Thursday, June 05, 2008

Age Banding in the UK

I meant to blog about age banding a few days ago when I first saw it mentioned at Publishers Weekly. In a nutshell, publishers and parents in the UK apparently have said, "hey, it would be so cool if all books had labels saying "this is for kids aged x."" Authors, librarians, and booksellers have responded with a loud "hell, no" (Well, to be fair, some authors are saying it's good.*)

Fuse posted about it today, with some more links on reactions to it. One of the many things the authors are saying are saying is "booksellers have the knowledge without age banding thank you very much." Fuse's comment to this is "Sure sure. Or, y'know, maybe you could ask someone with an actual degree in children's literature like a, gee I dunno, librarian? Come on, Phil. We need all the shout-outs we can get."

Going just a wee bit wanky, I'd amend Fuse's comment a bit. Oh, I agree that the librarians are great at matching books to readers, and it's sad that many of the comments arising from this issue are of the "librarians didn't let me read a book" variety.

But what makes librarian's great isn't a degree in children's literature. Cause I don't have that (tho sometimes I really like the idea of getting a PhD in children's literature. Know a good program?)

Like most librarians, what I have is a Masters of Library and Information Sciences, which included two relevant classes: Materials for Children and Materials for Young Adults. See, I think the thing with librarians isn't so much that they know children's lit ... it's that they are the matchmaker, matching the book and the child, and that is what is unique about librarians.

Or, rather, should be unique about librarians. Sometimes, I wonder.

I've posted before (here and at Pop) about how, to my sorrow, books seem to be "so last year" when libraries talk. It's all about, well, things that aren't books. So libraries outsource selection and cataloging. It's about programming. It's about becoming a community center. Books? Oh, they will disappear soon. People buy what they want at Amazon. How many libraries really support readers advisory?

Yet, people are crying out for readers advisory and to talk about books. Look at the popularity of GoodReads, Shelfari, LibraryThing. Any of those could have been -- should have been -- library ideas. Because people still want books, and want to talk about books, and want suggestions on what to read next. Most front line library staff know this, as do those of us librarians who went into librarianship because of books. The most popular programs I go to at library conferences and workshops are about books.

Do we need shout-outs, like Fuse said?


But we also need to "shout out" ourselves, about our unique ability to be book matchmakers; more so than bookstores, in that we have old books and new books, popular books and niche books, and so have a bigger selection of books for people to read. We need to keep up with what books are out there -- by reading reviews, both professional and informal; by reading books that are readers guides. We -- not an age on a book -- are the best help to someone who is looking for the right book for a child. And we need to let more people know that.

To show just how much we fail at letting people outside the library world know what we do, take a look at Ypulse's great book preconference (aka where I would go if I won the lottery tomorrow.) Yes, an amazing line up...but where are the YA librarians, talking about readers advisory and handselling books and booktalks and letting people know about how librarians figure into publishing? We have something to offer!

Back to the topic of age banding:

To start, no, the proposed UK system is not the same as what some publishers do here in the US (the smallish for ages 8 to 12 on the back of a book). The proposal is for the following categories: 5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+/teen.

Using an "age band" for a book is deceptive. It appears to be helpful -- to match the book to the reader. But it's as deceptive as talking about "boy books" and "girl books." Books are much more than a book for a particular age or gender. Readers have more subtle and complex needs than that. And yes, labelling books can create a backlash, with kids refusing to read because something is too babyish. I've also seen, again and again, parents and teachers view books as no more than a "checklist" item to prove a child's genius and maturity, so there will be some who say "I have an 7 year old but I want the 13 year old books because my child is gifted."

The truth is there is no one book that is a match for every 8 year old. And adults who want that simple match are fooling themselves; books are not school uniforms or clothes. Each 8 year old is different; and to get that book for that child, you either need to do a lot of reading yourselves or to find a professional who has done that reading to help match book to child.

* My interpretation of Rosoff's defense of age banding is she sees it as a way not to censor but rather to assist adults who know nothing about children's books who want to buy something for a child. I agree, that is a problem; but I disagree that the solution is to label books in the way proposed, and would argue that it would cause more problems than it solves.

