As the No to Age Banding campaign gathers momentum (more than 700 people, mostly writers and illustrators, have now expressed their support for the organisation’s statement* by signing up to it), an important question remains. How do we make choosing a book for a child less bewildering?
Anti-age banding campaigners (I am one myself) point out that they are in favour of helping adults choose books for children – but think age banding is not the right way to go about it: age banding gives the ‘wrong information’ and ‘it’s also likely to encourage over-prescriptive or anxious adults to limit a child’s reading in ways that are unnecessary and even damaging’.
Age banding was embraced by publishers as a commercial proposition. Of course writers and illustrators want more people to buy their books but, as Philip Pullman points out**, ‘an age-guidance figure is not information. It’s an opinion, but one that seems to have a special authority. There’s nothing wrong with a bookseller, for example, shelving one of my books on the 9-11 shelves; or a reviewer saying that the same book is suitable for 11 and upwards; or a teacher giving it to a child of eight, because she knows him and what he’s capable of reading.’ Seemingly contradictory, Pullman’s examples in fact point up the complexities of reading level versus interest level in this most inexact of sciences. Importantly, in none of his examples is age suitability actually printed on the book.
So how can we help adults more? Much excellent work is already being done from Bookstart to the Federation of Children’s Book Groups to the National Literacy Trust to the library service. It is the adults who are not themselves readers (and perhaps never were) who will inevitably be most daunted in front of a shelf of children’s books. The clues and associations re suitability given out by author name, jacket illustration, blurb, typeface, format, extent etc may not resonate for them. Could the parenting classes that were launched in 2006 and which are to be rolled out across the country in the next three years introduce a children’s book component? Do publishers need to come up with more dynamic marketing approaches? As ever, your views on this issue are most welcome.
** The Guardian, 7.6.2008