Thursday, June 5, 2008

Anarchy in the UK! (Age banding)

One of my biggest pet peeves in library teen services are public libraries who split their YA collection into "middle school" and "high school" or somesuch. (Note: This peeve does not apply to school libraries.) I've always felt that this discourages not only reading on the part of the teen patron, but an effort to do your job well and know the literature on the part of a librarian. If you work hard at your job and read the literature and know the books, you shouldn't have to separate your collection. You should be able to hand-sell the right book to the right reader without breaking down the collection. It's not that I don't support dividing a library's collection into picture books, easy readers, middle grade, YA, and adult, but I don't support breaking it down any further than that.

Apparently, British publishers disagree with me. For the linkphobic, Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson, and other British authors have come together to protest age banding, a practice that will start this fall that will mark the front covers of books with age designations: 5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+/teen. Many authors and librarians (myself included) think this is a terrible idea and have established No to Age Banding in protest.

One of the comments to the Telegraph article reads: There are certain types of material that young children should not be exposed to before they have the emotional or intellectual resources to deal it. Why are these authors so reluctant to protect the young could it be they are greedy or have political agendas?

I think this commenter is missing the point. He doesn't seem to understand that every child has a different level of emotional and intellectual resources. Some kids are ready to babysit at eleven while others still need to be babysat. That's where librarians come in. We have the knowledge and the resources to interview each reader and suggest books that he or she will enjoy. My favorite book when I was in third grade (eight years old) was The Pistachio Prescription by Paula Danziger. Cassie, the main character of that book is thirteen and in eighth grade, concerned with her average looks, class president elections, her mother's superficiality, dating, and parties. In short, things most third-graders don't deal with. But I loved how honest and witty Cassie was, how much she cared about her best friend and her little brother, and how open she was about her anxieties. That book would probably carry an 11+ age branding but at eight, it spoke volumes to me. Would this commenter think that Paula Danziger, bless her, was reluctant to protect me? Maybe, but it wasn't Paula Danziger's job to do so. Because I learned to read at an early age, I had a lot of autonomy when choosing books. I often asked the librarians at the public library (Sharon Levine, I will never forget you!) for suggestions, and they were able to recommend books based not on my age, but what kind of reader I was.

Personally, I think age banding is a great way to encourage unhealthy competition in both parents and kids, to discourage those who don't read as fast or as well as their peers from reading at all, and to have publishers make decisions that are best made by parents, children, librarians, and booksellers. But that might just be my greedy political agenda.

Editing to add: Printz winner Meg Rosoff thinks age banding is a good thing.

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