Cross posted at Pop.


Paige Y. said...

I really would like to comment on this when my brain isn't as fried from doing inventory as it is today, but with the end of school craziness I'll probably forget so here are my half-brained comments.

First of all, to your comments: ditto. Age banding would be used for parents to censor what their children are reading. I happen to believe that parents should be involved with what their children are reading, but that involvement should stem from actual knowledge of children's literature. My youngest is in 6th grade. I happen to have a lot of young adult fiction in my personal book collection. Many of these books I've encouraged her to read. Others, not yet, and if she picked up a book like Looking for Alaska from my collection I would tell her I didn't think she was ready for it. Would I take the book and hide it from her? No -- but I certainly wouldn't encourage her to read it right now. But I've read it and therefore can judge its appropriateness for her (I did, however, thrust it into my 11th grader's hands and tell her she would love it).

So on to my next point. Liz you are right -- too often it doesn't occur to people to go to a librarian for reader's advisory. We know which are the "harder" books that would be appropriate for the 7 year old. We also know how to match a child with the "perfect" book for him/her. Yesterday I did a survey with many of my 8th graders. The answer that most people gave to "how could my teacher or librarian encourage me to read more books" was "help me find books I would like." As a school librarian, I do as much of that as I can, but teaching research skills does interfere with my time to do reader's advisory. I've at times found my self at the bookstore recommending a book to a child and his/her parent when both appeared clueless as to what to pick out.

Ok these comments were long and probably rambled. Chalk it up to being tired and ready for summer vacation.

christine M said...

Valid points, all, Liz. As a parent, and not a librarian, let me weigh in here. I read a lot of the book blogs and have a pretty good idea what's out there - but I still don't know all the books in the library - nor have I read all the books my kids read.

When we go to the public library the books on the main shelves of the children's section range from advanced chapter books to Harry Potter and Treasure Island. It's not possible to know at a glance which books would be appropriate for a young grade schooler.

To be fair - although there is a "teen" section in the children's room - the main YA section is upstairs, so it's not like a pre-teen is going to be stumbling across something that is clearly directed at a much older audience.

Our library does not have a YA librarian. I'm not sure who is in charge of that section - but it is not a dedicated position.

The children's librarians have been very helpful. My kids were early and voracious readers and the main children's librarian has been very good about putting good books in their hands. But sometimes the librarians are not there (back room, or in a meeting) or are very busy. It is not always possible to get the reader's advice that I know they are qualified to give.

As far as school libraries go - When a class comes into the school library (at our school) for book exchange - they have 15 minutes to pick out a book. There is no way that the librarian could help each of 20 children find an appropriate book in that amount of time. And really, she's often just helping them find something they've thought of on their own: books on crafts, books in giraffes, whatever - not pointing a child toward a book and saying "this book would be a good match for you." She doesn't have the time to know each child to even have any idea what books would be good for each child.

So, does this mean I think age banding is a good thing? Not necessarily. You're right that it could cause people to eliminate some books as too old or too young or "I've moved past that age now".

But there are an awful lot of books out there - and not quite as many librarians. As a parent knowing that a certain book - that I may not have heard of - is considered appropriate for "13 and up" may make me pause and research it more before allowing my child to read it.

Just some thoughts from the other side of the library desk. :)

Mary Lee said...

Great PhD program in Children's Literature: The Ohio State University.

Little Willow said...

As you know, I too consider myself a matchmaker between books and readers - of all ages - and I've posted multiple times about age appropriateness of content and real age vs. emotional age (aka the maturity of the reader). I don't want books to be restricted to X age and Y people. Basic sections are necessary for shelving and cataloguing, and age suggestions are sometimes a good thing, but sometimes, they are so very off. Readers are INDIVIDUALS - each with his or her own reading level and interests.

Julie said...

