Sunday, 4 April 2010

Books for all Ages

‘This is definitely a novel for 14+ and not younger.’ One eminent reviewer’s verdict on When I Was Joe. Another, no less eminent, recommends it for 11 plus. What, I wonder, led them to their different conclusions.
The various arguments about age-banding are well rehearsed, and in general I’m against labelling - as I've written before. Children are well able to decide for themselves what is appropriate, I think, and reading is a pretty safe occupation.
However, I was talking to a primary school teacher this week who disagreed. Take
Jacqueline Wilson, she said. All of her books look as though they’re aimed at the same 8-12audience, but some are not. If 10 year olds read books about sex and pregnancy it can create an inappropriate atmosphere among primary age children.
I found it hard to argue with this. I have had the same problem with Jacqueline Wilson myself. I think she is a stunning writer – The Cat Mummy in particular is an extraordinary book about bereavement - but the branding of her books, the bright colours, the Nick Sharrett illustrations, can fail to sufficiently differentiate between the books for younger and older children.
When my daughter was about 9 we inadvertently bought her one of the ‘older’ Jacqueline Wilsons, and the content was too old and too dark for her. She realised this herself, but the publishers could have done a lot more to make it obvious. It wasn’t so much the worry about what I’d exposed my daughter to that bothered me, it was the money I’d spent on a book that was not meant for her - we were living in the Netherlands and English-language books were extremely expensive (Sadly the fabulous Book Depository had not yet been invented). And she was disappointed too, that a book by her favourite author was not the treat she’d expected.
Our feelings about which books are suitable for which age come from our assumptions about the children we know, I suspect. The teacher I was talking to teaches in a surburban faith school. When I was invited to speak to Y6 children at a local primary I suggested that perhaps the book was not suitable for their age group. 'Don't worry about it,' I was told, 'There's not a lot that our kids don't know about.' But still, I avoided reading from the book, and told them about it in more general terms. Was I over-protective? Maybe, but I'd have felt uncomfortable doing otherwise.
I’d like to suggest a change to the age-banding debate. Label books ‘Infant’ ‘Junior’ and ‘Secondary’, to show which school classrooms they’re meant for. Limit sex, violence and swearing in the Infant and Junior selections.
Encourage bookshops and libraries to have separate sections for ‘Secondary’ level books, so they aren’t right next to the picture books and lanky teens aren’t having to wade through hyperactive toddlers to find books they might want to read. See Young Adult books as an introduction to adult fiction, instead of a progression from children’s. In fact, many YA books could be smartly marketed to 20 and 30-somethings rather more successfully than to 11 and 12 year olds.
When I wrote When I Was Joe I rather innocently assumed that as I was writing about a 14 year old, I’d be read by 14 year olds. So the first reviewer, who saw it as a book for 14 plus, was correct in a way, as that’s how it was written. On the other hand I’ve had some great responses from younger readers who don’t seem to have had any problem with its content or style. So, why not encourage them to read it too?
I’ve been very privileged in the last few weeks to gain some insight into reluctant readers, taking part in a volunteer programme to help 12-year-olds who have fallen behind with their reading. The two boys I help have shown me the impossibility of labelling a child with a ‘reading age’. You can read aloud one way, read to yourself another. You can be capable of understanding one book, while another remains incomprehensible. One week you're stumbling over a picture book.The next you feel confident to tackle something much more complicated. One of my reluctant readers picked a book to read which the librarian said was one of the most complicated in the library (Penalty by Mal Peet) He can read it, understand it and, most importantly, enjoy it.
Reading is a deeply personal act, and the best way to encourage it is to offer a wide selection of books and a broad way of experiencing them – audio books, reading in silence, discussing books, having a book read to you. And everyone with an interest in getting children reading: writers, publishers, reviewers, teachers, librarians, booksellers and parents have to grapple with the knowledge that one 11-year- old reader is not the same as every other one.


  1. Definitely. This is such a tricky issue. Sometimes I have no idea what to do about it. Especially because my library is for 3 up to 13. I do group by age but it is so relative to the child. The difficult thing is the oldest students. They are so mature for their age that most of them read teen books but I feel guilty about stocking them. It is a hard balance to find and I guess you just have to go with your gutt instinct. Perfect Chemistry is marketed as 12+ but it has much more sexual content than When I Was Joe. (I should add that in my review.)

  2. You've raised some good points - perhaps instead of rating the book by age or schooling group the book could mention on the back if it contains sex, drugs, violence or any other items parents might consider a concern.

  3. Yes but what child is going to want to read a book that HASN'T got sex, drugs, violence or any other items parents might consider a concern?

  4. Yes, I agree...better to assume that all books labelled secondary might have sex and drugs in them. That'll encourage them to read and also teach parents that there's a time when they have to stop being too protective.

    Becky - can't wait to read Perfect Chemistry, especially since reading your rave review.

  5. I agree your book is more obviously aimed at older readers and the Jacqueline Wilson books are deceptive. The treatment of some topics, how they are written and in what setting, affects whether the content is suitable for younger readers.

  6. It's interesting that film or game ratings seem to be based around a set of written guidelines, whereas book age ratings (where provided) are more about gut feel or which market the publisher is targeting. At least if there is a definite rhyme or reason to it, I couldn't find the details.

    My book is shimmying between age bandings (originally 11+, currently 9-12) and I have to say it hasn't strongly affected how I've written it (apart from toning down the gore a bit). I would find it very hard to write "for" children of a certain age - I generally just write "about" them and hope that by picking the right age of child I hit the right tone!


  7. What I think would be cool, would be to have picture symbols which are used in video games and manga. Then you can easily identify the genre, and the content. (plus maybe a traffic light system to show how much of the content is in the book).

    Equally I understand that this might prevent some books being read....its definitely a complex issue.