Friday, 15 June 2012

Age Restrictions on Books...?

Edge Authors Bryony Pearce and Katie Dale debate whether, like movies, YA books should have age restrictions
Katie - I think that with the YA market expanding so rapidly and so diversely it would be helpful to have age-guidance on books. Kids from 10 to 18 are reading from the YA section and there is currently no really clear way to determine which books are suitable for which age.
Bryony - But do you really think that age guidance is the best way? It doesn't take the huge variety of children's reading abilities into account. On one of my early school visits I did a year six class (mostly 11 year olds). Some were reading Meyer's Twilight and Michael Grant's Gone, others were reading Warrior Cats, still others were reading Rainbow Magic. How can an age restriction cover that?
Katie - I think it should be not so much applied to reading ability, so much as content. In the same way that films are given certificates to prevent under-12s going unaccompanied to watch potentially violent/sexual/disturbing movies I think it would be helpful to apply age-appropriate guidance to book covers. Some YA books are very high-end, with authors like Melvin Burgess covering topics like drug abuse and teen sexual activity but at the moment this is shelved alongside books by Jacqueline Wilson and Sweet Valley, which I think can be misleading both for kids/teens and parents.
Bryony - Unfortunately sex and drugs are issues that can affect younger readers and some of those who would benefit from the sorts of ideas and discussions raised by these books may be prevented from reading them by age restrictions. I know age restrictions are not enforced by armed librarians or bookshop owners, but I can imagine a parent refusing to allow a book because they've seen that it is in the 'wrong section' ...
Katie - I agree that unfortunately these issues can affect younger readers, but then I think that to cover those issues responsibly in a way that is appropriate for 10-11 year-olds would be quite different to how an author might cover the same issues in a book for 16/17 year-olds. Jacqueline Wilson, for example, covers tough topics in a way that is suitable for younger readers, but my own book, for example, covers issues such as teen preganancy, abortion, and sexual activity - issues which may, sadly, affect younger readers, but I wouldn't be happy giving my book to a 10/11 year old to read, because I don't feel it's age-appropriate.
Bryony - Yet I'm sure we've all met 10/11 year old readers of our own books - I know I have and Miriam Halahmy (Hidden and Illegal) has mentioned this in her own debate. In fact I know that my book has gone through families - from the ten year olds to the grannies. If I know someone is buying my book for a preteen however, I will always suggest that the adult reads it first to make sure they're happy to pass it on.
Then there's also the question of understanding. For example I remember watching Grease as a child - I didn't understand half of what was going on (what was a dingleberry? I didn't know until recently actually. Why was my mother so bothered about me singing 'summer lovin'? What was going on with Rizzo?) but that didn't stop me enjoying it. I'd suggest that if kids aren't ready for a topic, if they don't understand it, most will just skim over it and reread it when they've developed a full comprehension later on.
Katie - I agree that some younger readers are mature enough for older books, but that, as you did, it's important to make sure that parents are aware of the material their child is reading, if the content is aimed at older kids/teens. Consequently, instead of many rigid age restrictions on books, perhaps the way to go would be to have 'Parental Guidance' stickers for books aimed at 12-14 year olds (with the aim of preventing preteens inadvertently picking them up, then a 14+ guidance for older books? By age 14 I think most teenagers are capable of choosing their own reading material without parental guidance, and are mature enough to handle most content in the YA section.
I remember having nightmares half-way through reading a Point Horror book and I had to physically throw the book away! I wasn't ready for the scary content of someone being locked in a coffin, and it haunted me for several weeks after!
Bryony - OMG I think I read that Point Horror book - it scared the pants off me too.
However, my younger sister (two and a half years younger) would devour Point Horror. She also watched Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman with no qualms whatsoever, while I was absolutely terrified at Jaws (and still can't watch Shark films). Which perhaps supports my point about the variety of interests / abilities / capabilities?
Katie - Yes, but precisely because of that range of maturity/interests/capabilities I think a parental guidance sticker may be useful, if only to alert parents and younger readers that the content may be disturbing to some readers of that age.
Bryony - Your idea about PG does deal with content and I agree that it would be useful in that respect, but it still doesn't take into account different reading abilities. Having an age restriction on a book, even if it's just 14+ is likely to put readers over the age of 14 off reading books that are not designated 14+ and vice versa. Kids who 'read up' may find it difficult to get books that are categorised as 'too old' for them while kids that 'read down' may be too embarrassed to be seen reading books with a PG sticker. Age restrictions can stop kids exploring other categories (I'm too old for Malory Towers) and make them feel bad (why am I still reading 8+ while my friends are on 14+?)
Katie - That's an interesting point. I agree that it's possible that 14 year-olds may be put off reading the PG books (particularly in front of their peers), unless it trends - both kids and teens and adults read Harry Potter, even though it was classed as a 'children's book'. Also there are publishing lines now that are deliberately producing older content in a easier-to-read format, aimed at older readers with a younger reading age.
Bryony - That's interesting. I do think though, that in a world where reading must now compete with television, youtube, movies, texting, social networking and of course xbox, nintendo, playstation etc. that publishers should be doing everything possible to get kids reading, not putting them off.
You do raise some very valid points though, and I feel that some way of letting parents and teen readers know what they're getting themselves into with a book is useful. I've noticed that some publishers like Chicken House are now doing 'try it' on the back of the book - i.e. suggesting a page for readers to try out.
I think that perhaps one step further would be useful. I would like to see something like they have on films e.g. this book contains two instances of sexually explicit swearing, one scene of semi-nudity and some fantasy violence. I believe this would be much more helpful in telling readers about the content than a simple age restriction. It would help them decide what they're ready for. Simply reading a page as suggested by the 'try it' would tell them if it's suitable for their reading ability.
What do you think?

