Last month, on one of my children’s literature lists, the writer Philip Pullman posted a note, wondering what list members thought of age banding. Age banding is when publishers place an age recommendation/restriction on the book, much like what generally occurs with films.
I believe everyone who responded on the list (including me) was against age banding. Naturally, publishers may find that it boosts sales and is also a way of protecting themselves against parents or teachers who complain about (or who even threaten to sue over) books that they feel are not age-appropriate for their children or students. However, there are many reasons against this.
Mr. Pullman and a group of other writers, including David Almond, Aidan Chambers, Terry Pratchett, Helen Dunmore, and Melvin Burgess, then decided to write an explanation of why they are against this. Their letter has now been published in the Bookseller. In addition, they have started a website that serves both to express their view on this subject and also to collect signatures of those who agree with them about it.
Their sensible reasons include:
“Each child is unique, and so is each book. Accurate judgments about age suitability are impossible, and approximate ones are worse than useless.
Children easily feel stigmatized, and many will put aside books they might love because of the fear of being called babyish. Other children will feel dismayed that books of their ‘correct’ age-group are too challenging, and will be put off reading even more firmly than before.
Age-banding seeks to help adults choose books for children, and we're all in favour of that; but it does so by giving them the wrong information. 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.
Everything about a book is already rich with clues about the sort of reader it hopes to find – jacket design, typography, cover copy, prose style, illustrations. These are genuine connections with potential readers, because they appeal to individual preference. An age-guidance figure is a false one, because it implies that all children of that age are the same.
Children are now taught to look closely at book covers for all the information they convey. The hope that they will not notice the age-guidance figure, or think it unimportant, is unfounded.
Writers take great care not to limit their readership unnecessarily. To tell a story as well and inclusively as possible, and then find someone at the door turning readers away, is contrary to everything we value about books, and reading, and literature itself.”