid is with them the next time around to pick something out.

    So I have no problem with it, nor do I have a problem reading YA myself. Been doing it for years and have found so many new authors that way.

  9. 9

    Totally against it and trying to find the time to blog about it, myself.

    Then again, I don’t buy music that’s had the evil words edited out, either.

  10. 10
    Ruth says:

    Yeah, not so much with the age banding, I think. I definitely agree with those who think it reeks of lazy parenting.

    I do wonder about the idea that “Everything about a book is already rich with clues…” because it seems to me that we frequently complain that the “physical” aspects of books can be terribly misleading. Are children’s books that much different?

  11. 11
    ev says:

    i refuse to buy edited music.

    but there are so many parents out there who don’t read but realize that their kids need to if they want to get ahead, that I think the little age line on the back right about the upc code, which is where they put it, doesn’t scream disicrimination in reading choice. Teachers use them all the time. They come in and head for the section that they need. I don’t think it is any different that some of the movie ratings- they are a guide line. If you want to take your kid to an R rated movie, than you do. It is all dependant on what type of maturity level they have reached.

    I started reading Anne McCaffrey when I was 8. those are not in the YA section. I did a report in 8th grade on War and Peace even though I had a teacher who thought it was too old for me. She was wrong. But I also had a mom who let me read what ever came to hand. She never restricted what I read.

    Those above mentioned Rolad Dahl books are for 12+ but at 23 they are some of my daughters fave reads. And she loves the Eclipse stuff.

    So they are only guidelines for people who have no clue and don’t want to ask for help. We get a lot of that too.

  12. 12
    moom says:

    It’s a vexing issue, I’m another one of those readers whose parents trusted her to be able to process what she read and was given pretty much free rein to read whatever she liked. Mainly because there was almost nothing in my prep school library left to read by my second year there and I started on my parent’s libraries out of sheer boredom (nowt quite like asking that sweet bookish little ten-year-old what she’s reading and being shown a copy of Bravo Two Zero).

    On the other hand I had a fairly unusual childhood and had to grow up fast, I was largely able to deal with what I read and had the vocabulary to understand it all. Parents don’t always have the time to pre-read their kids’ books and I daresay that quite a few kids don’t have the vocabulary or understanding of literary style to enjoy a book that is too far above their reading age. Many kids today seem pretty sheltered also and parents are eager to ‘protect’ their little darlings.

    I rather like Erastes’ suggestion of a removeable sticker, but it really would work best with a system that makes it clear these are rough guidelines and where kids’ rough reading abilities are known.

  13. 13
    Lorelie says:

    How we decided on the ages was pretty simple.  The other woman working with me had a 12/13 year old daughter.

    Y’all were pretty lucky in that daughter’s reading level.  I read To Catch a Mocking Bird in sixth grade.  Catch-22 in seventh grade.  Robert A. Heinlein’s entire backlist in eighth grade.  A.N. Roquelare’s Beauty series in ninth.  (I think those might have warped me a bit.)  And I think it’s shaping up that many of us on this site were similar. 

    I definitely agree with those who think it reeks of lazy parenting.

    Yep, I’m with ya.  I know what level my child reads and what topics he enjoys.  It’s not that hard to find out.  Or even better?  Read together.

    Lastly, this feels like an accidental step towards censorship.  Not a leap down the path, but a nudge.  And that just makes my skin crawl.

  14. 14

    I love the Philip Pullman books. I’m almost finished with “The Golden Compass,” and I can’t put it down. And generally, I have a hard time coping with YA and kids books. In some books, the hero or heroine is a kid, and publishers think they should target it toward that bracket. But sometimes, if a book is as good at TGC, it makes no difference who the hero or heroine is. It’s a character anyone can care about. I think Pullman was wise not to put an age on it.

    I like the way Kensington has dealt with the Aphrodisia books. They haven’t put an age on them (like 18+). Instead, they put a warning on each back cover: WARNING! This is a REALLY HOT book. (Sexually Explicit). No doubts there. And no age banding either.

  15. 15
    canadacole says:

    Definitely against the age banding.  I remember reading anything I could get my hands on as a kid.  I was an advanced reader and most of the time that was great, until I finished the books in the “Primary” section of the school library and wanted into the YA section.  The librarian wouldn’t let me until my parents gave permission.  Then there was the hullabulloo the principal caused when he caught me reading JAWS during recess (I was 11).  He actually told me not to bring books like that to school anymore as other children’s parents wouldn’t be happy.  On the flip side, there are the years I stayed out of the YA section as an adult because I didn’t like the reactions I got from other adults.  I’ve learned not to care, because YA books are too good to miss out on, but those two little letters on the spine sure intimidated this adult.

    I think children know what they like and what they can handle and those purchasing books for them should do a little research beyond looking for age guides.  They don’t work for my kids when choosing toys or games and I don’t see how they would be helpful in choosing books.

