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.