Katie - I agree it's important to keep kids reading, but not at any cost, and not at the cost of selling them material which is inappropriate - reading a scary book can be just as disturbing as watching a scary film, for example, and I do think book covers need to take more responsibility for ensuring they're reaching the appropriate readers.
I like the idea of a 'Try it' page - but think it would be awfully hard to choose one page! - do they choose the most risky page as a warning as to some of the content, or would this potentially put readers off what might otherwise be a beautifully crafted and well-told story? A lot has to do with context and how sensitively the author handles the content.
I also like your idea of putting more explicit content warnings on too - some readers may be more sensitive to scary content, whilst others react to violence/swearing so by pinpointing the type of content which may be disturbing would definitely be helpful, I think.
Certainly, I think we're in agreement that some sort of guidance as to content would be helpful on YA covers?

Bryony - I believe the 'try it' page is done as a way of selling the book rather than as a warning - I'm sure the publisher picks a particularly exciting page for the reader to try. Still, there's no reason it can't be used as a 'reading ability gauge' as well.
We definitely agree that some sort of guidance is useful, and I'm a wholehearted advocate of film style content indicators, but I'll never be a supporter of age restrictions on books ... thanks Katie, that was really interesting and fun!

Katie - Thanks Bryony - lots to think about!


  1. I'm really pleased to see authors openly debating this. There seem to be too many neagitves in using age guidance. And I'm not sure about the 'try it' page. What's the benefit when you could just try any page yourself? The best (and fun) idea I've seen is the Hot Key ring from Hot Key Books where a ring colour codes the ratio of different 'themes' in a book and it's a flexible approach that can be applied differently to each book.

  2. Really interesting discussion! I'm in favour of film style content indicators too - combine that with what you learn from the blurb, and you should have a fairly good idea of what you're getting. My girls will accept a bit more violence in a fantasy/action tale, but might be disturbed by it in a contemporary story - and every child is different.

  3. An interesting debate, on balance, I’d agree with Katie
    With so many wonderful books challenging ideas and language with subjects suitable for all reading ages, I feel age appropriate reading is not about censorship, it’s about comprehension, not just of language but perception and emotional maturity.
    I'd far rather see my children learning from books, than first hand or through the barrage of turbulence that is TV and popular culture, but, adolescence is a gradual shift, as is emotional development. We are adults soon enough, good writing can guide and influence throughout this journey; I don’t feel it should present directions to final the destination.
    Citing the example of Grease, I winced when it was recently televised, a bunch of thirty somethings, prancing and dancing glibly through some pretty complex issues. Grease was ‘the word’ and the sound track to my childhood, alluding to and adding a forbidden glamour to a ‘teenage’ world, of which I was vaguely aware, surreptitious messages, be in with the crowd, smoke, drink, bow to peer pressure, at any cost get the boy.
    I spent several years working with kids with emotional and social and behavioural special needs, sadly whilst these young people were more likely encounter sex and drugs issues, they were least likely to have the literacy skills to address them through reading.
    Kids do need parameters, whilst appreciating these will be challenged; age appropriate guidelines afford safe opportunities to explore issues remotely. I would hope guidelines are about choice, where a child is less likely to engage with issues they may not have the emotional maturity to cope with and writers’ work is more likely to be enjoyed by audience for which it was intended.


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  5. My gut feeling tells me: Noooooo, no age restrictions. And I think back to my own reading development. When I was a teen the YA market just wasn't there and so I went from Enid Blyton to Judy Blume, Jan Mark and the few YA titles that were available to Stephen King's The Shining where the opening scene is a pretty graphic after sex description (see I still remember that after all these years, whereas I momentarily forgot the title!).
    I think the big difference between books and films is that in films, there is no imagination it's all there for you to see and there's stuff I just wouldn't want my kid to see. But in books if you can't read it or understand it you are far more likely to put it down. I'm reading David by Mary Hoffman at the moment and constantly questioning where is the line. A good ten year old reader, might be able to read all the words. but there's an awful lot of plotting and conspiracy and I wonder if a ten year old would be able to keep up with it. I also wonder if a ten year old would work out the sexual content.
    As a teacher I strongly believe there's no such thing as book that's too easy, but time and time again I see kids put books down, because it's too complicated or it's too much of an effort. The other thing I see is that the kids who are advanced readers, who are reading all this tough stuff at quite a young age, are also the kids who are likely to discuss what they are reading. So they are kids, but they are not silly, so let's give 'em a break and let them read what they want to read - with guidance from the librarians, and teachers and parents and writers. Let's not print it on the front of a book.