No to Age Banding
The age-banding of children's books was discussed at an eagerly-awaited and packed session held on 31st August at the Society of Authors' Conference at Robinson College, Cambridge.
Stephanie Nettell chaired the meeting and began by introducing the platform party: Philip Pullman (author), Kate Wilson (Group MD of Scholastic UK), Becky Stradwick (Senior Buyer, Children's Books for Borders) Anne Fine (author) and Celia Rees (author and Chair of the Society of Authors' Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Group).
First up was Philip Pullman, who gave a twenty minute address attacking the idea of age-banding books.
Kate Wilson's speech also lasted twenty minutes, during which she gave a PowerPoint presentation about the importance of books and reading to children, and cited statistics and problems to do with literacy and reading in Britain. She spoke of the particular difficulties of marketing books for children and gave details of the percentages of children's books purchased by adults as opposed to the readers themselves, along with details of recent sales figures. She then went on to show a film about children of a range of ages in a school library responding with enthusiasm to questions about their reading habits and preferences. No questions about age banding were posed to the children in this film, but Kate spoke of it as one of many initiatives designed to attempt to widen the market and reach those who might not otherwise be in the habit of purchasing books.
Becky Stradwick presented the issues from the point of view of an experienced bookseller, and explained her decision to freeze plans regarding age-banding in the light of the industry-wide controversy this has caused.
Anne Fine gave a short report of the current state of affairs between dissenting authors and their publishers.
The discussion was then thrown open. The issues raised included:
- The effects of age-banding on readers
- Was age-banding supposed to reflect reading ability levels or content?
- The usefulness to some writers of teenage novels of an advisory notice on the cover
- The current level of sales of children's books
- The costs of alternative methods (eg peel-off stickers)
- How important is it to try to reach new markets?
- Are existing markets threatened by the introduction of an initiative aimed at perceived growth in non-traditional sectors?
- The role of supermarkets in the children's book trade
- The size and noticeability of the age band design in the context of current demands in the national curriculum that children are taught to 'look carefully' at covers
- The sensitivity, or otherwise, of readers to age suggestions printed on their reading matter
As ever, the discussion had to be cut off with many of those present still having much to say, and Stephanie Nettell thanked everyone on the platform warmly for giving up their time to be present.