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.

Age-Banding in Children’s Books by Children’s Author Emma Barnes

jacqueline wilson covers

These two covers of Jacqueline Wilson books are aimed at different ages – but would you be confident working it out by the cover alone?

  Guest poster, Emma Barnes, children’s writer talks about that thorny old issue of age-banding on children’s books and why she is happy to support it on her own books.

Why I’m Happy to Support Age-Banding by Emma Barnes

I’m a bit reluctant to raise this issue, because I know even a mention of it can cause fellow authors to start foaming at the mouth, talking about the end of civilization as we know it. For some reason, this is an issue that authors feel very strongly about. So here goes (whisper it)… I support the age-banding of children’s books. And many authors don’t.

Emma Barnes Children's Writer

Writer Emma Barnes believes age-banding helps people feel more confident buying books for children

My new book actually has an age recommendation on the cover. See? My publishers were tentative when they first suggested it. They are obviously well aware of the sensitivities around this issue. But I said…go ahead.  It’s actually very subtle.

For those not familiar with this topic, it kicked off a few years back, when publishers found, having surveyed their customers, that most would welcome some guidance on the covers of children’s books. There are, after all, a vast amount of titles in print. It’s not always clear from a cursory glance how “kiddish” a Wimpy Kid may be, how “little” a Little Woman or how “wild” a Wild Thing (in case you’d like to know, she’s a wild five year old, but her adventures are narrated by her older sister, and my publisher expects her adventures to appeal to 8 plus.)

Often the same author and illustrator produce books that look similar but are actually for different age-groups. The covers for two books by  Jacqueline Wilson at the start of this post are for different age groups, but can you tell the difference?

When publishers first suggested that it might be a good idea to put a discreet piece of age guidance on back covers (very discreet indeed) a tirade of author anger was let forth. A campaign was started. Prestigious authors protested. You can see their statement of opposition here and author Philip Pullman’s particularly resounding condemnation here.

I will say straight off that I’m absolutely in agreement with all those authors and librarians who have a desire to see children have as much access to books as possible. It’s something I feel passionately about (as any friend who has heard me rant on about this subject will attest.) I so much want children to find books they enjoy. I despair when I hear about another library closure…visit a school with shelves virtually devoid of books…or read studies like this, with its grim findings about the negative attitudes of children to books. (My heart lifts when I meet those inspiring teachers and librarians that are doing wonderful work to bring books and children together.) I desperately want children to have access to books, and to find the books that appeal to them – and I think it’s a massive tragedy that so many don’t.

my naughty little sister

wildthingcover Emma’s latest book, Wild Thing, published by Scholastic explores similar themes of the old classic favourite My Naughty Little Sister and is suggested for ages 8+. Emma argues that without confidence and a bit of help, adults tend to fall back on their childhood favourites as a safe option – which is fine, but risks children not finding books that speak to them about their lives right now.

If I could have three wishes, one would be for every primary school to have a librarian – somebody well read in children’s books, able to maintain a well-stocked library, to keep up with new releases and to guide children to the books likely to interest them. The Society of Authors is campaigning for exactly that, and I think it would have a massive, positive impact on children’s reading – and their wider well being.

What I don’t understand is why an age recommendation on a book is somehow seen as being contrary to these ideals.

The trouble I think is in some people’s minds, age guidance of any kind seems to mean only one thing: censorship. Now censorship can be an issue in children’s books: every year, for example, the list is published of most banned books from US libraries. Then there is the more implicit kind of censorship – the worry that publishers might perhaps feel that a gay character will prove less popular than a straight character in YA fiction, or should be of a certain race to maximize sales. But neither of these issues have anything to do with age-banding. And especially not here in the UK, where I’ve seen little evidence that (the sadly increasingly few) children’s librarians out there are interested in limiting children’s access to books in any way. As for parents, I’d argue that they are more concerned about what kids see on the screen, than what they might find between the pages of a book.

