No, this isn’t about that over-hyped EL James book that you only need one hand to read, but the newly re-stoked reading row regarding age classification of books.
Ex-vicar, ex-policeman, ex-roadie and exorcist (or outspoken self-publicist, depending on your point of view) GP Taylor stirred up the hornet’s nest this week from the BBC Breakfast couch, saying children’s books have got too dark and should be age-certified. This from a man who admitted his own recent vampire books were among the worst offenders. Fellow children’s and young adult fiction writers Patrick Ness and comic genius turned successful Young Bond and zombie expert Charlie Higson were quick to disagree, and before the day was out the debate had raged via the social media platforms.
I’ll give Taylor the benefit of the doubt that he was caught on the spot. Let’s face it, we all say things on the spur of the moment and go on to regret them. Having met GP on his rounds at the University of Central Lancashire a couple of years ago, I can vouch that he’s certainly forthright in his views, but interesting with it and certainly inspirational when it came to advocating the old punk ethos of do-it-yourself rather than rely on the major publishing houses for your break. He clearly knows how to court controversy too, and is far from slow in publicising his own back-catalogue en route. But isn’t that publicity gene something all authors need in this day and age to be heard? Blatant self-aggrandisement appears to be the best way to keep a high profile, unless you’ve hit the jackpot with your impeccably-timed mummy porn trilogy.
While there are far too many authors out there quick to jump on bandwagons and write whatever they feel the public wants at that moment in time – from supernatural blood-letters and angel fiction to ghosted works for masquerading celebs – to make a living, there are still great examples of writers out there not just servicing exploitative publishers.
I like to think that category includes one I met this week, the inspirational Irish writer Eoin Colfer, who was passing through Preston during a brief tour promoting the climax of his highly-successful Artemis Fowl series.
I was pleased to learn that Eoin is a down-to-earth good bloke, seemingly unfazed by public appearances while somehow keeping a semblance of other-worldliness about him. It’s a bit of a cliché, I guess, but I felt I was listening to Ardal O’Hanlon at times, the Wexford wordsmith – with his newly-cultivated grey beard – courting an across-the-ages audience with tales of the poor state of Irish TV in the early 70s, his first school disco, experiences with his younger son in a French toilet, and much more. Amiable, entertaining, and perhaps above all a born story-teller.
At one stage of the following question and answer session, Colfer was asked about his approach to writing for children and why he never seeked to ‘dumb down’ It was clearly a subject he felt strongly about, and the former primary schoolteacher enthused about how he loved to entertain parents as well as children, get his readers scurrying for dictionaries, and never felt the need to tell young readers what age category they should be at.
There lies the crux of the matter. I’m just two years younger than Colfer, and we were both raised in an era in which you weren’t quite sure where to go after tackling Stig of the Dump and age-old adventures like Moonfleet (in my case) or Huckleberry Finn (in his). As it was, we soon found Douglas Adams (and Colfer ended up writing the sixth of Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide series) and Stephen King.
So were King and British alternative James Herbert deemed age-appropriate for us at the age of 12? I shouldn’t think so. Did that reading choice turn me into someone with a penchant for demonic and paranormal activity, breeding giant rats or releasing chemical vapours to encourage mutilation and general degradation? Not that I can recall. What it did do was open up a wider sphere of reading in the hands of skilled writers, and a world no less scary than that in some of Enid Blyton’s works.
Blyton is an easy target of course. But while I wanted adventure from my books, her world of children being sent off to dubious uncles and aunts and left to their own devices for entire summers meant little to me and certainly less to recent generations. One criticism of current books for children is that we’re more likely to find tales of abandoned children with troubled or absent parents. But I’d rather my kids read skilled practitioners like Anne Fine or Jacqueline Wilson’s measured spins on those situations than those I was brought up with. It needs to be real, however fantastic.
If Taylor himself is heading back from the world of ‘undead’ fiction to more traditional adventure, he’ll do far worse than read some of the better books already out there. And what I’d give to be 12 now and appreciate first time around fine writers like Colfer, Higson, Andrew Lane and Frank Cottrell Boyce.
But we don’t need stickers to tell us what’s on offer, just good judgement and gentle recommendations. All the time we have great librarians – in our schools and out in the community – and responsible parents and carers to help steer children in the right direction, there’s simply no need for age classification.
Ness feels it would be ‘irresponsible’ for young adult novels to ignore the darker side of life. When you get to a certain age it’s important to explore bigger themes like sex and violence. He said ‘if you tell the truth about what’s difficult, that lives can be dark and hard, then when you tell the truth about what’s good, love and hope and friendship, they listen to you and take it more seriously because you haven’t lied about what’s difficult.’
Higson wonders who might police this system of age categorisation: “The Government? Publishers? A new organization? Kids themselves? There’s a wild difference among kids in reading ages, tastes, interests, blood-thirstiness. You can’t have a one-size fits all system.”
If I was that age again and saw a ‘12’ sticker on a book, chances are that I’d not want to be seen reading it. I’d choose one with ’14’, ’15’ or ’16’ on it instead. Would I then be challenged at the counter and asked to show ID? It’s a dangerous precedent. By that yardstick, there’d be a few high school students being told to put those MR James ghost stories or Daphne Du Maurier classics back on the shelf too. Imagine that.
I think I’d rather try and work out if it was a book for me by reading the blurb or getting to know if the author was talking my language. And there’s a wealth of good (and safe) websites and the like out there to help you do that. So what possible gain is there in age categories? The publishing industry toyed with the idea then quietly dropped it last time. Let’s not go through all that again. By all means try and guide a child into appropriate reading, but ultimately let them make that choice rather than some number-crunching bureaucrat or reading evangelist.