Judging A Book By Its Cover

6 06 2008

Pile of books As a society we are fast in danger of ruining future generations forever with our approach to so many things. From teaching them about sexual issues to letting them go down to the shops.

The latest installment of project “cotton-wool generation” is a plan by publishers to begin printing suggested reading ages on books. This is a terrible idea for just so many reasons.

For starters we have the question over whether we define it by content or by the reading difficulty. There doesn’t appear to be an official response on which measure will be chosen.

Not that that would be the end of the problem, far from it. As that piece in the Guardian alludes to, people’s reading skills develop at different paces, so if it’s based on the difficulty of the reading material it would be a false measure. Not only does this not help the consumer (contrary to the argument put forward that this will help people buy books) as they may buy a book they think is suitable for a particular child that actually isn’t, but it has more wide-reaching consequences, most of which are serious.

For example will a child whose reading isn’t particularly developed feel comfortable reading a book with a lower age sticker on it in front of other kids? Mr President imagines that a lot of teasing would follow, which would in turn simply put that child off reading at all. And that, let’s not forget, is the very sort of child that needs to be encouraged to read more to develop. Will this move help them or hinder them?

Harry Potter, for example, would have a child’s age rating and yet is read by adults.

Arguably even worse is whether such a move will actually discouraged people who are precocious readers. The Guardian piece again is really helpful here, talking about Pullman’s material which is quite dense and complex and yet is read by quite a young audience. Mr President first read Tolkien at primary school, and yet he knows now that really the Lord Of The Rings is aimed at a teenage audience. Few of his peers read it when he did, but he was an advanced reader. Ratings will hinder such readers.

Less parents will buy “advanced” books for their children, more teachers and other adults in positions of responsibility will take books from kids if they’re deemed “unsuitable” for that age group. If people say such things are a “guideline” only and that people can factor in whether the child they’re buying for is “advanced” or not, then the response has to be how then will the new ranking help you? You’re still having to make a judgement over whether the book is suitable or not. You can still get it wrong.

If the guidelines are to be based on content rather than reading complexity there are still issues with that. The problem is well put (so Mr President won’t bother with a lot of editorialising) in the first paragraph of this Times piece. Of course that’s an extreme example, but it shows how even the most innocent story (Hansel and Gretel) can be construed to make it entirely unsuitable for children. This quote seems apt:

“Attaching a specific reading age to children’s literature is virtually impossible”.

The simple fact is, as that piece also intelligently notes, the way books are currently marketed, published and sold helps the buyer in making such decisions. By all means stack books by age brackets, and perhaps even make it mandatory for any book seller to do this, but the difference between that and a sticker is that such a shelving arrangement is merely temporary. The child never sees it, only the buyer does.

In the end the best way to know if a book is suitable for a child is to read it yourself.



3 responses

7 06 2008

Good post. I have quite a few issues with putting reading levels on books. First, and foremost is, why? Will the business make more money off this move? Obviously not so any law doing so would hinder the market for no reason. As you pointed out, age guidelines only hinder advanced kids and underachieving kids. No one wants to be seen with a book too low for them even when they might need more work in that area and parents and teachers would avoid otherwise great books “too old” for others.

Then their is the moral argument I suppose. Why do people still insist that censoring what a child reads will benefit them? It is as if people want their kids to become sheltered, unsocial morons. Perhaps parents should start taking an active role in raising their kids and stop allowing others to do it for them.

7 06 2008
Mr President

That, I think, is the issue with so many of these things. Parents blame video games, movies, television shows and now books for why their children end up being anti-social yobs. They’re wrong.

I saw plenty of movies with older age certificates when I was a kid, and read plenty of quite graphic books. Yet because my parents raised me properly, I knew right from wrong, I knew how to differentiate the fantasy from books and movies from the reality of life.

Parents need to stop blaming other people and be parents.

Certification will never tell you whether something is suitable for your child, for the simple fact that no two children are the same. My parents told me about sex when I was eight, because I was curious and kept asking questions. Other kids might not get “the talk” until they are older than I was. Some might get it when they’re even younger.

The same goes for when a kid is ready for a particular book, movie, television show or video game. If a parent wants to know if something is suitable they need to check it out for themselves. Even then I’m not convinced that makes any difference. Kids won’t read/watch/play what we tell them to, in fact they will likely do the exact opposite.

Funnily enough the business thinks that this move will make them more money, on the basis that people are put off buying books for kids as they’re not sure what’s suitable. In particular I think they mean people buying for neices and nephews rather than their own kids.

I just don’t get why these people wouldn’t simply buy a classic children’s book that they read as kids? Books like Hansel and Gretel, Alice In Wonderland, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory…will those ever really get dated? I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to give a kid the chance to enjoy the very things you enjoyed yourself.

12 06 2008
Pandemic of Parental Paranoia « Textual Relations

[…] Is Lenore Skenazy a bad mother? Is she heck; she is actually a very good parent. Mr President has repeatedly written at great length about the rise in parental outrage and the danger that we are creating a cotton […]

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