Having an age guidance figure on a book does not mean a child can’t or shouldn’t read it. It’s not a legal limit. It’s guidance. Guidance. That’s all. Last time the issue hit the news, I remember reading an article where the journalist explained he’d been reading Balzac at age nine. (Or was it Voltaire at eight? I can’t remember.) Nobody is setting out to rein in Balzac-reading nine year olds. I’m not especially worried how many swear words adolescents read either. (Though some are – see the recent debates following this article about a new YA novel, which sparked off the age-banding debate again.) What I do care about is that more books should reach more children – and I think that some kind of well-meaning indicators for the adults choosing books (it is mostly adults who buy children’s books) helps that goal.

One thing we do know for sure is that many parents almost never buy books for their children. Surveys show that almost one in three children in the UK did not own a single book.  Research in the UK and USA has also shown that book ownership is strongly correlated with children’s enjoyment of, and ability in, reading. Children who owned more books were significantly more likely to have positive attitudes to reading. And there is now strong evidence that children who read for pleasure do significantly better educationally in all areas than those who don’t – even in mathematics – see here.  Have a look at this overview to see the many important benefits reading for pleasure brings.

For me, all of the above is strong evidence that we should do whatever we can to help parents in getting books to their children. As a parent buying books, I know I’m regularly confused about who a book is aimed at. I inspect the cover…the blurb…I flick through. And some of the time, I’m still confused. But the cover and blurb are “rich in clues” the anti-age banding lobby tells me. Well, guess what. I can’t always read the clues. And if I can’t read them – and I’m a children’s writer – then why should any other parent be able to either? And do you know what happens when parents can’t tell? They buy a copy of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, because they can remember exactly what it was like and who it was for, or they buy a copy of Roald Dahl for the same reason. Now, I’ve got nothing against either author. Or the tables and tables of rereleased classics – Stig of the Dump, Tom’s Midnight Garden – that seem to be mushrooming in my local Waterstones. But I think it is a shame if it means that children are less likely to discover contemporary authors, the ones that are writing specifically for them, about their lives, right now.

It’s even more of a shame – more of a mini-tragedy – if that parent (or aunty, granddad, friend) gives up on the idea of buying a book for fear of getting it wrong and decides it would be much easier to buy something else instead.

Not everybody is familiar with the language of book covers. Not everyone has even heard of Roald Dahl, Horrid Henry or Winnie-the-Pooh. It’s true. The most striking example I can think of is the woman I know who gave a ten year old an explicitly erotic bodyripper as a present. She gave it in genuine good faith, and would have been mortified to know of its content. But she didn’t read the clues. (In fact she had worked out it was historical, and she knew this particular child liked history. It wasn’t that she couldn’t be bothered trying to find the right book.) She was a member of an immigrant community, and English was not her first language. There are many parents in this category. There are also people who are unfamiliar with libraries and bookstores, or who struggle to read themselves. Many still want to buy books for their children. They may not, however, have easy access to advice, or be able to easily afford to write off the price of a book if they “get it wrong”.

I can’t help feeling there’s a kind of intellectual snobbery in the idea that everyone should be able to deduce the nature of a children’s books – (or even, as sometimes helpfully suggested, that they should read the book first themselves. Maybe a parent of a book hungry child doesn’t have the time? Maybe they don’t have the ability? A voracious reader will be reading far more at eight, nine or ten years old than even the most interested adult will have time to keep up with.) I also find it rather ironic that children’s authors – generally a liberal and leftward-leaning lot – have been so keen to embrace a line which I feel can make it harder for many to enter and explore the world of children’s literature.

So why else are people opposed? These seem to be the main arguments:

Slower readers will feel embarrassed about reading books with younger age-ranges on the cover

back of wild thing

Back of “Wild Thing” spot the 8+

I put this one first, because it may be true and certainly does concern me. But I’d be interested to see the evidence that age ranges on covers puts off readers – or that kids even notice them. (They are pretty discreet – look at the photo.)

