The kidlit world is getting its undies in a right old knot over publishers’ plans to include age guidance on children’s books. Those against include, well, probably every children’s writer you’ve ever heard of. Except for Meg Rosoff who, in typical fashion, is swimming against the tide, and thinks it might be quite handy for the humble book-buying punter.
Me? I’m with Mighty Meg.
Books aren’t unpackaged and unmediated. They come with covers carefully designed to target a specific audience: cupcakes and faces for girlies, logos for boys, artsy graphics for ‘serious’. (Foil and shiny bits for everyone: we’re all magpies, apparently.) Even the author’s name is retooled for the market where possible. Betcha I wouldn’t be ‘Susie’ if I wrote action thrillers for 10-year-old boys.
But all of these are inexplicit devices, and on occasion quite subtle ones. (I’ve not heard it stated aloud, but I’m fairly sure the colour scheme of the US edition of serafina67 doesn’t quietly evoke Lauren Myracle’s ttyl by accident.) The No To Age Banding posse point out that kids study these tricks of the trade in school. True: I’ve taught that lesson (and it’s gold: nothing gets a book-deprived disinterested class engaged better than getting them to redesign The Hobbit, even if it might end up a bit gorier than you remember, with considerably more grenades and rocket launchers). But it’s not kids who hand over the cash in the bookshop. And as a grown-up who reads kidlit avidly, I still find myself at nephew-birthday time wondering if I’m about to cause family meltdown with a gift that includes oral sex under its Spiderman wrapping paper.
Let’s get this clear: no 9-year-old booknut is going to be arrested for possession of an 11+ rated novel. Alarms will not sound throughout the local library, sending masked men with AK47s to shoot dead gay Dumbledore out of Little Johnny’s hands. If we can credit young readers with understanding book covers as marketing devices, we can also grant them the wit to interpret age banding in exactly the same way: as information which serves a specific purpose, and can be ignored and discarded if you think you know better. Meanwhile us crumbly types can be reassured that by buying a book we aren’t effectively taking a 7-year-old to a 12A film, only to have to carry them out, sobbing uncontrollably, after the ninth beheading.
Timing means everything in literature. I firmly believe that every copy of The Catcher In The Rye should come stamped with ‘not to be read if over 18: may cause nausea’. Martin Amis’s early works should explode off one’s bookshelf after the age of 25 in case you’re tempted to revisit, and discover that what seemed ‘like totally postmodern man, whoa’ back in the day now feels a bit studenty and crap. No kid is going to be heinously scarred by reading outside what is designated ‘age-appropriate’ – but I fail to see how they’ll suffer from a little guidance. We’re in a second Golden Age of children’s writing. Magnificent new books get published every day. A little help finding the ones you’ll get the most out of is no bad thing.
The Last of the Warrior Kings, Sarah Mussi (YA, 12+, contemporary thriller). Regular readers will know Sarah is an old mate, who despite being an award-winning and nominated-for-more-award-winning author, still deigns to associate with the likes of me. 🙂 Much as I’d love to annoy her with a bad review, the bloody woman continues to write such uniquely funny, brainy, pacy stuff that I’m stuck with the usual effusions of dribbly praise. If you’ve read her Door of No Return, you’ll know to expect movie-worthy action and thrills, bonkers plot twists, heartbreakingly accurate teenage characters, and a serious dose of education on African issues. Last of the Warrior Kings manages to revisit the same territory while feeling utterly fresh, largely thanks to hero Max, whose endearingly hapless efforts to save the day and win the unattainable girl (all while keeping his expensive trainers pristine) can’t help but draw you in. It seems cheeky to highlight the sillier side of a story that has genuine darkness at its heart: Sarah’s not naive about her own South London, and the harsh realities of gang warfare now are accompanied by the no less grim history of C19th British intervention in Nigeria. But this is a fundamentally uplifting book about finding a way to live your life well no matter what hand fate has dealt you, with plenty of daft gags along the way and an ending that will really linger in the mind. Quite infuriatingly good. Stop making the rest of us look inadequate, dammit!
Had a typically spectacular weekend with my writing group (the evil Mussi included), who kindly held my hand through a bit of Biscuits & Lies structural paranoia, and, as always, fed me till I was barrel-like. I’m now back to too much thinking and not enough typing. And the realisation that I now have three separate characters called Simon. This is going to be an interesting editing experience…
Mourning the loss of Lovely Lucinda from The Apprentice; finding new things to hate about Indy IV (while coveting Lego Indy); playing Prince of Persia on someone’s PS2 (this is what old-skool looks like now? gosh); staring, open-mouthed, at this…er…unusual cover version of Rihanna’s Umbrella (T: isn’t that Arbruzzi in a wig?).