Thursday, June 05, 2008

British Publishers' "Age-Banding" Plans Draw Author Ire

The Guardian has been following a growing controversy in the UK over a controversial plan by several major publishers to add "age-bands" to the covers of books (that is, suggested ages for the readers of said books). In a 30 May report, Richard Lea and Nell Boase quote several authors, whose reactions to the idea range from "silly" to "ridiculous" to "a disaster." Author Mal Peet told the paper "If you've got reluctant young readers, 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."

Rebecca McNally, publishing director of Macmillan's children's division, said "the whole point is to help adults who often feel completely lost in the children's section of a bookshop," but others see more troubling aspects of the plan. Author Francesca Simon: "The only thing that matters is can they read it, not should they read it, or would they enjoy it." McNally says that their market research indicates that children "didn't seem to pick up on the age-ranging and certainly didn't seem to feel negatively about it." That may be true in a research-based setting, but just wait until the first playground taunt-fest when someone is seen reading a book "labeled" as being for younger people.

A follow-up piece yesterday by Guy Dammann notes that more than eighty prominent authors and illustrators - including Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen - have signed a letter opposing the implementation of age-banding; that will be printed in the Friday issue of Bookseller. The letter refers to the scheme as "ill-conceived, damaging to the interests of young readers." An essay by Pullman is set to appear in Saturday's Guardian as well.

I share the opposition to the idea of age-banding; one of the most wonderful things about books (perhaps especially about books written for children or young adults) is the fact that they can be widely enjoyed by people of different ages. Sure, adults - even smart adults well-skilled in marketing - might think that it won't matter to a 9-year old that he or she is enjoying a book "age-banded" for 6-8 year-olds. But it will matter, and it shouldn't have to.

Drop the scheme, and tell those adults who are having so much trouble finding suitable books for their children to pull up a chair and read a few. They might just learn something.