For this month’s blog piece, I’ve been chatting with the wonderful Tamsin Rosewell of Kenilworth Books.
I’ve been overwhelmed by her support for Gaslight - my latest book - and truly delighted by the window display she created for it. As a result of a conversation about Gaslight, and books in general, she has given me this fascinating account of her thoughts on age recommendations and how books are categorised.
Do we have a section in the shop labelled ‘Great Books for 8 Year-Olds’? No. It would make our lives easier (if far less interesting) if we could answer confidently the regularly asked question: ‘is this book ok for an 8 year old?’. Age recommendations on books are as unhelpful as they are helpful. They can put adults off reading – yes, I’ve had a couple of adults chat to me happily about Gaslight having read my review, they get all excited ..and then say ‘oh, no I don’t want to read a children’s book.’ They can also put children off reading: ‘I think my daughter would love this, but it says 8+ and she’s 14 – she’ll think it is a bit childish.’ And they can worry parents: ‘My son is a great reader but he’s only 7 – I think a book for a 12 year old might be a bit grown up for him!’.
I was 21 years old when Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights was first published, and I was asked to read and review it. The trilogy questions everything from the existence and benevolence of a God, to the nature of love, friendship, death and sexuality. These books explore the greatest questions of human existence. Northern Lights was handed to me as a book for older children. The best-selling book on the adult’s list then was ‘Does My Bum Look Big in This?’ I remember thinking at the time that if the children are being invited to think about the great questions of philosophy and the adults are wondering what their bums look like, I’d rather read the books being written for kids. And, at 43, I still generally read the books labelled as for children and young adults. I loved Gaslight, and I’d recommend it for any adult who loves a great story that is well-researched and well-written.
Eloise writes books, and I sell them. We stand at opposite ends of a bridge between two worlds. Beneath our bridge plummets a mysterious and terrifying gorge called ‘publishing’. At some point down below us, in the darkness, her book was given an age recommendation, and by the time it made its way to me, it was labelled as ‘suitable for ages 8+’. When I was a kid I can't remember any book having an age recommendation - my 1978 copy of Red Shift by Alan Garner has no indication of an age on the cover. There is nothing to indicate the sex scenes in the book - even when other books by Garner are classics of children’s fiction. And all those Judy Bloom books in the 1980s about periods and boys and sex, I’ve no recollection of an age written on them. It recommended by hushed discussion from 12-year-old to 12-year-old.
When someone comes in to the bookshop and asks for ideas for a book for a daughter or niece, the question I have learned to ask is ‘what sort of girl is she?’ And the answer is as varied as the books that are then chosen. I’ve met 12 year olds who would struggle to read many of the books with 8+ written on the back; and I know 7 year olds who already have a passion for Dickens. My 12-year-old niece was terrified by Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse (which I think is the sweetest, funniest little book in the world) and yet I meet 8 year olds who will read Skulduggery happily. Skulduggery makes an interesting study: the first four novels are fine for the 9+ recommendation they have (just), but when the fifth one came out my colleague and I agreed that, if that were a film, it would be rated 18 for the sheer level of horror in it – it is far more horrific than, for example, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. So why does it still get classed as a children’s book? But then again, many kids are fine with that.
With so much depending on the child, why do we put age recommendations on books? Are we assuming that there is certain content that is not appropriate for a 7-year-old but that is fine for an 8-year-old? I’m not convinced that this is about parental control – after all there are much more violent and sexualised scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy (rated 12a) than in most of the adult thrillers on our bookshelves. If is isn’t that, then are we assuming that the language or intellectual skills of a 12-year-old are markedly different from those of an adult? Many of the trend-driven popular books on our adult fiction shelves are far lower in intellectual content, erudite language and complex structure than those on our Children’s or YA shelves . I've just been reading (and I adored!!) Chris Priestley's Tales of Terror; the first in the series weaves in and out of the Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories written by MR James. I know MR James' work inside out as I've been reading it since I was 11, and Chris Priestley’s language is no less sophisticated, no easier, no less complex than James' of the turn of the century. Children study 19th century literature at school from the age of 11 – so we can’t fairly accuse them of having less sophisticated language skills than many adults. Children certainly have different language skills from adults though; I’ve noticed that as a collective, children are more comfortable reading colloquial language or dialect than adults.
I’m always curious to know if an author thinks that he or she is ‘a children’s writer’ or just a writer. Authors tell me different things; some say that, as far as they are concerned they are writing a book, the discussion about an age recommendation come later. Others are very sure they are writing a children's book from the outset. Many have told me that they write what they want and then the publisher or editor tells them if it is all suitable for an age range.
Often, the only thing that seems to separate a children’s novel from an adult’s novel is the age of the protagonists involved. One writer told me that he’d lowered the age of the protagonists in his books, from his original intended plan, to fit in with the idea that these were going to be children’s books. Are we saying that adults don’t want to read books in which the protagonists are younger than them? If this is the case then why do we stop when we get to YA age? I remember my mother insisting that Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ was ‘a woman’s book’ and that no 16-year-old girl could possibly hope really to understand it. Many of the adult’s book groups with which we work at the bookshop are very clear that they are not in the least interested in anything with sexual content, that they don’t want slushy love stories and above all they cannot abide violence and bad language in a novel. If only I could encourage them to choose a wonderful book called Gaslight, labelled as for 8+!
We should discuss too who buys the books labelled as ‘YA fiction’; even though its quantity and indeed its quality is very high, it is very far from being the best-selling section of the shop. And yet, on those shelves are some of the most important novels of our times – I’d count Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman and Phoenix by SF Said as two of the most important and defining books of our age. Have we really decided that these books are for young people – or are we signalling something different when we label a book as ‘YA’. I think we are indicating that these books are the ones in which anything and everything is discussed openly. These books are challenging and exciting. YA authors are fearless; there is nowhere to which they are not prepared to go. But labelling books as ‘YA’ for some reason terrifies parents and grandparents who are buying a book for a teenager – we’ve had older adults look at the books in the YA section and say ‘Oh, no I think I’d like to buy her a nice book.’ We don’t have a section for ‘nice books’. The majority of YA fiction sold in our shop is to men and women who are 25+. Is just my small corner of England in which Young Adults weren’t the main readers of YA fiction? Out of curiosity I asked a director of the Booksellers Association about the profile of people who were buying YA fiction. He sighed a little and then said: ‘that is a very great mystery indeed.’ An accurate answer, but not a very helpful one.
When new stock arrives, we manage to put it all on to the shelves without even looking for an age recommendation. I assume therefore, that having age recommendations on books serves something closer to an administrative purpose. A neat categorising of writing. A plan for publicity. A price point. A cover design. A responsible web-listing. I can’t really see how such specific age recommendations help anyone. They don’t really help booksellers; and if they don’t help me sell the books then they don’t help the authors either. They don’t help parents, and they don’t help children. So who do they help?
Tamsin Rosewell is an historian, broadcaster and bookseller; she has worked for Independent Bookshop, Kenilworth Books, in Warwickshire, for nearly ten years. The bookshop itself has existed for 50 years. When she is not in the bookshop she makes radio arts, history and music documentaries
Visit Kenilworth Books at www.kenilworthbooks.co.uk
Follow Tamsin on Twitter @AutumnRosewell and @KenilworthBook