  16. 16
    Marianne McA says:

    I think Deirdre raises an interesting point – what are the banding criteria? Is it about physical stuff – font size, vocabulary etc. – or about content – this book contains mature themes and adult language?

    I’d be against automatic banding of books. I just agree with Pullman’s arguments.

    For my own family, it would have been worse than useless. As I’ve said before, my youngest is severely dyslexic. It has always been a struggle to find books for her – because the books that she had the ability were too babyish in content for her, or obviously marketed at much younger children, so that she felt embarrassed to be seen with them. A more explicit banding would have exacerbated the problem, and made her feel worse about herself – a great big ‘Hey! You’re stupid’ pinned on every reading book the school might provide.

    I know she’s an extreme example, but I think to a lesser extent, that might be true of a lot of children who struggle with literacy – that they could be discouraged by the labels if their reading age is below their actual age.

  17. 17
    Marianne McA says:

    “because the books that she had the ability were too babyish in content for her, or obviously marketed at much younger children, “

    should be:

    ‘because the books that she had the ability to read were too babyish’


  18. 18
    Maya says:

    As a parent of a not-quite-teen, I constantly hover on the brink of wanting to encourage more reading (since my son hasn’t turned into one of those kids who pick up a book of their own volition – yet) and being concerned about maturity of topics and language contained in work by authors with whom I’m not familiar.  This is heightenend by the fact that it’s not always possible to rely on information given – a recommended school reading list for Grade 3, for example, included ‘Julie of the Wolves’ (alcoholism, wife battery, attempted rape) and the ‘wealth of clues’ on the book cover can sometimes be outright deceptive, marketed to a totally different audience than the text really reflects.

    So, yeah – no system is foolproof, and bottom line remains: parental buyer, beware.

  19. 19
    Myriantha Fatalis says:

    Age banding seems silly to me, for reasons mentioned repeatedly above.  If publishers want to provide useful information, some sort of theme-based rating system might work better—maybe something along the lines of the ratings for TV shows, complete with brief justification.  I’m still not thrilled about the idea, but then I read both children’s & YA books, & I never give books to kids that I haven’t read.  I may be a bad aunt, but I’m not that bad.

  20. 20
    Mantelli says:

    Good for Pullman!  My dad, who was in charge of all library visits, and controlling my reading, let me read at any level I wanted.  In fact, when I turned 12, he led me over to the adult section and said, “I think it’s time you started getting your books here, don’t you?”  He had to explain that to the librarians, as he did when one idiot questioned a “grade level” when I was 8 and reading “high school level” books, but after that there were no problems.  His philosophy was pretty advanced for the period, actually (I was born in 1953).  He once told a friend who was astounded by something I was reading:  “If she’s too young to understand something either it won’t hurt her, or she’ll ask us and we’ll explain it to her.  If she’s old enough to understand it, then it won’t hurt her.”  My dad may have had a lot of flaws, but I loved him for that.

  21. 21
    Stephanie says:

    Argh. I dislike banding as well because it smacks of censorship, and I also agree that it smacks of lazy parenting. Talk to your kids, find out what they’re reading and what they like to read, and Google it. If they’re reading books that you consider thoroughly inappropriate, do one of two things: realize that, since your kid probably hasn’t changed since they started reading those books, that they’re doing just fine; or TALK to them again, see why those books appeal to them, and delicately steer them back towards the books you think they should be reading.

    (The second method probably won’t work, but it’s worth a try.)

    Or read one of those books yourself. I’m not saying you have to pre-read every book your kid reads, but spot-check them. Have discussions. Be involved in your kid’s life.

    Oh, also, just remember: if your nine-year-old reads Catcher in the Rye, it’s most likely that she just didn’t understand all the parts that she couldn’t handle yet.

    Last, but not least, reading about sex is a lot less immediate, especially for a fourteen-year-old, than seeing sex on television.

  22. 22
    Lil' Deviant says:

    I don’t like the age banding idea.  But I did love the grade level on the readers.  It made it so easy to pick up a few for my girl to read out loud in the evenings when she was in Elementary School.  She could read and still does what she wants for her own enjoyment.  The readers were to practice her reading.  My theory is she can read what she wants.  I try to the best of my ability to keep up with what she is reading.  If there is questionable subject matter, then I read it and we have to discuss it.

  23. 23

    I read Black Beauty in second grade—I was being tutored at home while recovering from polio the previous summer. In third grade, back at school, I was able to select what I wanted because we were served by a bookmobile; the school was a tiny five-room building with no space for a library. In the first half of fourth grade, the teacher gave me access to a shelf of “adult” books he had in the room.

    Then we moved, and the school I attended did have a library—and I had to select from a section specifically for the elementary grades. It was ALL thin picture books, and I was only permitted to check out one. I’ve never been so frustrated in my life. LOL

    Yes, parents should be responsible enough to know what their child is reading, but like several of the parents cited my mother was NOT a reader. She had no idea what was suitable for me; in fact, she couldn’t even understand why reading was so important to me. It wasn’t laziness or cluelessness but rather like being a foreigner in a strange country where she didn’t speak the language.

