Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

News Flash! Soapbox Special : Darren Shan on Age Branding in Children’s Literature

So I said to the Foxes in the Den: “There’s a massive furore going on about age ranging in children’s books. Darren Shan is very passionate on the subject; I’ll email and ask him to do a Soapbox.” It wasn’t until I was half way through writing my request that it dawned on me… this is Darren Shan, the real one, the one whose books I have in pride of place on my bookshelf, I mean I even have a signed copy of Slawter, in silver pen… I pressed send anyway.

Within hours the following popped into my inbox and, in Darren Shan’s own words, “This can stand as my definitive view on age branding ….

~~~~~

“Age branding” is an idea that has been knocked around for many years in children’s books — many people want to have an industry-wide age branding tag slapped on every children’s book published in the UK. It would be a bit like a cinema certificate (although far more limiting — in cinema we have U, 12, 15, but on books we would clinically (dare I add cynically) sub-divide our youth up into 5+, 7+, 9+ brackets). As a children’s author, I’ve always been firmly opposed to this — I don’t think it’s necessary; I think it treats the public like morons; and I also think it’s a move towards censorship, giving publishers and booksellers more power than I think it’s healthy for them to have. I think the reading of a book is a very personal experience, and it should be the right of every reader (or every reader’s parent or teacher or librarian) to choose a book that they believe is suitable for them on an individual level.

Several weeks ago, I heard from my publisher that “the industry” had decided to implement age branding, because someone did a survey which stated it would be good for the business, and that authors would sell more books because of it. I immediately objected and said I didn’t want any age branding on my books. I was going to make my objections public at the time, but kept quiet because I was hoping that if enough writers objected to their publishers, that the idea would be dropped like the stupid, harmful, insulting hot potato that it is. (I’m still stunned by the fact that no writers were included in the decision-making process!!!) I never like having to have a go at publishers in public, and I was hoping they would see sense and spare themselves the embarrassment of starting a public war with their authors. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have taken the hint and are still pushing ahead with age branding. So I can hold my peace no longer!!!

I am 100% against age branding, as I see it as (a) a very stupid idea, (b) a definite, irrevocable step towards censorship, and (c) a way for publishers to exert even more control over their authors, to make writers conform to THEIR idea of what a book should be, how it should be pitched and marketed, and – even more crucially and worryingly – how it should be written in the first place. I think it’s very telling that authors were not asked about this in advance of the “decision” being made — I just got an email one day telling me it was going ahead. My response? Well, to quote the late Charlton Heston, “from my cold, dead hands!!!” I refused point-blank to allow age branding be put on my books. And my publishers, HarperCollins, to their credit, respected my stance and have agreed not to put any branding on my books.

But, while I’m obviously relieved on a personal level, I’m worried about how other authors will be affected. Some publishers, sadly, aren’t quite as liberal-minded as HarperCollins — I read a report from Elaine McQuade at Scholastic, and she basically said that authors were perfectly happy to accept age branding, and so they were pressing ahead regardless!!! It’s incredible — like standing on a block of ice in the North Pole in the middle of winter and insisting that actually, no, it’s not cold at all and there’s great weather ahead!!!!! I just can’t understand why intelligent, well-intentioned people would try to misrepresent the wishes of their authors in this way (and virtually all of the people in the publishing industry that I’ve worked with ARE intelligent and well-intentioned). Perhaps part of the problem is that there’s no writers’ union (at least not that I’m aware of). Each writer pretty much exists in a little world of their own when it comes to dealing with publishers. Most of us have an agent to fight our battles for us, but it’s always a personal fight. I have little or no idea of what other writers get in terms of advances or royalties, what terms they have to agree to when selling their books, how they get treated, what happens to them if they get into a creative argument with their publishers, etc. Writing is, by its nature, a solitary profession, and a result of that is that most of us tend to lead very solitary, insular lives. I think, if there was a union for writers, this would never have happened. Because there isn’t, it seems to me that publishers feel they can just steamroll ahead with their plans and ignore their writing stables, confident in the belief that their authors can’t band together to contest their proposals.

While I’m obviously very happy that my books aren’t going to suffer the indignity of branding, I don’t know if authors with less clout and success will be forced to accept age grading. Success brings privileges — I don’t seriously think it was ever a likelihood that Philip Pullman or Terry Pratchett or Jacqueline Wilson’s publishers were going to risk alienating them by forcing them to accept a brand they didn’t want. Those of us who are particularly valuable to our publishers will be given a choice in this matter (well, perhaps not at Scholastic!!!). But what about those lower down on the totem pole, those who haven’t sold millions of books, who are maybe just starting out, or who have been labouring away for many years without ever breaking the top of the best sellers lists? Will publishers address each author individually and ask each writer whether or not they want to have their books branded? If so, I’ve no problem with that — some, maybe even many, will, I’m sure, choose to go along with branding, as publishers claim it will be good for sales. I don’t think every writer should feel as if they have to crusade about this. Many of us think branding will actually be harmful to readers, and are opposing branding regardless of whether it hurts our sales or not. But there’s no reason why everyone should feel so heatedly about the issue — if a writer thinks branding will help boost sales of their book, and if they have no moral qualms about it, then good luck to them!

