Tuesday, 10 June 2008

More on age branding

My last post on this has had a bit of a history: I finished the first version in a spitty rage; slept on it, and thought I had overdone it, so raked the post over and re-wrote it. For the confused, my position is this:

I don't see anything wrong in age-branding, as long as it's discreet. The scheme as proposed by publishers at the moment isn't.

My friend and colleague Catherine, over at Juxtabook has written what I think is one of the best posts I have read on this subject. This is Catherine on her year 7 (ie 11 year old) class:
They were so out of the reading loop that all the clues that a middle class kid (or parent) would use to tell them about the subject matter, the reading ability, the age range anticipated, were not there in their minds. They might pick a book because they liked the picture of a an RAF plane on the front but they couldn't tell you whether they were expecting a story, history, biography, or a fighter pilot's instruction book. They had no idea whether the content was likely to be akin to Andy McNab or Thomas the Tank Engine.

So who are books for? No doubt most of those who have signed petition would say everybody. I'd beg to differ. I'd say they were for middle class kids and their parents who use the libraries, who go to book shops, who know you can ask for help, who have the vocabulary to attempt the questions needed to find a right book.
I've worked in a library, and used to read with children at our local primary school when my children were there. One of the children I used to hear read came from a gipsy family. He and I had horses in common, and so we used to find anything on horses, and read that, as best he could. As Catherine said, he had no idea what clues to use to pick out a book. Where was he going to get them from? He was the first member of his family to read at all. Neither of his parents did. His reading record used to come back marked with crosses, but his parents were incredibly proud of the fact that he could actually read (and his parents still heard him read every night, and made their mark on his book. There were many "better" families whose children's records went unmarked for entire terms).
That family is an extreme example, but at least they were on the child's side. I've come across parents who didn't see why the child should read: they didn't. I've met parents who've come into the library because their child insisted, but who laughed at them for it. If you haven't met it, it's easy to underestimate just how book averse some families are. I've been into more homes than I care to think about where there is not one, single, solitary book on display. There are some families who are so completely, as Catherine says, out of the loop, that it is difficult to see how they can be reached. If labelling helps them to take even the smallest step towards helping their child see different worlds through books, I'm all for it.

If publishers are taking this step because they genuinely believe that it will help the book averse, then all well and good. I have my doubts though. The statistic that 40% of those questioned would be more likely to buy books if they were labelled I think is the crucial one. It's about sales. It's not about getting out there to the families who are physically uncomfortable when they come into a library, whose whole body language is saying "Get me out." Spreading the love of reading is about intervention by people; by people like Catherine who went out and worked and got those children onto the first steps of loving books:

I started looking for boy's books. I even found some, labelled as such, helping boy readers. They pounced. They read them, well a bit, and went back to look for similar things the next time we went in. Their diet didn't vary much, though we did manage the Lancashire reading challenge (certificates for reading books from 5 different genres) as a class, and some of them got certificates. But I had to get them into the library and up to the shelves to start the process.

Catherine's class were lucky to have her, and if (removable) labelling helps people like her, is it such a terrible thing?


winnie said...

I still can't make up my mind how I feel about age banding. Wasn't it the Dragon Books (of my youth) that were banded - this would be back in the sixties/seventies? I'm tempted to lapse into a cliche and say 'it never did me any harm'!
I think the biggest fear that people have is that struggling readers would feel stigmatised if they were seen reading books for much younger children but these days there are so many books produced for different age groups which are 'low ability, high interest', that I think this stigmatising argument is not all that strong.

Vanessa said...

But it isn't necessarily going to be removable and any labelling will put off children who are hugely susceptible to peer pressure and stigmatisation. My son is the youngest in his class and would hate to be seen reading/wearing/whatever something that might be considered 'babyish'.

That children get to 11 and don't know how to pick up clues about a book's contents is perhaps a sign that more needs to be done in schools to instill a love of and knowledge of books rather than causing problems for a larger number of kids with such a clumsy policy age-ranging.

Jane Badger said...

Winnie - I hadn't thought of that. My daughter bought a Bratz book from a School Book Fair which was exactly what you say: "low ability, high interest". The literary quality was so low I complained to the school and to Scholastic, who said they would do something about it. They didn't.

Vanessa - but our children both have us there, bookish mothers, with homes filled with books, and lives in which the book is entirely normal. Our children might wobble, but I don't think either of them would be put off completely. I asked Miranda about this, and her opinion was that if you were seen with the "wrong" book that would matter, but you could do what you wanted at home. The sort of child Catherine is talking about has zero support from home, or even active discouragement. A lot of schools do try very hard to reach these children. One of the points I was trying to make (not very well) is that it is parents at whom the labelling policy seems to be directed, and that education needs to be aimed at them too. I think labelling should be part of a much broader scheme, not just a sales push.

winnie said...

Hmmm, Scholastic, perhaps I'd better not comment too much about them...

Vanessa, I can only tell you about the school where I work but we do a LOT to encourage a reading culture in school. I wish I had time to type in everything that we do, it's not all educational - quite a lot of it is really fun stuff, and reading is beginning to be seen as a normal activity. It's not cool exactly but neither is it uncool these days. Of course, the huge variety of teen fiction and the excellent quality of most of it makes our job a lot easier!