Earlier this month children’s author G.P. Taylor began a debate on BBC Breakfast by announcing he thought children’s books ought to come with age certifications similar to films. His comments elicited strong criticism from other children’s authors, including Charlie Higson, who wrote a rebuttal in the Guardian.
It’s not the first time age ratings have come up. A few years ago, publishers tried to introduce them and were met with resistance from authors, educators and the public. The No to Age Banding Campaign collected over 4,000 signatures and the idea was dropped.
So why is it back? Taylor said he believes children’s books have become too scary and that we need to be careful what we expose young readers to. Higson argued that it is important for children to be able to explore dark themes in books because they experience all sorts of things, are exposed to all sorts of information, and books need to reflect that to be relevant.
My gut reaction to the discussion Taylor sparked is that age certifications are a bad idea, and I spoke to children’s librarian Clare Hartnett and children’s bookseller Kate Agnew, of the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, to find out what they think about age certifications and scary books for children.
Here’s what I learned…
1.) One size doesn’t fit all.
Every child is different. Children mature at different times, have different interests and read for different reasons. Hartnett talked about two of her students, both age twelve and from similar backgrounds: one’s happily ploughing through adult classics and the other still reaches for picture books like Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. But they both love to read. And they would both be miserable if she handed them a book with an ‘Age 12’ sticker.
As a school librarian she says it’s her job to encourage reading at whatever level the reader is comfortable at. That’s what helps children develop a sense of reading for pleasure. Restricting children’s choices to a smaller range of ‘age-appropriate’ titles would mean some kids would be embarrassed that they couldn’t cope and other kids would be uninterested because they would be so unchallenged. Either way, Hartnett says she fears kids would give up reading because the associations would be so negative.
Bottom line: A one size fits all age certification system would actually fit no one.
2.) Kids are great self-sensors.
Higsen, Harnett and Agnew agree that scary books are an effective way for young readers to explore important themes: fear, isolation, death, violence, sexuality, one’s role in society, loyalty etc. Hartnett points out a lot of contemporary scary titles deal with themes that are found in classic Gothic literature, but in an accessible way.
Reading books about these complex issues is a good way for children to begin thinking and reflecting about them. Agnew says she and her staff have seen an increased interest in books set in dystopian futures after the popularity of The Hunger Games. She believes children are interested in these books because the characters face moral obstacles, but approach them with integrity and courage. These examples lead readers to examine their own belief system and role in society, and that should be encouraged, even applauded.
Despite G.P. Taylor’s concerns, Agnew and Hartnett both emphasised the safety that books offer when children begin exploring these complicated issues. If a book does become too scary, kids can put it down and come back to it when they’re ready. Hartnett and Agnew both stated that children are very capable of articulating what they do/don’t want to read about. They are able to select what’s appropriate for them simply based on likes and dislikes, without any kind of official age rating or certification system.
3.) Scary is important.
Of course, not every child wants to be scared. But Hartnett and Agnew both underlined the importance of children having access to a wide range of books. After all, adults read everything from tales of Jack-the-Ripper to bodice rippers – why shouldn’t children have an array of books to choose from? Hartnett says it’s even more important for kids to have lots of choices, because that way, they are far more likely to find the right titles and develop a love of reading that will last in to adulthood.
Agnew also discussed the importance of variety and mentioned the prevalence of ‘vogues’ in children’s literature. Things come and go, but she thinks after the success of books like the Twilight series, scary books will remain on the menu. It’s not a bad thing. Some children enjoy being scared and Agnew credits being a bit frightened by a story as an effective way to learn, and if kids are connecting with these books and enjoying them, what’s all the fuss about?
In a time when we’re concerned that children are reading less, why is anything that would restrict their reading habits even a topic of conversation.