When I asked high school librarians recently about the accelerated reader scheme – which assigns a “level” to books, and then encourages children to progress through the levels – they denied that having “levels” humiliated or embarrassed less able readers. On the contrary, they claimed that the scheme appealed most to exactly those kids (less able boys) that form the much worried about “reluctant reader” category.

You can’t choose an age-range – every child is different.

They are. And they may develop at different rates. But it’s surely daft to say that because individual children vary, age is irrelevant. A child will most likely enjoy The Gruffalo before they start reading Horrid Henry before they read Harry Potter… Even if there is no explicit age band given, there is still an audience in mind.

Expert librarians and booksellers can guide children to the right books…

savelibraries

Emma: “I so much want children to find books they enjoy. I despair when I hear about another library closure…visit a school with shelves virtually devoid of books…”
Vulpes Libris is proud to support the Save Our Libraries campaign.

Sadly, both are becoming almost as rare as hen’s teeth. (And likely to remain so unless the political and economic climate changes.) Libraries and bookshops are closing at an alarming rate.

…So can teachers.

Another lovely thought, but until children’s literature is a much more prominent part of teacher training, and every primary school has a designated school librarian (and well-stocked library) most children will not get this kind of expert guidance. Primary teachers are generalists, not book specialists, and have 30 plus children in their class.

Bookshops already categorise by age.

Yes. So why shouldn’t publishers help them? After all publishers and authors know the books best. And what about those buyers (likely to have the lowest incomes) who can only access charity shops or supermarkets?

Good books are for everyone. Age is irrelevant.

Yes – and no. Sorry. Yes, I might enjoy curling up with Alice or Winnie-the-Pooh or Jennings or The Church Mouse or The Ogre Downstairs or a zillion other favourite children’s books, but the art of writing for children, I’d argue, is that the writer is able to craft something that appeals (in language, theme or content) primarily to a child at a particular stage of development, with a particular level of experience. The very few genuine crossovers (Harry Potter perhaps) remain the exception, not the rule. I love reading children’s books, but I read them on those terms – I feel privileged to return to a child’s view when I read them, and I don’t expect to find an adult perspective or theme suddenly appear. (Some children’s books, especially picture books, may include jokes for their adult readers. That’s great. But they mustn’t lose sight of their child reader. And even the most universal of material – say, Greek mythology – will be presented in different ways appropriate for different age-groups.)

In conclusion, I’m glad that my book has an age-band on it. I hope it won’t put off those six or seven year olds who might enjoy it, or much older readers too. I don’t believe that it will. And if it helps those people, parents in particular, that I’ve met at schools and signings, and whose first question is always: “What age is it for?” then I’ll be more than happy.

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More info and links

For lots more discussion on this go to An Awfully Big Blog Adventure – who we thank for allowing VL to repost this article  – we, of course, welcome all comments here too!

For another viewpoint on this subject, when Vulpes covered it back in the midst of the hoo-ha back in 2008, here is author Darren Shan’s piece written for the site.

Emma’s new book, Wild Thing,  about the naughtiest little sister ever (who bears no relation to her own younger sister, Vulpes’ own RosyB – not at all, no no no) , is out now from Scholastic. It is the first of a series for readers 8+. Her book Wolfie is published by Strident.

“A real cracker of a book” Armadillo

“Funny, clever and satisfying…thoroughly recommended” Books for Keeps – Book of the Week

“This delightful story is an ideal mix of love and loyalty, stirred together with a little magic and fantasy” Carousel

Emma’s Website

Emma’s Facebook Fanpage

Emma on Twitter – @EmmaBarnesWrite

14 comments on “Age-Banding in Children’s Books by Children’s Author Emma Barnes

  1. kathryngaul
    March 7, 2014

    I agree with Emma… a guide to the suitable age group is a good thing. One doesn’t, however, have to stick to it if one knows a particular child well. Why I’m actually leaving a comment: the lack of a hyphen and an apostrophe (unforgiving, aren’t I?) in one of the sidenotes. Friday’s “coming up this week” should read “RosyB presents a guest piece on the age-banding debate regarding children’s books”.