But freedom of choice is the key to my sense of unease. As long as every author has the freedom to say no to branding if they wish (as I have the right to say no, as Anthony Horowitz and Roddy Doyle and Michael Morpurgo will almost certainly have the right to say no), I’ll retire from this battle a happy, contented man. But what if that’s not the case? What if the authors with less of a voice aren’t asked for their opinion? What if they’re forced to accept branding, whether they like it or not? Is it right that those of us at a higher level should leave them to their own devices, at the mercies of the market? If not, what can we do to help them? To be honest, I don’t know. I know that I certainly do feel a sense of comradeship with my fellow authors, and that I want to do whatever I can to support them if it transpires that they aren’t being given a fair hearing and a free vote on how their books are branded (and I must stress that I don’t know whether they are or not — publishers are being very vague on this point; they say they will discuss it with their authors and take their views into consideration, but what does that actually mean???). But how much can we do as a group? Will the hundreds of authors who’ve supported the rights of writers to choose (check out the No To Age Banding site at http://www.notoagebanding.org/) now dissipate and go their own separate ways again? What can we do to protect the freedoms of our colleagues if they come under threat? How many of us will want to fight another person’s fight?

Only time will tell. There has been no indication yet of how publishers will react to this show of unity and strength, whether they’ll take our opinions on board and re-think their plans, or if they’ll force through their plans on all but their most high-performing authors. There was a writer’s strike in Hollywood last year that wreaked havoc with movies and TV shows. Could the same thing happen here with children’s books??? Could we find ourselves in a situation where top-level authors go out on strike in support of their stable-mates??? I’m hoping publishers all across the UK have the commonsense and respect for their authors not to put us into a position where we have to find out, that they come out with a statement assuring authors that every writer will be consulted about branding, and that every writer will have the final say in the decision as it relates to their own books. If not, and the battle heats up, and talk of strike action starts to gather pace … Well, I know whose side I’d take in such an unfortunate situation, and I think the rapid and heartfelt response by so many children’s authors on the No To Age Banding site is a clear indication of where most of my contemporaries and peers would stand too.

But let’s hope we don’t come to that ominous impasse, or indeed come anywhere close to it. A little bit of commonsense on the behalf of publishers across the UK … a clear, unequivocal public statement to show that they respect their authors and will support each writer’s personal decision in this matter … and all the fuss will immediately go away. I’ve always had a good relationship with publishers, and most of the authors I’ve spoken to over the years echo that. The book world is different to those of Hollywood and the music industry, where moguls behind the scenes are often in direct confrontation with the creative talents whose works they represent. It would be a shame if a similar schism was to develop between writers and their publishers, if authors were forced through an act of tyrannical disregard to come to view their publishers as an enemy. A shame … and potentially a disaster for those publishers involved. Because the industry isn’t as united on this issue as authors are. Bloomsbury and some other publishers have refused to join this move towards branding, and if Scholastic and others put themselves in the position of being enemies of writers, then those publishers in the freedom of choice camp will start to look like VERY promising places for children’s authors to take their new and upcoming works. If Elaine McQuade and her cohorts push ahead with their plans, we might just be about to witness the greatest shift in authors from one publishing house to another that the world has ever seen …

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UPDATE: 8th June 2008

One quick p.s. to my original post. I did a radio interview about this, and the interviewer challenged me with the old “Movies have age certificates, so why don’t books?” chestnut. I didn’t reply too fluently, as I hadn’t been thinking of it that way — publishers have presented this as an argument about marketing, not censoring, so I’ve been trying not to focus too much on the censorship aspect of age banding. But I did think about it afterwards, and realized I’d missed a golden opportunity that would have highlighted the absurdity of this whole sad, sorry mess. Yes, movies are given age certs — but only to broadly separate adult fare from children’s movies. i.e. in the UK and Ireland there’s G, 12, 15 and 18 (those change every so often, so I’m not sure what the exact current lineup is, but it’s roughly those four certs). I think that’s fair enough — a G to indicate it’s family friendly; a 12 or the equivalent to note that an adult might want to be on hand to watch the film with younger readers; 15 for teen-appropriate movies; 18 for adults. But what if films were sub-divided even further, if a G film had to carry an extra sticker indicating 7+ or 9+ year?!? “This Disney film is suitable for 8 year olds but not 6 years olds.” Even the movie people aren’t THAT crazy!!!!

There’s an inherent degree of snobbery in the book business — I think most of us feel that reading is superior to watching a film, since it demands so much more of us mentally. And I think most of us believe the world of books is more liberal, since we’re not answerable to Hollywood moguls and hardcore religious fundamentalists (unless you’re J K Rowling or Philip Pullman!! And I believe they only get attacked because of the high profile of their book sales). But in this instance the movie gang of supposed loonies and conservatives are showing far more common sense and restraint than those in the publishing industry!!!! That surely HAS to set alarm bells ringing!!!!!!!!!

~~~~~~

UPDATE : 12th June 2008

Latest Update. This appeared on The Bookseller site today:

The Society of Authors has called for age-guidance plans to be temporarily suspended pending a review, following the unprecedented author revolt last week.

