Monday, June 09, 2008

Age Banding and Children's books

A subject that is much discussed in children's editorial departments is how to get the right books to the right children at the right time. When I was at Scholastic we discussed it endlessly. Children don't learn to read in a linear fashion. You cannot say at the age of 7 all children should be reading Enid Blyton say, because child a might not have progressed beyond picture books yet, and child b might have already found Roald Dahl. (That's true of all sorts of other things - no 1 was slow to learn physical skills but she's caught up in the end).

The general consensus has always therefore been that age ranging children's books is a bad idea, because older kids who are struggling to read will be put off reading books they perceive as being for younger readers. As these are generally the readers who need the most help in finding suitable books in the first place, this can only be a bad thing.

This could be all about to change as there is a move afoot to age range children's books. With my commercial hat on I can understand the thinking behind this move. With the growth of supermarkets as an outlet for books, new markets are opening up, and books are being bought by non traditional bookbuyers. There is a shocking statistic that less then 10% of the population actually go into/use traditional bookshops. Many feel intimidated by them, and the supermarkets have allowed them access to books in a way that was previously lacking. This in my view is a very good thing (and as one who's made most of my sales on Pastures New via the supermarkets I'm not complaining).

One of the downsides of the new markets is that alot of the punters come in not having a clue what is a suitable book for little Johnny aged 6 or little Jane aged 10. In a normal bookshop, the books are shelved according to age/suitablity, and there will usually (certainly in decent bookshops) be someone knowledgeable on hand to give you helpful advice. But if you aren't a regular bookbuyer, and buy your books in Asda, that particular option is closed to you. Age ranging books is the solution the industry has provided for the reality of the new world we are living in.

Undoubtedly this WILL give grannies and aunties and uncles who haven't a clue a much much better idea of what to buy little Johnny and little Jane and may well pull in more sales,

But...

And this is a big big but, it is going to do nothing at all to encourage kids to read. We are currently in the National Year of Reading. A laudable enterprise to get more kids reading. I don't think it, or age banding books is going to make one iota of difference to getting kids reading books. In fact I think the age banding is going to be positively detrimental.

As well as angsting about age ranging on books, children's editorial teams are always searching for the Holy Grail, namely books that boys will buy.

I am a mum of four girls, all of whom luckily are good readers. But I know plenty of friends with boys who don't/can't read. They are poorly poorly served by my industry. Partly it's the lack of men in it - publishing doesn't pay very well. Children's publishing pays even less. If you are an ambitious male you aren't going to hang around long. There aren't that many men in publishing in the first place, let alone on the children's side. I think this doesn't help in the search for books that boys will enjoy.

From what I have observed in the last eight years since my oldest daughter started school, the educational system doesn't help either. There are far too few male teachers in primary schools, and however well meaning and dedicated the female ones are, from what I have seen they fail to understand often that boys don't want to sit around reading a book, when they could be out climbing trees, kicking a football etc. So very often it is boys who are failing to progress through the education system and who fall badly behind with their reading. And what does my industry have to offer them? Not a great deal. I have a good friend whose son struggled through the primary school system. He's a bright lad but not hugely good at academic stuff - when he was eight or nine years old, he was still coming home with books about Floppy the Bunny. Kill Floppy the Bunny, became his mother's motif for a while.

Boys like him, are not going to be enticed to read a book which is their reading level, but has a big number on it proclaiming it to be suitable for a child two years younger then they are.

I still edit children's books for an educational company, and am currently working on a series for reluctant readers. It's edgy, contemporary, and I hope will give weaker readers something to get their teeth into , which is actually relevant to them. I would absolutely hate to see them age ranged as I think it would be patronising beyond belief to kids who need to be encouraged not discouraged.

During my time at Scholastic I was privileged to run the Point Horror list, which at the time was the top selling list for teenagers, although it was read by kids as young as 8/9 and as old as 14 - hence my point about the wide ranging nature of children's reading abilities. We sold over 7 million copies of Point Horror in my time at Scholastic across 50 or so titles. I regularly got letters which began, I never liked reading till I found Point Horror. For a while there, I genuinely felt we were making a difference. But, I quickly discovered when I went into schools, there were kids for whom even a Point Horror was too difficult. I always wanted to edit them down and present a version that a reluctant reader could have picked up with pride, but it was hard to know how to present it without them feeling they were being patronised. Plus, the feedback I always got from our sales department was that the reluctant reader market was too small and not worth the candle.

I firmly believe it is worth the candle. There are kids out there who are leaving school at eleven unable to read. They come out of the school system at 16 already disenfranchised and disadavantaged. To break that cycle we need desperately to get them while they are young, and provide them with reading material which is relevant and fun. I don't think they should all be reading Dostoevsky (we don't after all expect all our children to be David Beckham), but they do need to be literate to cope with the real world.

And that's why I'm against age ranging. While it may help parents find suitable books, their children will reject them if they perceive they are being given a book too young for them. Instead, I suggest, this age ranging experiement is linked simply to supermarkets, and doesn't become generic. Or, the supermarkets themselves need to work a bit harder at employing people on the shopfloor who actually understand books, and can offer proper advice, so that the right books do get to the right children.

This issue is being hotly debated right now by a number of writers, librarians, teachers at al, and they've launched a protest/petition which you can find out about here. I urge you to do so, because, though I can see the reasons why age ranging is being suggested, in my view it's going to do more harm ultimately then good. Which would be a great pity.
http://www.notoagebanding.org,

5 comments:

max said...

Hi,

I grew up as a reluctant reader. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for boys 8 and up, that kids hate to put down. My web site is at http://www.maxbooks.9k.com and my Books for Boys blog is at http://booksandboys.blogspot.com
Ranked by Accelerated Reader

Max Elliot Anderson

Read about my message to kids in a bottle: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2008/5/prweb983364.htm

Expatmum said...

I am tempted to think that publishing companies will do what sells books. If age-ranging gives grannies and other buyers more of a "clue", they will probably buy more books. If they try to buy a book and haven't a clue what to choose, chances are they will abandon that idea and buy a toy which has an age guide on it. Unfortunate.

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Anonymous said...

Private Eye are with you on this one! See this week's edition.

Mad Twin

Nic said...

I'm with you, too - as one of those female primary school teachers who does realise that boys are on the whole wired to run around until physically exhausted, I am often appalled by the lack of provision for reluctant boy readers. Thank God for Horrid Henry, which is a great carrot to dangle, and my personal favourite for really desperate times, The Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business. We need more books about poo, I'm afraid...