Pullman on age banding
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)