  2. Melrose
    March 7, 2014

    Have to say, I wouldn’t be an advocate for age banding. Children have so many ages – chronological/mental/emotional/physical – which can be all at different levels at times – and so many interests, and are often capable of discerning their own reading material. I’d be inclined, too, to give a child a book voucher, and give them the pleasure of picking their own book, with some guidance from parents or family on what they MIGHT enjoy, given their interests or love of language, etc. Many adults love Dr Zeuss books for the rhythm and language, never mind children, and can recite them from end to end. Yet, the Bernstain Bears are so boring, boring, boring – personally, for me.

    I look at it, from the other side, from the example given of the woman who gave a child an adult book in error, because of a language misunderstanding. Would age-banding have prevented people buying me LIttle Women and Black Beauty, both presents given to me when I was under seven. They evidently made a decision I was capable of enjoying them. Black Beauty is a very sad book about the dreadful conditions horses lived under, at one time, not what some people would consider suitable reading material for a youngster. I’m sure I still have both these books in the attic upstairs, very battered, loved and well read, because they were so important to me during my childhood of rapacious reading. And then, of course, there was Greyfriar’s Bobby. Noddy and his cohorts, on the other hand, had me in floods of tears, as a lot of the characters seemed very unpleasant and weird and nasty. And, where exactly would you fit Roald Dahl, where even some older children may not be able to handle his stories, but some younger ones may really relish them.

    I don’t feel that, personally, I would want even more sub-categories, within categories. Most of us, I feel are capable of discerning what our children may enjoy reading, based on our observation of their reading habits, and the books they read over and over again. And, children themselves are often a lot more perceptive than we give them credit for. For those who are not sure what to buy a child to read, a book voucher, either paper or virtual, is an excellent way of allowing them choice, but encouraging them to make that choice a book.

  3. Emma Barnes
    March 7, 2014

    Thanks for the comments. Melrose, I absolutely agree with you about book tokens. They should be given more often. But givers don’t always want the recipient to know how much (or how little!) they’ve spent. And children like to have something tangible, that can be unwrapped. How disastrously wrong book-giving can go for children is best illustrated by a chapter of Judy Blume’s classic “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” in which Peter is given a book that’s far too young for him: some age guidance would really have helped the poor Yarbys!

    It sounds as if you were a very discerning child and were lucky enough to have very supportive adults around you. But I think even the most discerning adults can still find some age guidance a big help (and if they don’t need it, they can just ignore it surely?)

  4. You’ve argued your point exceedingly well, Emma – but I’m still not convinced,

    You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?!?

    Like you, I’m passionate about reading, and about getting books into the hands of readers; but unlike you, I do think that age-banding is likely to put off readers who might actually find the book entirely appropriate for them. At the time of the Great Age-Banding Kerfuffle, my publisher very nearly age-banded my Niteracy Hour with a 7+ label; around the same time, I got a fan letter about that book from a 13-year old. I’m pretty convinced – having met him later, and spoken to his mum – that a 7+ label would have put him off, or at least added to his anxiety around his own reading.

    Similarly, when my first book came out, I was part-time teaching a Year 6 class, and – although there was no age-banding on the book – there was clearly a feeling in the class (based, I suppose, on nothing more than the cover) that the book was for younger children. When one of the girls asked me to sign a copy, she took great pains to let me know that it was for her little sister. But there was one boy – a lad who had great difficulty with reading – who did get a copy for himself; and he made sure there was no one else around when he asked me to sign it. He was obviously really embarrassed about his own reading level, and I’m absolutely certain that a ‘7+’ on the back of the jacket would have added to that – and perhaps put him off reading the book altogether.

