Once again the thorny issue of age ranging has raised its head following children’s publishers’ decision to start printing a suggested age range on fiction titles. This move is part of a strategy to grow the market following a report conducted by Book Marketing Ltd that showed that around one fifth of those questioned did not know which books to choose for their children, age suitability being a particular stumbling block.
Age ranging of a broad brush kind has become usual in the way booksellers arrange their children’s shelves. It was not always thus. Way back in the early 1980s critical opinion was against age ranging in bookshops. So far as I am aware the first children’s bookshop to embrace it was the Children’s Book Centre in Kensington when acquired by Jim Slater, the investment banker. Mr Slater steam rollered over those who said it could not be done and the stock was thenceforth divided into age bands. (Mr Slater also had a go at writing children’s books but that contribution to children’s literature proved less durable.)
In general the labels attached to aged ranged shelves have been sufficiently innocuous (‘Younger Readers’; ‘Older Readers’ etc) to allow the browser space for more complex issues of language and subject matter. It has been my hope that the age banding in the review section of this journal is similarly cognisant of the impossibility of making age ranging an exact science.
While age ranged bookshop shelves may be helpful to adults buying books for children, they can also constitute an aspirational incentive for some young readers choosing books and a humiliating reminder of reading difficulties for others. However, once at the till, the chosen work of fiction was at least free of age labelling associations. Now that age ranges are to be printed on covers, however discreetly, there will be no escape from extra-literary intrusion into children’s recreational reading.
How do writers and illustrators feel about the issue? At the time of writing 80 have written to the Bookseller describing the plan as ‘ill-conceived and damaging to the interests of young readers’. Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen has commented: ‘Of course if something was actually physically dangerous for say, a child below the age of three, then age stamping it would be fine. But in a context where our entire concept of education is one of development, where we have become totally obsessed with marking which “level” our children are at, extending age classification to recreational literature is a tragic idea, really.’
On the opposing side, Carnegie Medal winner Meg Rosoff has argued that age banding can be helpful for parents: ‘Most parents 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 make it, the better.’
In this issue of BfK Caroline Horn explains the background to the age ranging controversy. BfK would be pleased to hear your views on this important issue. Go to our website www.booksforkeeps.co.uk and click on ‘Forum’.