    I’m going to launch a new imprint for YA/middle grade readers this summer. In addition to the books that will henceforth carry that imprint, we’ll also be listing books from our others that are suitable for younger readers, and I have no problem including information that would allow parents to make an informed choice, such as “contains violent scenes that may be disturbing.” What I won’t do is slap a label on the cover, and when I list the book with Bowker and the Library of Congress I alway try to make the age range as broad as possible.

    I do that because many of our “kid’s books” are also likely to appeal to adults, as is often the case and has been noted here. It’s not all about charity, either. I’m not blind to the fact is was adults who really turned Harry Potter into a phenom.

  24. 24
    mearias says:

    My feelings are similar to Maya.  My 9 year old can read well above her suggested reading materials, but I’m always wary of the content of the book.  Some guidance is helpful to me as a parent, and usually I read the books she’ll be reading to get the tone and ultimately decide what’s best for her.  What helps us is that we form our own “book club” and have discussions about what she’s read, what she’ll like to read in the future and where her interest lay.  We select the books together, so that’s made it much easier all around.

  25. 25
    karmelrio says:

    When I was a child, my parents were clueless about many, many things.  But one of the ways that this was a GOOD thing?  They had zero interest in what I was reading.  I was a precocious, prodigious reader, leaving the children’s and YA racks behind by age 9.  I was an early fan of Category romance, banging my way through the library’s rack of Harlequin Presents, and strolled the adult racks with impunity – I loved the worlds that Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz,  Daneille Steele and Lavyrle Spencer created, as well as “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Moby Dick,” and “Catcher In The Rye” and the Greek and Roman myths.   

    He once told a friend who was astounded by something I was reading:  “If she’s too young to understand something either it won’t hurt her, or she’ll ask us and we’ll explain it to her.  If she’s old enough to understand it, then it won’t hurt her.”

    THIS.  I think kids can handle a lot more than their parents might think.  And a book is a pretty safe way to be exposed to some challenging ideas and concepts.  Books helped me build my vocabulary, my resiliency, my tolerance for points of view not my own, build a knowledge and a view of the world beyond the small rural town I was born in.  Had my parents tried to censor or control my reading in any way, it would have caused a serious breach in whatever feeble trust we were able to establish between us.

  26. 26
    Sarah F. says:

    There are some cases where age guidelines can be useful when you’re trying to purchase books. For instance, when I was trying to pick out a book online about animals of the world that would be appropriate for a 6-year-old (it needed to be in French, so I couldn’t just go to a store and pick one out in person), Amazon’s age guidelines became really useful, as did some of the cover notations. But generally speaking, I think the idea of age-banding all books is terribly restrictive. Books aren’t made to be rateable – even within the broad guidelines of Children and YA there are differences of opinion, as you can see if you compare the shelving practices of different bookstores. I think that placing labels on books would just encourage everyone – parents, store owners, librarians – to be less engaged in the process of choosing books.

  27. 27
    Kim says:

    I think age banding is a pretty dumb idea, for reasons already well-stated by others here. When I was a kid, the rule of thumb in the school library was to read the first page and every time you didn’t know a word, put up a finger. If five fingers are up, it’s too hard for you, if no fingers are up then it might be too easy.

  28. 28
    Cassie says:

    I teach and the idea of age-banding doesn’t sit well with me.  A lot of my students don’t read at grade level, and do you think a kid who reads at the third grade level in the seventh grade wants that broadcast on the cover of his or her chosen book?  Yeah, right!  They’d rather not read at all. 

    I think parents need to help their children select books that are appropriate in reading level AND maturity level.  I read at a higher level as a child, and my mom let me choose my own books, but she was there when I chose them for the most part.  I learned a lot of new things through books.  As another poster mentioned, books are a safer way to be exposed to new ideas. 

    Not everything in the world can be policed, and put into neat boxes.  Books for children and young adults are often very difficult to pigeonhole anyway.

  29. 29
    Kelly says:

    Firmly against. I was reading Asimov and Heinlein by the time I was 8, and I was well into the “adult” section of the local library (having literally run through everything in the children’s and young adult section) by the time I was 11. Age banding would have annoyed me, or potentially created a problem when I was trying to check books out to read. And god knows it would have created problems for people trying to buy me books – they would have ended up picking up books I’d read when I was six.

    I know not everyone starts off as avid a reader as I was, but the point is, there should be less obstacles put in the way of anyone who wants to read, not more.

  30. 30
    karmelrio says:

    And… how many of us learned sexual negotiation skills by reading romance?  Learned what types of behavior we would find acceptable in a relationship? What our deal-breakers were? 

    Thinking back to my younger years, it was immensely helpful for me to have had vicarious exposure to how other women navigated this terrain before I was confronted with it in my own life.

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