    This isn’t to say that I’m entirely opposed to guidance on books – my copy of Anthony McGowan’s The Knife That Killed Me has a fairly discreet Not Suitable for Younger Readers on the back, and my daughter’s copy of My Sister Jodie – which you reference above – has a similar warning. I think those are entirely appropriate. Emotionally, those books AREN’T suitable for younger readers – but no one’s putting a number on it. And it’s the number that’s the issue. It’s one thing to say ‘this book isn’t suitable for younger readers’, but another to say ‘this book is written for children of 8 & above’ – and as far as my books are concerned, it simply wouldn’t be true. I don’t write books for children of a particular age; I just write the best story I can, and I write it for anyone who will enjoy it, of whatever age.

    Likewise, I think the accelerated reader scheme’s levels have their place. I’d be quite happy to have my books used in such a scheme. I’d hate, though, to have the levels applied to my books on a permanent basis, because I don’t think reading is about ‘progressing through levels’, even if it can be a useful idea in certain educational contexts. But I think there’s already too much pressure on children to read ‘age-appropriate’ books rather than just reading for pleasure. And I think it’s a terrible shame when children don’t feel they can read something because it’s “too easy”. I think a lot of Year 6 children, including very able readers, could still enjoy The Gruffalo, and I don’t see any reason they should be stopped.

    I was doing a signing recently, and one girl hung around the shop for ages telling me that her mum was coming and she wanted her to buy her Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers. But when the mother arrived, she flicked through the book and said, “Oh, that’s too easy for you. It’s not going to challenge you at all.”

    “Challenge”!?! She wanted to be entertained!!! And I suspect that if there’d been a square on the book that said ‘8+’ that mother would have said something like, “See? It’s for 8-year olds. You’re 9, and you’re a much better reader than most of your friends!”

    I don’t want anything permanently on my books that will add to the idea that children’s reading should constantly be moving them up through levels, or challenging them, or stretching them. And when a parent asks me “What age is it for?” I will continue to challenge the idea that particular books are for particular ages, and I will suggest that they & their child flick through the book and see for themselves if it looks like the sort of thing they will enjoy.

  5. Melrose
    March 7, 2014

    Agree entirely with the above post, Emma, from John Dougherty, put far more eloquently than I could put it – he gives some very good examples of why age-banding could actually work against children reading books, which, without an age suggestion, they might have loved. And, as a child, I think I would have not enjoyed a succession of well-intended book gifts, based on age, that just “weren’t me” and well below my reading age. They would have been stuffed in a corner somewhere to gather dust, unless they had something very special to attract me. I remember the highlight of visiting my aunt was to scour her library of books, none of which were child-orientated, and delve into whatever interested me. Though that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy well-written children’s books. And some authors are just so good at story-telling, they appeal to children and adults alike – Gerald Durrell, for example. Where would he fit in?

    I like Mr Dougherty’s philosophy: “I don’t write books for children of a particular age; I just write the best story I can, and I write it for anyone who will enjoy it, of whatever age.” I think this is how some of the best stories are written, when the story is allowed to develop, without being constricted by the need to be pigeon-holed for whatever reason. I can see the sense of a warning that can be taken up (or not) with regard to potentially unsuitable content for younger children. In fact, it might be an indicator for us wimpier adults as to whether we choose to read the book or not!

  6. Ela
    March 8, 2014

    I was a voracious reader as a child myself, and I would have been (and often was) put off by an age-banded book if it was for a band younger than I was. I certainly remember my mother making a similar comment about a book being too ‘easy’ for me as John mentions above. However, I suspect that the commenters arguing against age-banding were not reluctant readers, who had supportive parents and a good library, and often read above their supposed age range. It’s those kids who don’t own any books (and my heart breaks for them) and who haven’t any support who need any kind of encouragement and guidance.

    And I agree about the use of illustrations – how is anyone giving a book as a present (or a child buying for themselves) to distinguish between a book written for their age range and one for an older child or teen when the cover looks exactly like the books they’re accustomed to?

    Mind you, I don’t think any of that would have helped the woman buying an erotic bodice-ripper by mistake – unless there’s a discreet ‘For adults’ on the back of general fiction! No bookseller would stick that kind of novel in a children’s section, surely?

