Saturday, June 14, 2008

It's Just a Middle-Class Money Thing...

Reviewing The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness for The Guardian today, Frank Cottrell Boyce makes an articulate case against the 'age-banding' of books for children. Actually, he says, the disaster has already happened in the categorization of books for 'young adults': there have always been adult books which teenagers have enjoyed, but these were books which teenagers chose for themselves. Then:
Some time ago, someone saw that trend and turned it into a demographic. Fortunes were made but something crucial was lost. We have already ghettoised teenagers' tastes in music, in clothes and - God forgive us - in food. Can't we at least let them share our reading? Is there anything more depressing than the sight of a "young adult" bookshelf in the corner of the shop. It's the literary equivalent of the "kids' menu" - something that says "please don't bother the grown-ups". If To Kill a Mockingbird were published today, that's where it would be placed, among the chicken nuggets.

This is not just a question of taste. It seems to me that the real purpose of stories and reading is to take you out of yourself and put you somewhere else. Anything that is made to be sold to a particular demographic, however, will always end up reflecting the superficial concerns of that demographic.
Exactly: books are for stretching you, growing you, educating you - for adults, too, which is why I've always questioned any publishing marketing philosophy based on the notion of simply catering for an already established need, of which the proposed age-banding is just the latest form. Simon Juden, chief exec of the Publishers Association is being disingenuous when he argues for it as a philanthropic gesture towards children and their parents: 'We don't want a child not to be bought a book as a present because the adult doesn't know where to start'; and it is depressing that critics of the 'No to Age-banding' campaign on the Guardian books blog appear to have swallowed this wholesale and in their clamorous endorsement of such 'help' for parents have revealed a regrettably blinkered - if not I'm-alright-Jack - view of the matter of children and reading:

In another comments thread on a post by Michael Rosen on what might be done to encourage the enjoyment of reading, commenters repeat the view that it's the parents' responsibility to teach children reading, not the government (and this is why age-banding is such a good thing: to help parents in this task). Well, I don't know which world these people are living in, but in the one I taught in for several years and in which my partner still works as an educational psychologist, there's a whole population of kids out there who don't and/or can't read because their parents don't or can't read and in some cases, particularly with boys, actively discourage reading as effete and middle-class. There's a very thoughtful post over at Juxtabook (recommended by one of the Guardian commenters) which I too would recommend to you as a wholly accurate and moving depiction of the relationship such children have with books, but I disagree with his conclusion that age banding would be useful to their parents. In my view it's about as useful and attractive to them as fags to non-smokers, because they simply won't be going into bookshops in the first place. And Simon Juden of course knows this last - it's the already book-oriented classes (and the publishers' golden goose) which age banding is targeting.

And as for those children's-book buying middle classes: do Simon Juden etc really think that aunties going into the bookshop to buy presents for Christmas and birthdays constitute the main bulk of the children's book market? And not those kids let loose in the children's departments on Saturday afternoons seeing and grabbing and ignoring or influencing the adult choices (and dropping like hot bricks anything labelled with an age range other than the ones they'd like to be identified with, which might well not include their own)?


Juxtabook said...

Hello, thanks for the postiive comments about my post even though you didn't agree with me. It is 'her' conslusion by the way not 'his' though I appreciate this is not overly apparent on the blog. Just to clarify, I don't anticipate most, many, or even a sizable minority of parents of the kids I used to teach will go and buy books. Parts of the UK are really quite Dickensian and actually many of the kids don't have parents (ie live with grandparents, older siblings, boyfriends even though under age, foster parents and children's homes, and worse). But I do think there is a graduation, not a sudden stop, between those who would never think of buying books, and those who can't stop themselves. It is those on the cusp who would be most helped by some kind of age banding, and when you think of the educationally deprived lives here, even if it is only a few thousand people across the country who might take the opportunity offered, I think it is worth the doing. None of which is to say I don't share some of the reservations mentioned by you and others on the No side, but I have been frighened by the lack of understanding of "how the other half read" by our literary great and good.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi, thanks for this. I did think after I'd written 'his' that maybe that was way off the mark, and wondered why I'd done it... (there's a whole essay there. of course!). I have been thinking about this - the point you make about the people on the cusp - and I do agree with you on that. I just worry about the kids on either side. I agree with the campaigners that book-oriented kids are more likely to be put off than switched on (and that they have more say on the books they read than people generally seem to be assuming - this assumption in itself makes me see red and seems a total underestimation of kids' intellectual autonomy). Also important to me as a writer is the issue of categorizing books and fencing off their possibilities by this kind of over-targeted marketing. As for the kids at the other end of the spectrum: well, yes this is what's really exercising me: I too have taught kids who have been sleeping on the top of their granny's sideboard because their dad has run off to England (from Scotland) to avoid the police and their mum's just alcoholic and out of it etc, and it's the ignorance or dismissal in this debate of the existence of this (large)sector of society - which is probably in greatest need of the redemption which books and reading can provide - which has had me, quite frankly, fuming.

Pants said...


I think there are still libraries that prohibit the borrowing of books from the adult shelves with a Junior library card. No Austen or Dickens for you then Junior.



Elizabeth Baines said...


(Hi Pants xx)