Novelist Celia Rees, chair of the children’s writers and illustrators group at the Society of Authors, told The Bookseller that if publishers go ahead it should only be with individual authors’ approval. “Not all writers are against age guidance, but given the strong opposition that has emerged in recent days, we have proposed to the Publishers Association that the Children’s Book Group’s plans should be put on hold, pending a review, which would include a number of authors,” she said.

A spokesperson for the CBG said that publishers were continuing to discuss author concerns on an individual basis. “Publishers are getting lots of valuable feedback from authors, which in turn is helping them address the specific issues and concerns that authors are raising. The CBG remains committed to the principle of age guidance, which it sees as one of several tools that will help more adults choose and buy a book for the children in their lives.”

The decision to introduce guidance was taken in April by 13 publishers. Reprints carried the guidance from April, and new titles will be guided from the autumn.

Walker and Usborne said that they were among those playing a “wait and see” game. Jenny Tyler, editorial director at Usborne, said that publishers were “never as united as the first statements indicated”. “We would want to take careful note of what our authors say,” she said. “It would be interesting to see if authors follow their principles to another publishing house.”

Walker has indicated it is in “no hurry” to join the age guidance movement. “We hope to be a publisher that looks after the interests of our authors,” said publishing director Jane Winterbotham.
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I think the second last paragraph is particularly interesting — it seems to indicate that certain parties within the publishing industry are trying to push this through even without the full supports of their peers, by trying to convince the rest of us that they have their full, 100% backing. This is the most worrying and distasteful part of the entire “decision” — the lack of a real debate, the refusal to involve everyone concerned, and the blatant slapping about of lies and half-truths. If the individuals who have tried to force this down the throat of the rest of us continue on their path, I think some heads will roll at the upper corporate levels — no editor or MD will relish the job of trying to explain to their board members why all of their authors are jumping ship …

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The Book Foxes are very grateful to Darren for giving us his definitive view of age branding in children’s literature.

For more debates from the Soapbox click here.

Picture of the baby fox courtesy of Eric Begin on Flickr

About Eve Harvey

Eve Harvey is a bookaholic. She is forever to be found with her nose in a book. If there are none around then newspapers, magazines, the back of cereal packets, road signs or the tiny washing labels found on the seams of jumpers will do. Eve has a full time job as a children's bookseller. She was, in fact, the very first Waterstone's Children's Expert Bookseller in Scotland. Her first love then really has to be literature for children and teens, although she has been known to read grown-up books (not very often though - they didn't put in enough hours when they invented days). She especially loves to find brand new authors and is always on the lookout for a stunning début... Eve lives in a field just outside Edinburgh in Scotland with her daughter and son and two dogs and two rabbits. She also has some tanks of tropical fish and vows one day to start up a marine aquarium. And the day she signs her very first publishing deal she is going to celebrate by buying a pair of Horsefields tortoises. You can find Eve through her Agent, Ella Kahn at DKW Literary Agency. She's also on Twitter or on her website : EveHarvey.com

38 comments on “News Flash! Soapbox Special : Darren Shan on Age Branding in Children’s Literature

  1. Clorinda
    June 7, 2008

    A very interesting post. You obviously feel very passionately about this. I had no idea this was planned.

    I can see one big problem with age branding:children are very concious of fitting in, and I can see all sorts of problems at school where children are called “baby” and such because they are reading a book that is classed below their age. Never mind that child might have reading difficulties, or might just enjoy the story.

    Knowing what children are like, they will also probably be a lot of pressure on them from their peers to read books well above their age bracket.

    I remember when I was about 13 I started reading the magazine “Just 17″. I read it until I was about 16 and lost interest! I do remember a lot of my friends saying “you’re not 17, why are you reading that?” (Closely followed by then snitching a read of it if they could, especially if it had an interview/article on Nik Kershaw, George Michael or Michael J Fox!)

    If I was anyone of consquence, I’d be adding my name to your list on the website. (Maybe you should do that where ordinary people – parents, grandparents etc can sign up).

  2. Leena
    June 7, 2008

    Clorinda, I think us ‘ordinary people’ ( ;) ) can add our names too. There are a number of parents’ and readers on the list, and the email address is at the bottom of this page:

    http://www.notoagebanding.org/index.php?supporters

    Knowing what children are like, they will also probably be a lot of pressure on them from their peers to read books well above their age bracket.

    That’s a good point, Clorinda. Though I suppose there’s another side to it, too – are older children reluctant to seek out books intended for them in a general children’s books section, where all age groups mingle? I’m not a parent or a teenager, so I don’t know, but I do remember that when I was a teenager about ten years ago, nobody went to the children’s room in the library after they turned 13 or so. Books for sixteen-year-olds were grouped with books for ten-year-olds so they were all equally, hopelessly uncool. If my class mates read at all, they read adult books.

    But I wonder how they’d ‘brand’ those crossover books that appeal to adults and teenagers alike?

    Very interesting subject. Thank you so much for this soapbox.

