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>But enough about you. Or me.

>As we did late last year, Child_Lit has been discussing the U.K.’s age-banding proposal with some ferocity the past few days. While I am firmly in the camp of those who oppose the scheme, a speech Philip Pullman gave on the subject is working my nerves. It’s very much a speech to the choir (which it was, being delivered at a conference of the Society of Authors), and at the beginning quotes from the research report that allegedly boosts the proposal: “A recent trade survey has shown a general preference to move to age ranging, although with some strongly held contrary views, but now what’s needed is a piece of research that delivers some definitive answers from the people who matter most – book customers and readers.”

Pullman then clutches his rhetorical pearls for this response:

The people who matter most?

Whoever wrote that – whoever read that and believed it – needs to be reminded that without us, without our work, our talent, our willingness to put up with almost anything in the way of reduced royalties, humiliating treatment over jacket design, endless travels to this bookshop, that school, that library, anything to help our books reach the readers – without us there would be no editors, no designers, no marketing teams, no publicity people, no secretaries, no helpful personal assistants, no senior executives, no expense account lunches, no pension schemes, no company cars, no sales conferences in attractive places, no publishing industry whatsoever. Any of the people who do those other things could be replaced with very little difference. Take us away, and you’ve lost everything. The people who matter most? Authors and illustrators are the people who matter most, and no publisher with any sense of what’s right and true would have allowed that sentence, and that attitude, to stand.

While I agree it would have been both politic and useful to ask writers what they thought of the idea of printing suggested reading levels on book covers, jeez, Philip, get over your bad self. I ask, with similarly high-camp drama but equal sincerity, isn’t anyone thinking about the children? They are the people who matter most in this question. They are the ones who will have to suffer walking around with a book they want to read but are officially too mature for; they are the ones who will be told “you aren’t ready” for a book deemed Too Hard. The problem with the age-banding proposal is not that it ignores authors, it’s that it ignores young readers.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Some diatribes are best kept in one’s own head, to be given an airing during a shower or sitting alone in traffic. It’s not always whether you’re right — sometimes it’s whether you’ll sound like a self-satisfied prick.

  2. Victoria Thorne says:

    >Utterly thrilled about the refreshing fact that you continually remember, and often remind your readers, that it IS about the children.

    Nice wedding pics, also. Wonderous and happy. Thanks for including them.

  3. >I don’t know. Pullman has a point. It’s just that this was not the right moment or the right context in which to make it.

  4. >This pulls me back years — to first grade where the teacher did let me read Black Beauty (it took 3 months and some help from my parents, but I did it.) as a reward for finishing the Dick and Jane book. She DID say we could read any book in her room, and I held her to it.

    And how mad I was when the guardian of books at the public library (one tiny room) refused to let me take out the third Wizard of Oz book. I had already read the first two.

    No, No, No. Those books were for fourth graders and I didn’t qualify. I was only in second grade.

    Boo/ Hiss on “graded” readers, I say.

  5. >Gotta say, as someone who works in publishing, it’s a bit hard to hear that your services are completely replaceable. Surely unpleasant for his editor and publishing house to hear that their considerable efforts on behalf of his books and career didn’t really amount to much after all…because any other place could have done as good a job. Also, an author without readers is makes me think of that saying about the tree falling in the woods. What can I say, it’s been a long day and I’m in a bad mood.

  6. >Amen, brother! (To Roger, not Pullman).

    I love how he totally twisted that statement — he brought in editors, publicists, ‘expense acocunt lunches’ (I laughed at that line — I actually work in children’s publishing), etc. The quote, as you’ve pointed out, was about book customers and readers — i.e. kids and the people who buy books for them. I guess realised he couldn’t exactly beat up on them, but still wanted to make sure everyone knew it was him who mattered most.

  7. >I understand the dangers of Lexile scores and Accelerated reader– pedagogic programs gone wild. But the simple fact that the book says “10 and up” on the back? We’ve had that in the US for years and I don’t think anyone in a bookstore pays it any attention. Is it possible that Pullman has his knickers so flagrantly in a twist over something so trivial, or am I missing something?

  8. Kathryne B Alfred says:

    >Anonymous 8:45, people TOTALLY pay attention to that. I used to get parent phone calls about it all. the. time. I had one student in particular who found reading difficult and didn’t enjoy it, and whose mother refused to let her read anything if the back of the book said it was for younger kids. Think that student–who was bright, thoughtful, and creative, but who had never been allowed to read just for fun–learned to love reading? Think again.

  9. Roger Sutton says:

    >Lots of documentation supporting the age-band decision can be found here.

    I notice that both what the label will say and where it goes have both been toned down considerably since the idea was first floated last year, but I strongly agree with Pullman that printing “9-up,” for example, on the back of a book looks more informative than it actually is, and will be decided per a marketing strategy more than anything else, witness those books said to be “for all ages” that aren’t.

  10. >Oh, I agree that it’s misinformation. I still can’t see it as the end of the world. Yes, kathryne b. alfred, I know that there are silly people, they are always with us. But wendie o’s librarians didn’t need anything printed on a bookcover to deny her the book she wanted to read. And I am sure that when people ask you about selecting books, you give them good advice. If the mother of that poor girl didn’t listen to you, that girl’s problem wasn’t the printing on the book, it was her mother. If she weren’t basing her decision on age banding, she be using some other stupid decision making mechanism. “Oh, it’s got a horse on the cover, and she likes horses,” as she walks out the door with The Red Pony.

