From The Times June 6, 2008 Judge a children’s book by its cover Publishers give us plenty of clues to a title’s target audience; we don’t need read-by dates as well Ben Macintyre Here is the plot of a classic misery memoir. A psychotic woman with cannibalistic tendencies lures two abandoned and hungry waifs into her isolated home (made of unconventional building materials) with the offer of sweets, then kidnaps them. The girl child is cruelly enslaved, while the boy is locked in a specially designed cell and fed artery-clogging foods. At the climax of the story, the children murder their captor, immolate her body, steal her jewellery and run away, to live happily ever after with their father on a sugar-free diet. Hansel and Gretel has been enjoyed by children (and adults) for about 200 years, but at what age are the little darlings old enough to be exposed to this terrifying story of child abuse, murder and gingerbread architecture? Five? Ten? Sixteen? Never? Attaching a specific reading age to children’s literature is virtually impossible, but that is what British publishers now intend to do: the five biggest publishers have agreed, from next year, to print children’s books with age-guidance labels on the back: 5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+. Background Publishers to put age guide on book covers Erica Wagner on literary censorship Online rebellion forces book censors to back down This has outraged many children’s authors, including Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, who rightly point out that, far from encouraging child literacy and boosting sales, age-banding is likely to have precisely the opposite effect. As I can attest from watching three children progress, unpredictably, from I Want My Potty, through Wibbly Pig all the way to The Catcher in the Rye, they flatly decline to read what you want them to read at the age that you expect them to read it. I was a slow reader: then, at about the age of 14, I began consuming Russian novels - largely, I seem to recall, because the Penguin Classics covers gave one a certain cachet on the bus home. But alongside Turgenev and Tolstoy, I continued to read Tintin. Only children can determine precisely whether a book is too old or too young for them, and there is one very simple way for an adult to tell if this is the case: the child stops reading it. As a parent, the best tactic to encourage reading is to offer as much choice as possible and not to complain when they don’t like Winnie-the-Pooh as much as you did (do). Reading habits are a matter not of age or chronology but of maturity and evolving tastes. Attaching age labels to any sort of literature seems oddly arbitrary, particularly when applied to adult literature. Anna Karenina, strictly for the middle-aged and depressed? Anything by Jane Austen, 12+, 25+ or 93+? And if Harry Potter is for children of a specific age, should the millions of adults who enjoy the books read something else? Instead of expanding children’s reading, the use of age labels willsurely serve to make them more self-conscious of their reading age, and therefore limited in their choices. No child will want to be seen reading a book that is classified as younger then they are, even though they might derive great pleasure from it, and develop the reading habit from tackling simpler books first. Unconfident readers will be unwilling to stray from their age bracket into more challenging fare, while keen readers may be artificially held back. The publishers claim that age-banding will make it easier for parents to make informed choices about which books to buy for their children, but in reality the publishing industry already has a sophisticated visual language to show what a book may contain - an amalgam of cover design, typography, illustrations and jacket blurb. And bookshops already tend to stack books broadly by age range, which enables children - and adults - to browse across age ranges. You should not judge a book by its cover, but the cover is still a better way to judge it than an age label. When age banding starts, those numbers, rather than any of the other more subtle qualities of a book, are likely to become the determining factor for both parents and children. The move towards age banding is another reflection of the power of the supermarkets in publishing. Putting an age on a book may be a canny bit of marketing, but it also imposes the literary equivalent of a sell-by date: children coming to a book after that age (or before it) will inevitably turn up their noses. Well-intentioned adults have always worried about the effects of unsuitable literature on impressionable young minds. In 1570 the author of The Schoolmaster declared that Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur would pollute the minds of young men, presumably by encouraging them to go around smiting their enemies and hunting for the Holy Grail. Modern children’s books explore themes of sexuality, violence, religion and death that some adults find shocking. But some children are ready to address these issues at a far earlier age than others; the judgment of precisely when a child is mature enough for more sophisticated reading is one to be made by parents and children, not publishers. Surely it is better to absorb and try to understand the dark and complex aspects of growing up through J. D. Salinger or Jacqueline Wilson than through the stark imagery of television, film or internet. Parents’ bafflement when faced with the choice of children’s books is understandable, but this should be a cause for rejoicing, not hand-wringing, for the range of children’s books is incomparably broader and richer than it was a generation ago, packed with humour, drama and character, a world away from the sentimentality and moralising of children’s literature in the past. The best modern children’s books appeal not only to children across all ages but also adults. There is only one fail-safe way for a parent to know that a book is right for their child, and that is to read it, and enjoy it - for some children’s stories, from Hansel and Gretel to Harry Potter, are ageless.