  3. Jane Henry
    June 7, 2008

    Hi Darren,

    I am an ex editor from Scholastic, and I am appalled by Elaine McQuade’s comments. It certainly wouldn’t have happened in my day (ten years ago). I am also a mum of four (My oldest is a HUGE fan of your books!) and I object to age branding on every level. The thinking is from what I understand that new markets, eg supermarkets are opening up (this is a good thing, I’ve just had my first novel published and it’s done brilliantly through supermarkets, I’m not knocking them) and your average punter in a supermarket is often not a regular book buyer and does need help. The person in Tescos is far less likely to be able to point them in the right direction then a normal bookseller. The thinking is age branding will help. Yes, it will help the grown ups but it will alienate kids. For a start it fails to take into consideration that children’s reading varies hugely. When I was editing The Babysitters Club I got letters from 7-11 year olds. Point Horror used to be read by 8-14s. Your books get read by my 12 year old, but my 10 year old finds them too scary, though that was the age her sister started reading them.

    And once you age range you will alienate the older reluctant readers, at whom I presume this initiative is aimed. I always wanted to do Point Horror for reluctant readers, but struggled with how to present them without making the reluctant reader feel patronised. Plus the industry is horribly resistant to reaching out to the kids who don’t get reading. This well meaning but wrong headed initiative won’t help, but could actually have a detrimental effect on sales. It certainly won’t bring in readers who struggle already. Which is a great pity as they need all the help they can get.

    Incidentally, the Bookseller lead column was about this this week, and accused children’s librarians of not understanding markets. In my experience children’s librarians do more then anybody to get books to all kids. It’s a shame no one bothered to listen to their opinion either. They know about what kids read then anybody else in the industry.

  4. Roger Cornwell
    June 7, 2008

    Hi,
    I’m the webmaster of the No to Age Banding web site and yes, please, do come and sign up. There are now over 800 names on the list, from all walks of life. Philip Pullman has written to me about the ‘wonderful democratic flavour’ of the list and we plan, as soon as we can, to emphasise this by putting the list into alphabetical order.

    Roger Cornwell

  5. Lisa
    June 7, 2008

    Thanks Darren. Really fascinating article. And brilliant of you to come onto Vulpes Libris.

    So much of what you say sounds familiar, and I found myself nodding along.

    “Perhaps part of the problem is that there’s no writers’ union (at least not that I’m aware of). Each writer pretty much exists in a little world of their own when it comes to dealing with publishers. . ”

    I think that is very true. We have the Society of Authors and as another Bookfox has just pointed out, the http://www.scbwi.org/ but that’s about it, isn’t it? Perhaps writers do need a proper union. I’d sign up in a heartbeat, having faced various problems since becoming a writer, and feeling very alone and unsupported. There is also a difficulty in getting proper information, as so many writers are understandably wary of speaking out about their experiences.

    Age branding throws up all kinds of issues and I agree with Clorinda when she says “Knowing what children are like, they will also probably be a lot of pressure on them from their peers to read books well above their age bracket.”

    So why weren’t writers included in the decision-making process??

    I am cheered that people are making a stand at No To Age Banding. Good for them.

  6. Tris
    June 7, 2008

    Thank you to Darren who has said everything I feel about this as a parent, a former teacher and an aspiring writer – and perhaps most importantly as a reader.

    I have enjoyed reading many of Darren’s books – great to see that an author I admire is willing to give this response.

    Quote from my 12 year old daughter – ‘it’s taking the age range scheme in schools out into the world – these things work in Academia but not in the real world. It’s dead dodgy. Books are loosely sorted anyway in the shops.’

  7. Emma
    June 7, 2008

    Brilliant argument, Darren!

    Mind you, it’s not new. I remember at my junior school, the library was divided into four levels of difficulty, and you WEREN’T ALLOWED to go into a harder level until you’d been tested and approved! What was that all about? Sheer teacherly bossiness, as far as I can see, though the teachers may not be the guilty party this time.

  8. Ariadne
    June 7, 2008

    This is an interesting debate. I can’t see a ‘two-tier’ system, where some books are excused age-bands but others aren’t, working. That will create an implicit divide; reading scheme vs. pleasure; commercial vs. literary. It will have to be all or nothing, surely – as Darren says, it can’t be that some authors get special dispensation just because they have enough clout to demand it.

  9. Ariadne
    June 7, 2008

    Just to add: I read a lot of books that were ‘too old for me’ when I was a child – in particular, I remember reading Hemmingway’s ‘The Fifth Column’ and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, and AS Neill’s ‘Summerhill’ when I was about 9 or 10. (The only reason I read them was lack of anything else to read in the house, and we lived abroad so no chance of getting more books till the summer holidays in the UK.) I didn’t understand everything in them, and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ I found seriously dull, but reading them gave me a sense of a broader world of literature that existed outside my current reading for pleasure. I didn’t end up hating those books. I trusted that I would understand them later, when i was older. And i had some interesting conversations with my mum about Summerhill. Reading books that were too old for me, broadened my mind. It did not harm me.
    I read ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’when i was 12, and it was the most life-changing experience I ever had. I had no idea books could be written like that – as if you were inside the character’s head, swimming in the stream of his thoughts. It was incredible. It shook my universe. And it spoke to me in ways that no-one could have predicted by looking at an age-range – in the mental institution, I saw my prison-like boarding school, where everything from meals to sleep were regulated. In The Big Nurse, I saw the girl who mentally bullied me every night in the dorm. I identified with Chief Bromden, who chooses not to speak, chooses to sift into a state of semi-existence, becoming just a watching pair of eyes, listening ears, held together with memories, to deal with this prison world he finds himself in. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ made my life bearable. Who could have guessed that book would be so important to a middle-class, twelve-year old girl in a boarding school in Northern England? Who could have guessed that would be right book, right time? Not anyone judging it on an age-band.

