Here’s an interesting example of the dilemmas around how to encourage ‘participation’ – in this case, reading. Some of the major children’s publishers are suggesting adopting ‘age banding’. This means that books will display the recommended age range for readers. The theory is this guidance will make is easier for adults to buy books for children and young people, ‘signpost’ potential readers towards books they are more likely to enjoy, and thus encourage more children to read books and thereby increase our rather depressing child literacy rates. The big publishers and some writers support this approach. I imagine it might also appeal to grandparents and aunties and uncles, not to mention children used to unwrapping books they’re never going to read.
On the other hand, Phillip Pullman and many other leading children’s authors are asking for support for their protest at this. They feel the approach would be damaging to young readers, put some off books that might seem either ‘babyish’ or ‘too old’ according to their banding, and generally undermine individuality – as well as ignoring the intentions of many writers and illustrators to make their work matter to people of all ages. You can read their case, and join the protest if persuaded, at www.notoagebanding.org.
This looks like a classic example of good intentions being undermined by clumsy intervention that goes against the grain of what actually motivates people. Think of the books you might have missed if you paid more attention to banding than to design, the first pages, the blurb, your instinct, and so on. Why not adopt the ‘if you like that, try this’ technique as refined, in different ways by Amazon and last.fm? And whilst we’re at it, why not use that more widely right across the arts? I know they can get it horribly wrong, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
(Mind you, I do sometimes think some of the existential Penguin Classics I read as a teenager should have had a sticker on saying ‘You might actually be too young and hopeful for this. Lighten up and come back when you’re older.' And when I read the new 'scroll' edition of Kerouac's On The Road I did indeed wonder whether I was getting too old and grumpy for it...)