Monday, 9 June 2008

Should books be age-branded?

Firstly, sorry to those who commented on this earlier: I left it half finished before I went to meet daughter from the train, and thought I'd saved rather than published. Here is the full thing.

There has been a lot of kerfuffle in the press and generally about many of the major publishers' decisions to age-band their children's titles from this autumn. These include HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, Hachette and Scholastic. My first thought on reading this was that this isn't new. I remember reading Dragon books in the 1960s, which were divided into Blue, Red or Green dragon according to age, though the divisions: Blue Dragon - for young children, Red Dragon - for boys and girls - Green Dragon - for older boys and girls, (which does make me wonder in passing if Dragon thought children only developed recognisably as boys and girls after a certain age, but I digress) were pretty vague.

Puffin Books too used to have age suggestions on them, and I can remember seeing some Blackie and other titles which suggested that title would be best enjoyed by readers of ten and over, say.
I'd like to know why this system was dropped in the first place: maybe because it was felt it was too prescriptive? Or excluded too many children? In which case, what has changed? Maybe it's the changing patterns of book buying. Who now stocks books along with the tinned tomatoes and cornflakes? The supermarkets. A former Ottakar's manager, Trish Beswick said:

"Advice for individual children is exactly what booksellers are for. Age ranging
is being introduced largely, I feel, to suit the supermarkets, not the
bookshops."
Supermarkets are always droning on about how they offer the customer choice. How about offering the time poor book buyer the ultimate in choice - a book token?

American books have used the age branding system for a while. I looked at three Jessie Haas titles (Shaper, Chase and Birthday Pony) and they are all labelled (Ages 10-14, Age 10 up andAge 7+ respectively), but, and I think this is a significant but, they are labelled discreetly at the top right of the front flap. They are not noticeably badged. The old Puffins, from the couple I've been able to check, had the recommendation popped in the prelims, or in the blurb on the back. It wasn't noticeable. I really don't have a problem with people age badging books. Sometimes a little guidance is helpful. What I do have a problem with is the way that British publishers are proposing doing it, which is to put the branding, a black and white symbol, on the back page.

I always completely ignored any age recommendations on books when I was a child (I do remember reading them and feeling vaguely surprised that anyone had bothered.) However, it is not, absolutely not, the same for my daughter. Badging matters hugely to her. Being accepted by her peers, and doing what everyone else does matters too: she really cares. And while she is more than happy to read and review picture books for me, where no one she knows can see her, she wouldn't do it in front of her friends. She'd sooner die than take a pony book for the under 7s to dance class.

Badging books on the back cover, which is what is proposed, will be conspicuous. Children are not stupid: it doesn't matter what the badging is, they will have under their belts in minutes if not seconds the difference between the symbols.

Children like my daughter, to whom appearances do matter, will loathe it if (when) they are teased because they are reading a book badged for the wrong group. It's bad enough that old favourites have to have their covers revised constantly to fit some new vision of what's cool. Publishers already know perfectly well that the right cover matters to a child, so they must be aware that the new age branding will matter too.

This says to me that it is something entirely different that is driving this decision, and that is sales figures. I notice that it's parents who seem to be finding the book buying a problem: they of course are the ones providing the money to buy the books. If they can be encouraged to buy more, publishers will make more money. An article in The Bookseller said:

"Research conducted in autumn 2006 by Acacia Avenue revealed that 86% of
book buyers would back the plans for guidance on books, with 40% saying that
they would be more likely to buy more books if they featured guidance. "

However, buying the books is absolutely not the same as reading them. You can buy all the 7+ books you like, but if they're the wrong book for your child they won't read them. Sales figures can be wonderful, but if children are not actually reading the books, that matters.


If it's such a hard thing for parents to choose books, there are several things they can do, so here is my guide for the book-challenged parent.

1. Join a library and test-read children's books. You will very soon learn which books are aimed at what age. By experimenting with the library's free books, you will soon find out what your child likes, and then if you want, you can buy it. I notice that many librarians, who spend their working lives trying to encourage children to read, do not agree with this decision.

2. Open a book in a book shop and read a few pages. Again, you'll soon be able to tell what age the book is aimed at.

3. Go to an independent bookshop, not a chain, and ask the owner. Tescos, frankly, don't know, and don't care. A book is another unit of profit to them.

4. Ask your child's teacher for recommendations. Better still, teachers could do lists of books and send them home with the weekly newsletter. You might not agree with them, but it's a start.

5. Ask your child. They might have an opinion on the subject.

6. Buy a book token if you don't know the child.

This is another of those situations which seems to me to be tackling things from the wrong end. It's profit-driven, not child-driven. If you want to encourage children to read, you need to work with parents who are scared, clueless or unbothered, so that they understand what books are out there. Teach the parents how books work, in the same way that children are (this is the blurb, Mrs Badger....)

If you think that this decision is wrong, there is a petition you can sign. The website http://www.notoagebanding.org/ had, when I looked this morning, 1215 signatures. It's already been signed by Alan Garner, Peter Dickinson and Diana Pullein-Thompson, amongst many others.

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