Recommended Reading for Publishers, Teachers and Parents of All Ages
Jeff Hynds on the unhelpful aging-and-staging of children’s books
Just before Christmas last year I received a letter from Brenda Huckett, Librarian at Cippenham Middle School in Slough. She said she couldn’t understand why publishers had to put such unsuitable ‘recommended ages’ on their books. She drew my attention to M.O.L.E., a quite complex allegory on the theme of pollution. It was, said Brenda, a book full of ‘adult allusions’. On its back cover a reviewer (in fact, a BfK reviewer) had praised the book for its ‘wit, humour and apocalyptic vision’. Brenda saw this book as very appropriate and challenging for her upper school readers of 12 or so. But unfortunately something else was on the cover. There was a multi-coloured label which said ‘Recommended for Reading Together – 5 years and over. Recommended for Reading Alone – 7 years and over’. Because of this label, her 12-year-olds considered this book ‘beneath them’. It was no good saying to them, ‘Well, it says 5 years and over, so what’s the problem?’ To a 12-year-old ‘5 and over’ means 5.
A few months later, when I was running a course in Nottinghamshire, the Head of English from the local comprehensive school told me how delighted he was with the books I’d been recommending. He thought they would really appeal to some of his 13- and 14-year-olds. He was about to buy them on the spot (they were on sale) when he noticed that several of the books had off-putting comments on them which he felt his pupils would find insulting. He showed me what he meant. One book was Colin McNaughton’s comic verse anthology Who’s Been Sleeping in My Porridge? On the back a quotation from a reviewer said that ‘any child of five would adore it’. The Head of English was sure this would be more than enough to put off most of his pupils. Another book he liked was Barrie Wade’s Give a Dog a Name. This book is a cleverly extended joke which depends for its success on prior knowledge of the social significance of names. But a label on both front and back states that it’s a book for 3-6 year-olds.
I had for some time noticed an increasing tendency for publishers to label books in this way, and now here were two teachers actually encountering difficulties because of it. I don’t know why publishers are doing this. Perhaps it’s a misplaced response to the growing clamour in education for centralized instruction and teaching by numbers. The worst thing about it, however, is that many of the labels are wrong or misleading.
As soon as you put a label like this on a book, you limit its appeal. You rule it out for large numbers of potential readers. Without entering into an elaborate discussion about how we judge books and decide on their quality, I believe it’s possible to say that virtually all the best children’s books tend to appeal to a wide age range. In fact, most good children’s books have adult appeal. This is because there are, in the best books, hints and implications that more mature readers particularly appreciate. This is why good quality picture books are often appropriate for, and enjoyed by, teenagers. This is why I Want My Potty is a favourite amongst teachers and many other adult readers. (On the cover it is, however, ‘recommended for under-fives’.)
Since I consider it very important that we do not allow children’s reading to be limited by the unfortunate and misleading practices of publishers, I decided I ought to find out how extensive the problem was. I could not, of course, examine all 30,000 children’s books currently available, but it so happens that I have selected (for Jeff Hynds Books, see below) about 750 of what I think are some of the very best children’s titles in paperback. Paperbacks are what teachers and parents mostly buy, so this seemed an appropriate ‘sample’ to look at. Moreover, I wouldn’t be in any danger of exaggerating the situation, since my sample only included individual ‘trade’ books, rather than reading schemes or books from ‘series’, most of which are labelled in one way or another.
My findings are as follows. Of the 750 books I looked at, about 180 carried inappropriate or unhelpful labels. This was about one quarter of my sample, and it included some outstanding books. (That might mean that a quarter of all children’s books in print are inappropriately labelled, i.e. about 7,000-8,000). I found, furthermore, that not all but only some publishers were guilty. In fact, there were really only five main offenders. But they were all major children’s book publishers.
I also discovered there are three main ways of labelling and hence prejudicing the appeal of a book:
1. The publisher displays an actual age-range label on the front or back of the book, or sometimes on both.
The worst examples of this I found were from Collins, Red Fox and Scholastic. Consider, for instance, Badger’s Parting Gifts, a subtle and involved text dealing with death and immortality. This book is stamped with the label of the Pre-School Learning Alliance and bears the words ‘Recommended for under-fives’. The ubiquitous torpedo-shaped label of Red Fox seems to be on almost every book they publish. It recommends a ‘Reading Together’ age and a ‘Reading Alone’ age (perm any numbers from ‘2 and 4’ to ‘5 and 7’). So The Garden, a mythic tale of an earlier civilization, is recommended for 4-year-olds ‘reading together’, though they will have to wait another three years to read it alone. And Big Panda Little Panda, about sibling rivalry, is okay if you are between 2 and 5, according to Scholastic’s large red label on both front and back. (Presumably rivalry subsides after this.)
2. The publisher comments in some way about the suitability of the book for some imagined stage of reading development.
Although these comments are printed on the cover of the book they’re actually intended, not for the reader, but for the reader’s teacher or parent. They are frequently very partonising about the actual reader. Moreover they’re liable to contain various crass assumptions about reading and how it is learnt. The worst examples come from Collins, Hodder, Puffin and Red Fox. Thus we find that Hodder’s ‘Read Alone’ books are ‘Stories for children who are just beginning to enjoy reading with short chapters, large type and lots of pictures’. A nice put down for any reader! It lets children know just what we think of them. They are really being told they’re not very good, and that they accordingly need large type and lots of pictures. Moreover they are only just beginning to enjoy reading. (The last few years have been drudgery, presumably.) Collins ‘Storybooks’ and Red Fox ‘Beginners’ also carry messages like this. Red Fox has ‘fun stories told in large print with colour illustrations’. Puffin goes a step further and really rubs it in. Pick up The Rascally Cake and you’ll find that it’s ‘Ideal for readers who still need the interest that colour illustrations provide’. (Sorry, Miss, we are trying, and we hope we’ll soon grow up and not need pictures any more – even Korky Paul’s.) Similar patronising nonsense of this kind is on the back of several other Puffin books, including The Patchwork Quilt, a finely wrought family saga by Valerie Flournoy. Then there’s Andrew’s Bath. I can hardly bear to read the drivel on the back cover. It is a ‘Playtime Book … perfect for introducing the pre-school child to new words and concepts’! You wonder if publishers understand their own books.