    I am also interested to see that Alan Garner has come out against age-banding. I read The Owl Service when I was nine, thirteen and eighteen, and each time a new level of meaning opened up to me. Each time, the book rewarded me in a different way. Yes, you could put 9 + on the cover – but how meaningless to do so.

  10. clom
    June 7, 2008

    Fantastic article Darren and very timely.

    I work on a project that seeks to engage vulnerable young people in reading for pleasure. Age banding certain books represents an enormous setback in terms of broadening access to books among young people who don’t percieve themselves as readers.

    Many of the young men I work with had never read a book and balked at many popular authors simply because the idea of reading a 200+ page book fills them with trepidation. We’ve used a variety of books to try to “hook” them from gritty true crime to Barrington Stoke material (great interview on their 10th anniversary earlier in the week) to ghosted Football biographies to books intended for younger readers but with appeal to teenagers as well (Joey Pigza is a particularly good example). Age branding would create another barrier for these young people.

    No self-respecting teenager, not to mind one who has been excluded from mainstream education and already alientated from reading, would want to be seen with a “for ages 9 and up” book. This will create yet more barriers amongst a group that desperately needs encouragement in their reading.

    There is a worryingly proscriptive subtext to all this similar to some of the media coverage of the “Read Up and Fed Up” survey earlier this year. Steve Wright epitomised this on his radio show reporting on the surveys findings that “Heat” magazine is the favourite read of teenagers.

    Mr Wright’s conclusion? “Dear me that’s not very educational”

    For me, this little aside was a neat little encapsulation of the type of hypocrisy we display towards young people in terms of how they engage with culture in the broadest sense. A cultural life must serve a purpose other than pleasure if it is to be seen as beneficial. This is the worst type of philistinism and it lets us all down.

    Erm. Anyway. Sorry for the maundering but it’s one of my tubs and i particularly like thumping it!

    I love this blog by the way!

  11. Jackie
    June 8, 2008

    I don’t understand how publishers think this will help them. Do they think that parents or the general public are too dense to choose books for their children? Is it to slot books into specific niches for marketing? What is it for? It would seem to narrow the marketing exposure & sales in aiming for one sliver of the children’s book audience. And what about books like Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland or the Narnia Chronicles which appeal to all ages? Not only does this potential practice strike me as censorship, but impractical too.

  12. Adam
    June 8, 2008

    I have a very weak “other side of the coin” for you. Before I offer that I’d like to say, I think age branding is a bad idea. I think sorting children’s fiction by genre is a bad idea. My opinion on the matter is as a bookseller, who sometimes has the misfortune of walking into the children’s area to find a sad situation.

    Sadly, a lot of people don’t know what their children are reading. Moving outside the household makes matters worse. Typically, they say “i’m looking for a book for a __ year old ____.” I ask what the child likes, and they almost always don’t have a response. Age branding would at least give a starting point, all be it weak and inaccurate.

  13. Alexandra
    June 8, 2008

    My father gave me The Grapes of Wrath when I was six years old to read. I will never be able to measure how great a gift this was as it has shaped my life beyond comparison. I had unfettered access to authors such as G Greene, C.S Lewis, Irwin Shaw, along with picture books, National Geographic and anything else that I could lay my hands on. When my father opened a bookstore my world became so rich that, if I could have orchestrated it, I probably would have dropped out of primary school to sit at home and read in all the moments I could find slotted between climbing trees and riding BMX bikes (oh and sleeping and eating of course.)

    Children of all ages have curious minds and we give them far less credit than they are due. Their ability to know when something is not good for them is much more attuned than adults at times as is their sense of what they enjoy.

    Imagine if we started putting branding followed with, “This book contains explicit language, sex scenes, violence, vegetarianism, adult themes, a girl who meets a guy and falls in love and in the end moves to Norway and …we just gave away the ending but then this is a marketing ploy really and has nothing to do with the joy of books.”

  14. Nik
    June 8, 2008

    Well said. It is not a good idea, not at all.

    Nik

  15. Janet
    June 8, 2008

    What I don’t understanding about this age-banding business is that the people implementing it would never have had these restrictions on their own reading as children. I read widely as a child – Dodie Smith, Alcott, Treece, Dickens, the Brontes, Tolkein, Greek and Roman Myths, Belloc, Dr Seuss, Stevenson, and the list goes on. My parents never stopped me from reading anything. As a result I ended up with a large vocabulary and an unquenchable thirst for reading that continues today. In fact, I still have the copy of ‘David Copperfield’ that my mother gave me when I was around seven or eight, that had been given to her at a similar age as a school prize for reading.

