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Children's authors stage mass rebellion

16 June 2008

Children's authors have staged a stunning rebellion against age-ranging on children's books. More than 50 British authors, led by Philip Pullman and all five children's laureates (Anne Fine, Quentin Blake, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen) have launched an extraordinary campaign.

The group of authors have taken ads in the Bookseller and Publishing News, and set up a website to campaign for their point of view. They say:'We are agreed that the proposal to put an age-guidance figure on books for children is ill-conceived and damaging to the interests of young readers.'

The UK Publishers' Association Children's Group, backed by the majority of children's publishers, announced in April that it would introduce printed age guidance for children's books. So how did this initiative go ahead without securing the agreement of the authors, and what is going to happen now?

On the face of it, there are good arguments for adding age-ranging to children's books. The proposal passed in April was that a black and white design would be placed on the back of the books, near the barcode, with the categories of 5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+/teen. Guidance levels were to be the responsibility of the individual publisher and would be an indication of the reading level interest rather than ability.

It's easy to see why publishers and many retailers have been pushing for this. Most books for children are bought by adults, but not necessarily by adults who know which books are appropriate for particular ages. Research conducted in 2006 showed that 86% of book buyers would back the plans for age guidance on books, with 40% saying that they would be more likely to buy more books if they featured guidance.

Pullman and his fellow-signatories believe the idea is: 'ill-conceived... and unlikely to make the slightest difference to sales'. They are backed by some independent booksellers and children's librarians and their website says: 'Accurate judgments about age suitability are impossible, and approximate ones are worse than useless' and states their 'passionately-held conviction that everything about a book should seek to welcome readers in and not keep them out'.

Elaine McQuade of Scholastic, who chairs the Publishers' Association Children's Book Group said: 'I'm very sad that there are some authors, librarians and specialist booksellers who feel so angry... The people who are objecting are people whose lives are all about children's books. The people we are trying to help - particularly when it comes to fiction - are people who don't feel confident about buying children's books, people who perhaps don't have children.'

And there you have it. The group of authors, booksellers and children's librarians who make up the children's book world are coming from a different place, an enlightened milieu where there are skilled booksellers and trained librarians to help adults find the right books for children. But more and more children's books are being sold in supermarkets, chains such as W H Smith and online, where there is no help, and where the adults buying them don't know which books to choose. Age-ranging is for them and its implementation might well increase sales of children's books through these outlets, as the publishers had hoped.

In the meantime the row will go on and it looks as if publishers will have to concede that authors who say no to age-ranging will not have it added to their books.

No to Age Banding