Hay festival: Authors rebel against age ranges on books
Richard Lea and Nell Boase
Friday May 30, 2008
The controversy over plans to put recommended age ranges on the covers of children’s books ignited at the Hay festival yesterda, with authors speaking both for and against proposals due to be implemented by a wide group of children’s publishers later this year.
Marcus Sedgwick, who won last year’s Booktrust teenage prize with a sinister vampire tale, My Swordhand is Singing, described the initiative as a “disaster”, while Carnegie medal-winner David Almond called it “silly”. Francesca Simon, author of the bestselling Horrid Henry series, said the proposals were “ridiculous”, while the Carnegie medal-winner Mal Peet, called them a “very bad idea”.
“If you’ve got reluctant young readers,” he explained, “they’re going to be reluctant to read any book which they consider to be beneath their age range. And there’s no point in encouraging able young readers to read above their age range because they’re going to do that anyway.”
According to Peet the complicated question of whether the books are suitable for children of a certain age in terms of language or in terms of subject matter is “not being addressed at all.”
“Sooner or later this age ranging is going to degenerate into a moral code,” he said, “which would be terrible.”
The initiative comes after research commissioned by the Children’s Book Group of the Publishers’ Association in autumn 2006 suggested that 86% of consumers were in favour of age guidance, an interpretation which has been challenged by others within the industry.
Rebecca McNally, publishing director of Macmillan’s children’s division, was keen to stress that the idea was to provide “loose guidelines”, and that Macmillan authors had reacted favourably.
“We’ve written to our authors and had a positive response,” she said.
According to McNally the aim is to increase consumer confidence and sales.
“Anyone who’s ever seen adults trying to choose books for children thinks this is a positive thing,” she said. “The whole point is to help adults who often feel completely lost in the children’s section of a bookshop.”
But according to Simon a darker motivation is at work.
“It’s about getting rid of bookshops,” she suggested. “It’s about selling books through supermarkets or over the internet, without the kind of specialist guidance you can get from a bookseller.”
The proposals are part of wider pressures reducing books to “educational tools,” she continued. “The only thing that matters is can they read it, not should they read it, or would they enjoy it.”
It’s a suggestion rejected entirely by McNally, who claimed that children’s choices would not be straitjacketed by the age badges.
According to the research children were influenced by “what the cover looks like, and an exciting title,” she said. “They didn’t seem to pick up on the age-ranging and certainly didn’t seem to feel negatively about it.”
The Guardian children’s fiction prize-winner Meg Rosoff also declared herself “all in favour” of the proposals.
“I think it helps people,” she said. “Most people have no clue about book-buying. Some people aren’t even comfortable going into bookshops because they feel it’s not for them. The clearer you can make it, the better.”
It’s a problem she admitted to struggling with herself before she became a children’s author four years ago.
“I had to buy books for kids and I never read books for kids, and I never read reviews for kids,” she said. “How the hell did I know what to buy?”
With the Carnegie-shortlisted author Philip Reeve also in favour of the initiative, the controversy looks set to continue, something that will give heart to the scheme’s opponents.
“If there were negative feedback,” said McNally, “we’d reconsider.”
What do you think, should there be age ranges on books? I don’t. I think if you put an age range on a book, it will either turn off young kids from reading them (it’s too childish) or spur them on to want to read them (it’s adult – there might be some sex scenes!). While I understand that people who are buying books for children would appreciate the age range indicator, I don’t see why a good bookshop assistant would not be able to help in that, or there’s always online shopping, which is even better since it comes with reviews and lots of other suggestions. Otherwise… book vouchers? 😛