Age Banding on Children’s Books

An open letter to O’Brien Press

Dear Michael,

I was disappointed and very taken aback by your recent letter informing me of O’Brien Press’s intention to introduce age labels on their books. Disappointed, because I had always thought that O’Brien had readers’ interests at heart in a books market that is becoming increasingly driven by hype, gimmicks and ruthless discounting. I was taken aback, because I’ve been involved in the No to Age Banding Campaign in the UK, where all the arguments have already been heard and where the three publishers who tried to introduce age-banding have had to back-track because of the outrage it has caused among their authors and illustrators and also to the teachers, librarians and reviewers who form the backbone of the book industry.

We are expected to believe that age-banding will win over the small sliver of a percentage of adults who go into a bookshop (or even the books aisle in a supermarket), stop in front of the shelf, pick up a book, study it and then put it down and walk away because they can’t figure out who the book’s intended for. This, despite the publishers’ own research, which states that over eighty percent of adults are more comfortable buying a book for children over any other form of entertainment.

The division and antagonism that this issue has caused in the UK has been like nothing I’ve ever seen before in publishing. In case you haven’t seen the No to Age Banding website, here are the main objections:

  • Each child is unique, and so is each book. Accurate judgements about age suitability are impossible, and approximate ones are worse than useless.
  • Children easily feel stigmatized, and many will put aside books they might love because of the fear of being called babyish. Other children will feel dismayed that books of their ‘correct’ age-group are too challenging, and will be put off reading even more firmly than before.
  • Age-banding seeks to help adults choose books for children, and we’re all in favour of that; but it does so by giving them the wrong information. It’s also likely to encourage over-prescriptive or anxious adults to limit a child’s reading in ways that are unnecessary and even damaging.
  • Everything about a book is already rich with clues about the sort of reader it hopes to find – jacket design, typography, cover copy, prose style, illustrations. These are genuine connections to potential readers, because they appeal to individual preference. An age-guidance figure is a false one, because it implies that all children of that age are the same.
  • Children are now taught to look closely at book covers for the information that they convey. The hope that they will not notice an age-guidance figure, or think it important, is unfounded.
  • Writers take great care not to limit their readership unnecessarily. To tell a story as well and inclusively as possible, and then find someone at the door turning readers away, is contrary to everything we value about books, and reading, and literature itself.

I received one of the greatest compliments of my life a while back. I was told by a teacher that a group of eight- and nine-year-old boys who could not be persuaded to pick up a book were fighting over the Mad Grandad books. Would those boys have been so passionate about these books if they saw that they were labelled for six-year-old readers? And it’s not good enough to say that the kids ‘won’t really notice’. If they can find the price on a book (publishers still optimistically put them on UK books), they will certainly see the age label.

The OBP books already carry age-guidance, but it’s more subtle. It does less to categorize, to stigmatize. Younger kids have to make that extra step to find out what the coloured flags mean. Let’s leave it that way. The idea of having two sets of age-guidance symbols is just plain daft. Let us stop this McDonaldization of the children’s books industry. Let’s expect booksellers and librarians to know their business. If the staff in supermarkets don’t, then let’s drive those adults who are unsure of what books to buy, back to the people who can help them properly.

It is one thing to have age-guidance on shelves, because the book speaks for itself once it is removed from the shelf. We use guides on shelves to steer potential readers towards books we think they will like. But the books themselves should make no such statement, no such promise. The writer writes for anyone who will read his or her books. To put a label on the book is to say, with the writer’s authority, that it is for a certain type of child and no other. And I will not have that said about my books.

Books are not like videos or games or music CDs. You have to be capable of reading a certain level of book before you can access its content. You cannot sit in front of a book and have its content projected into your brain. The ability to read is its own censor, and its own measure of maturity.

In the UK, the publishers could not even agree about what the age-banding referred to: reading level or content. When pressed (and not until then) they seemed to lean towards content as the defining element. How is anybody supposed to know what parents consider what is or is not suitable content for their children? My wife and I can’t even agree on this subject, so how do publishers propose to judge it? Will there be an independent body set up by the publishers, or will it, as I suspect it will, be the directors and editors be dictating what content is suitable? Who are you to judge?

And finally, I want to address this so-called ‘research’. Less than two hundred and fifty people were surveyed; not all of them children, and of those, they ranged only from seven to twelve year-olds. Less than two hundred and fifty people. This is a pitiful cross-section on which to base such a divisive move. I have seen the questions and the findings and it amounts to little more than a PR exercise.

Over the last year, I have spoken to more than two thousand children in Ireland and the UK. I have spoken to about six hundred and thirty-five children in the last two weeks alone. The first thing I do at the start of every session is ask them about what they’re reading. Do you carry out market research on that kind of level?

Writers and illustrators produce the stories you publish for children, and then you expect us to promote the books at the other end. We are in constant contact with the children who buy the books you publish. We have far more contact than any survey group or PR company ever will. Perhaps, before introducing a policy that concerns our livelihoods, that could adversely affect both our sales and readers’ development, you should ask us our opinion?

Because I can tell you that I will not agree to having age-banding put on my books. Random House originally tried to bulldoze this through their writers, stating that this was a new policy that would be applied across the board. It included labelling my latest novel ‘Teen’ against my wishes. My RHCB books did bear ‘Unsuitable For Younger Readers’ which I did not object to – if anything it should attract fluent readers, but ‘Teen’ implies it is for teenagers and no one else. Random House have since been persuaded to change their minds and that label will be coming off in the next printing.

This is an ill-informed, ill-conceived move that somehow hopes to gain some tiny percentage in sales, but will instead stigmatize readers and force books into contrived categories that have no bearing on the real tastes of readers, making them even harder to sell than they are already. I will have no part in it, and I appeal to you to show that O’Brien’s commitment to the development of their readers and their respect for their authors and illustrators still stands, by dropping this idea before you cause the same damage that has been suffered to publishing relationships all over the UK.

Yours sincerely,

Oisin McGann.