Saturday, July 26, 2008

Age Labels on Children's Books

Well, this is pretty cool... I think this is the first time (and perhaps the last!) that I've been quoted in an article alongside illustrious authors like Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett! The article, by Barbara Julian, is in today's Vancouver Sun and deals with the topic of age labels on books for children. Here's the text:

Kids' Books, Unlabelled
Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and other prominent writers are urging publishers not to specify age groups on the covers of children's books
Barbara Julian, Special to the Sun
Published: Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reviewers of children's books are often asked to indicate the age range for which particular books are meant. It's usually parents who request this, or childless people wanting to buy books for their friends' children.

It's easy to see why they feel a little lost in the kid-lit world, but they're asking us to do something that doesn't come naturally. We want to share the titles that excite and delight us, but we fear that by steering a particular age group toward them, we could be steering others away.

Pinning reading ability to age level is an inexact science, as any teacher knows. An exceptional book won't stay within an age-defined straitjacket, anyway. A clever, humorously illustrated picturebook gives as much pleasure to the parent reading it aloud as to the child listening and looking.

As for chapter stories, the same themes have entranced us, with age no barrier, since the first stories were acted out by cavemen around the fire.

Children read largely to learn about the adult world, and adults sometimes still choose books for their "inner child." What varies is vocabulary level, and vocabulary comprehension grows at no set pace. Who, child or adult, doesn't read better when hungering to find out what happens next?

A group of children's authors in England (see feel so strongly about this that they have signed a formal statement against mandatory age labelling in the book trade.

"You simply can't decide who your readership will be," argues Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. "Nor do I want to, because declaring that it's for any group in particular means excluding every other group, and I don't want to exclude anybody.

"I avoid giving the age of my characters, for that reason. I want every child to feel they can befriend them."

This opinion seems to have struck a chord. More than 3,300 people -- librarians, teachers, editors, booksellers, readers and authors -- have signed the British statement to "disavow publicly any connection with such age-guidance figures."

Some British children's writers have taken the issue to an almost metaphysical level. "The space between the young reader's eyeballs and the printed page is a holy place and officialdom should trample all over it at their peril," declares Terry Pratchett. And to Alan Garner, age banding "insults both book and reader, and attacks the root of literature."

How do their Canadian counterparts feel about "attacking literature" with age labels on book covers?

"Good for Pullman!" says Sandy White of Victoria's Kids In Print bookstore. "I prefer not to have age suggestions on covers. When parents come in looking for books by age, I point out that they have to go by their child's own interests."

Children's author Nikki Tate, who is also a bookseller and a publicist for Sono Nis Press, agrees. "A very young child with a strong interest in a topic may devour a book intended for adults, whereas even the simplest, most attractive book on the same subject won't tempt someone with no interest in the content. A good book is a good book is a good book."

She acknowledges that buyers new to children's literature may need help but says, "That's what knowledgeable booksellers and children's librarians are for. A competent children's-book person should be able to place just the right book into the hands of every child reader."

They'll look at the inside, the blurb, the cataloguing data and the length. So why do publishers put age labels on covers?

One reason is that competent children's-book people aren't always around, even in schools. After budget cutbacks were imposed on B.C. school districts a few years ago, qualified library assistants were often replaced with general clerical staff.

Also, books are increasingly sold in places other than bookstores. As fantasy writer Neil Gaiman notes, "In the U.K., more and more books are being sold through supermarkets. People in supermarkets don't have to know anything about what they're selling. They just need to know where to put it on the shelves."

Authors, of course, are glad to have their books sold anywhere and everywhere, so most are happy to put up with whatever aids the untutored vendor may need.

What the British campaign is attempting to do is stop a mandatory, standardized age band being used across the publishing industry.

Just how prevalent is age labelling at present? Labels are still in the minority. Penguin Books and its children's imprint, Puffin, sometimes suggest an age range beside the price, as do HarperCollins, Scholastic and Simon & Schuster, but selectively.

Books designed for school use, such as Scholastic's various fiction series and Dorling Kindersley's large-format non-fiction titles, make the most use of age guidelines.

Orca Book Publishers in Victoria usually shows not age but discreet "reading level" designations on covers, in response to requests by teachers and school librarians. The company's Andrew Wooldridge says these levels are calibrated minutely by the Fry computer program, which measures words per sentence and paragraphs per page, as well as simplicity of construction.

Do authors write to fit this program? No, says Wooldridge. "The reason our books are popular is that story always comes first."

Phyllis Simon, co-owner of Vancouver Kidsbooks, also feels that what educators want to know is not the age, "since every child is so different," but the reading level a title is aimed at. But even that is just a guideline and "should not be used as gospel."

Judith Williams, the Alberta author of several prize-winning youth science books, recognizes the usefulness of age designations in linking to grade and curriculum levels. Yet she also feels labelling doesn't let children "judge for themselves what they want to read. I believe children are keenly aware of age designations, and putting that on the book itself will discourage some readers on either end of the scale."

Let that information remain in catalogues and on websites like Amazon, she suggests. Book lovers pick up all sorts of clues about a new title or author practically by osmosis.

Age designations highlight the gap between book professionals or book lovers and people who don't know their way around books.

With more than 1,200 new titles published annually in B.C. alone, the latter understandably want some way of narrowing down the choices.

Age labelling may be most misleading when it comes to the "young adult" designation.

A generation ago, kids were meant to go unimpeded from the felicities of Charlotte's Web to those of Jane Austen. Now they may be steered into a ghetto of "issues" plots heavy on crackheads and dropouts, homelessness and shoplifting.

It's a niche for which many writers write specifically, and they find followers.

But as downbeat subject matter, this fare may create as much reading reluctance as it overcomes.

Sandy White, of Kids In Print, gets around that ghetto by instead recommending contemporary fantasy-historical-adventure stories -- a sub-genre that has taken off on the coattails of Harry Potter.

Let's consider that biggest youth seller ever. J.K. Rowling's tales enticed small children to stretch their comprehension abilities. Those who leapt into reading with Book One of the series were grown up by the time Book Seven came out, but many still read it as avidly as they did the first book.

So much for age categorization, we might conclude.

Yet, on occasion, buyers and sellers alike appreciate a guide, and marketers will do whatever makes a product shout, "Choose me! Choose me!"

Book lovers and reviewers simply respond with yet another reading skill: We learn not to see age labels. To us, it's unwanted information and we filter it out.

Barbara Julian is a Victoria writer and former librarian.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008