  7. Noémi
    March 8, 2014

    Very interesting post, I haven’t thought very much about this issue, although I remember being vaguely opposed before (along the lines of exclusion of other age groups, or slow readers), but as you write it’s meant to be guidance. And I can’t help but being won over by the points you make.

  8. Emma Barnes
    March 9, 2014

    Thanks for all these thoughtful comments! John and Melrose, you are so eloquent, but I still don’t agree. The kind of pushy parents you talk about, John, will probably be able to “weed out” the books they think are too easy for their children, regardless of whether there is an age on the cover. And to be fair, sometimes parents are suspicious of their children’s impulse buys at a signing – if they do know their child’s tastes they might think another book might suit them better. Peer pressure – and embarrassment – is an issue mainly at school I think, where the books are often “levelled” in various ways anyway (and often much more obviously than by a tiny number on the back cover). And Melrose, my experience growing up was the exact opposite to yours: while you seem to be have been happy to explore adult fiction, I found that transition really difficult, once I started exploring beyond the children’s section. I was all at sea for a bit, overwhelmed, and think I’d have found it easier now that there is a YA category (and which often shelves books like To Kill A Mockingbird also which I didn’t discover until my twenties).

  9. rosyb
    March 10, 2014

    Perhaps we need to challenge our own prejudices about younger reading ages. Like Emma, I struggled with adult books (although that surprises me about her because she was an absolutely voracious and exceptional reader as a child). Not because I couldn’t read them but – let’s face it – a lot of adult books can be very dull – particularly if you are at a different stage in life. Like Melrose, I read loads of animal books and those included lots of adult books like Joyce Stranger and also the Durrell books etc – but a lot of those (particularly JS) are pretty much the reading age of a lot of children’s books anyway – I’d estimate. Pretty readable style and often quite formulaic. What I liked was the enormous number of them! And that I could roughly know what it would be like. I loved those books.

    But that’s talking about older children really. It’s very hard to remember but I do think there was – when I was a kid – a bit of a gap between picture books and then older children’s stuff. Once you get onto older children’s stuff maybe it doesn’t matter quite so much in terms of stage of development age-banding but more in terms of engaging real interest (?) But there was a real dearth – I felt – when I was a child of good books for – what – 6 or 7 plus? I can remember books like Shadow the Sheepdog being a younger read that I enjoyed – but there wasn’t a lot of books aimed for that age-group. You were just left to struggle/lose interest or whatever. With me -the animal theme charts my reading as a child from Mog to Shadow through to Animals of Farthing Wood then onto Watership Down (for example). But I think it is just idiotic to pretend I’d get an awful lot out of Shadow the Sheepdog now (to be honest – it’s the picture books that are more ageless often – but the slightly older books that I loved as a kid wouldn’t suit me now. Perhaps because the picture books are often written for the parents too.)

    I also think the idea that all childrens’ book will or should speak to adults is false. Children can have their own worlds and their own things and their own likes and dislikes. There are cross-over childrens’ books of course. Roald Dahl is a very good example of someone who can appeal to the very young but can be read as an adult too – and perhaps humour can do this better. On the other hand, I think we – as adults, shouldn’t just rate crossover. We need to remember that we need books to be emotional about and that speak to us as children – and they may not speak to adults sometimes. I loved James and the Giant Peach – but Shadow the Sheepdog was an emotional book for me as a younger kid. As was Dogger when I was very wee! Those authors who can tap into those emotional concerns that children can have are really quite something because I think an awful lot of us forget about it. And it’s also something books can do quite powerfully – speak to us when others maybe have forgotten what it’s like at a particular age or the things and emotions we might be going through because of friendship fall outs or not fitting in or groups at school or sibling rivalry or being anxious about the rules and getting things right, or anxiety about adult things we can’t do anything about like divorces or whatever – and a host of other things that kids go through that adults forget about.