    I agree with Pullman that it’s nonsensical to think that book buying will surge as a result of labeling. I don’t think it will change much of anything. On the other hand, I wig out completely at the idea of labeling the Gossip Girl with a parental warning about content . . .

  11. >Oh snap.

  12. >Every time age-banding comes up, someone comments that we have been doing it in the US for years. It’s simply not the case. It’s virtually never on hard cover books, and it’s rarely on paperbacks. Puffin does it, and Scholastic puts it but in a coded way, i.e. 008-0012. The others mostly don’t.

    What they do have on US paperbacks (though again not on the hard covers) is a number showing the reading level. You can argue whether it’s accurate or not, since the different ways of gauging reading level come up with such different results, but it’s not an age designation. That would really be very different.

  13. Roger Sutton says:

    >Not quite so, SDL. In looking at the cart of fall ’08 books that are being reviewed in the November issue, I found novels and picture books from Harper, Hyperion, Simon and Schuster and Marshall Cavendish that provided an age level somewhere on the jacket, generally on the front flap. It’s not consistent, though (or maybe my eyes aren’t sharp enough). That’s not a comprehensive list, either–just some of the titles for which we have finished books.

  14. >I pulled a bunch of books off of the new books shelf and checked them before posting, and none of them had ages on the flaps! Now I’m home, and I’m seeing it on the Harper and Hyperion books, but not on the Candlewick, Clarion or Holt books, and I am too lazy to look further. I suppose that as the book publishers gobble each other up the practice may spread, but in any case, I do think it’s a stretch to say it’s common practice in the US already.

  15. >I wonder if this is in part a cultural difference. Are British consumers more likely to take the age banding seriously or interpret it more narrowly?

    The age banding of books in the US doesn’t seem to have produced wide-scale harm, but then I have great confidence in the American willingness to disregard sound advice and solid research in favor of what seems right to the individual. I believe many of our public policies at the moment bear this out. 🙂

    I think the most compelling argument in favor of no age banding is the harm it might do to adult literacy and English Language learners. If I had a dog in this fight, I’d work on a compromise to put the age band on a removable sticker.


  16. Roger Sutton says:

    >While I would be happiest of the books remained unlabeled, I can’t work up too much froth over a “9+” on the bottom back of a cover. I think it’s fake information, but I don’t see it having much an effect one way or the other. If you look at the documents I linked to above, you will see that the researchers looked at whether kids would be put off by the labels, and found that they weren’t. But I haven’t looked at the research method closely.

  17. >You said that they had toned down their idea of size and placement. I guess I could see some effect if you had a book labeled with a giant 6 for six year olds and you were trying to sell it to an eight year old. I hope that’s not what they have in mind.

    I looked at my own library last night and found age listings on books going all the way back to the 1960’s.

    anon 8:48

  18. >What I have a problem with is the Scholastic program that they have going on in some of the schools. My kid had to do that stuff at the school she went to last year. I was going, “Okay, so she gets stars if she reads books in this computer database and answers some questions about it. But if she goes home and reads Babymouse, she doesn’t get anything?” Apparently not.

  19. >I can’t even understand Pullman’s position on this issue, so I’ll just say I’m thankful that the “other” people who matter (i.e. librarians and other literacy advocates) don’t feel the same way.

    But if you’d like to know how kids feel about book banding…my 9-year-old daughter came home crying from her new school last week. They had visited the school library, and were told they could only check out books with blue and green dots, because those books were at the 4th grade reading level. The school policy undermines the years I have invested in growing an avid reader (who is accustomed to making her own decisions about what to read). Needless to say, I’ll be making a visit there soon.

    I can’t imagine how I’d feelif my reading material was restricted to the category of “middle class white woman in her mid-30s”. After I finished the Mary Higgins Clark novels, I would probably stop reading and start playing more video games!


  20. Roger Sutton says:

    >Sara inadvertently points out one of the many ironies of age levels–when I began work as a YA librarian, Mary Higgins Clark was one of the most popular authors among teens!

  21. >As I said, back at 8:48, pedagogy gone wild. I’m so sick of it, and it makes me so angry, but every time the subject comes up there is someone with new evidence of its persistence. How come something intended for Good (directing children to books they might enjoy) becomes EVIL? And how come we can’t stop it?

    Even without clearly labeled book jackets, some helpful soul (or lots of well-intentioned parent volunteers who had better things to do with their time) spent hours to create the system anyway. It’s like the worm Ourobourus or something.

  22. Library Mermaid says:

    >Ack, that age limiting stuff is such a horror – if one more parent comes in the library and insists the book only be such and such a reading level or their kid cannot read it (I will, of course, only scream silently in my head after trying to gently dissuade them – I am a librarian after all)…I like Pullman’s little fit of passion however – his “bad self” can really go to town.

  23. >Ha–Mary Higgins Clark was my favorite author as an eight grader.

    Pullman’s confidence is quite a counterpoint to the vulnerability Sendak voices in the NYTimes (which I’m sure you all read already).

    I think Pullman is more likely to compare himself to Milton than Sendak’s Keats, Mozart, Dickinson, etc.

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