Pullman on age banding

Published On June 9, 2008 | By Joe Gordon | Books

Bestselling novelist turned comics scribe Phillip Pullman has written in the Guardian about the trend for publishers to ‘age band’ books – this is when books for younger readers are marked ‘age 11+’ and so on. In short he’s quite against it and is relieved his publisher didn’t add these age bands to his own novels when he made his objections clear (although other less famous authors may not have been allowed that input, or perhaps felt they weren’t in a position to rock the boat). And he makes a very good point:

When I sit down to write a book, I know several things about it: I know roughly how long it will be, I know some of the events in the story, I know a little about some of the characters, I know – without knowing quite how I’ll get to it – what tone of voice I want the narrative to be cast in.

But there are several things I don’t know, and one of those is who will read it. You simply can’t decide who your readership will be. 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. Every reader is welcome, and I want my books to say so. Like some other writers, I avoid giving the age of my characters for that reason. I want every child to feel they can befriend them.”

Pullman goes on to discuss how any attempt to add age suitability to a book is pretty arbitrary – different children will be capable (not to mention interested) in very different types of books and levels of reading difficulty and marking a book so specifically is likely to discourage many readers (not to mention the adults who buy their books), putting a book back on the shelf because the age range makes them think it is unsuitable. Pullman’s own works are a perfect case in point – his Dark Materials books were originally marketed to a Young Adult audience (or YA as its called in the trade) but huge numbers of adults also read them (and they are often challenging for adult readers too – they do that wonderful thing of spinning a great tale and also making you think, presumably why some reactionary people attack them – heaven forfend we should use books to help expand thought…). Now ‘adult’ editions of those books are published, just like with the Harry Potter novels – same books, just a different cover for the adults.

The author isn’t against any sort of guidance on age range and suitability – he does acknowledge there is some need for it. Teachers and librarians will recommend books to kids and so will good booksellers; some books will be arranged by age (such as YA fiction, 9-12 years fiction) and of course many manga titles carry age advisory markings. But these are only very loose guidelines – each child will be different and its best they chose what they want to read, where necessary with a little guidance from a bookseller or librarian. But as Pullman observes by putting a specific age on the book it implies a tacit approval by the author that the book is only suitable for that group and he and others are against this. In fact they have a website – notoagebanding – now up with a statement of principle; its already attracted over a thousand people (many of them well-known authors) signing up to support it.

This is something which affects both books and comics (actually comics sometimes even more so because they are pictorial they often are judged more harshly in the suitability stakes). Well before I hit my early teens I had gone through everything that interested me in the children’s part of the library and wanted into the adult section. The librarians, once my parents gave their assent, were quite supportive because they could see I was understanding and enjoying the books I was picking out (my first exposure to writers like Bradbury and Moorcock) and I’ve been devouring any book or comic on any subject that I think looks interesting ever since. It could have been very different – if I’d been knocked back from moving on to more mature books when I knew I was ready for them I could have been put off reading. If that had happened I wouldn’t be here right now writing this.

Sure there are books and comics out there you might not want a child to read, that’s perfectly understandable. But again it should all be advisory – I’m sure most parents would like to be actively involved with their children’s reading, so they can help them chose and encourage them (or if the child has reading problems then also they shouldn’t be put off by picking a book marked for a younger age range). I worry that this is a reaction to small, conservative pressure groups who attack schools and libraries for having certain books or graphic novels. A few years back it was Melvin Burgess’ YA novel Junk being attacked (it went on to win the Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal), these days it is usually a manga – I can’t help but think publishers are worried and trying to cover their butts.

