Age banding on books? No thanks

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova for The Jacket by Kirsten Hall

There’s something very odd indeed about putting age bands on books. The message it’s really sending out is this: Don’t try and read above your age level, and if you read books for younger children, then you’re reading ‘below’ yourself. The point is, if a child wants to read, this needs to be encouraged on every level; whether they are reading ‘above’ or ‘below’ some arbitrary age bracketing is neither here nor there.

The rationale is, of course, that it is just ‘guidance’ for parents, teachers and children alike so that they are helped in their decisions on which books to pick up and which to leave. But it feels very prescriptive and is, I feel, doing a great disservice to young readers who need to find out for themselves what written word inspires and excites them. So this means not being pushed to read books their parents and teachers think they ‘ought’ to be reading. Of course this doesn’t mean suggestions shouldn’t be made and reading should be encouraged as much as possible but at the end of the day the decisions, as I said before, need to come from the children themselves.

Illustration by Edward Gorey from The Shrinking of Treehorn

Harry Potter for example. There’s been a a whopping great amount of fuss about what age kids are emotionally mature enough to deal with some of the darker themes in the later books. But to suggest that all kids mature at the same level is nonsensical. Besides, there are so many books that can be read on different levels at various stages throughout one’s life. When my eldest child was seven, she read the first three Harry Potter books but when she reached the fourth, she got half way through and then, without giving any explanation, put it aside very quietly. No nightmares, no trauma. She didn’t need an adult to say anything, she quietly worked out on her own she wasn’t ready for it. One year later, and she’s read the whole series three or four times over. I have no doubt she’ll keep re-reading the series over the years to come and each time she does so, her increased age and maturity level will draw new depths from the material.

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud, Sigmund Freud’s niece, from David the Dreamer

Conversely, on the other side of this, the same daughter and also my six year old enthusiastically listen to stories that are allegedly for ‘four year old’s’. I think that it is so, so important that there is no stigma attached to this and that no book should be perceived as being ‘babyish.’ Maurice Sendak, beloved writer and illustrator for ‘children’, famously said that ‘I don’t believe I have ever written a children’s book. I write – and somebody says, “That’s for children!” ‘ The point is: books are books are books. Let’s find our own paths with them. I, for example, am a thirty-seven year old woman who derives vast pleasure from pouring over books ‘intended’ for children. And how many of my generation can honestly say they never read an inappropriate Virginia Andrews or Danielle Steel book at the age of eleven? I think my parents would have been horrified to know what I was reading, but think of author Ben Okri’s timeless advice in his Ten and a half inclinations: Read the books your parents hate. And: Read what you’re not supposed to read. (For his full list click here). Do I regret reading those books when I was quite young? Of course I don’t!

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I’m not alone in my anti-age banding ideas. A long time after I first realised I felt strongly about it, I discovered the ‘No to age banding‘ organisation, whose mission statement is:

‘…to put an age-banding figure on books for children is ill-conceived and damaging to the interests of young readers.’

Their petition to get rid of age-banding on books has been signed by many hundreds of people, including 832 authors (and yep, JK Rowling is amongst them). I’ll leave you with the wise words of writer Neil Gaiman that offers a cautionary message to parents and teachers, encouraging us all to give children the freedom to explore literature in whichever way that feels important and pertinent to them.

‘Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like…you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.’

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