    Not sure how all this relates to the age-banding debate. I think it’s great that it’s not just children’s to adults’ like it used to be – and there are more books aimed at or dealing with the different experiences of different age groups for young readers. As there seems to be a lot more aimed at those different gaps that were lacking in the past. I do worry about age-banding getting that school feeling about it and it is a worry if it starts limiting things. On the other hand – as a childless aunt, even one who is pretty good at looking for clues – I don’t necessarily know what kinds of things is right or most appealing for different ages. I love comedy but it also seems to me that comedy will always become the safe choice if you are unsure and kids need other books – drama or more serious – sometimes to let them explore issues they feel emotional about too, or that speak to them about their dreams and aspirations (that are no doubt totally different to those we have as adults).

    .

  10. Emma Barnes
    March 10, 2014

    Agree with many of your comments, Rosy – especially the point that some books will appeal at a particular age only, but that doesn’t mean they are somehow less important books. It’s interesting that the example you give “Shadow the Sheepdog” is by Enid Blyton who is a classic example of an author whose books appeal strongly to children but very rarely to adults. There was a nice post on the ABBA blog recently about books like Blyton’s and also comics that are enormously important to the “inner life” of children. http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/the-secret-life-of-children-david-thorpe.html

  11. Melrose
    March 10, 2014

    I think Rosy does make a good point about children’s worlds, and I suppose this is where my concern mainly lies. There are so many different environments that children inhabit – some are neophytes (daredevil explorers), some are neophobes (a bit worried about new things). Some children love bloodthirsty subjects, some need comforting tales about everyday things, some love natural history, and adventure, or facts and figures, and some love words and the flow and rhythm of language. And my concern, with age-banded books, is that these things get watered down into what a publisher feels is suitable reading for a child of a specific age-group, and, as Emma herself says, “the writer is able to craft something that appeals (in language, theme or content) primarily to a child at a particular stage of development, with a particular level of experience”, thus limiting its potential, and suggesting that all children, at that age, have exerienced similar levels of language, are all at the same stage of development, and have all had similar experiences, thereby turning out a tale suitable for some kind of generic age-group. Where does The Headless Horseman and it’s “rantipole hero” fit into this scenario? So many enchanting and unusual words, and rich description, but rather macabre subject matter. A spell-binding tale, as so many myths and legends are, and so many new words to wonder at, and add to your vocabulary.

  12. Emma Barnes
    March 10, 2014

    Melrose, it’s certainly hard to give an age range, and I know myself, from the emails I get from children that a wide range of ages will enjoy the same book. But I think some pointers – however imperfect – are helpful, whereas you and John feel they are essentially restrictive: and that I think is where we are destined to forever disagree!

  13. Ela
    March 11, 2014

    I think age-banding is only restrictive if all that the child is reading is only from that specific age-band (or if publishers start wanting writers to write to specific age-bands, rather than giving the age-band as guidance to the content). I certainly default to the books I loved as a kid when giving presents to my godson, for example, and maybe wouldn’t so much if I could be guided otherwise.

  14. rosyb
    March 12, 2014

    That’s a good point, Ela. I have no kids myself and I think those who do sometimes don’t realise that those who don’t or even family members from older generations who are not plugged into everything about kids’ lives now might find it hard to judge what’s roughly ballpark area for different ages. I don’t have a fixed opinion on this issue, but I do think the arguments in the article are good ones that should be aired and that I haven’t seen aired very much – if at all – elsewhere – which is why we really wanted to rerun this article on Vulpes to put this set of arguments – (you’ll see we had a piece written by Darren Shan we ran a few years ago who had a very different opinion.) The public debate has centred more on those who are strong readers, their childhoods and their access to books. But some of the statistics in this article are depressing in terms of those who have so little access to books and who maybe have little relationship with books and reading altogether and how that has knock on effects in all sorts of ways. Encouraging people to buy kids more books is surely a good thing and just makes sense.

    The censorship argument is something else again. And perhaps some of the backlash on age-banding comes from authors worried that there is a growing sense of playing it safe with issues or stories or whatever or that it might bring in a more prescriptive way of doing things – this is something slightly different and I can see it could be a real risk. Would be interesting maybe to explore these kinds of issues in another article at some point, maybe.

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