Again, while acknowledging some guidance may be required it should always be advisory – I’d always ask a parent what their child liked, what sort of reading skill they had and then point them to some books, telling them any age ranges were very nebulous things. Teachers, librarians and booksellers are all normally delighted to offer some suggestions for child readers – my advice is when in doubt ignore any age band and ask one of them. Chances are they won’t only tell you a bit about that book or graphic novel, they’ll suggest others you might not have thought of. Oh, and this also holds for adults, in my opinion – if something is marked for a child’s reading age it doesn’t necessarily mean an adult won’t enjoy it too (as authors Pullman and Rowling – and before them Ursula Le Guin – have proved very successfully), so never deny yourself the simple pleasure of picking up a book like Owly because its ‘for kids’. Child or adult, just read and enjoy. And if you’re a parent then try reading them together, if you don’t already, and don’t put literary blinkers on their eyes. (thanks to Richard for the link)

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

6 Responses to Pullman on age banding

  1. As a librarian, I get asked for this kind of advice every day. The truth is, my recommendations are never purely based on age, they’re always tailored to fit the individual. There are nine year olds who are more than capable and mature enough to read books a publisher might stick a “11+” on, just as there are eleven year olds you’ll quickly discern as incapable of reading a novel that might be banded “9+”. Yet both might be stigmatised by their peers purely by having such signage on the books. So for my own professional reasons, I see this as a mistake, one probably driven by publishers desires to sell more books to casual buyers.

  2. Fancy dress says:

    I think its great for Authors to write childrens books it really encourages children to read.

  3. TomJoad says:

    What is it exactly about books that mean they should be exempt from the kind of certification that is routinely applied to movies, videogames and (to a lesser degree) recorded music.

    It could be argued that other media packaging carries rich indicators as to the content and theme of the item in question but it is still a criminal act to supply the item to someone under the appropriate age.

  4. Joe says:

    Books have always, at least here in the UK, enjoyed a different status to most other media, largely, I believe, on cultural grounds – we attach a huge amount of cultural importance to books and the freedom to express and read in words. This is why unlike most of the rest of Europe we refuse to have VAT added to books. The thought of having someone ‘certifying’ books sends chills down my spine and I’d totally resist any such official censorship (for despite the BBFC changing ‘censor’ for ‘certification’ that is still what they do in effect).

    I think the level of guidance in any decent bookstore, from the way books for kids are displayed (fiction 5-8, etc) and advice from booksellers or librarians if perfectly adequate. If ages are stamped on books, apart from the fact how can booksellers be expected to police that when kids buy books (sorry, you must have ID to show you are 9 to buy this book), even in an advisory capacity it can stigmatise. Often booksellers, librarians, teachers and parents will recommend a book meant for slightly younger readers to a child who is having reading problems (and better readers are given more advanced texts). If it has an age range banded on it lower than their own or their peers they will inevitably be made a target of fun, harming their learning. And how exactly do we decided on these bands, which will have more official sanction than bookstore recommendations? I know from personal experience what one parent considers fine for a 12 year old another is outraged by. Leave books as they are and when in doubt ask a bookseller, teacher or librarian when picking books for kids, or let them seek out their own.

  5. Rebecca H. says:

    Books written for children and teens published in the United States usually have an age suggestion on them such as 9-12, or 13+. The publisher puts it there and it’s usually on the back cover, or if it’s a hardcover, on the dust jacket flap. It’s not enforced, you don’t have to show ID to buy a book, it’s just a suggestion. If publishers in the UK are worried people can’t find an age-appropriate book for a 9 year old reading at the average 9 year old level why don’t they do something like this? It’s been done in the US for over 30 years and no one has ever complained.

  6. I must agree that age banding will create a completely new area of extra costs to publishers. This has not yet been considered. Not only will there be additional correspondence between authors and their publishers. There will be disputes when a member of the reading public objects to the content of a book; perhaps leading to litigation. If Age banding is established it may become difficult to bury and might decrease overall sales. In addition, it will be interesting when publisher’s editors have to justify their grading to authors; who may reasonably ask when their sales fall why this or that content upon which banding was justified was not discussed and changed before publication. There is a possibility that titles may have to be produced in different editions under more than one age range grouping