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.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).
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.
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?