    Can it be that these people have forgotten their own childhoods and the joys of finding a new book? It would be sad if it wasn’t so scary how we are slowly being suffocated by this new nanny state. We’re not allowed to be grown up anymore and this age-banding is just part and parcel of it. It’s just getting them early.

    As the next generation of my extended family produces offspring I can see myself as the odd Great Aunt who sends the strange reading material. Hopefully, their parents will let them read it, or even read it themselves.

  16. Caroline
    June 8, 2008

    I read the Vulpes Libris article by Darren Shan yesterday, and what struck me most, since I’ve been reading the comments people have been writing on all related sites I can find in response to the question, is that the pro-banding and anti-banding sets approach the concept from a different angle of what they consider important.

    People who think enforced age banding is a bad idea are fairly convinced of the lack of help it’s going to be in getting kids reading, and the same people seem to tend to think that while it may make books ‘easier to buy’ for adults, it might not mean the books actually get read by the kids for whom they were bought.

    Most (not all) of the people in favour of it tend to say things like “It will definitely help me/random non-readers/people who don’t ‘understand’ Childrens literature buy ‘appropriate’ books.” And that makes the crux of their argument. “Why not?” They say. “Movies and games have this already. It helps.”

    But since the movies and games are legally age-banded, does that mean we’ll move towards it being considered legal age-banding on books later, just by dint of the fact people become accustomed to the idea after it being in place for a while? Why not just stick with the sectioning of areas in bookstores which is a guide of the same sort anyway?

    Incidentally, from personal experience of working in a music/DVD retailer for years, parents can be very fast in bringing back merchandise they consider unsuitable for their kids, even if the kid is of an appropriate age according to the age-band on the DVD or game. Can you imagine the chaos that will ensue with some 9 year old buying an ’11+’ or whatever because they already know and love the author, and a well-meaning parent looks at the back and decides its not suitable and takes it back in a huff to the shop and accuses the staff of selling something too old for their little darling? The managers sometimes get involved, and it’s pretty stressful to deal with.

    Also some people use things like that as an excuse to bring back old purchases. Sad but true. We used to have people bring back CDs and videos (as in VHS) that were so old they weren’t even on the system anymore because they’d last sold about 10 years previously. And are parents going to go check previously non-banded books for their new ratings, and bring them back if they’re newly unsuitable?

    I feel very sorry for the people who are going to experience this, and many will, because it does happen. And what if a ‘new JK Rowling’ brings out the ‘next Harry Potter’ which is banded for teens and younger kids rush out and buy it – the situation will become farcical. Will booksellers need to start getting proof of age for kids before selling, to avoid parental wrath? Because a lot of parents will take the age-band on the back as Gospel.

    From what I’ve been reading, some librarians already have to stick to age-rules too, and risk being fired if they allow kids to read things from the ‘wrong’ sections. One such librarian hides copies of “The Curious Incident” etc. to lend out to special kids she thinks can deal with them, at the risk of getting fired. And will teachers get into trouble for trying to recommend books to kids of high reading ability? Since I’m going to be a teacher, this is a particular worry for me, since I’m already sure I want to try to get kids reading by whatever angle I can persuade them with.

    Probably my favourite comment on the side of the people pro-banding, was that ‘No-one complains that LEGO has an age-band on it’.

    Someone also mentioned that kids don’t care what games they play, even if they have banding for ‘3 and up’ or whatever. I think that’s simplifying things too much. If the kids are playing together, everyone is ‘sharing’ the “we’re all playing this young person’s game” feeling and no one person will feel childish or like they’re standing out in any way. And once the game is out the box, no-one looks at the box to see the age on it anyway. Books will have age-bands on them permanently, in full view of other people, since when you read, that part of the book will face away from you, towards others. I speak as someone who reads in public all the time, of course. Which kids shouldn’t be scared of doing.

  17. rosyb
    June 8, 2008

    Caroline – what a really thoughtful and interesting post. Thanks for commenting.

    This has been a fascinating article by Darren Shan and the following discussion has also been interesting to follow. This was something I knew little about. I didn’t really know what I thought about this issue (as I said elsewhere I seem to remember the books when I was a kid – Puffins someone said – had things like “for 12+” or whatever written on them. I can see some usefulness in that ). But I think, over all, the arguments are really persuading me against – particularly some of the points Caroline just made about the way parents might use them and librarians are treated…Perhaps this is one of those slippery slope situations and that is why the authors have reacted so strongly.

    I also see that it is good to keep expert advice in the bookshops – something else I saw argued elsewhere…as I say, though, this is not an area I know much about at all and I’ll continue to follow the discussion and learn more…

  18. Eve
    June 8, 2008

    Thank you all so much for your fantastic responses to this.

    You have all brought up such wonderfully reasoned points that I find it amazing that the subject was ever suggested in the first place.

    It seems obvious that there was very limited consultation on the plan to bring in age-banding since I find very little argument in favour of the idea. And the arguments in the Pro camps are exceedingly weak and flimsy.