3. The publisher quotes from a review which inadvertently or unfortunately limits the appeal of the book in some way.
This can happen because of what the reviewer actually says, or because of the name of the publication in which the review originally appeared. Publishers have little or no control, of course, over what reviewers say about their books, but they do have control over the reviews they decide to quote from, and the publications they select from. I found that Red Fox and Walker Books, were the most likely to quote inappropriately from reviewers. For example, when a reviewer declares that ‘No infant class library’ should be without Quentin Blake’s Cockatoos, I would hesitate to quote it because I wouldn’t want to do anything that might suggest this ingenious, prize-winning book was only suitable for infants. (I recently spent a very satisfying time reading and discussing this book with a group of adults.) And on the back of a book manifestly appropriate for juniors or older, I’d be careful before I quoted from, say, Baby Magazine, Mother Magazine or Nursery World, as Red Fox does on Hilaire Belloc’s Algernon and Other Cautionary Tales. I find example after example of this kind of thing, like ‘Pre-school children will find much to amuse them’ on Pass the Jam, Jim. Of Ruth Brown’s powerful The World that Jack Built, an Observer critic observes, rather less powerfully, that ‘the story is clear to very young children’. (Is it, I wonder? I’d be very surprised if it is. Let the young children begin by explaining the presence of the black cat and the blue butterfly, for instance.) Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup is ‘A lovely picture book for anyone of five upwards’ according to the School Librarian. (I’d like to meet this five-year-old. And it might be lovely but it isn’t a picture book.) Everyone admires Jan Ormerod’s splendid version of The Frog Prince based on the original tale by the brothers Grimm. I agree with the publisher’s lyrically expressed blurb that ‘It tells of a promise lightly made but reluctantly kept, of enchantment, endurance and love’ (and a bit more as well, if the truth be known). I thus wonder whether it was wise to quote the reviewer from Practical Parenting who thought it would be ‘treasured by all 4- to 8-year-olds’. I can hear Brenda Huckett sighing.
It is not, of course, that I want to stop young children encountering any of the books I’ve mentioned. I just don’t want the older ones excluded by thoughtless labelling. So, Publishers, may I make my plea! Either get it right or stop it altogether, though as it’s hard to get it right I would in fact prefer you to stop it altogether. It’s unnecessary and it’s counter-productive. You don’t realise the harm, not least to your own sales.
LEAGUE TABLE OF PUBLISHERS
Main Offenders – Main labelling method(s) used
Collins – Age labels and publishers comments
Puffin – Publisher’s comments
Red Fox – Age labels and reviews
Scholastic – Age labels
Walker – Reviews
Frances Lincoln – Mainly ‘Key stage’ labels
Hodder – Mainly publisher’s comments
Not Guilty (or only very rarely)
Child’s Play, Gollancz, Heinemann, Macmillan, Orchard, Oxford, Transworld & Usborne
Ed’s Note: I’m surprised you’re into League Tables, Jeff…
Recommended Reading For Human Beings Including Those Who Haven’t Lived Very Long
Algernon and Other Cautionary Tales, Hilaire Belloc, ill. Quentin Blake, Red Fox, 0 09 996480 5, £4.99
Andrew’s Bath, David McPhail, Puffin, 0 14 055362 2, £4.50
Badger’s Parting Gifts, Susan Varley, Collins, 0 00 664317 5, £4.50
Big Panda Little Panda, Joan Stimson, ill. Meg Rutherford, Scholastic, 0 590 55423 9, £3.99
Cockatoos, Quentin Blake, Red Fox, 0 09 996490 2, £4.50
The Frog Prince, Jan Ormerod, Walker, 0 7445 1787 7, £3.99
The Garden, Dyan Sheldon and Gary Blythe, Red Fox, 0 00 950171 6, £4.50
Give a Dog a Name, Barrie Wade, ill. David Perkins, Scholastic, 0 590 13104 4, £3.99
I Want My Potty, Tony Ross, Collins, 0 00 662687 4, £4.50
The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup, Rosemary Sutcliff, ill. Emma Chichester Clark, Walker, 0 7445 4308 8, £5.99
M.O.L.E., Russell Hoban and Jan Pienkowski, Red Fox, 0 09 932111 4, £4.99
Pass the Jam, Jim, Kaye Umansky and Margaret Chamberlain, Red Fox, 0 09 918571 7, £4.50
The Patchwork Quilt, Valerie Flournoy and Jerry Pinkney, Puffin, 0 14 055433 5, £4.99
The Rascally Cake, Jeanne Willis and Korky Paul, Puffin, 0 14 055472 6. £4.99
Who’s Been Sleeping in My Porridge?, Colin McNaughton, Walker, 0 7445 2361 3, £6.99
The World that Jack Built, Ruth Brown, Red Fox, 0 09 978960 4, £3.99
Jeff Hynds has run Reading and Writing Roadshows for some years. They’ve now been attended by over 20,000 teachers. More recently he’s formed a book-supplying organization known as Jeff Hynds Books, which aims to select and categorize only the very best children’s books that help with the teaching of reading and writing. If you’d like to organise a Roadshow in your area, or would like to know more about Jeff Hynds Books, write to 6 Alexandra Road, Biggin Hill, Kent TN16 3NY or fax 01959 540162.