I had not heard of the age banding in the UK until I read this post and Fuse #8's. I think adults can get so caught up in what's the "right" book to read for their 3rd grader that they aren't even open to the librarian's suggestions sometimes. I know this happens to me, especially in the summer as the schools publish summer reading lists by grade. I just hate to see children's interests restricted in any way--and this banding could go both ways, with parents saying this is too easy or too hard for my child.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this is a terrible idea but I think people are missing the point in talking about it in the context of librarians and knowledgeable booksellers. This kind of marketing system is for shoppers at chain stores who have no knowledge of their own to draw on and no one to ask, since the employees are as clueless as they are.

I have a lot of faith in the anarchy of young readers' tastes to run roughshod over any system. But why not just get out of the way to begin with?

Anastasia said...

Hi Liz. It's Anastasia from Ypulse. Thanks for mentioning our Books pre-conference. In addition to Alli Decker, the editor of Ypulse Books, who is also a former literacy specialist and librarian (going back part time this fall), the agenda includes Walter Mayes, who happens to be a librarian at a middle school in Mountain View, CA. If this year's event is successful, we will definitely repeat it next year, and promise to include even more YA librarians as speakers.

Finally, for you or any of your readers who can make it out to San Francisco, we are offering a special $100 rate for librarians. All you have to is register for the Ypulse Books pre-conference only (the rate doesn't apply to the entire Mashup event), and enter the code "BookDeal" -- that's it! Our conferences are extremely interactive, so the more YA librarians who attend, the more your voices will end up being an integral part of the discussion. Hope to see you there!

Liz B said...

Anastasia, I would love, love, love to go to the Ypulse preconference; I'm so jealous of those who are attending I could just spit. But alas, I live in NJ and it's just too far to go this year (having already committed to the YA Lit Symposium, and ALA, and the Kidlit Bloggers Conference).

Anonymous said...

I've written a couple of posts about this and signed up to the notoagebanding site when it first went live. I'm interested in what the US position is as we're told by the UK Publishers Association (the PA) that the US has had age banding for years and it works perfectly well.

The PA is doing this because it claims huge new swathes of adults will start buying books as gifts for children they don't know especially well, just because books will have recommended ages on their covers (I paraphrase!). Where these new buyers will come from and how they'll know about this change isn't clear.

Many children's authors are opposed because we say young readers develop at vastly different rates and it's not possible to be prescriptive, that weaker readers will be stigmatized if they are unable to read a book supposedly for their age group and that older readers (say 11+) will be put off reading a book labelled 7+ as that would be, like, totally not cool.

We think the cover, blurb and look and feel of a book is a much better and more inclusive way of indicating who would enjoy it.

It looks, from your entry, as though some US books come with 8-12 on their covers. Is this seen as helpful, restrictive or neither?


Liz B said...

Keith, I'm going to have to check a bookstore or library to get a better sense of the frequency of the age/grade appearing. Based on my very small sample here at home, I'm seeing an ARC with the 8 to 12/gr 3 to 7 marking, and a paperback with "ages 7 +" on the back. Plus, other books that say nothing, esp. hardcover.

From the POV of a user, it's small, on the back of the book, where the the ISBN and cost are. It's barely noticeable, and I'm not sure how many times it is noticed/used, especially since it's not on all books and apparently varies by publisher. Did I read somewhere that the UK ones were going to be big & very noticeable on the front, in a colored circle? From what I have here, you wouldn't know it is there unless you went looking for it.

As for the age being helpful to an adult buying the book for a kid: since these books would already be in the area that is for children's chapter books -- so beyond early readers up to about age 12 or 13 -- it would be duplicating, really, what is already obvious.

I think that adults aren't always sure what level their kids are reading at and what they are interesed in. Buying books for someone who isn't there is hard --but I also think its hard for an adult buying for an adult!

So bottom line: sometimes it is there; it's not obvious or big; and it basically duplicates the chapter book age group anyway, so even when/if used by a parent as a guide, it wouldn't be that restrictive.

As a fun exercise - -check out some of the us and (us) children book entries. The age rating Amazon uses comes from the publishers, I think; and both sites also contain professional reviews of childrens books. The ages can vary greatly; which to my thinking just proves how hard it to connect a firm age to a book.