    Earlier in the week I interviewed Barrington Stoke…

    http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2008/06/06/interview-with-katherine-naish-of-barrington-stoke/

    …who have 10 years in the business of creating books aimed at reluctant readers, and they clearly state they make a conscious choice not to add any age suitability to their covers. To my mind this says it all as to whether age-banding would be off-putting to kids.

    But I think Darren is right, he is a huge author with enough clout and confidence to say No, but what about the little guys, the new authors and the soon to be published. Will they be able to stand up and fight? Alone?

    Fabulous discussion, thank you all so much for your input – it’s fascinating.

  19. rosyb
    June 8, 2008

    Barrington Stoke “clearly state they make a conscious choice not to add any age suitability to their covers”

    That’s interesting – I was going to ask about BS. I assumed they would have something on them. How do they market their books in this regard?

  20. Darren Shan
    June 8, 2008

    One quick p.s. to my original post. I did a radio interview about this, and the interviewer challenged me with the old “Movies have age certificates, so why don’t books?” chestnut. I didn’t reply too fluently, as I hadn’t been thinking of it that way — publishers have presented this as an argument about marketing, not censoring, so I’ve been trying not to focus too much on the censorship aspect of age banding. But I did think about it afterwards, and realized I’d missed a golden opportunity that would have highlighted the absurdity of this whole sad, sorry mess. Yes, movies are given age certs — but only to broadly separate adult fare from children’s movies. i.e. in the UK and Ireland there’s G, 12, 15 and 18 (those change every so often, so I’m not sure what the exact current lineup is, but it’s roughly those four certs). I think that’s fair enough — a G to indicate it’s family friendly; a 12 or the equivalent to note that an adult might want to be on hand to watch the film with younger readers; 15 for teen-appropriate movies; 18 for adults. But what if films were sub-divided even further, if a G film had to carry an extra sticker indicating 7+ or 9+ year?!? “This Disney film is suitable for 8 year olds but not 6 years olds.” Even the movie people aren’t THAT crazy!!!!

    There’s an inherent degree of snobbery in the book business — I think most of us feel that reading is superior to watching a film, since it demands so much more of us mentally. And I think most of us believe the world of books is more liberal, since we’re not answerable to Hollywood moguls and hardcore religious fundamentalists (unless you’re J K Rowling or Philip Pullman!! And I believe they only get attacked because of the high profile of their book sales). But in this instance the movie gang of supposed loonies and conservatives are showing far more common sense and restraint than those in the publishing industry!!!! That surely HAS to set alarm bells ringing!!!!!!!!!

  21. Eve
    June 8, 2008

    Rosy, they are grouped into series and each has a specific logo which indicates to parents and teachers which reading level and age they are suitable for. This system wouldn’t work outside their company though and are necessary for the type of books they produce.

    Thankyou for coming back and adding to this Darren. And I completely agree, if the weird world of film don’t feel it’s necessary to break down the age range into such a narrow category then all is lost for the world of literature if this goes ahead.

    I was thinking more about these small leaps in age and how demented it was to try to fit children into these tiny boxes. They are human beings, so diverse and mutifarious and hallelujah for that! My 8year old son has been tested (long story) for grammar comprension and language and found to have an equivalent ability of a 12 year old and above. Now there must be a sliding scale between him and the kids Barrington Stoke are helping.

    There is no such thing as normal, no such thing as appropriate – it can’t be calculated and assigned and made to fit all children. Kids are all different and to try to make them squeeze into a range is a travesty.

    We should trust them with the good sense to choose books they’ll love and not force them to read what we want them to within the narrow confines of a range. There’s nothing better than discovering a story for yourself.

  22. Ginger
    June 9, 2008

    I work as a children’s librarian and in the U.S. at least we deal with many related age-banding-like issue all the time

    One is the age markers on graphic novels, especially manga.

    These tend to have ratings like “T, T+, OT, M” etc. (Teen, Teen Plus, Older Teen, Mature).

    Comics also have very loose age ratings printed on some of them – kids comics have things on the back that say stuff like “Age 7+” or “Suggested for Mature Readers”.

    There are also “all ages” ratings and similar. A lot of librarians have demanded these I suppose, or seem to feel positively towards them. Usually these are people who do not read many comics and they say they find the ratings helpful in making judgements about what to buy for children’s, teen, or adult collections.

    Then there is much discussion among professional groups about whether to relocate series if their age ratings change, or whether two ratings from two companies are equivalent, etc. etc.

    I don’t enjoy it. I do read a lot of comics, and I feel that a) as a reader the info has never helped me, b) as a kid, I read things aimed at a young audience and things intended for adults and never minded one way or the other, c) as a professional I feel that my role is coopted by these ratings.

    Large book store chains in the United States have increasingly broken their children’s areas up by age – I see signs in Borders that say stuff like “for Independent Readers ages 9-11″.

    I work with students from nearby schools who need to read something at a certain vocabulary level. They come in and say “I need a book that has a lexile of between 900-1000″ or “between 850-950″ or something like that.

    These various schemes all aim at controlling reading. Certain groups seem to want to commodify the experience of reading, to break it up into interchangeable quantifiable units. “You are _ years old and reading at _ level with _ tested vocabulary range, so you should read (and benefit from) (and be tested on) these twelve books: ……”

    I find the whole thing a bit terrifying. I do think the effect is quelling and contributes to censorship.

  23. Ginger
    June 9, 2008

    Sorry about the misplaced “kids” above – obviously it is not the comics marketed to children that say “suggested for mature readers.”

    There are kids comics that have age ratings, general comics, and then ones that are singled out as mature.

  24. mapelba
    June 9, 2008

    This reminds me of when I was 11 and wanted to check books out of the “adult” section of the library. Since I hadn’t yet turned 13, the librarian wouldn’t allow me to check out Agatha Christie. Hard to believe. Lucky for me I had a grandmother who would get me any book I wished.

    Who gets to decide age appropriateness? Wish it could be my grandmother who would simply stamp every book–0 to 110.

  25. Moira
    June 9, 2008

    I’d forgotten that, mapelba … Standing there in the kiddies’ section, hip deep in Noddy books, gazing longingly into the Adult section where the treasures lay.

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  29. rosyb
    June 12, 2008

    Oh I was just about to post a link to the above but I see it’s here already! Let me do it properly. The Book Depository has an interesting post on this debate and I thought it is important to post here as we haven’t had many pro-banding arguments put here yet.

    http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/WEBSITE/WWW/WEBPAGES/listarticle.php?type=blogarticle

    Many people are arguing that age-banding already exists in parts of Europe. Perhaps it might be interesting to hear from anyone who works in bookshops abroad and what they feel the effect of age-banding is.

  30. Darren Shan
    June 12, 2008

    Latest Update. This appeared on The Bookseller site today:

    The Society of Authors has called for age-guidance plans to be temporarily suspended pending a review, following the unprecedented author revolt last week.

    Novelist Celia Rees, chair of the children’s writers and illustrators group at the Society of Authors, told The Bookseller that if publishers go ahead it should only be with individual authors’ approval. “Not all writers are against age guidance, but given the strong opposition that has emerged in recent days, we have proposed to the Publishers Association that the Children’s Book Group’s plans should be put on hold, pending a review, which would include a number of authors,” she said.

    A spokesperson for the CBG said that publishers were continuing to discuss author concerns on an individual basis. “Publishers are getting lots of valuable feedback from authors, which in turn is helping them address the specific issues and concerns that authors are raising. The CBG remains committed to the principle of age guidance, which it sees as one of several tools that will help more adults choose and buy a book for the children in their lives.”

    The decision to introduce guidance was taken in April by 13 publishers. Reprints carried the guidance from April, and new titles will be guided from the autumn.

    Walker and Usborne said that they were among those playing a “wait and see” game. Jenny Tyler, editorial director at Usborne, said that publishers were “never as united as the first statements indicated”. “We would want to take careful note of what our authors say,” she said. “It would be interesting to see if authors follow their principles to another publishing house.”

    Walker has indicated it is in “no hurry” to join the age guidance movement. “We hope to be a publisher that looks after the interests of our authors,” said publishing director Jane Winterbotham.
    —————————–

    I think the second last paragraph is particularly interesting — it seems to indicate that certain parties within the publishing industry are trying to push this through even without the full supports of their peers, by trying to convince the rest of us that they have their full, 100% backing. This is the most worrying and distasteful part of the entire “decision” — the lack of a real debate, the refusal to involve everyone concerned, and the blatant slapping about of lies and half-truths. If the individuals who have tried to force this down the throat of the rest of us continue on their path, I think some heads will roll at the upper corporate levels — no editor or MD will relish the job of trying to explain to their board members why all of their authors are jumping ship …

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  32. Karen
    July 3, 2008

    I am not in favour of printing age-restrictive age-ranges in books. However, the only time I can see it being appropriate is where books contain graphic sex, violence etc. An example I’m thinking of is “Past Mortem” by Ben Elton. Due to the pop-culture references in his novels, I am sure that many of Ben Elton’s books appeal to teenagers. However, I was rather taken aback by a very graphic and explicit sex scene in “Past Mortem” which would be almost guaranteed to be given an 18 rating in the cinema. If I had children (I don’t) I’m not sure if I’d be happy about a 14- or 15-year-old reading it (but then again, some parents may be more liberal and broadminded).

    Therefore I feel the only way age ranges on books could be justified is if they were given “suitable for all” and “adult themes of a sexual nature” type rating, then an informed decision can be made about whether to allow children of a certain age to read them.

  33. namioutwant
    August 3, 2008

    Thanks for the post

  34. Rebecca Herman
    August 11, 2008

    I am curious what all the uproar about this was about, and was wondering if anyone can give me more information. I am a reader in the United States who stumbled across an article about this issue. For at least the past 25 years maybe longer, books here have a suggested age range on them (usually in small letters on the back cover or on the dust jacket flap) that will say something like ages 14+, or 8-12, etc. There has never been a fuss over this and it is generally only used as a guideline, perhaps to help in buying a gift or to avoid purchasing a book with mature content when the parent feels their child cannot handle it. Is the proposed system for books in the UK something other then small letters on the book somewhere saying what age it is suggested for?

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This entry was posted on June 7, 2008 by in Entries by Eve, Special Features, Thursday Soapbox and tagged , , , , , .

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